Sunday, November 11, 2012

Common Core Headaches

I realize I'm retiring from teaching at the end of this year. I know I'll never have to overhaul my lessons to reflect Common Core State Standards. I absolutely get that this is one thing I could happily ignore -- forget -- leave alone. It will never affect me or the way I teach or the way I interact with my students. And yet, like that old dog who can or can't be taught new tricks, I keep worrying CCSS like a bone. I read books, I read articles. I listen, I attend meetings. I keep trying to wrap my mind around exactly what these Standards are, how they'll change what happens in classrooms, and how they'll make my kids better prepared for 'college and career.'

I've read several books that either inflame me or comfort me. One Size Fits Few by Susan Ohanian fed my passion as she can do -- she is fierce in her objections to Standards that are to be applied to all students with no exceptions. Reading her book left me with mixed feelings, but I was grateful to have this point of view.

Supporting Students in a Time of Common Core by Sarah Brown Wessling has a completely different take on the future of my profession. She is an English teacher and writes directly to other English teachers. Her stance is positive...she knows, as all teachers know, we can do this if we need to.She answers some of my deeply suspicious questions...but they're her interpretation of the CCSS. I am hoping to meet her next week at the National Council of Teachers of English.

On to Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp. Text complexity is one of my huge issues with CCSS -- who chooses, how do I force all students to read above their reading level, how do I individualize? The text complexity measure we were first told about was Lexiles, which only measures sentence lengths, so Of Mice and Men and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are seen as equally complex. Really? Then there's the issue of how we are to teach (even though everyone connected to CCSS, to SMARTER Balance, and PARCC, promises the Standards will not dictate teaching methods). The authors of CCSS have declared New Criticism as the only way to teach pieces of literature. At its most radical, New Criticism will not allow historical background, information about the author or the times. It will not allow any personal connection to the piece under study. David Coleman, the self-proclaimed author of CCSS, himself not an educator, shows us a model lesson under CCSS -- a study of 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' with no mention of the reason the author is in jail, what's going on in Birmingham that led to his arrest...nothing. Just jump right into the text and study it sentence by sentence. Does Mr. Coleman really believe we can lead students through this important piece with no context? Fisher and Frey and Lapp talked me off the ledge in some ways, encouraging the reader to believe our professional judgement is still worth something.

I truly seem to be torturing myself. I'll be sitting at home when all this falls onto teachers. All this reading led me to Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehenworth, and Christopher Lehman.  Of all the books I've read, this one is the most exhaustively researched. They included a history of the Standards, an investigation of the authors, and most importantly for teachers, a close, professional reading of the Standards, vertically and horizontally. They have been able to make connections that I believe many of us would miss. Their suggestions are positive and possible. They interpret the Standards and give professional educators the tools to start the work.They debunk another concern English teachers have had about the Standards: longer works -- novels and nonfiction books WILL be an important part of the work of CCSS.

All this reading left me with a particular stance when I read Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Janet Barresi's weekly newsletter entitled "Demystifying the Common Core." Wasn't that what I was trying to do? Learn? Read? Make connections? Define terms? Draw conclusions? Analyze?

The OSDOE recently hosted David Coleman and Superintendent Barresi was discussing the visit. Calkins and her coauthors describe Coleman and one of two people who "have emerged referring to themselves as 'the' authors in their own documents. If that is the case, why was their identity kept secret while states considered the standards" (5)? Calkins shows a connection between Coleman and ACT that predates the writing of the Standards and his current position as President of College Board. He seems to be the driving force behind the New Criticism stance.

If you follow his link and read Diane Ravitch's profile, that makes perfect sense. He sees himself as a who thrives on the ideas in texts. He makes the 'classic blunder' (sorry...couldn't resist the pop culture allusion!) many non-educators make of assuming the way HE learns is the perfect way for EVERYONE to learn. Teachers know different. We know, and could have told him, had we been included in the writing of CCSS, that there is no one right way for everyone to learn. Tying teachers' hands with New Criticism will make learning less robust and motivating, not more. I'll bet he loved writing arguments also...and we're now saddled with that as well. Is this really the way to write NATIONAL Standards? From one person's learning strengths?

Coleman is also a part of the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the consortium that Oklahoma has joined) interpretation of the CCSS, so it's not a surprise he was welcomed to OKC with open arms.

I take deep issue with several of Superintendent Barresi's assertions in her newsletter. She describes CCSS as "a remarkable work of collaboration between Republican and Democratic (sic) governors and education officials." I guess I don't take issue with that's true. What's missing from that list of author are professional educators. We'll be called upon to interpret and implement CCSS, but we've had no hand in writing them.

She quotes Coleman: "My proposal is that Common Core Standards were created in a moment of crisis." A manufactured one, to be sure.

The statement that made my blood pressure spike, though, was Superintendent Barresi's assertion: "The standards are based on overwhelming evidence that they are effective in truly preparing students for college and career." Not according to Calkins. She quotes a very similar claim from the PARCC draft, and goes on to say, "And yet of the few footnoted studies it cites as the 'significant body of research,' nearly all took place in college or high school; one involved adolescents, one was a paper discussing the debate over the pros and cons of constructivist teaching and another, 'The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance'...was a discussion of developing expertise in all fields including physical fitness, which, it turns out, never mentioned close reading at all...None drew from the larger body of research on children's literacy development, a surprising point as half of the assessments PARCC is designing are aimed at elementary school students" (49). So much for that overwhelming evidence. It wouldn't even stand up to the requirements of CCSS. But say it's overwhelming often enough and someone's bound to believe it.

Both Coleman and Barresi believe CCSS will somehow lighten teachers' load, and "give teachers more time to teach and students more time to practice." Not according to Calkins who is very honest about the demands of the Standards, and the still-to-be-known assessment piece. Now fourth graders will be required to compose a minimum of one typed page at a sitting, and fifth graders, two pages. This volume says a lot about the authors' assumptions that elementary students have been taught keyboarding in a very crowded curriculum, and that they have universal access to computers on which to write. The naivete of this assumption is something that could have been explored if professional educators were included in the discussion.

I don't need help demystifying the Common Core! I need professional development. I need answers. I need time to work with colleagues and create our own exemplars. I need time to investigate how CCSS will play out for students.

In a rich Facebook conversation about  CCSS, someone used the analogy of building the plane while it's in the air. I see it differently. Someone else, with little knowledge of teaching or learning, of children's literacy, of child development, 'built' the CCSS. Teachers now must take this mess and repair it, in the air, on the fly. We must interpret, analyze, implement...and we'll be evaluated based on assessments yet-to-be-written. We'll keep our jobs or be fired based on our ability to interpret and implement something we had no hand in writing.

I have one more Common Core book on my stack. I wish I had the self discipline to ignore it and pick up a chick-lit book instead. Probably won't be able to resist. 


  1. Claudia, you are a human dynamo. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your exhaustive reading and concise, digestible presentation of what you've found. Would that YOU were in that superintendent's chair. Now there's a plan for your retirement!

  2. Ha -- thanks...I'm just an old woman who's furious about what's happening to her profession. Not rich enough to run for Super...our current one donated $1 million to her own campaign...Sad state of affairs.

    1. Ahhh...but there are plenty of people out here who would donate to your campaign. I think you should do it!

    2. Ha -- I know better than to present myself as cannon fodder in this state. I've seen too many thoughtful, dedicated candidates savaged in our current climate. It would be an exercise in futility, and at this stage in my life, I have better things to play with granddaughters. I appreciate your faith. It means a lot!

  3. You are an incredibly intelligent and insightful woman, who has managed to put into words what others have been feeling and thinking. Thank you for this helpful information as I plan to share it with my colleagues!
    Kristi Winton, Waurika Elementary, Oklahoma

    1. Thanks -- share away. I wish educators would have been 'allowed' to craft this document. We're charged with interpreting and implementing, but we CAN'T explain what won't work and why. Frustrating.

  4. Ms. Swisher, count me as a fan of your musings.

    1. Thanks, Kevin. I'm excited that folks think I have some credibility.