Don’t Buy the Snake Oil of Common Core

J.M.
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.

In
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.

Anderson
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. 

I
leave judgments about the miracles its mathematics standards can perform to
mathematicians. 

Here
are the first three of the ten Anchor standards in reading it offers the
nation’s teachers: 

1.
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical
inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to
support conclusions drawn from the text.

2.
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development;
summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

3.
Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over
the course of a text.

As
can be seen, these (and the other) “standards” can be applied equally to The Three Little Pigs or Moby-Dick, and to The Hunger Games or
Federalist 10.
  They are generic reading
skills, not content standards.  They
point to no educational level or literary/intellectual quality. 

Like
others who sing the virtues of Common Core’s list of generic reading skills,
Anderson sees, as the “critical feature of the
Standards, its holistic nature, which calls for a more global approach to
teaching and learning that (ideally) will promote strategic thinking, making
connections between ideas, and greater coherence across disciplines, rather
than perpetuating the current fragmentation.” Why, they may even shine your
shoes and brush your teeth, too!  And at
the same time.

Never mind that these mostly empty standards are neither
research-based nor internationally benchmarked.
Nor is their 50/50 subdivision into grade-level literary and informational
standards
a
reflection of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) specifications,
which indicate that the assessment of literary nonfiction should count for only
5% of the high school reading test (not up to 50%).  The reduction of literary study to the point
that the construction of a coherent secondary literature curriculum is almost
impossible apparently emerged as a full-blown idea directly from the heads of the
“architects” of Common Core’s ELA standards, people (it turns out) with no background
in teaching high school English or in literary scholarship. 

Anderson criticizes me for my critical “approach” to Common Core’s
standards.  In fact, what I have been
criticizing since the first version of the Anchor standards was released in
September 2009 are the so-called standards themselves and their organization.  At no point does this Dean of the Humanities
tell us which of these reading skills, whether in the form of Anchor or grade-level
standards, he thinks are capable of achieving any of the miracles he claims for
them or how.  Instead, he seems to
believe everything he has read in Common Core’s front matter or been told about
its standards without a trace of skepticism.  

Anderson is right that the nation’s teachers will find it
difficult to implement these standards.
And that the training they received in the nation’s education schools is
one of the major sources of their difficulty.
But he fails to connect the dots.
The very effort to develop the national standards that have been sprung
upon this country is a response (however poorly thought out and executed) to
the dismal results of the ideas about curriculum and instruction prospective
teachers and administrators have been taught by our education schools for over
half a century.  

Anderson sees no hope for fulfilling Common Core’s promise “unless teacher
education programs radically change in structure and content.” Given the unlikelihood that even our most prominent education
schools will discover the value of academic content accompanied by sound
pedagogy, and given the reliance by the sponsors of these empty standards (and by
the USDE) on these very same education schools to retrain the teachers they
once admitted to their training programs, then mistrained and certified, all we
can do is hope for a miracle to slow down the continuing decline of our public educational
system.  Perhaps one will occur in the
form of repealing all national and state standards and starting again at the
local level–with the active involvement of students’ parents and without test
developers, high-tech salesmen, and education faculty vetting their ideas on
standards.     
 

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky

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

One thought on “Don’t Buy the Snake Oil of Common Core”

  1. What kind of research would research-based standards rely on? What did the creators of the CCSS rely on? Why is it important that they be internationally benchmarked? Why should they rely on NAEP’s recommendations?
    The value in the lack of specificity in the standards provided is, as you note, they could be done with any text – which allows for flexibility. But they are at least specific enough as to require the teacher to do something they might not otherwise do. I know plenty of students who have a hard time making references and are not in the habit of citing textual evidence. I don’t think it’s as if these standards are so hollow they may as well not exist.
    I see a lot of resistance against the CCSS standards, but I’ve yet to be convinced that it’s more than resistance for resistance’s sake – particularly against a DOE that has so obviously done so many other dumb things with education policy. I do see the disgusting nationalized testing threat that comes with the Common Core – but I’ve yet to be convinced that the standards themselves are detrimental. I’d love if you could enlighten me.

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