The Deficit of Wisdom On the Common Core


Counterclaim

I’ve publicly made the case for Common Core standards on a number of forums (The Core Knowledge Blog, Chalkbeat, VIVA Teachers, & Impatient Optimists). I view the standards as an opportunity to align better practices and stronger content, though how the standards ultimately play out is dependent on how we elect to interpret and implement them. Unfortunately, most leaders are opting to play political theater, and too many teachers and parents use the standards as a proxy for problematic state policies or district decision-making.

I’ve since ceased writing about the standards, mainly because I’m too darn busy planning curriculum and developing IEPs (using the Common Core standards as a guide)—but furthermore because the constant barrage of feigned outrage at the standards has caused me to tune out.

But this morning while on the way to work, I read this piece, “The Wisdom Deficit” by Michael Godsey on The Atlantic that seriously got to me, to the point that I feel compelled to write a rebuttal. Here’s why this piece upsets me:

  • It’s written by an experienced ELA teacher who has his heart in the right place: he cares deeply about engaging his students in the wisdom gleaned through the study of classic literature.
  • It points to real problems in how the Common Core are being misinterpreted at the ground level.

After framing the “so-called ‘College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards’ in a dismissively perfunctory manner, rather than analyzing the standards themselves further for evidence of the problems he outlines, he instead points to an “adjunct faculty member in Secondary Education at San Francisco State University” as an appointed spokesperson for the Common Core:

Kate Kinsella, an influential author who consults school districts across the country and is considered “a guiding force on the National Advisory Board for the Consortium on Reading Excellence,” recently told me to “ditch literature” since “literary fiction is not critical to college success.” Kinsella continued, “What’s represented by the standards is the need to analyze texts rather than respond to literature.

As a teacher working within this regimented environment, my classroom objectives have had to shift.

Wait a second. I’ve never heard of Kinsella. She may be influential in California, perhaps, though even that’s questionable given the size and political dynamics of my mother state.  Her “advice” is ill founded, nor supported by a closer examination of the standards themselves. I’ve addressed this before in my post on The Core Knowledge Blog in 2013:

Under key design considerations in the introduction to the literacy standards, Common Core’s authors state that the inclusion of social studies, science, and technical subjects “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” (bold added).

They furthermore point out that “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” (bold added).

Yet within schools, these points are all too easily ignored or misconstrued. ELA teachers are evaluated by the literacy tests that their students are required to take. One of the greatest frustrations of being an ELA teacher, in fact, is that we are tested on factors that are often beyond our control, such as our students’ domain-specific knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that many ELA teachers resort to skills-based teaching, grimly attempting to boost test scores by bolstering superficial, isolated skills.

Another thing that really gets me, though: what in the world does Kinsella have to do with “this regimented environment” that Godsey refers to, and why in the world has his “classroom objectives … had to shift”? There’s something seriously wrong in Cali if this kind of misunderstanding is translating into such perceptions of edicts from on high.

Godsey then goes on to suggest that this shift is tantamount to a loss of values (“I get it: My job is to teach communication, not values”), and that as a result, he no longer is able to teach wisdom:

When I recently shared a poem that included the phrase, “Let there be light,” hardly any of my students, who are high-school juniors, could identify the allusion. As a staunch believer in the separation of church and state, I don’t feel comfortable delving into the Bible’s wisdom.

Here’s the irony: the Common Core actually makes it fairly clear that students will require knowledge of the Bible in order to determine allusions made to it. Here’s Reading Literature Standard 9, Grade 9-10:

“Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).” 

Arguably, therefore, Godsey is not heeding the advice of the standards because he is not “comfortable” teaching his students to understand that allusion.

He later states that “there is a noticeable deprioritization of literature, and a crumbling consensus regarding the nation’s idea of classic literature.” Yes, there is. Yet though the Common Core only explicitly references Shakespeare and Ovid in the standards themselves, the standards have made a push for “authentic” and “complex” texts, a dramatic shift from what had been generally prevalent in schools driven by a “test prep” or “leveled book” mentality, in which bland passages were provided to students based on their independent reading levels.

The Common Core standards are not to blame for our nation’s problem with classic literature. Can you imagine if the standards had in any way attempted to dictate what type of texts students needed to read? Yeah. And even as carefully crafted as the standards have been to be politically neutral, they have become so volatile that they are said to threaten Jeb Bush’s candidancy for president (which I think is preposterous—if he sticks to his guns he can reach independents and center-left liberals willing to cross over, but whatever).

Godsey then delivers what I consider the most disturbing part of his piece:

I remember when, 10 years ago, my students spent an hour sharing their favorite lines from Father Zossima’s sermon in The Brothers Karamozov and how and why it affected their own lives. One student was visibly moved by the idea that suffering for a loved one might be a blessing available only in a life on Earth, not in heaven. A few different students called it “their favorite class ever.” This morning, my student-teacher—a college student I’m training to be a classroom educator—used a hip-hop poem as a primary text and started the class by saying, “Today we’re going to practice Reading Standards 1, 2, and particularly 4” in reference to the anchor standards that the students had on their desks. If this sounds a little dry, I’m partly to blame—for a month, he’s been watching me ask the students to explicitly reflect on their progress in each of these technical areas. In any case, with habits like these, he’s sure to land a permanent job in the fall.

Who decided to ask students to “practice Reading Standards 1, 2, and particularly 4” and provided the “anchor standards that the students had on their desks”? Big brother?

At least Godsey acknowledges some of his culpability (“I’m partly to blame”), but he attempts to redirect it towards blame of some obscure “culture” that he just can’t seem to resist paying heed to.

Being transparent with our students about goals and how they are getting evaluated is fundamental, yet asking them to parrot anchor standards strikes me as a colossal waste of instructional time. It’s up to us—the educators—to interpret and apply the standards in our classrooms in a manner that aligns with our knowledge and expertise and with the intent of the standards themselves.

The Common Core are not responsible for poor instructional decisions nor for poor educational consultants nor for poor administrators. The Common Core are an opportunity for educators to fight for better curriculum for all of our children. Let’s stop blaming the standards, and start using them to better teach the values and wisdom and literature so fundamental to our commonweal.

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