Jumping into the Fray: Some Thoughts on the Common Core Standards

The first chapter of Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Chris Lehman‘s Pathways to the Common Core suggests that educators tend to view the Standards in one of two opposing ways: They either see them negatively, taking the stance of what the Pathways authors dub a curmudgeon, or they embrace the Standards positively as if, as they put it, they’re “gold.”

The authors thoroughly map out the reasons behind each side’s point of view, with ample evidence provided for both. Then they take the high-road and offer readers pro-active ways of working within the Common Core’s framework regardless of their take. But reading that chapter the other week, I found myself wondering which one I was, a curmudgeon or a happy camper who saw the Standards as gold.

Certainly there are many things I like about the Common Core. There’s a kind of elegance in its design and the way it builds and develops key skills as students move and spiral up the grades. And as readers of this blog might already suspect, I like the way the Publishers Criteria pulls back from some common classroom practices, such as automatically pre-teaching background knowledge and engaging in generic strategy instruction, in favor of close, attentive reading.

But here’s where my inner curmudgeon kicks in—though I think what prompts her to make an appearance is less about grumpiness than fear. I do see the Common Core as a positive corrective to instruction that has been focused on strategies that too often have been severed from the strategic end of meaning and that pull readers away, not deeper into, texts. But I worry that the Common Core shifts too far the other way, by virtually ignoring what the reader brings and, as seems evident from the Curriculum Exemplars which can now be found online, suggesting that a definitive ‘correct’ interpretation of a text can be arrived at through objective—and exhaustive—analysis.

As Pathways explains, this view of reading is based on a particular literary theory called New Criticism. Developed in the 1930’s and mostly taught in upper-level college English classes, New Criticism is one of a group of critical approaches and theories that includes Gender Studies and Reader-Response Criticism, among others. Some of these schools of thought have filtered down to primary and secondary classrooms where students use critical lenses to consider what a text might have to say about issues of power, stereotypes and fairness. A watered-down version of Reader-Response Theory also can been seen in many rooms where students are asked to connect to texts at a personal level. My hunch is, in fact, that the Standards also stand as a corrective to this watered-down version of Readers-Response, which often fails to adhere to the close reading aspect of the theory. But again, I fear, it goes too far in the other direction.

I’ll save some of my specific reservations about the New Criticism-based approach for another post. But I will say here that in sanctioning one approach over all others, the authors of the Standards seem to be violating one of the characteristics of college and career ready students: “Students appreciate that the twenty-first century classrooms and workplace are settings in which people from often widely divergent cultures and who represent diverse experiences and perspectives must learn and work together.”

Additionally a close reading of the Common Core material by a reader who “works diligently to understand precisely what an author is saying but also questions an author’s assumptions and premises” (as college and career ready students also must do) might come to the same conclusions I have: that the authors of the Common Core value dispassion over passion, analyzing over creating, product over process, and reason and logic over qualities like intuition and imagination.

That’s not to say that reason and logic aren’t important, but as writer and educator Tom Romano reminds us:

No matter what professions students enter, facts and analysis are not enough. If our decisions are to be both sound and humane, we need to understand emotion and circumstance, as well as logic and outcome.

I believe that weighing the scales so heavily in favor of analysis and logic risks turning schools into places that may support the future lawyers in our midsts, as they move from writing opinions to legal briefs, but do little to nourish the budding artists, social activists, scientists and inventors that fill our classrooms—let alone the readers and writers.

In “The Text Itself,” Tom Newkirk, author of the glorious book The Art of Slow Reading, thinks that the model of reading promoted in the Publishers Criteria and now embodied in the Curriculum Exemplars “creates a sterile and, in my view, inhumanly fractured model of what goes on in deep reading.” For my own part, I find myself also wondering where the next generation of exemplar text writers will come from if we revere arguments over all other kinds of writing and offer analysis as the only way of engaging with texts. And I don’t see how that model builds the kind of life-long readers who, according to the National Endowment of the Arts’ study Reading at Risk, are much more likely than non-readers to participate in the sort of civic life needed for a democracy to thrive.

Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be periodically looking at some specific aspects of the Common Core along with the instructional model it’s spawned in the Curriculum Exemplars. And I’ll try to offer alternative ways of meeting the Standards through a humane version of close reading that honors different perspectives without taking on the narrow and reactionary spirit that seems to inform some of the Standards’ auxilliary documents.

In the meantime, though, it’s worth recalling what Pathways to the Common Core reminds usthat embedded in the Standards “is the right for the teachers across a school or district to make decisions” about implementation. And we might also do ourselves a service to remember these words of Albert Einstein:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

5 thoughts on “Jumping into the Fray: Some Thoughts on the Common Core Standards

  1. Thanks once again for a marvelous post. I am eager to read more about how you think we can use the tools of the world we HAVE in order to transform it into the world we ENVISION.

    In the last several months, I have found good food in your ideas about close reading and its connection to deep thinking, and about “passion” in our work as teachers. These fit well with my experience as a teacher (and as a human!) and, as a result my internal conversation with your ideas, I am able to approach my work with greater focus and vigor! Wahoo!

    However, I was curious about your use of the reason v. intuition trope, and was hoping that there was another way of looking at the important issues you raise that might bring us out of a mess, rather than put us back in it a bit deeper. From your writing, I sense that you are grappling with this, too.

    My experience is not that kids (or adults) are unemotional or over-analyzing, or that we risk training them to avoid emotion. In fact, I see people embracing emotion all the time; the problem seems to come from not caring widely enough to think ever more deeply. (Climate change denial is one of the big examples on my mind now for several years of how some embrace the emotions of fear or tribe over other kinds of information!! Our political “tribalism” might be another way that we use emotions as a short circuit way of thinking.) When we talk about a dualism between reason and intuition I worry that it perpetuates a divide that won’t be productive in the end.

    I’m wondering if another, perhaps more productive, way would be to talk about a continuum of care, as in the consideration meaning of that word. What do we consider to be important? What do we consider when we make a decision? When we act? When we think of answers to problems? When we talk to others? Lawyers can care. Teachers can care. Politicians can care. Parents can care. Through our discussions we (possibly can) come to larger and larger understandings of what we consider is important. We rely less and less on shorthand (whether cost-benefit analyses, or an incommunicable “gut feeling.) The more we care, the more we consider, the more we care…and the more we are called to act on that care.

    Probably it isn’t enough to replace a reason v. intuition dualism with a caring v. uncaring one. Maybe we should assume all people are caring, and it is our job to find out what WE care about (what we consider important), and what THEY consider important, too. (A “close reading” of our own lives and the world, too??) We can and should discuss varieties of care, ideas about what is important with all sorts of people. I have seen that through those discussions we can make ourselves and our world just a bit larger, just a bit more humane.

    Just a response, and a, I guess, an out loud search. I suspect you and I are on the same page, and I hope I’m not being too pedantic.

    • So you know, a good friend of mine also raised similar concerns and worried that I was setting up an unhelpful us vs. them dichotomy, while another friend, who works with primary teachers and thinks the Standards are developmentally inappropriate for young children, thought I’d been too balanced and should have taken a harder stand. Personally, I welcome the Standards as a stand-alone document because, like you, I want the focus to be on thinking deeply to make meaning, in texts, the world and our own lives, and the Standards actually help me do that. The documents around the Standards, though, especially those written by David Coleman, make me worried about who’s meaning will be honored, the students’ or some outside authority’s that students are supposed to assume. And that’s what feels so very worrisome to me. (And I feel I’ve also revealed myself here are being a worry-wart!) And so, yes, I am grappling. But perhaps it’s important for things to get messy before they become neat and clear just to ensure that we’ve questioned and thought deeply and made the meaning ours. And having my own thinking questioned is a critical part of that, so apologies are needed. Your response made me wonder, though, whether somewhere between my intuition vs. reason and your caring vs. uncaring, we might both be happy with something that marries passion with discipline, which is how Karen Caine defines persuasive writing–and which manages to side-step the problematic ‘versus’. That feels close to what I’m after.

      • I share your worries about whose meaning gets honored, and how it is allowed to be constructed. Heck, I’m wondering about that from my own experience as a teacher as I see officials make sweeping statements (and policy decisions) about learning and teaching that run quite counter to my lived experience. And I have oh so much more power than do the children in the situation. If I’m feeling the boot, how will they be able to stay clear enough to do their own thinking and growing?

        I really like the passion AND discipline way of describing this position. I think that’s more closely describing what I’m trying to get at. I’m not a fan of dualism, I guess, but a huge fan of conversation. Heads and hearts form one entity. What moves our heart, spent at least some time in our head. What is in our heads, lives also in our hearts. Now, because of this conversation, I have some words to see this as a conversation, rather than a contest.

      • This exchange seems a testament to the power of talk (whether real or digital) to uncover new ideas that lead to clarity. So, yeah us! And just to clarify my earlier response, do know that I meant “no apologies are needed.” I live for the exchange of ideas and the push and pull that goes with that.

  2. Pingback: Either you are for us or against us: Pathways to the Common Core | seeingshadesofgray

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