Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Fact checking Common Core: Fair and Balanced

A friend pointed out an article on the Obama administration's current set of Common Core (CC) standards in education. The article, by Burke of the Heritage Foundation appearing on Fox News, casts the standards in a fully distopian light, closing with the beautiful zinger:

But if states stay on the Common Core bandwagon, say goodbye to “1984,” “Animal Farm” and “Brave New World.” No need for kids to be reading those books, anyway. They’ll be living them.

Burke's primary concern is that for most of students' learning experiences, fully half of what they read is supposed to come from so-called "informational texts," which she typifies with the following list:

The Federal Reserve Bank’s “FedViews,” “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” and “Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas.” And, roll over “For Whom the Bell Tolls” it’s time to make way for that GSA classic: “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.”
Notably missing from the CC are many of the greatest authors of all time:

Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, J.D. Salinger, Washington Irving, Edith Wharton, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis – all achieved that complex goal. And all are absent from the Common Core list

From her article, I was quite sympathetic to her concluding line. It turns out, however, there is an important element she missed from reading the standards themselves and their intents, and I was relieved to see that these nuggets are not representative of the writing students are expected to have mastered. (However, I was much less reassured by the CC explanation that teachers were to be free to use whatever methods they wanted, as long as Big Brother gets to control the messages.
I also recognize what I am using on the other side are not the complete set of regulations, but the pamphlet on the website that is the first link when you google Common Core Standards. The devil in the details may be much less benign.)

Specifically, the intent is that non-English faculty should have a heavy component of reading and writing in their work as well. The intent is for biology teachers to use the grocery bag article, economics teachers to use the FedViews (which I remember reading in high school), and so forth. From the introduction:

The Standards set requirements not only for English language arts (ELA) but also for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. ... Literacy standards for grade 6 and above are predicated on teachers of ELA, history/social studies, science, and technical subjects using their content area expertise to help students meet the particular challenges of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in their respective fields.
And a little later

This division reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well. ... Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.
That's called Reading Across the Curriculum. Contrary to Burke's assertion, that is heavily supported by research and many excellent universities (AUN included) require all teachers to have students read and write.  It sets a goal that the other non-English classes combined should be assigned about as much reading as their English classes. I personally would be delighted if my students could universally meet the US core standards before coming to my class, or be capable of comprehending all that is recommended here.

The pamphlet also has suggested texts that are illustrative of the kinds of things that should be taught, not the specific texts. This means that the lack of Austen, Dickens, et al is not a deliberate censoring nor a selection of Condie's 100 Books. Even better, take a look at the pamphlet's complete set of recommendations for grades 9-12:
For literature:
The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1592)
“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)
“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe (1845)
“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (1906)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1975)
(grades 11-12)
 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats (1820)
 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1848)
 “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson (1890)
 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
 A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)
 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2003) 
For informational texts:
“Speech to the Second Virginia Convention” by Patrick Henry (1775)
“Farewell Address” by George Washington (1796)
“Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln (1863)
“State of the Union Address” by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1941)
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964)
“Hope, Despair and Memory” by Elie Wiesel (1997)
(grades 11-12)
Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776)
Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
“Society and Solitude” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1857)
“The Fallacy of Success” by G. K. Chesterton (1909)
Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945)
“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (1946)
“Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry” by Rudolfo Anaya (1995)
Speaking as a social science guy, those are some pretty great informational texts! What red-blooded, red-voting American would argue with having kids taught from Common Sense and Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death" speech? I also noticed in particular the presence of Fahrenheit 451 on the reading list for literature, suggesting that there is a clear place for the distopians Burke lists in the curriculum. Remember again this is not a list of must do, but a list of illustrative types of things that show the level of complexity. If Brontë makes it, so does Austen. Of course, your local school mileage may vary.

Now is there sad commentary that the sorts of works that used to be literature for grade school are today used for high schoolers? Yup, you betcha. Do recall that transformation happened long before the hopey-changey thing. This whole enterprise may still be a very bad idea and continue to encourage parents into home schooling while increasing the press for school vouchers. The apocalyptic article by Burke does not pass the fair and balanced test, though.

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