Corrected: This Commentary should have said that the Common Core State Standards have been accepted by all but four states.
In reading the recently proposed Common Core State Standards already accepted by all but four states, I could not see many elementary school children of any background or ability meeting the standards at the grades designated. In my view, as a former elementary teacher and principal, the standards overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children, asking them to think analytically as they read or write, extract subtle meanings from a text, and make fine distinctions within and across texts. Such deliberative and intensive behaviors are not supported by the research on child development, nor are they expected anywhere else in children’s lives today.
Not long afterward, I read the accompanying document “Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy,” prepared by the standards’ primary authors, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, and became truly alarmed. In these instructions to curriculum developers and publishers of classroom materials, I saw not only a misreading of children’s capabilities, but also the intent to redefine the purpose of K-12 education and to control its curriculum and methods.
The criteria document is divided into two sections; the first directed toward materials for grades K-2 and the second toward grades 3-12. Since it was impossible for me to separate out what was applicable to the elementary grades in the second section, I gave my primary attention to the first. Most of the quotations below come from the K-2 section, while a few later in the essay are from the introduction to the 3-12 section.
In the introduction to the criteria for grades K-2, the authors make clear that they are proposing a radical revision of the primary-grades curriculum. Here are some telling quotes:
In kindergarten-grade 2, the most notable shifts in the standards when compared to state standards include a focus on reading informational text and building a coherent knowledge within and across grades; a more in-depth approach to vocabulary development; and a requirement that students encounter sufficiently complex text through reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
By underscoring what matters most in the standards, the criteria illustrate what shifts must take place in the next generation of curricula, including paring away elements that distract from or are at odds with the Common Core State Standards.
This is a pretty strong dose of academia for children just beginning their schooling, with not even a “spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.” Most disturbing in these quotes, however, is the authors’ demand that any content or skill not specified in the standards be excluded from the school curriculum.
For teaching reading in grades K-2, the criteria show a bias toward a particular philosophical approach that lays out a mechanical and linear pathway to reading competence:
Materials that are aligned to the standards should provide explicit and systematic instruction and diagnostic support in concepts of print, phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, and fluency.
By the end of 2nd grade, a key goal should be that students are able to read independently with automaticity and flow to ensure that their focus can be freed for comprehension.
Not only is this approach to reading more limited than what most experts recommend, it also excludes any early emphasis on understanding what one reads. Inexplicably, and in contradiction to research, the quotes imply that comprehension comes automatically and only after a child has mastered the mechanics of reading.
The criteria also insist on a focus on academic vocabulary and a way of teaching it that is, again, out of line with research and observations of young children’s development.
Of particular importance is building students’ academic vocabulary or Tier 2 words.
It follows, then, that materials should require students to think about words: how and why specific words are used, how changing one word can change the meaning of text, how one word can have varied but related meanings based on context, and why another word might be more appropriate.
For young children, the focus on academic vocabulary seems strange. At this time in their development, would it not be more sensible for children to learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown? Even stranger is the second quote that prescribes analytic thinking and word knowledge beyond the developmental level of children in grades K-2.
Next, the criteria reinforce the major curriculum feature in the standards: a significant increase in nonfiction materials at all grade levels.
The standards call for elementary curriculum materials to be recalibrated to reflect a mix of 50 percent literary and 50 percent informational text, including reading in [English/language arts], science, social studies, and the arts.
Apparently, the authors deem such a shift in curriculum content necessary for students to reach the goal of college and career readiness. But are their expectations for classroom practice realistic? The fact that fiction now dominates the elementary curriculum is not the result of educators’ decisions about what is best for children, but a reflection of children’s developmental stages, their interests, and their limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology. It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.
It is one thing for a child to read <i>The Little Engine That Could</i> for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive."
Reading any text requires more than decoding, fluency, and inferring meaning from context; the reader must form mental images of things mentioned based on previous experience or imagination. Although illustrations in many nonfiction books help considerably, there is a limit to how many unfamiliar things can be adequately illustrated in a book for young children.
Ultimately, the authors show their contempt for teachers’ competence, the use of supplementary materials, and children’s experiences. In the first two quotes below—taken from the criteria for grades 3-12—and the third quote—taken from the K-2 document—this becomes apparent.
The criteria make plain that developing students’ prowess at drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of teaching; teaching is not a substitute for the text.
In reading primary sources, students must learn that it is important to set aside their own prior knowledge to focus on the text itself.
That is, the text should be central, and surrounding materials should be included only when necessary, so as not to distract from the text itself.
These quotes make clear the authors’ conviction that commercial textbooks and curriculum programs should dominate classroom practice. Children are not to be distracted by anything the teacher explains or demonstrates or anything they’ve learned through their own reading or experiences. This is a narrow focus indeed, one that does not leave any room for teachers to use multiple sources or for students to think critically.
While I want to believe that the authors of the standards and the publishers’ criteria did not intend to be as constrictive and authoritarian as their words indicate, I am aghast at the vision of the dreariness and harshness of the classrooms they aim to create. Taken together, the standards and the criteria project an aura of arrogance and ignorance in their assumptions about how and why children learn, what is actually needed to succeed in college or the workforce, and the extent of teachers’ knowledge and expertise.
A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as A Flawed Approach to Reading in the Common-Core Standards