Thursday, July 22, 2010

Common Core: Perhaps not the Worst

Considering how much I disagree with the Fordham Foundation on politics in general, educational philosophy and the role and purpose of academic standards, I find much to agree with in their new report, The State of State Standards--and the Common Core--in 2010.

Their criticisms of the Common Core ELA are often pointed:

In the following conventions standard, it is difficult to determine how a teacher would use this directive to drive instruction:

Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses(independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations (grades 9-10)

This standard implies that a writer can “add interest” simply by using different phrases and clauses. Most uninteresting sentences, by virtue of being sentences, have phrases and clauses. Sometimes, interest is much better generated with simple, straightforward language. Encouraging students to overcomplicate their sentences to make them seem more interesting seems like confusing, if not misguided, advice. Depending on the genre, word choice might, for example, be a better technique than sentence construction for “adding interest...”

Finally, the organization of the reading standards is hard to follow. They are organized into four categories: “Key Ideas and Details,” “Craft and Structure,” “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas,” and “Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity.” This framework creates a false sense of separation between inextricably linked characteristics, such as themes in a literary text (treated under “Key Ideas”) and point of view (treated under “Craft and Structure”). Since many kinds of texts, genres, sub-genres, and their characteristics are discussed in each category, it is also difficult to determine whether a logical sequence covering all of this important content has been achieved. What’s more, because the standards often offer a choice of genres to teachers, as in “Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact,” (emphasis added) coverage of essential genre-specific content is even harder to track. ...

...the organization of the reading strand, as well as the instances of vague and unmeasurable language, mean that the standards do not ultimately provide sufficient clarity and detail to guide teachers and curriculum and assessment developers effectively. ...

Where literary elements are mentioned, their treatment is spotty. CCR reading standard number three, for example, is a wide-ranging statement: “Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.” The grade-specific standards for literature in this category deal largely with the literary elements of plot, setting, and characterization, but not in a systematic progression across grades. Students are never asked, for example, to define plot, nor to identify the elements of a plot so that they would be capable of doing what the standards ultimately demand of them in the upper grades, such as this broadly worded—and ambitious—standard for grades 11-12:

Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama...(grades 11-12)

This seems like a fine skill for students to acquire and practice, but on closer examination, we can’t be sure which elements of the story or drama students should know and analyze: Symbolism? Characterization? Stage directions? How are teachers to ensure that sufficient attention is given to all literary elements over the course of twelve years if these are not specified and if no systematic treatment is afforded them? ...

One troublesome aspect of the writing standards is the persistently blurry line between an “argument” and an “informative/explanatory essay.” Appended material seeks to clarify the distinction, and summarizes by saying that “arguments are used for persuasion and explanations for clarification.” Yet not all explanations clarify (“because I said so!”) and not all arguments must be persuasive. An argument merely introduces, develops, and establishes a claim by providing evidence to support the claim, as in a literary analysis. Here, however, a literary analysis is not an argument; it is categorized as an informative/explanatory essay, which is arguably another category altogether. Still, if arguments here are all persuasive, then they should include the essential characteristics of persuasive writing in their description, such as a recommendation or call to action—and the category should in fact be called “persuasion.” As they are, these new definitions are likely to confuse teachers, curriculum developers, and publishers.

Nonetheless, Fordham scores the Common Core ELA standards a "B+." Certainly higher than me. While they score six sets of standards higher (California, Indiana, DC, Massachusetts, Texas and Tennessee), and five other tied with "B+," they prefer to describe it as 3 "clearly superior" and 11 "too close to call." We basically agree on which are the best ones -- particularly Indiana's.

Unlike Fordham, I've never been able to tolerate the idea that our (de facto) national standards would not at least be our best, or based on our best. Even better, based on the best in the world. And really, that's all I really need to say at this point.

Fordham's report does do a good job of convincing me that there are probably a dozen or two sets of standards kicking around that are truly hideous, even worse than the Common Core. I imagine I'd rank some D's as B's and vice versa, but I'm not going to sift through that pile of mediocrity.

However, if Mike Petrelli, Checker Finn and Tom Hoffman can all agree unambiguously that Indiana's ELA standards are better than the Common Core, why aren't we talking about using Indiana's standards? Why settle for seventh (at best)? Why not start with Finland's? What's the agenda, really?


Jason said...

The real agenda is to get the benefits both of high standards and of universal acceptance.

My guess is, with all things, there was a trade off between one to get the other.

It seems like only having 3 states with definitively better standards means that the "high standards" side lost a little, but not a lot to secure the universal acceptance.

Hopefully, even further critique will just serve to improve these standards. A benefit, and potential downfall, of one set of standards is that there's only one document to fight with to make things better for all kids.

Of course, standards have to translated to curriculum so I imagine the clarity and usability of these materials will go up considerably when that occurs.

Tom Hoffman said...

But in particular almost all the states had already signed up for and/or implemented Achieve's American Diploma Project graduation standards which, I'd argue, are as superior to Achieve's Common Core standards as Indiana's or California's.

And there isn't a significant difference in "rigor" or "height" between the top standards, including CC. It is more a difference in the quality of the implementation, the organization, the conceptual framework, the actual wording of standards, the precision of the examples. It is in these areas that CC falls down.

Of course, these things are beyond the perception of the politicians involved, so it isn't surprising that they don't notice, but teachers will. And you can't really change the wording of standards on a regular basis. We're stuck with them as is for 5 to 10 years.