A practical consideration of Robert Rothman’s thoughts on the Common Core

In the July/August issue of the Harvard Education Letter, Robert Rothman, senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, outlined “Nine Ways the Common Core will Change Classroom Practice.”

He pointed to four ways mathematics education will change and five ways the CCSS will impact English Language Arts instruction in the US. I leave critique of the mathematical implications to those more experienced in teaching math than I am. My focus, instead, is on Rothman’s assertions about how the CCSS will change how we teach students English.

5. More Nonfiction. Reflecting the fact that students will read primarily expository texts after high school, the Standards call for a much greater emphasis on nonfiction. The document proposes that about half the reading in elementary school and 75 percent in high school should be nonfiction. This would include informational texts in content areas as well as literary nonfiction in English language arts; publishing companies are likely to respond by revising their textbooks. Narrative fiction will become less prevalent. The Standards also expect students to write more expository prose.

The caution here is to think about factors that lead to people thinking of themselves as readers and writers. I don’t just mean thinking of themselves as people who can read and write, but as people who enjoy reading and writing as well.

We do a great job of telling students they are “readers” or “writers,” and many schools are able to focus on drilling students to say/chant aloud, “I am a reader,” or “I am a writer.”

As others have pointed out before me, these standards run the risk of preempting students’ development of their own reading tastes and identities as readers. It also ignores the possible effects of varied fictional structures on individuals’ habits of thinking and problem solving. Those people I know and respect as the deepest and most insightful analytical thinkers are also some of the most voracious readers of fictional texts I know.

Both have a place at the table, and to prescribe a reading diet as though all minds need the same percentage of texts is as potentially harmful as prescribing an eating diet as though all bodies need the same foods according to the same schedule.

6. Focus on Evidence. In reading, students will be expected to use evidence to demonstrate their comprehension of texts and to read closely in order to make evidence-based claims. To prepare them to do so, teachers will need to take time to read carefully with their students and in many cases reread texts several times. In writing, students are expected to cite evidence to justify statements rather than rely on opinions or personal feelings.

So tempting to make an off-handed remark about the possible implications of an evidence-driven populace on the standards of political elections and journalism, but I will resist.

I am concerned each time we breeze past the words “take time,” without pausing to consider from where that time will come. Will this mean cutting further into arts education, free time, play, physical activity?

If it is not an extension of the school day, what pieces of instruction within the existing structures will be sacrificed? At the most basic level it is a slight to teachers, presuming they are operating with a dearth of expectations on their time with children.

7. “Staircase” of Text Complexity. Students will be expected to read and comprehend increasingly complex texts in order to reach the level of complexity required for success in college courses and the workplace. The Standards document cites evidence that the complexity of texts used in schools has actually declined over the past forty years. To reverse this trend, teachers will have to choose materials that are appropriate for their grade level; states and organizations are now developing tools to help teachers evaluate complexity.

“Grade level?” To paraphrase Monty Python, “Now we see the ignorance inherent in the system.” Teachers must have and must demand the professional respect of choosing texts appropriate to the students in their classroom, not to the grade level to which students are arbitrarily assigned. As reading scholars like Nancy Atwell have discovered, such an approach doesn’t retard student progress in literacy acquisition, but hastens it.

For teachers, this will also mean revising practice to do away with the arbitrary assignment of whole-class texts and considering individual assignments and needs.

8. Speaking and Listening. The Standards expect students to be able to demonstrate that they can speak and listen effectively—two aspects of literacy rarely included in state standards. One of the consortia developing assessments to measure student performance against the Standards will create a speaking and listening assessment. Expect to see teachers asking students to engage in small-group and whole-class discussions and evaluating them on how well they understand the speakers’ points.

Less about speaking and listening, this point speaks to the lack of teacher agency present in a commodified education landscape.

No matter the quality of the consortium’s assessment, it will be seen, by teachers, as someone else’s assessment. The proctoring of such assessments will be, at its basest level, always be seen as jumping the hoop to get to the real teaching.

A key question here is “Do we want all of our students to speak and listen well or do we want all of our students to speak and listen in the same way?” We are plotting a course toward the latter.

9. Literacy in the Content Areas. The Standards include criteria for literacy in history/social science, science, and technical subjects. This reflects a recognition that understanding texts in each of these subject areas requires a unique set of skills and that instruction in understanding, say, a historical document is an integral part of teaching history. This means that history teachers will need to spend time making sure that students are able to glean information from a document and make judgments about its credibility. Science teachers will need to do the same for materials in that discipline.

Yes.

I agree.

Here is how this has been attempted in almost every school and district I’ve seen across the country:

  1. Training is developed to give teachers the school or district’s preferred method of teaching literacy in, say, science classrooms. This isn’t done in the belief that teachers are incompetent, but in an act of benevolence. The matter is urgent, and asking teachers to develop their own approaches will take time none of them thinks he has in the schedule.
  2. Teachers will take back these prescribed approaches to their classrooms and begin implementing them. Some will not implement them. Some will make them their own. Most will do as they are told for fear of repercussions. Test results will move slightly, but then become stale a year or two after.
  3. Frustrated, administrators will seek out a new way to tell teachers to implement literacy practices, assuming something was wrong with the original approach. Step 1 will be repeated in this process.
  4. Teachers will repeat Step 2. This time, those teachers who whole-heartedly accepted the first approach will be slightly jaded. It won’t be as obvious because their acceptance will have been replaced by teachers new to the school/district who have not seen this cycle before.
  5. The cycle will continue. Teacher agency, creativity, and voice will diminish.

To prepare teachers to make these shifts, states and private organizations are planning and implementing substantial professional development efforts. In Kentucky, for example, the state department of education is undertaking a massive campaign to inform teachers about the Standards and their implications for practice and is making available sample lessons and other materials on a website. But these efforts will only be successful if all teachers understand the Standards and how they differ from current practice.

Key here is the lack of any act of inquiry required by teachers. Utilizing the authority-centric approach of content delivery we are attempting to eliminate in classrooms, state education departments will disseminate materials and step-by-step guides like so many classroom worksheets.

If understanding is our highest goal, we have aimed too low.

3 thoughts on “A practical consideration of Robert Rothman’s thoughts on the Common Core

  1. I studied as an undergrad with Edward Fry who pioneered “readability.” I had a sense he was a crackpot, but could not articulate why then. I can now.

    Anyone who has ever seen a 7 year-old read the entire Harry Potter series or know everything there is to know about dinosaurs knows that readability is bullshit.

  2. Another thought comes to mind when I read the cheerleading for the Common Core. Once upon a time (23ish years ago), I was working in an elementary school teaching Logo and helping to improve math education and such.

    One of the 2nd grade teachers told the kids that if they wished, they could use the computer to “write” their teddy bear poems. Once she had collected all of the poems, she decided to send them to the district office to be xeroxed and stapled together.

    One day, the Supt wandered through the copy room and perused the stapled collections of teddy bear poems. He was so impressed that he told the school board all about the amazing work he found and wrote the teacher a letter of commendation in which he said, “not only did the children use a word processor, but the teacher allowed the children to choose their own fonts!”

    The 2nd grade teacher with the tiniest bit of computer literacy read the letter, felt insulted and asked, “What the hell does he think we do all day?”

  3. Zac,

    Thanks for the excellent post! Funnily enough, our principal left us all copies of this very article to read over a weekend recently for discussion during the next faculty meeting. The discussion that occurred was cursory at best. I’d like to comment on Rothman’s math items, since you’ve addressed the ELA ones so well above.

    1. Greater Focus. The Standards are notable not just for what they include but also for what they don’t include. Unlike many state standards, which include long lists of topics (often too many for teachers to address in a single year), the Common Core Standards are intended to focus on fewer topics and address them in greater depth. This is particularly true in elementary school mathematics, where the standards concentrate more on arithmetic and less on geometry. Some popular topics (like the calendar) are not included at all, and there are no standards for data and statistics until sixth grade—a controversial change. The reasoning is that teachers should concentrate on the most important topics, like number sense, in depth so that students develop a real understanding of them and are able to move on to more advanced topics.

    While I agree with the emphasis on developing number sense in principle, I fear the implementation in grades K-5. Already, our elementary students are drowning in timed tests of such skills; what will happen to students who are supposed to produce 80 correctly-done “basic math facts” such as 5 x 9 = 45 in 3 minutes, but only produce 75? Are they proficient? Can they go on? The question of teacher agency that you bring up so appropriately is apropos here.

    2. Coherence. One of the major criticisms of state standards is that they tend to include the same topics year after year. The Common Core Standards, by contrast, are designed to build on students’ understanding by introducing new topics from grade to grade. Students are expected to learn content and skills and move to more advanced topics. The Standards simultaneously build coherence within grades—that is, they suggest relationships between Standards. For example, in seventh grade the Standards show that students’ understanding of ratio and proportion—used in applications such as calculating interest—is related to their understanding of equations.

    The development of abstract thought and one’s ability to “read algebra” varies from student to student. While it is an admirable goal to want to teach all students algebra, it is completely unclear to me that all students in grade 7 will be sufficiently along the developmental scale to do so. To state, as the standards do (7.EE), that students will “solve word problems leading to equations of the form px + q = r” so baldly is to completely misunderstand the differences between students. There is an assumption underlying all of the math standards that, by teaching to these Standards, that students will develop their skills at abstract thinking in lockstep. And woe betide those students who do not, and woe betide their teachers.

    3. Skills, Understanding, and Application. The Standards end one of the fiercest debates in mathematics education—the question of which aspect of mathematics knowledge is most important—by concluding that they all are equally central. Students will need to know procedures fluently, develop a deep conceptual understanding, and be able to apply their knowledge to solve problems.

    I have a real issue with this, because I don’t believe that the previous sets of standards, in particular the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Standards from 2001, were any different in their belief or approach to any substantial degree. I think math teachers and organizations like NCTM believe that all three of the items Rothman mentions are equally important. See the document here for details.

    4. Emphasis on Practices. The Standards have eight criteria for mathematical practices. These include making sense of problems and persevering to solve them, reasoning abstractly and quantitatively, using appropriate tools strategically, and constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others. These practices are intended to be integrated with the standards for mathematical content. To provide students opportunities to demonstrate the standards of practice, then, teachers might allow students more time to work on problems rather than expect them to come up with solutions instantaneously. Or they might provide students with a variety of tools—rulers and calculators, for example—and ask them to choose the one that best fits the problem rather than requiring them to choose a tool in advance.

    Here I would simply ask, how? How will these be assessed? Do the upcoming PARCC assessments give students the time and flexibility to explore, to try things out, to play around, before answering whatever questions the students are given? We are talking about students, real students, who are going to suffer the consequences of the tests (and they will be “tests”, make no mistake) that will be rolled out to measure their performance based upon these standards.

    In addition, I’m unimpressed by the fact that CCSS feels it necessary to include practice standards, as if they were something new. The 2001 NCTM standards included a set of process standards that were, to my reading, equal in value to these.

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