Common Core Standards: Which Way for Indiana?

December 26, 2012


The defeat of Tony Bennett as Indiana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction was attributed to many factors. Yet, as one post-election analysis indicated, the size of the vote for his rival, Glenda Ritz, suggests that the most likely reason was Mr. Bennett’s support for, and attempt to implement, Common Core’s badly flawed standards.

Common Core’s English language arts standards don’t have just one fatal flaw, i.e., its arbitrary division of reading standards into two groups: 10 standards for “informational” text and nine for “literature” at all grade levels from K to 12. These are just the most visible; its writing standards turn out to be just as damaging, constituting an intellectual impossibility for the average middle-grade student, for reasons I hadn’t suspected. The architects of Common Core’s writing standards simply didn’t link them to appropriate reading standards, a symbiotic relationship well-known to reading researchers. Last month, I had an opportunity to see the results of teachers’ attempts to address Common Core’s writing standards at an event put on by GothamSchools, a four-year-old news organization trying to provide an independent news service to New York City schools.

The teachers who had been selected to display their students’ writing (based on an application) provided visible evidence of their efforts to help their students address Common Core’s writing standards — detailed teacher-made or commercial worksheets that structure the composition of an argument. It was clear that their students had tried to figure out how to make a “claim” and show “evidence” for it, but the problems they were having were not a reflection of their teachers’ skills, or their own reading and writing skills. The source of their conceptual problems could be traced to the standards themselves.

At first glance, the standards don’t leap out as a problem. Take, for example, Common Core’s first writing standard for grades six, seven and eight (almost identical across grades): “Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.” This goal undoubtedly sounds reasonable to adults, who 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 text in grades three, four and five (and then in grades six, seven and eight) and discovered nothing on what a claim or an argument is, or on distinguishing relevant from irrelevant evidence. In other words, the writing standards for grades six, seven and eight are not coordinated with reading standards in grades three to eight that would require children to read the genre of writing that their middle-school teachers are expecting them to compose. Middle-school teachers are compelled by grade-level standards to ask their students to do something for which the students will have to use their imaginations.

Do elementary and middle-school teachers need this problem spelled out for them? Yes, I discovered in talking to several of the teachers at this event. They apparently knew nothing about the research on — and value of — prose models, a well-known body of research just a few decades ago.

This raises a common-sense question: How can middle-grade children be expected to understand how to set forth a “claim” and provide “relevant evidence” to support it if they haven’t been taught (and won’t be taught) how to identify an academic argument, a claim and irrelevant evidence in what they have read? No wonder New York City teachers are spending an enormous amount of time creating worksheets to structure students’ writing, and their students are spending an enormous amount of time filling in these worksheets.

One teacher, for example, admitted spending a lot of time trying to help her students come up with a topic sentence (it is close to a “claim” but is also not mentioned in Common Core’s reading or writing standards). Her worksheets showed the dutiful efforts of a few children to do this. A topic sentence doesn’t come easy to many middle-school students, especially if they haven’t read a lot of well-written articles with topic sentences that the children have been asked to identify until they really know what one is and what one does for the rest of the paragraph.

Two other teachers had first assigned some short stories (maybe to engage their students?) before asking their students to come up with a “thesis” or a “claim” and produce “evidence” for it. Needless to say, the children’s writing didn’t show a “claim.” This is not surprising. The only prose models the children had been given were two- to three-page stories.

Some teachers were forging ahead despite the conceptual difficulties their students encountered. Another teacher, for example, acknowledged the lack of a visible “literary thesis” or “claim” in her middle-school students’ writing (most were not strong students). 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.”

The problem deepened when I examined another writing standard for middle school. Common Core’s architects did suspect that writing was related to reading; they just didn’t know how it was. The ninth writing standard for grades six, seven and eight asks students to apply grades six, seven and eight reading standards as they “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research.”

What are these reading standards? Here are the first two:

  1. “Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”
  2. “Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.”

The problem here is that the reading standards are almost identical in grades six, seven and eight for both literature and informational text. It seems that children also are expected to analyze literary and non-literary texts as if they are both genres of expository prose. No well-trained English teacher would expect children reading a short story or novella in grade six to figure out first its “theme” and then “analyze its development over the course of the text.” That’s something one would do with children with a controlling idea in the introductory paragraph of an informational piece. The architects of these standards don’t seem to have a firm grasp on the differences between literature and informational texts.

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

Some children, already strong readers, are, of course, going to get it. Their English teachers will eventually figure the problems out, or their parents will. But guess which children are going to be the most confused? Probably the least able readers and writers, the very ones Common Core wants to make “college ready.”

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 is, who is to do the revisions? And what should Indiana be doing while the legal issues get sorted out?

Here is my two-cents worth: 1) The Indiana state board of education should re-adopt its own, first-class English-language arts standards (with perhaps minor changes), as well as first-class math standards (which the latest Trends in Mathematics and Science Study results suggest are working well in Indiana); and 2) label them Indiana “college-readiness” standards just as other states have labeled their own standards.

Sandra Stotsky, Ph.D., is a professor of education at the University of Arkansas. She has provided testimony about the Common Core Standards before the Indiana Senate education committee. She wrote this at the request of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.



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