Common Core Task Force Hearing

I went to Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force hearing yesterday evening at La Guardia Community College to share my views on the Common Core Standards. This is the first public hearing I’ve attended, and I hadn’t even thought what I would say until I was traveling down from the Bronx. I jotted down my thoughts in my journal, and here’s essentially what I said (though not quite so coherently):

We need to acknowledge the challenges that have arisen in the implementation and adoption of these standards, much of which have come as a result of hasty efforts to tie teacher evaluation and student testing to the standards before educators and parents were provided an adequate opportunity to fully understand and work with them.

But let’s not lose sight of the opportunity that they have provided us.

The new, higher standards provide an opportunity for all students to engage in a productive struggle with rigorous and meaningful concepts, skills, and texts.

This focus on a higher bar for all students has shifted our focus of instruction to “how can we provide access to all learners to this challenging, essential content–and this is pivotal for students historically denied access to college and career ready skills and knowledge.

Having a more coherent set of standards has furthermore provided an opportunity for all teachers to engage in developing aligned curriculum, materials, and resources not only across classrooms and grades within a school, but furthermore across districts and states. I have been fortunate to work with teachers across our nation in developing aligned materials and curriculum, as well as across my city. And I have seen how the standards have provided opportunities at my school to vertically align content and skills across the grades and across subjects within a grade.

As we move forward, let’s not lose sight of these opportunities as we review the standards within New York State.

I stayed for the entire hearing so I could listen to the other speaker’s testimonies, and found all of them interesting. I especially liked Council member Dromm’s opening testimony — he’s a former educator, and he gets it. There was some of the typical anti-Common Core rhetoric. Many speakers were united in their condemnation of the current form of NY State tests. However, Arva Rice of the NY Urban League offered what I thought to be an important defense of testing for the purpose of surfacing inequity. One MORE caucus retired teacher wove history into his testimony, referring back to Ocean-Hill Brownsville to make the case for a culturally relevant curriculum. There was a solid base of testimony from teachers on how the higher standards have provided benefit to the students they serve, including one educator who has witnessed the positive impact higher standards has had on students most in danger in dropping out of school. There was also a common thread on how there is a real need to empower teachers to collaborate and provide them the time to do so around the standards. A UFT representative made several great points about concerns with the standards, especially in regards to the need to continue to teach literature in ELA (a point I strongly agree with). And there was one guy wearing a gold hard hat who eloquently provided an out-of-this-world sermon on the need to teach our children respect (not sure what the link was to Common Core, but kudos to him for his gold sneakers and for coming out to expound).

The vibe from the Common Core Task Force members who were there, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and educator Kishayna Hazelwood, was that they already had a few of their own biases, but that they were interested in learning more. They seemed interested especially (unsurprisingly) in how they could change testing. There was a very strange and tense moment where Assemblywoman Nolan first verbally accused a teacher of showing disrespect during the parent’s testimony (for “smiling”), and when the teacher denied that she had done this, Nolan physically got up from behind the table and stepped right up to the teacher to say menacingly, “I saw you smile.”

First of all, I spoke with this teacher, a 20 year veteran teacher in the Bronx, and she informed me that she had not been smiling derisively, but had rather been making an unrelated connection in her mind between something said earlier. Second of all, even if she HAD been smirking, the parent testifying did not see this, and Ms. Nolan’s response was unnecessarily aggressive. I’m sure she was trying to make the point that she valued all perspectives and would stand up to ensure they were heard, which is great, but the manner in which she did this was inappropriate.

But I appreciated both Nolan’s and Hazlewood’s engaged questioning of various speakers, as it showed they were interested in learning more and valued the testimony of different perspectives and that people had given their time to come to the hearing. I hope they continue to hear from across the state on how the higher standards have provided greater opportunities for teachers and students to engage in meaningful content, while also hearing that teachers need more time to engage with the standards.

Here’s a couple of other accounts of the event:

How Would You Revise the Common Core Standards?

Chalkboard

NY State will conduct a formal review of the Common Core State Standards. I welcome the opportunity for a review. In my opinion, the more people talk about what should be taught in classrooms, the better.

Too often, we discuss education as an abstraction, polarizing around political issues largely irrelevant to kids and teachers at the ground level. What most impacts us on a daily basis is what is taught, and how. So while I would prefer we discussed the curriculum and content itself, talking about standards is at least a step closer to the heart of the matter.

As you may know, I’m a proponent of the Common Core Standards. I’ve advocated for them publicly, and I work with the standards in my daily practice.*

I advocate for the standards because I believe strongly in the need for shared, rigorous, and coherent standards. But that doesn’t mean I believe the standards, as written, are perfect.

If I Could Revise the Standards

Here’s what I would suggest as major points for revision of the ELA standards:

  • Provide more explicit guidance within the literary standards for the study of poetry. (See Sandra Stotsky’s Curriculum Framework for a good model.)
  • Overhaul the writing standards to include literary analysis as a genre of writing.  Merge argumentative and informative/explanatory writing, as the distinction between those two is unclear and it’s of questionable value to distinguish them. Consider broadening the scope of narrative writing to that of creative writing, to include poetry.
  • Clarify the meaning of the idea that literacy extends across all content areas, while reducing the stress on the oft misunderstood recommended percentages between informational and literary text. It should be less about pushing informational texts into ELA, and more about pushing the teaching literacy across science, social studies, and other content areas.

Others have also been saying that the Kindergarten standards need much revision. This is an area I’m less knowledgeable about, but I assume there’s some tweaking that should be done there, as well.

What aspects of the Common Core standards would you revise?

*I work (or have worked) with the standards in some of the following ways:

  1. my daily work as a special education ELA teacher, using them to develop and align my school’s curriculum and assessments, as well as to develop IEP goals (I began analyzing them more closely to break down the relevant knowledge, skills, and products for grades 6-8 to guide this work)
  2. my work with NYCDOE as a Common Core Fellow to assess teacher team submitted performance assessment tasks
  3. my work with LearnZillion to develop online videos, lessons, and resources aligned to the Common Core

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.