Wednesday, September 30, 2009

10 Reasons you should care about the Common Core State Standards Initiative's Draft English Language Arts Standards

  1. Your state has probably already committed to using them.

    Every state except Alaska and Texas has made a signed commitment to use the English Language Arts Common Standards (key links listed at the end of this post) as at least 85% of their state English Language Arts standards.
  2. The federal Department of Education is exerting heavy pressure on states to adopt the Common Standards.

    By most experts' reading, participating in the Common Standards Initiative and adopting them as at least 85% of the relevant content area standards is a key criterion in the draft requirements for receiving grants from the $5 billion "Race to the Top" fund.
  3. An impressive and powerful list of partners and supporters are backing the Common Standards initiative.

    Endorsing partners include: American Association of School Administrators, Council of the Great City Schools, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Parent Teacher Association, Pearson, Scholastic Inc., Wireless Generation, and many more.
    According to the Initiative website, statements of support have been signed by: American Federation of Teachers (AFT), The College Board, The Education Trust, National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), National Education Association, National School Boards Association (NSBA), the U.S. Department of Education and others
  4. These "college- and career-ready" standards, if implemented, will become the basis of all subsequent K-12 English Language Arts standards.

  5. These standards, if implemented, will become the basis of all subsequent K-12 English Language Arts curriculum and assessments.

  6. The results of those assessments will, if implemented, be used to evaluate not just schools and students, but the performance of individual teachers.

  7. The creation of data systems to attach test scores to individual teachers is a basic requirement for federal Race to the Top grants and a top priority for the federal Department of Education and other powerful interests.

  8. But...

  9. The Common Core State Standards Initiative English Language Arts Standards are not actually English Language Arts standards.

    They are referred to as "English Language Arts" standards everywhere except the pdf of the full standards document, where they are called "Core Standards for Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening." You might think this is just more educational jargon or euphemism for "English," but the introductory paragraph indicates otherwise:

    The Core Standards identify essential college- and career-ready skills and knowledge in reading, writing, and speaking and listening across the disciplines. While the English language arts classroom has often been seen as the proper site for literacy instruction, this document acknowledges that the responsibility for teaching such skills must also extend to the other content areas. Teachers in the social and natural sciences, the humanities, and mathematics need to use their content area expertise to help students acquire the discipline-specific skills necessary to comprehend challenging texts and develop deep knowledge in those fields. At the same time, English language arts teachers not only must engage their students in a rich array of literature but also must help develop their students’ ability to read complex works of nonfiction independently.

    This could be more clear, but the most straightforward reading is that the authors of these standards regard them as defining cross-disciplinary, "disciplinary literacy" skills, not the scope of the discipline of English Language Arts itself.

    As George Constanza might say, "Not that there is anything wrong with that," literacy is important, but, as I have outlined above, there is a formidable weight of organizational, regulatory and financial weight behind the idea that states will adopt these as at least 85% of their English Language Arts standards. "Literacy" is not 85% of English Language Arts.

    Also note that these standards are specifically designed to not be the sole responsibility of English teachers, so any data system properly linking student performance on related tests to teachers would attribute the results to all subject area teachers.

  10. The Common Standards for English Language Arts are narrower, lower, and shallower than the Language Arts standards of high performing countries.

    Establishing "internationally benchmarked" standards is a key buzzword in the Common Standards initiative, Race to the Top regulations, and their larger discourse community. The idea that these English Langauage Arts standards are "internationally benchmarked" to those of high performing countries is a farce, except insofar as the benchmarking demonstrates the low level and quality of our proposed standards.

    No country with high reading scores in international assessments conceives of the discipline of Language Arts as being limited to literacy skills, or "college- and career-readiness," as the Common Standards do. Thus, the Common Standards are narrower, lower and shallower than the English Language Arts standards of high performing countries.

    Quantifying the limited range of the Common Standards compared to other countries is difficult to briefly explain, and it is my intent here to encourage you to explore both the Common Standards and the international standards they reference to come to your own conclusion. On the whole, my observation is that the Common Standards cover between one-third and two-thirds of the scope of the comparable Language Arts standards from other countries.

    For example, the Common Standards omit, but every high performing country cited includes, such fundamentals in the discipline of English as:

    • developing independent interpretations of texts;
    • literary criticism;
    • the concept of genre;
    • drama;
    • any student writing beyond explanations and arguments.

    That is just a sampling of the significant omissions from the Common Standards.

    England's Language Arts standards are structured similarly to the Common Standards, which makes for straightforward comparisons. For example, while the Common Standards have 18 Reading standards, by my count, they only cover half of the concepts in England's 14 reading standards. Specifically, the Common Standards do not cover:

    • recognise subtlety, ambiguity and allusion within sentences and across texts as a whole
    • select, compare, summarise and synthesise information from different texts and use it to form their own ideas, arguments and opinions
    • relate texts to their social and historical contexts and to the literary traditions of which they are a part
    • recognise and evaluate the ways in which texts may be interpreted differently according to the perspective of the reader
    • analyse and evaluate the impact of combining words, images and sounds in media, moving-image and multimodal texts.
    • analyse and evaluate how form, layout and presentation contribute to effect
    • compare and analyse the connections between texts from different cultures and traditions.

    The authors of the Common Standards document do diligently cite specific "illustrative international benchmarks," however in many cases, if you follow the links, what you find is that the proposed Common Standards are demonstrably lower and shallower than their cited benchmarks. It is so remarkably shameless it is worth an extended examination.

    The second of the proposed Common Standards for reading is:

    Support or challenge assertions about the text by citing evidence in the text explicitly and accurately.

    This is benchmarked to a set of international standards:

    1. Alberta, Canada: English Language Arts Curriculum Outcomes, 2003 (Grades 10‐12) (see 10/20/30 2.3.2.b and

      b. assess the appropriateness of own and others’ understandings and interpretations of works of literature and other texts, by referring to the works and texts for supporting or contradictory evidence

      a. form generalizations and synthesize new ideas by integrating new information with prior knowledge
      b. draw conclusions that are appropriate to findings, reflect own understandings and are consistent with the identified topic, purpose and situation
      c. support generalizations and conclusions sufficiently with relevant and consistent detail

    2. British Columbia, Canada: English Language Arts Integrated Resource Package, Prescribed Learning Outcomes, 2007 (Grade 12) (see B8)

      B8 explain and support personal responses to texts, by

      • making comparisons, associations, or analogies to other ideas and concepts
      • relating reactions and emotions to understanding of the text
      • developing opinions using reasons and evidence
      • suggesting contextual influences and relationships

    3. Ontario, Canada: The Ontario Curriculum, English, 2007 (see 1.4 &1.7, Grade 12 Reading & Literature Studies)

      1.4 make and explain inferences of increasing subtlety and insight about texts, including complex and challenging texts, supporting their expectations with well-chosen stated and implied ideas from the text

      1.7 evaluate the effectiveness of texts, including complex and challenging texts, using evidence from the text insightfully to support their opinions

    4. Victoria, Australia: Victorian Certificate of Education Study Design: English/English as a Second Language, 2007 (≈ Grades 11‐12) (see Unit 1, Outcome 1, Key Skill 4; Unit 3, Outcome 1, Key Skill 3)

      1.1.4. construct a response to a text, including the use of appropriate metalanguage to discuss the textual features and textual evidence to support the response;

      3.1.3. discuss and compare possible interpretations of texts using evidence from the text;

    In each of these cases, the benchmarked standards are richer and more complex, and situated within a broader set of interlocking goals. It is worth focusing on two unique features of the Common Standards version:

    1. The student is not asked to generate an interpretation, inference or assertion. To meet the standard it is sufficient to support or challenge, with evidence, an assertion provided by the teacher or test.
    2. The student is not asked to evaluate an interpretation or understanding, but merely an "assertion," which may simply be factual. For example, the assertion about the text could be "Copernicus argued that the Earth was the center of the universe." And this could be disproved by quoting "Nicolaus Copernicus was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe."

    This is by no means an isolated example. Look for yourself.

  11. We are inviting testing companies to determine the future of our schools with virtually no accountability or public input.

    These standards were developed by two testing companies, the College Board and ACT, with help from a nebulous non-profit, Achieve, Inc. It is essential to understand this when reading the Common Standards; it explains many of their odd choices. In the example above, the obvious interpretation is that they chose to define the standard as "support or challenge assertions" rather than "construct a response or interpretation," as every international example they cited did, because the former is much easier and cheaper to score reliably on a standarized test.

    No high performing educational system in the world would consider giving testing companies this much control over their standards and curriculum. It is absurd.

What should happen now?

A public comment period for the draft standards is going on now, it ends October 20. I encourage you to comment. A validation committee has been formed. It is very thin on the English and Language Arts perspective. It is difficult to guess how they might respond to the confusion over exactly what kind of standards they're being presented with. Perhaps the numerous literacy experts on the committee will relish quietly ending English Language Arts as a discipline in American schools. Sending emails directly to at least some members of this committee will probably be a good idea.

My take on the situation is that as long as all stakeholders, including the states and federal Department of Education can agree that these are not internationally benchmarked English Language Arts standards, but cross-disciplinary literacy standards, and that they should not be seen as supplanting the English Language Arts standards and curriculum, and the various relevant memos and regulations can be updated to reflect that fact, then everything will be ok. Either that or they need to start over and write actual English Language Arts standards.

Or we're just setting the stage for the next crisis in American educational standards, when people suddenly discover circa 2012 that our English Language Arts standards are scandalously lower than our global competitors'.


  1. Common Core State Standards Initiative Website:
  2. English Standards:
    Note that many of the handy links to benchmarked standards under "see evidence" don't point to the right place, so if you want to be complete you need to use...
  3. The full English standards PDF:
    The bibliography provides links to all the full documents for the relevant international standards.
  4. English Programme of Study for Key stage 4, 2007:
    England's standards make an easy point of comparison if you're curious about what actual benchmarked English Language Arts common standards might look like.
  5. Feedback form:
  6. Race to the Top:
    In case you don't believe me about 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 above.

About the author: Tom Hoffman has ten years of experience with English standards and standards based assessment, including classroom teaching, scoring writing assessments for the state of Rhode Island, implementing standards-driven school and curriculum refom, conducting research into the information architecture of standards-based assessment, and development and deployment of of data systems to track student achievement of standards. He has a Masters in Teaching English from Brown University.

Feel free to redistribute this document as you see fit as long as you include a link to the original:


Bill Kerr said...

"No high performing educational system in the world would consider giving testing companies this much control over their standards and curriculum"

(I'm not qualified to comment about English standards)

You have done your research and can argue the above but I think you should resist the temptation to present other countries standards in too much of a favourable light.

I just reread a book review I wrote in 1995 about how the top maths researchers in Australia were blatantly excluded from real input into our maths standards. (I'll republish it in the next few days). Our standards in South Australia in general are very crappy and pretty much despised, one problem being politically correct and fuzzy social constructivist motherhood statements. There are many ways to wreck the curriculum and waste teachers time.

Things can always get worse I suppose and my (superficial) impression is that you have built a strong case there. However, I wouldn't be surprised if my country follows yours in the race to the bottom, given that our Education Minister admires Joel Klein.

Tom Hoffman said...

Hi Bill,

It has become apparent to me that the problems of English Language Arts standards and Math/Science standards are utterly different. That's one reason this approach has spun off course so quickly -- all the strategy, analysis and rhetoric behind it is oriented toward real or perceived problems in math and science standards, not English.

Also, insofar as English has gotten broader attention by reformers, etc., this is aimed at elementary literacy. And, as you can see, they'd prefer to simply extend the literacy focus to secondary English, rather than considering it as a discipline.

Beyond that, there is still a significant difference between turning things over to pointy-headed theorists, which we've done plenty of times in the past as well (set theory in New Math, etc). But that's still a lot different than turning it over to testing companies. It is one thing to have your standards shaped by misguided idealism, it is another to have it shaped by the expediencies of test scoring.

Todd said...

In item 9 on your list, you discuss these standards as less rigorous when compared to international standards. I'm not sure that's the case and really think that we're all talking about the same set of skills. It's just a matter of how explicitly we unpack the step-by-step needed to reach that skill. What you see as more rigor in the international standards I see as simply being more explicit about what's needed to reach it.

Looking at that second standard for reading ("Support or challenge assertions about the text by citing evidence in the text explicitly and accurately"), I see in it just about all of the international standards it's benchmarked to. In order to support or challenge blah, blah, blah, the student will need to be able to do all those other things you show that Canada and Australia detail. So on the one hand we have standards that are far too specific, setting out items that *sound* really good but don't mean a whole lot. On the other hand we have standards that are so vague that they really don't help a teacher perform their job.

I worry when standards include words like "insightfully," "possible interpretations," and "sufficiently." Those are all open to interpretation and kind of defeat the purpose of having standards in the first place.

Yeah, this is how English standards are different than math and science standards. Every conversation I've been in at my district about standards and benchmarks for English have come from the argument that math and science are doing it so English should too. These conversations are headed by math-oriented folks and don't take into consideration the fundamental differences in the ways math, science, and English are taught and assessed.

Tom Hoffman said...


No, no, no. In the case of Common Core Reading standard #2, it is the CC standard which is the specific one. It is only about one specific action: "Support or challenge assertions about the text by citing evidence in the text explicitly and accurately." That is it.

There is a certain virtue in its clarity and objectivity, but it is also a much simpler task than the ones it is benchmarked to, which are not more specific, they are more general and open-ended.

In a sense, the question is, how important is clarity, specificity, objective assessment and testability? High performing countries do not limit the scope of their standards -- what they want students to know and be able to do -- based on ease of reliable testability.

Todd said...

You see, when I look at that CC standard I think about all the things I need to teach students in order to demonstrate that standard well. There is not a single thing that a student needs to do in order to demonstrate mastery of it. There are a lot of things that student needs to be able to do on that road to mastery. What comes to mind are all the things Canada and Australia list. But I'm also worried that all those standards listed are just pretty sounding things that don't really mean anything at all to the teachers or the schools. They make people feel good when rigorous standards are in place, but they don't really do anything to increase the quality of education. That's how I feel about a lot of our current standards.

And yes, I'm completely with you on the idea that we're in trouble if we let testing drive the way we phrase or think about our standards. Those standards aren't there for tests anyhow. That's not their purpose.

Lisa Nielsen said...

Thank you for sharing this Tom. Have you provided feedback to the common standards movement? How are you pushing your readers and others to do that? I think getting feedback from smart people like you and your readers could be powerful. I made a tinyurl of the link which is at I hope you will encourage others to provide feedback by the October 20th deadline. I have done so and I also wrote a post with excerpts from what you and some of the others are saying at

Lisa Nielsen, The Innovative Educator

ChemKGG said...

Hi Tom, I am a chemistry teacher in NYS and I am completing a Masters Project on the educational reforms sweeping our country. I value many of your blog philosophies and contributions. Whether in Rhode Island, or New York, what was wrong with the old learning standards? (If I had written,"Florida", that would have been a different story. But haven't our standards always been acceptable?)

Tom Hoffman said...

Some standards are better than others -- depending on your philosophy of education. I liked the old "New Standards" Rhode Island had 10 years ago. They were completely different, yet also supported by a lot of the same groups and academics so... ?

In most cases people seem to like comparing the Common Core standards to the old *tests*, but don't bother to compare them to their old standards.