By D’Lee Pollock-Moore
When my longtime friend and colleague, an AP Calculus teacher and math wizard, approached me four years ago about his child’s homework, I was baffled. Steven didn’t ask me to help him with his daughter’s English assignments (although that came later); he asked me to check his “Common Core Math.” If you’re reading this blog, you already know what I’m talking about with Common Core Math. Now, for a discussion of the math standards or math Common Core strategies, or anything else Math-related, you’ll have to look elsewhere (and you will find a surplus of articles), but you may not have considered some of the issues with the Common Core English Language Arts Curriculum Standards because there are many, and they are not as widely talked about.
Below, in jargon-free, acronym-free terms, is my list of what I consider to be the worst of the worst with Common Core English. I promise to respect your time by being concise, but please comment below if you’d like to discuss any of these issues further.
- The Common Core English Standards are too ambiguous.
Before Common Core, many state English standards were specific. For example, the 2010 Massachusetts standards for 9th grade English specified that students had to know how to analyze various character types like protagonist, antagonist, tragic hero, and foil. The Common Core standards do NOT even address character types in any grade level, yet character types remain on testing materials and example lesson plans published by many states. The problem here is that teachers now choose whether to teach character types or not, despite the fact that college level English courses demand that students already know how to do this. By the way, before the implementation of Common Core, the Massachusetts English Language Arts Standards were considered one of the best in the nation, and the state’s test scores and rankings reflected that; alas, this is no longer the case.
Prior to Common Core, in 8th grade English in Massachusetts, students learned how to analyze bias, motivation, and interaction among characters. This particular skill, without the specific vocabulary and processes, is now part of 9th grade Common Core English, but it is stated in a very vague and generic manner that does not fulfill the rigor of previous state standards. If 8th graders could do this before Common Core, why did we as a nation wait until 9th grade to only teach part of this lesson? Why did we not specify the meanings of the ambiguous words in the associated Common Core standard?
- Students do not learn how to emulate famous authors.
Any experienced English Language Arts teacher knows that the best way to teach students how to write is by first modeling and analyzing exemplars that show standard mastery. We learn how to write well by first emulating the published masters, and then as we grow, we develop our own unique writing styles.
For example, if I want a fifth grade student to learn how to write a story, I might have a unit where we read and analyze the writing strategies employed by Joan Aiken in “The Third Wish,” Natalie Babbitt in “Wishes,” and Lloyd Alexander in “The Stone.” We would study not only the story elements, but also HOW the writer creates the narrator’s voice, captivates his or her audience, and motivates his reader with including figurative language, dialogue, specific details, etc. Then, we would learn to write our own stories mimicking the writing style of one of these authors. By 6th grade, students should then be able to begin developing their own writing style.
While the Common Core does integrate reading and writing, it does not ask students to learn how to write by first imitating someone else’s style before inventing their own. Instead, the 5th grade standards are just focused on part of this skill with an incomplete demand of what students need to do while they read and write. The other major problem along these lines is that nowhere in the K-12 English Language Arts standards for Common Core will you find students learning about the writers and their lives, which is extremely important when students are learning to understand one writer’s particular style. It would be extremely difficult to understand the poem “Lenore” by Edgar Allan Poe without knowing Poe’s struggles with love and loss. We must teach students about authors’ lives and writing styles so that they understand how to use their own experiences in creating their own voice.
- The Common Core devalues teaching key components of the ELA Curriculum.
One of my biggest issues with the Common Core is that it devalues literature as art; it ignores that within literature there are many different genres. Nowhere in the ELA standards for middle and high school does it even address key literary terms like fiction, short story, novel, or poem. The only genre it recognizes under literary texts is drama. In fact, the only time that students learn about genre is in 4th grade. FOURTH GRADE. How can a fourth grader understand the complexities of a villanelle, a prose poem, or an anticlimactic short story? How can a fourth grader understand that some works cross into multiple genres? Why are we not required to still teach genres in middle and high school? Why is poetry, one of the most important bibliotherapy tools for our children, not even acknowledged in the standards? Is Longfellow, Dickinson, and Ginsberg now irrelevant?
Not only does the Common Core devalue literary genres, it also devalues historical context. Literature is one vehicle by which our children learn about our country’s history, especially in an American Literature course. In my own state of Georgia, our old Georgia Performance Standards infused the teaching of history or literary movements within the teaching of American Literature. That sounds like common sense, right? Students learned why naturalists like Jack London voiced their ideas about determinism and nature in their stories. Students learned how colonists like John Winthrop helped create our concept of the American Dream theme. Literature was celebrated as a political and social voice for specific historic movements, but history has basically been removed from the Common Core English standards. You will find a small mention of foundational works of American literature in Common Core Reading Standard 9, but we no longer teach the literary periods associated with the history of each text. Not only are our students missing a key component of their education, but it is also affecting their U.S. History test scores when we fail to fully recognize the importance of history in our literature courses. Cross-curricular teaching used to be more of a staple of the English Language Arts curriculum.
There are many other skills and ideas that we are no longer required to teach according to the Common Core. One of those other fundamentals is with vocabulary and the teaching of Greek and Latin root words. Learning Greek and Latin root words used to be one of the major focuses in vocabulary instruction, since so many words in the English language are descendents of their Greek and Latin counterparts. This skill is also cross-curricular as it helps students acquire new vocabulary quicker in foreign language, science, and social studies classes, but it was not deemed important enough for the creators of the Common Core. Thankfully, good teachers still use the old methods like root word studies that worked and continue to work with our children.
- Teachers and student teachers were not fully trained for the change to Common Core.
In school districts and universities across the nation, teachers received little to no training on how to correctly adapt the new Common Core standards into our classrooms. The movement came too quick, had no transitional period, and gave teachers little time to prepare new teaching materials. Even the textbook companies could not stay abreast of the changes. For English standards, in particular, many universities relied on teaching future educators the previous state standards or the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of English. It has not been until recently that college professors began using the Common Core curriculum standards in their teacher preparation classes. The training for veteran teachers and student teachers was too little, too late. State Boards of Education were also baffled and confused as to how to implement this new curriculum in every school because there was not enough federal funding to facilitate the process within the time demands.
Ultimately, there were too many complex issues attached to the change in standards. Not only did teachers have to learn new standards and write new units for those standards, but the Lexile level (reading levels) for each grade level also changed. Texts normally taught in higher grades were moved down to lower grades, without regard for subject matter or content. For example, many school districts discovered that Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night, previously taught in 9th or 10th grade due to its subject matter, would not meet the text complexity requirement to be taught in the high school grades. The same issue was presented for Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that a holocaust memoir that delineates every specific tragedy of a concentration camp or a historical fiction novel on the Vietnam War with explicit language and sexual situations is developmentally appropriate for middle schoolers. Many school districts and teachers did make the decision to leave those works at the high school level, despite the combativeness from the “experts” at the Common Core Initiative.
One of the most complex changes to the English Language Arts curriculum involved the equal treatment of literary and informational texts. Prior to the Common Core, English teachers focused on teaching literary works (fiction, drama, and poetry), using informational texts as background and supplementary texts to the literature; with the CC change, they were expected to shift to spending their time focused equally on literary and informational texts. Most school districts had to purchase more informational extended texts because they were not previously taught in ELA, but in the subject area that they were more closely associated. Environmental Science teachers might have lost their “right” to teach Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring so that it could be taught in 9th Literature and Composition. The problem here is that not only did that cause dissension between teachers of various subject areas, but English certified teachers, who are experts in teaching novels, were now teaching science and social studies texts. Most ELA teachers were not trained in the teaching of these non-literary texts and were very frustrated by losing so many canonical works in the ELA curriculum. Teacher training is an important and necessary step in changing curriculum and cannot be ignored or trivialized.
- Common Core contains too many standards for each grade level.
Simply put, there are too many English Language Arts standards for each grade level; there is no logistically feasible way for regular education students to master each standard within the time constraint. For example, in 10th grade English there are 41 standards students are expected to master within one school year; this does not even account for the number of standards that also have more pieces of standards (strands and elements) under them. The first tenth grade reading standard alone is something students must work on in small parts throughout the year due to the rigorous demands of the standard: “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (Common Core RL10.1). This standard is so complex because it involves close reading skills, citations, understanding how to choose significant quotes, analysis and interpretation, explicit versus implicit meaning, and making inferences. That standard by itself could take many tenth graders weeks to master; it is also one of the most highly tested standards on state and national assessments, but we don’t have enough time to give it the attention it deserves.
By having too many standards and not enough time, we are setting forth a “Fall Short” mentality. Teachers and administrators know that for most of their students there is no way for them to fully be able to do EVERY standard on grade level by the end of the course. Even our gifted children are struggling, but imagine what this amount and complexity is like for our special education students. The Common Core Initiative has set up administrators, teachers, and students to fail. We need to pare down the number of standards and focus on what is really important in each grade level. We should also not repeat so many of the standards year after year.
While on the topic of the “Fall Short” mentality, let me also admit how the number of standards affect teachers in other subject areas. In addition to teaching their own content standards, social studies, science, and vocational subject area teachers are also supposed to teach TEN additional ELA standards called the Literacy Standards. Imagine being a tenth grade Biology teacher. He already has fourteen very detailed Biology standards (each with various elements and strands) to teach. Then, he must also teach ten ELA standards (that he has not even been trained in how to teach because he is a scientist, not an English teacher). This “fall short” mentality is prevalent in all disciplines under the tyranny of Common Core.
- Common Core English does not teach students the basics.
People on both sides of the Common Core debate can agree on one thing — the Common Core Standards are rigorous. They do represent college preparatory curriculum as they were modeled after Advanced Placement and College Board standards, BUT they fail where it really matters. The Common Core fails to teach students the basics from kindergarten through 12th grade. Foundational reading skills end in fifth grade, yet middle and high school teachers still teach foundational skills like fluency and syllabication. This lack of foundational standards in the upper grades creates an achievement gap that can never be closed.
Not only are we missing the basics in the lower grades, but we’re also missing the foundations in middle and high school. Students need to be taught how to write an email, how to create a blog or website, and even how to write a professional letter and resume (and not every child takes a business class to learn these skills). Does Common Core acknowledge these necessary and fundamental skills? No. You will not find any technical writing standards in the 6-12 Common Core Curriculum. This is why we still have to teach 12th graders how to write a thank you note or how to sign their name for a legal document (don’t even get me started on the cursive writing debate — there is no cursive writing standard in Common Core). Students used to learn key job skills in English class, but now only college-readiness standards are important. What about the future welder who needs to learn how to read a welding manual? Are his needs not as important as the future lawyer?
The Common Core also fails to understand that one of the fundamentals of teaching literature involves character education. When we read a work like Walden by Henry David Thoreau or “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we internalize those works. They change our hearts. They help us become better people. They create a national ethos. Good teachers will always help students understand the themes, morals, and ethics presented in the texts, but this should be more explicitly stated in our standards. Notice that the 8th grade Common Core Reading Standard 2 is about theme, but not about how themes and morals apply to our lives. Reading shapes who we are as people and what we stand for as adults. Shouldn’t we be formally practicing the teaching of character education with our literature studies?
- States have misrepresented the Common Core to their citizens.
This is the deadliest sin among my list of seven. First, educators and parents alike are upset by the leaders of the Common Core Initiative like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, testing / assessment companies, and textbook companies who have made copious amounts of money and kickbacks off this national education blunder. We cannot continue to give them a “hall pass” on this massive mistake. The people who benefitted from Common Core financially are mendacious; they used their own agendas to serve their own financial purposes, disregarding the thousands of educators and millions of students who continue to pay the cost of the Common Core. Every tax-paying citizen in our nation should be angered by the misappropriation of public funds for “needs” dictated to states by the Common Core and Federal Department of Education. Changing good curriculum standards to poorer curriculum standards just to make more money off of books, resources, and tests should anger all of us. States whose students previously received an exemplary public education have suffered the most as their testing and assessment data has dropped in comparison to pre-Common Core data.
Last but not least, let us call Common Core by its name, and stop misrepresenting or politicizing it to the public. Several states have heard so much complaining about the Common Core standards or the recommended strategies that they actually changed the name of the standards to appease the public. For example, in my own state of Georgia, politicians decided that they were tired of the political backlash from the Common Core, so they wanted to “fix” the problem. With the English Language Arts standards, they just “fixed” the name. Beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, English teachers no longer used the Common Core name; the state renamed the standards to the Georgia Standards of Excellence. They did not change one single English standard — just the name! Politicians then misrepresented the change to Georgia citizens by saying that the standards had been revised. The only revision made was from the CCGPS label to the GSE label. Many school districts and teachers were even made to reprint materials and buy new textbooks that did not contain the words Common Core, just to appease and placate politicians and voters, but no REAL CHANGE occurred. I consider this a direct lie to Georgia voters and a true misappropriation of our tax dollars.
Many professional educators, researchers, and politicians understood the need for national curriculum standards. With altruistic motives, some of us fought hard for these standards to come to fruition. Others of us, myself included, were pacified by the nobility of concept so much that we never truly questioned what the standards would be or how they would be implemented. Some even saw the problems from the project’s genesis. Regardless, it feels like the majority of professional stakeholders disprove of the Common Core now, and I would even venture to say that many politicians, community members, stakeholders, and future stakeholders dislike it as well.
Call or write your congressmen, representatives, and municipal leaders. Demand to know why so much money has been spent on the wrong solutions to our ginormous crisis with education. Beg them to take up the fight to make our public schools better. Complain to anyone who will listen. Our children deserve something better, and changing the Common Core name without changing the standards is not something better.
One retraction issued.