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Decoding the Common Core: A Teacher’s Perspective

By Ariel Sacks — March 23, 2015 5 min read
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From my perspective as an experienced English teacher in New York City, the Common Core State Standards represent neither the problem nor the solution. They have brought both positive and negative elements to my classroom and my profession. I’ve generally stayed quiet in the debates around the common standards, but now that I’ve spent several years with them, it occurs to me that it’s an apt time to reflect on their impact overall.

When I first read through the English/language arts standards for secondary grades, I wasn’t expecting to have much of a reaction: a new list to sift through, a new language to learn. State standards had never been a primary influence for me in my big-picture vision for education or my day-to-day teaching; my relationship with them has been one mainly of coexistence. I was pleasantly surprised, though, to find that the common-core standards appeared to be much more closely aligned to my teaching than my state’s previous standards. I also found their presentation to be more organized and even quite elegant.

One way the new standards seemed better aligned to my teaching was in their emphasis on developing students’ critical-thinking skills, rather than on helping students generate specific types of work products. I saw a push to have students do more of the thinking in the classroom, especially by interpreting texts for themselves and by using evidence to support their arguments. In addition, the emphasis on developing students’ speaking and discussion skills created a clear connection between oral discourse in the classroom and students’ analytical writing. I had long placed an emphasis on teaching whole novels as a way to develop students’ ability to analyze, discuss, and write about texts, and the common standards seemed to affirm and encourage this practice.

At the same time, many educators in my professional network were raising concerns about teachers’ limited involvement in the actual writing of the new standards. That was seen as huge blow to the movement toward teacher leadership in education.

Did the apparent lack of teacher input on the standards impact the quality of the standards themselves? I think so. While I appreciate the inclusion of standards that ask my 8th grade students to analyze the structure of a text or the author’s point of view, for example, I worry that 5th and 6th graders are being required to do some of these same tasks, when cognitively many kids that age barely grasp that there is an author behind the texts they read. This doesn’t make them “bad readers.” There are stages to becoming a mature reader, and the process and ideal outcomes look quite different at each level (and for different students).

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My sense is that, instead of building standards that are carefully in sync with the developmental trajectory of confident readers, the authors of the standards looked at what students needed to be able to do with texts in college and just “backwards planned” down to 1st grade, assuming that learning is an entirely linear process. So now, rather than emphasizing students’ experience of and genuine interaction with a wide variety of stories and texts, early-elementary teachers are expected to focus on teaching pre-analytical skills.

Then there is the thorny fiction vs. nonfiction question. The authors of the standards have clearly stated that their suggested 70-30 percent split between nonfiction texts and literary-fiction texts (by high school) was intended to represent students’ reading across subject areas. In other words, if students are reading nonfiction in science and social studies courses, then English teachers need not abandon fiction and poetry in order to meet the recommendation. I’ve found that this approach, when done thoughtfully, can actually push teachers in new directions in terms of text selection and improving collaboration across subject areas. Still, the popular interpretation among many school leaders and some teachers has been that we need to include significantly more nonfiction reading in language arts classes, thus limiting time for imaginative fiction.

That interpretation is hardly surprising given that, in general, the common standards emphasize analytical thinking over other types of cognition to a fault. In only one out of the 10 anchor standards for writing that span kindergarten through 12th grade are students, possibly, involved in creative writing. That single standard (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.3) is phrased, “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events. …" That means that a student could conceivably meet all standards without ever having written a poem or a fictional story.

[T]he key to realizing the potential of the common standards lies in supporting teacher input and discretion.”

If teachers heed the pressure—whether real or imagined—to shift toward nonfiction writing, this missing element in the common core will represent a true loss for students. There are so many reasons to provide opportunities for young people to write imaginatively—in fact, the risk-taking and critical thinking involved in creative writing actually help students in their close reading and analysis of texts, skills which show up as high priorities throughout the standards.

Finally, the common standards have not come into our classrooms unaccompanied. They have brought with them a rash of new standardized tests and test-prep products. In New York, the common-core-aligned tests have created a new era in which what passes spuriously for “rigor” defines the majority of our students as failures, with unnecessarily complicated test questions and very low citywide proficiency rates.

Understandably, many teachers and school leaders have grown anxious about the pace of change and the prospect of being held accountable by measures over which they seemingly have little control. This, in turn, has led the state department of education, through the Engage NY website, to provide ready-made curriculum modules that are extremely prescriptive, often not appropriate for the grades they aim to serve, and far from meeting the potential I see in the standards themselves.

All in all, I feel that, if the common standards had never been developed, teachers wouldn’t necessarily be worse off, and we might have been able to put our attention toward something equally or more beneficial to students. Yet, if the standards were to disappear today, I would also feel that a valuable conversation had been cut short, an opportunity to connect and expand students’ learning in classrooms across the country abandoned rather than developed. And I would worry even more about whatever new blanket policy initiative would replace the current focus on the common standards.

For me, the key to realizing the potential of the common standards lies in supporting teacher input and discretion. Rather than leaving teachers out of the conversation again, education leaders need to tap teachers’ expertise and help them connect with each other to interpret and revise the standards—as well as related accountability measures—for themselves and their students.

Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Breaking the Code of the Common Core


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