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Opinion
Standards Commentary

How to Improve Common Core: A Critic’s View

By Joanne Yatvin — September 23, 2013 6 min read

As a sometime warrior in the war of words over the Common Core State Standards, I have been neutral about the need for national standards, but highly critical of their current composition, seeing it as deeply flawed and ineffectual for its stated purposes. Nevertheless, I have come to realize that nothing I or anyone else may say will make the standards go away. They are firmly entrenched in all but four states, and even teachers who endured the No Child Left Behind Act are resigned to this new swing of the pendulum and changing their classroom practices.

I believe the best thing that standards critics can do right now is work to make them better. It is not too late to advocate for changes that would bring them closer to the expectations of college and the workplace and the personal needs, interests, and real lives of students. To stimulate others to take action, I am using this forum to identify the key problems I see in the English/language arts standards and suggest some ways to resolve them.

Problem #1: In specifying the knowledge and skills needed for “college and career readiness,” the standards authors went overboard, including everything from the most obvious items, such as integrating multimedia tools into spoken presentations, to the least useful, such as naming the parts of speech.

As a result, there are too many standards per grade level, especially in the elementary grades. For example, for 1st grade, there are three reading categories or “strands,” with a total of 23 standards within them. There are also three additional English/language arts strands for 1st grade, with 18 more standards. Teaching toward 41 English/language arts standards, plus math standards, is a heavy load for 1st grade teachers, not to mention the difficulty of moving from strand to strand in planning instruction.

Possible Solution: Combining the strands would reduce the number of standards and emphasize the importance of those that remain. I suggest eliminating the “reading: foundational skills” strand and the language strand altogether and moving only their general expectations to the other strands. For example, the call for students to “read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension” could be added to the two remaining reading strands for the elementary grades, and the expectation that they will “demonstrate knowledge of language and its conventions when writing or speaking” could be included in the writing, speaking, and listening strands.

Problem #2: While the standards authors have repeatedly insisted that they did not specify curriculum, they have strayed into dictating particular teaching methods in a few places. This is most obvious in the “reading: foundational skills” strand for elementary grades, in which a particular phonics strategy is laid out across the elementary grades. Although advocates of this method might say it is supported by research, the National Reading Panel—of which I was a member—reported in 2000 that various types of phonics programs are equally effective, and that it is not necessary to teach phonics to normally progressing readers beyond 1st grade.

A specific teaching method also appears in the standards’ language strand in which students, even as early as 3rd grade, are expected to use and explain formal grammatical terms. Again, the body of research does not support formal grammar instruction for improving students’ speech or writing.

I believe the best thing that standards critics can do right now is work to make them better. It is not too late to advocate for changes."

Possible Solution: As I suggested above, remove the strands that prescribe methodology and add simple statements of student expectations in other strands. As demonstrated by the expectations of the reading, writing, and speaking strands, methodology should not be included in a set of standards for students everywhere.

Problem #3: By envisioning the elementary grades as a ladder, with each rung introducing new skills, the standards’ authors ignored the realities of young children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development. Worse, they backed up their placement of skills with a harsh dictum: “Students advancing through the grades are expected to meet each year’s grade-specific standards and retain or further develop skills and understandings mastered in preceding grades.” According to many early-childhood specialists, several of the skills designated for the primary grades are too advanced for young children. And many teachers of upper-elementary grades see obstacles in getting their students to learn what is required without step-by-step help.

Possible Solution: To give children more time for development, the elementary-level standards should be grouped into grade clusters rather than designated for a single grade. In addition, the decree about expectations for grade advancement should apply only to the high school grades, which are already clustered to give students more time for mastery.

Problem #4: Nowhere in the standards is there any attempt to link student learning to the real world in real time. Everything is designed to serve students’ potential future roles, and the means prescribed for demonstrating mastery are limited to written essays, oral presentations, and class discussions. This is the standards’ fatal flaw: They are a set of academic exercises without any real-world applications.

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Possible Solution: While not all the standards can be met through student-centered activities, many of them are open to more-meaningful demonstrations of mastery than the ones now specified in the English/language arts document. Here is a typical standard from the writing strand as presented for two different grades:

Grade 3: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

Grades 9-10: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

This standard could be met in both grades by having students write informational pieces for a parent newsletter, letters to a newspaper reacting to a published article, or simpler versions of an existing text for students in a lower grade. Even producing a poster advertising a school event would fit the expectations of this standard at the elementary and middle school levels. In almost all the writing standards, less specification of form and content would allow students to use a wider range of writing types for various purposes and audiences.

In the speaking and listening strand, the standards only call for group discussions and class presentations. What about mentioning improvisational drama, re-enactment of fables and folk tales, and choral poetry recitations? Moreover, the reading informational text strand includes only “historical, scientific, or technical text.” What’s wrong with having students read cookbooks, game instructions, biographies, and newspaper articles?

In presenting this critique, I do not claim to have identified all the problems in the English/language arts standards or to have offered the best possible solutions. Many other voices need to be heard, especially those of K-12 teachers, who were significantly underrepresented in the standards-development work group, and those of the college professors who served on a validation committee, but whose suggestions for changes were ignored. We also need to know what parents, businesspeople, and other citizens think of the standards. Polls show that the public is barely aware of their existence, much less their content. Finally, a mechanism for periodic review and revision of the standards needs to be established. Nothing is perfect the first time around.

What we have in the current English/language arts standards is a rigid, elitist view of the preparation students should have for college and career readiness. It was not based on research, not field-tested anywhere, and not supported by any evidence of international benchmarking. Until the standards can rightfully claim a solid foundation in all those areas and the involvement of all concerned parties, the teachers charged with teaching toward them, the students who must meet them, and the public schools to be held accountable for them will be no more than nonconsenting subjects in a risky experiment.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as How to Improve the Common Core

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