All posts by Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky is Professor Emerita of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Why So Many Students Aren’t Ready for College

Education Views

We know that average American students today are not ready for college from two different sources: (1) Renaissance Learning’s latest report on the average reading level of what students in 9-12 choose to read or are assigned to read, and (2) the average reading level of what colleges assign incoming freshmen to read. From these two sources that are independent of each other, we learn that average American students read at about the grade 7 level. Some high school students can read high school-level material, of course, while others are still reading at an elementary school level (even though they are in high school).

Where is the evidence? According to Beach Books: 2013-2014, the top 7 books Continue reading Why So Many Students Aren’t Ready for College

Why Do Education Schools Have Such Low Standards?


Despite the billions of dollars showered on our schools, American public education  is poor to mediocre and likely to remain so. Only 7% of our grade 8 students reach the Advanced level in mathematics, suggesting why little advanced coursework in mathematics and science can be taught in our high schools. In contrast, from 27 to 49% of grade 8 students in the five highest-achieving countries (all in East Asia) reach the Advanced level.         

Why are our schools so dismal? The answer is simple: our public schools teachers, administrators and researchers are severely underqualified for their jobs. Policy-makers have a limited understanding of high-quality research and how to strengthen the curriculum and increase student performance.

Continue reading Why Do Education Schools Have Such Low Standards?

Common Core’s Damaging Writing Standards

Common Core has many flaws, but its writing standards stand out as an intellectual
impossibility for average middle grade students. Their architects didn’t link
them to appropriate reading benchmarks.

November I saw the results of NYC teachers’ attempts to address these writing
standards.  Their students had clearly
tried to figure out how to make a “claim” and show
“evidence” for it.  But the students’ problems were not a reflection of their teachers’ skills; rather, their
problems could be traced to the standards themselves.

Take, for
example, Common Core’s first writing standard for grades 6, 7, and 8:
“Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant
evidence.” Adults have a much better idea of what “claims” are,
what “relevant evidence” is, and even what an academic “argument”
is.  But most children have a limited
understanding of this meta-language for the structure of a composition.

So I
explored Common Core’s standards for reading informational texts in grades 3-8
and found NOTHING on identifying arguments or claims, or on distinguishing
relevant from irrelevant evidence.  No
wonder NYC teachers are spending an enormous amount of time creating or using worksheets
to structure students’ writing, and NYC students are spending an enormous
amount of time filling these worksheets in.

teachers apparently knew nothing about the value of prose models, once a
well-known concept in writing. One teacher admitted spending a lot of time
trying to help her students come up first with a topic sentence (not mentioned
in Common Core’s reading or writing standards).  But even a topic sentence
doesn’t come easy to middle school students who’ve never identified one in
their reading.  

Two other teachers had first assigned some short stories before
asking their students to come up with a “thesis” or a
“claim” and produce “evidence” for it.  Needless
to say, their writing didn’t show a “claim.”  Not surprising.  The only prose models the kids had been given
were short stories. 

Another teacher acknowledged the lack of visible “claims”
in her students’ writing.  She was pleased they were learning to cite page
numbers for the location of their “evidence,” even though their
“thesis” or “claim” had to be “inferred.”

ago, it was common practice for English teachers to introduce students to the
art of the essay in grade 9.  Now
students in grade 6 are to attempt an essay with a thesis or a claim.  One teacher saw this as a healthy
“challenge” for her weak students. Others might see this challenge as
a utopian expectation, with teachers the ultimate scapegoat. 

It’s time
for the standards that the National Governors Association and the Council for
Chief School State Officers have copyrighted to be drastically revised. The
problem here is: Who will make the revisions?    

Common Core Mandates Will Harm Critical Thinking

Jay Mathews is one of the few education reporters who gets it. He understands that the heavy diet of informational reading Common Core mandates at every single grade level for the language arts or English class may decrease, not increase, “critical” or analytical thinking. But how are teachers and parents to know that black is white and freedom is slavery? No one tells us how reading “informational” texts could necessarily stimulate “critical” thinking better than literary reading–or stimulate it at all.

For example, how would the “informational” texts recommended by the National Council of Teachers of English for the secondary English curriculum stimulate analytical thinking more than, say, a close reading of Pride and Prejudice? According to a NCTE volume she co-authored, an Iowa English teacher has assigned her grade 10 students books about teenage marketing and the working poor–Branded by Alissa Quart and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich–to address Common Core’s mandate. Do these books present their “information” in such ambiguous or subtle ways that close reading is needed to figure out the authors’ messages? In contrast, think how much class discussion is needed to help students understand the irony in Austen’s works.

Common Core thinks rigor is addressed by requiring reading and English teachers to use texts that increase regularly in complexity. But, as American College Testing (ACT) notes, complexity is laden with literary features: it involves “characters,” “literary devices,” “tone,” “ambiguity,” “elaborate” structure, “intricate language,” and unclear intentions. Reducing literary study means reducing the opportunity to develop in all students the analytical thinking once developed in just an elite group of students by the vocabulary, structure, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony in classic literary texts.

Some ostrich-like supporters of Common Core claim that there will be no reduction in the amount of literature assigned and studied. Tell that to English teachers who have been told to divide their reading instructional time as Common Core does: 10 reading standards for informational texts, 9 for literary texts. And in grade 12, make it 70% informational, even though Common Core explicitly says English teachers shouldn’t be responsible for 70%. How much they should be responsible for, Common Core’s architects don’t say.

Reading researchers know there is absolutely no research to support the idea that more “literary non-fiction” or “informational” texts in the English class will increase students’ level of analytical thinking. There is every reason to believe they will, instead, lower the level.

Don’t Buy the Snake Oil of Common Core

Anderson has offered an increasingly common defense of Common Core’s standards
for English language arts and mathematics.  They can help us to achieve any utopian
educational goals one could wish for.
The only fly in the ointment is the quality of our teaching corps.

actuality, 46 states have bought some very expensive snake oil.  And if its application doesn’t produce a
nation of “critical thinkers” by grade 12, it’s because the teachers in these
states don’t know how to use snake oil properly.

is right about the challenges facing teachers, but he seems to have brought a
highly uncritical eye to Common Core’s standards. Exactly how Common Core’s
content- and culture-free “Anchor standards” in reading can lead to a
“cumulative,” “coherent” and “rigorous” curriculum remains as much of a mystery
after an inspection of the standards themselves as it does after reading
Anderson’s paean to them. 

Continue reading Don’t Buy the Snake Oil of Common Core

What Should Kids Be Reading?

Books above a sixth-grade reading level, for sure. According to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report on the books read by almost 400,000 students in grades 9-12 in 2010-2011, the average reading level of the top 40 books is a little above fifth grade (5.3 to be exact). While 27 of the 40 books are UG (upper grade in interest level), a fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship.

Continue reading What Should Kids Be Reading?

Competition and Choice Bring Reform, but There’s a Problem

In 1970, less than 10% of Finland’s students graduated from high school. Now most students do, and Finland is one of the highest-scoring countries on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests for l5-year-olds in mathematics, science and reading.

Continue reading Competition and Choice Bring Reform, but There’s a Problem

Shaky New Standards for College Readiness

A mesmerizing phrase regularly rolls off the tongues of education experts these days. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used it in a recent speech to the National Conference of State Legislators, saying that Common Core’s new standards will try to make certain that high school graduates are truly “college- and career-ready.” Sounds impressive, but he never said what the phrase means.
Duncan’s silence on specifics is not surprising. In the final version of the standards released on June 2, Common Core itself (an initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers) made no effort to explain what precisely college and career readiness mean in math or English language arts. Nor did it provide evidence to support the standards or to demonstrate that they were internationally benchmarked. It cagily noted that it “consulted,” was “informed by,” or made “careful use of” research studies, evidence, and international data. As the National Council of Teachers of English noted in a review of a July 2009 draft version of these CCRS, “the document presently contains a claim that these standards are evidence-based, but we note that none of the evidence has been drawn from peer-reviewed research journals or similar sources. Rather, the evidence offered at present consists of surveys conducted by the testing companies that stand most immediately to gain from the testing of these standards. This seems to represent a conflict of interest in the development of the standards.” Nevertheless, over 35 state boards of education–all presumably guardians of the public interest–have voted to adopt all its standards word for word, some before they ever saw the final version.
This is not the first time the public has been enticed into purchasing a pig in a poke (think School-to-Work or small high schools). And it won’t be the last; friends of “21st century skills” hawkers are now working full-speed to get them to the head of the line at the public trough. But given the staggering educational implications and costs of requiring all high schools to ensure that every student they graduate is college-ready (a U.S. Department of Education proposal for the next authorization of No Child Left Behind), one might have expected a few state board members to ask for answers about the nature of this pig. Few if any countries expect all 18-year-olds to meet the same set of academic standards–high or low–as if there were no differences in young adolescents’ interests, skills, and abilities or in the requirements of varied occupational training programs or types of post-secondary institutions.

Continue reading Shaky New Standards for College Readiness