Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Confusion at the Core of the Core Standards

By Rafael Heller — August 20, 2010 6 min read
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There’s a lot to like about the new common-core state standards for the English language arts (released on June 2 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers).

Not only do they offer clear and concise descriptions of the kinds of reading and writing (and, though given less emphasis, speaking and listening) that students should be able to do at each grade level, but they also sidestep the bitter skirmishes over pedagogy and academic content that ruined the last effort to create national standards, two decades ago.

However, while they’re excellent as English language arts standards go, they never should have been called English language arts standards in the first place.

“English language arts” may be a familiar term, but it’s a strange one all the same. For starters, why have “English” and “language arts” been mashed together like this, when other academic subject areas (history, algebra, and chemistry, for example) have such straightforward names? How do those two pieces (often separated by an ambiguous slash mark, as in “English/language arts”) go together? Is there good reason to blend them into a single organizational unit, or does English language arts fail to cohere, like a department of justice motor vehicles?

These aren’t semantic games, mind you. They’re fundamental questions about the institutional status of language arts instruction in the schools—specifically, the middle and high schools, where academic departments come into play.

For decades now, secondary educators have fumbled along with no clear idea as to where language arts instruction fits into the curriculum, how it relates to literature, whether it belongs to a single department or cuts across several of them, and whose job it should be to provide it. When it comes to describing the goals of language arts instruction, the NGA and the CCSSO have done terrific work through their Common Core State Standards Initiative. But when it comes to deciding who should teach to those goals, they’ve left things as ambiguous as ever.

Why have 'English' and 'language arts' been mashed together like this, when other academic subject areas (history, algebra, and chemistry, for example) have such straightforward names?

Parents, policymakers, and even educators might take it for granted that language arts instruction belongs to the English department, but it’s not that simple. English teachers have always preferred to think of themselves as literature specialists. Literature is what they likely studied in college, literature drew them into teaching, and literature takes up most of their time and effort in the classroom.

Of course, that’s not true for everybody—thousands of English teachers give priority to language arts instruction—but it does appear to be the norm. As researchers have best been able to determine, most English teachers provide relatively little explicit reading and writing instruction, and to the extent that they do so, they tend to focus on the analysis of literary texts. If it’s their responsibility to teach a broader range of language arts, then it’s a responsibility that they’ve always downplayed, and which generations of school leaders have given them tacit permission to ignore.

As long as English teachers didn’t actually have to provide much reading and writing instruction, it was no problem to tack those things onto their job descriptions. But if today’s school reformers truly intend to make language arts a priority, they will have to rethink that departmental arrangement. It’s simply not realistic to expect full-time literature teachers to become full-time language arts teachers as well.

To an extent, the NGA and the CCSSO recognize that the burden cannot fall on the English department alone. Thus, they argue that other content-area teachers (in the social studies, sciences, and technical subjects, at least; math teachers are exempt, for reasons not fully explained) have a responsibility “to help students meet the particular challenges of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in their respective fields.” For example, history teachers should make it a priority to show students what’s distinct about the ways in which historians read and analyze documents.

That makes good sense. While those departments might balk at such new responsibilities, the assignment is both clear and reasonable. The standards don’t ask them to do the jobs of reading or writing specialists, but to teach their own subjects more effectively. If students need help making sense of their science textbooks and writing lab reports, for example, then that help should come from their science teachers, not from teachers who’ve been trained to read and write about literature.

But the rest of the English language arts standards raise more questions than they answer. A majority of them describe what the document produced by the coalition headed by the NGA and the CCSSO calls “general, cross-disciplinary literacy expectations” that belong to no subject area in particular. For example, one standard states that when 7th graders read any kind of informational text, they should be able to “[d]etermine [the] author’s point of view or purpose.” And another states that when 12th graders set out to write research papers, they should be able to “[g]ather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively.”

In short, a large portion of the standards presume that students should learn how to become good readers and writers in general, and that leads to a paradox: If academic departments are responsible for teaching only their own, subject-specific kinds of reading and writing, who will teach those general language arts skills?

The standards never say.

Perhaps they’re vague on principle, so as to leave it up to individual states and districts to decide which department should teach to which standards. That would be disingenuous, though, given that they’ve just argued that certain departments should provide certain kinds of literacy instruction and not others.

Moreover, they offer hints that they have the English department in mind. For example, they make passing reference to “ELA teachers” (which, like “biology teachers,” seems to imply a specific departmental affiliation). Further,under the heading of the English language arts, they include a whole section devoted to the reading of literature, which the English department is the only one equipped to teach. (It’s hard to imagine that very many science, math, or even history teachers are prepared to ensure that 11th and 12th grade students can “[d]emonstrate knowledge of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century foundational works of American literature.”)

But could the NGA and CCSSO really mean to say that it’s the English teacher’s job not only to provide literature instruction, but also to teach reading and writing in general, as well as argument, public speaking, listening, grammar, research methods, and more? How could English teachers possibly succeed in handling such a broad range of responsibilities, most of which lie outside their area of expertise? Moreover, doesn’t that give the English department an incoherent, two-part mission, defining it as both a discipline (specializing in literature) and not a discipline (teaching general communication skills)?

The NGA, the CCSSO, and their partners have succeeded in doing what they set out to do, creating thoughtful, well-written, politically viable guidelines describing the kinds of reading, writing, speaking, and listening that students should be able to do at each grade level. But if they truly believe that such things must be taught, they’ve made a fundamental mistake by assigning them to the vague catchall category of English language arts.

If it’s important to teach students to read critically, write effectively, make strong arguments, and speak with eloquence, then it must become somebody’s job to teach those things. And nobody can do that job well unless that person has a clear mission and organizational identity, the kind that comes with training, professional development, office space, and funding (all of which may have to come at somebody else’s expense, touching off inevitable conflicts). Whether they carve space out of English, form a separate department, or take on some sort of extradepartmental status, those assigned to teach the language arts will need more than just standards—they’ll need a room of their own.

A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Confusion at the Core of the Core Standards


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