As directed by the governors of almost all states—exceptions: Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia—experts in state departments of education have combined to create the Common Core State Standards in English and mathematics. Anything with widespread participation captures attention. Anything with general agreement ensures reception. What dissent from a national consensus on educational standards by educational experts is possible?
Yet such efforts cannot escape the prevailing culture or the conventional wisdom of their time and place. Education, notorious for fashions and fads like open classrooms, the New Math, and whole-word reading, is no exception. The introduction explains that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) distill current state standards and policy-based research. Unfortunately, in education, state standards follow fashion, and research endorses fads before independent experts have collected or analyzed data on, or implemented, them—the educators’ version of “shoot first; ask questions later.” Typically, the CCSS statement does not identify or address any problem to which it presents itself as a solution and thus provides no context for its standards.
My review of the CCSS proceeds from general issues to issues raised by the English “standards” to specific details in English. The devil is not only in the details, but also in the design; indeed, he is everywhere.
For starters, the CCSS statement is misleadingly labeled. The CCSS are not standards for, but the specifications of, curriculums. In English, they are organized into grade-by-grade, subject-area divisions: reading (literature, informational text, foundational skills), writing, speaking & listening, and language. They articulate, categorize, and sequence the information and skills deemed pertinent and important to the subject the English curriculum. Except to avoid any suggestion of national—easily misconstrued as federally imposed—curriculums, the CCSS should be labeled something like “State Consortium for a Shared Curriculum.”
I repeat: the “standards” are not standards. Properly understood, a standard is a measure of a level of attainment or quality, according to a quantitative measurement or a qualitative judgment. In English, measurement is rare; judgment, common. A teacher grades students’ performance according to a judgment well or poorly trained. Unless the teacher is competent and clear, students seldom understand the teacher’s judgment and try guessing or mind-reading to figure out “what the teacher wants.” The “standards” do not establish measures which can improve a teacher’s judgment or instruction.
The “standards” do not specify levels of attainment or quality, but prescribe performances indicated by a verb. Since performances vary from good to bad, they require the teacher’s diagnosis and judgment of their merits and demerits. Only the diagnosis, not any grade reflecting judgment, is instructive. However, “standards” do not assist teachers with, or acknowledge the difficulties of, diagnosing and judging performances reliably and helpfully. Teachers can be helped, not by having a manual of “standards,” but by receiving training by recognized masters in the field.
The introductory discussions in the CCSS statement present numerous problems. The “Mission Statement” makes clear that the statement concerns curriculum. Its first sentence reads: “The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” That is, the statement indicates that the “standards” are about “what,” not how well, students learn.
Notwithstanding, the statement is flawed. First, it is not a mission statement, which should state not what the CCSS do (“provide”), but what their goals or purposes are. Second, it implies that the standards establish expectations about student learning in school, but many specify knowledge and skills learned outside, even before, school. Third, it avoids the correlative of learning, namely, teaching. Teachers and parents “help” students; they do not teach them. By implication, teachers can shirk some responsibility for teaching and shift some of it to parents. Yet it remains the primary responsibility of publicly funded schools to serve both students and their parents. This statement dilutes an understanding of the responsibilities of schools and teachers to teach and deliver.
The discussion introducing “The Standards” is no better. Its only substantive statement reads: “The Common Core State Standards focus on core conceptual understandings and procedures starting in the early grades, thus enabling teachers to take the time needed to teach core concepts and procedures well—and to give students the opportunity to master them.” This statement has three deficiencies.
One, it is false; it lists specific items of knowledge or skill, nothing resembling “core conceptual understanding and procedures,” terms impressive but not defined. Two, the claim of its dangling modifier is false. The “focus on core conceptual understandings and procedures” cannot enable “teachers to take the time to teach them “well.” Because the “standards” set no measures of a level of attainment or quality of anything, they make it impossible for teachers to know whether they are teaching these “core concepts and procedures well.” Three, though it uses the verb “teach,” the statement presents teaching as giving “students the opportunity to master” these “core concepts and procedures.” It suggests that teachers act like facilitators, with the work of education thereby shifted to the students. Whatever one thinks of the various issues involved in teacher evaluation, the effort to shift responsibility from teachers to students (and parents) muddles, or reduces the importance of, teacher evaluation.
The first of the “Frequently Asked Questions” and its answer suggest a lack of realism about what standards or curriculums can do. The question is: “What are educational standards?” The answer is: “Educational standards help teachers ensure their students have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful by providing clear goals for student learning.” In answering a question requiring a definition with a description of presumed results, the experts offer a statement of absolute nonsense. They seem not to know that the nature of teaching makes it impossible for “standards” to “help teachers ensure” anything, much less “that students have the skills and knowledge” for success.
One practical point ensures the failure of Common Core State Standards. Those who drafted, approved, or adopted them assume that subscribing states have the resources—in particular, the money—and the long-term commitment—in particular, one for, say, a decade—to implement, evaluate, and modify them. The assumption is implausible. The likely result will be another set of insufficiently supported state mandates jerking local educators around yet once again—and another round of fault-finding and scapegoating, some to discredit or impugn people trying hard, some to denigrate public education, some to promote privatization of education.
Because the English standards are not carefully structured, some appear, disappear, and reappear without rhyme or reason. In the second grade, students are directed or expected to “Use reflexive pronouns (e.g., myself, ourselves)”; in the sixth grade, they are directed or expected to "Use intensive pronouns (e.g., myself, ourselves)"; the four-year separation makes no apparent sense. Rarely do the English “standards” indicate that students learn the terminology of formal grammar and never do they require grammar as a tool to analyze their writing and improve it (other than avoiding some common errors).
Two “standards” from the “language” division for the eighth grade show typical defects. One—students “Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences”—is an instruction, not a standard. The teacher judges what constitutes an explanation, what makes it good or bad, and why.
The explanation requires definitions of gerunds, participles, infinitives: words which function respectively as nouns; adjectives; or nouns, adjectives, or adverbs; and analyses which show how they function in sentences. The extension of this “standard” to other elements of language would be tantamount to directing students to parse or diagram sentences—not a bad idea, but such “standards” would then imply a method of grammar instruction. Clearly, some “standards” are euphemisms for traditional terms of content or means of instruction; perhaps, straight talk would be better. People who believe in “basics” would be pleased, and those who want to understand what schools teach and how would be satisfied.
Two—students “Form and use verbs in the active and passive voice”—is a description, not a standard. Instead of judging this performance, the teacher needs only observe students’ speech or writing for such verbs.
Like others, this “standard” does not indicate what the school teaches. Bad enough that it merely requires eighth-grade students to do what preschoolers already do. Thus, worse that it does not imply that students at this grade know what “verbs” or “voice” are, or what, as voices, “active” or “passive” means. Like others, this “standard” does not expect the teacher to impart knowledge or skill. Because many “standards” of performance do not differentiate between what students learn out of school and what they learn in school, they do not identify the value-added contribution of public schools to student education.
So much for the CCSS “language” component; now for the “literature” component. Everything about it reflects ignorance about, or indifference to, literature as an important, and potentially interesting and enjoyable, part of education. Almost all of the “standards” involve empty formalities of dreary literary analysis of different genres.
The “standards” do not describe what the common core of literature should be in students’ English education. The only specific works or writers mentioned are the Bible, Shakespeare, and Ovid (Ovid?). One standard mentions reading a play by any American dramatist. According to an eleventh- or twelfth-grade standard, students are expected to “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.” Meeting this standard would likely mean identifying the author and title, telling the plot, naming the characters, and stating the themes. If so, the experts seem unaware that such “knowledge” is available in paperback digests for dummies. They also seem unaware that acquiring such “knowledge” is not a goal of the study of literature.
The curriculum for literature is woefully inadequate. Incredibly, the experts exclude the “foundational works” of the seventeenth century. If they read no such works by Puritan writers, they cannot understand the Puritan influence on later literature and on American history. No standards require study of “foundational works” of English literature (other than Shakespeare) or of major works of literature from yet other cultures and countries (think Cervantes). The absence of such standards signals literary parochialism, possibly racial or ethnic bias, and, more generally, cultural barbarism.
The final judgment of these Common Core State Standards in English must be a harsh one. They pool and proliferate pre-existing confusion, incompetence, and conformity of state bureaucrats and politicians. They unrealistically imply long-term state funding to support school districts and educators. They imply that teachers can, do, or should shirk, share, or shift responsibility. They reflect ignorance of, indifference to, or a lack of focus on the essentials of education. They offer a selective and unstructured, not a comprehensive and systematic, curriculum. They do not make clear what common-core education in English—classes read different works and writers—schools are supposed to deliver and how teachers (or others) are supposed to know whether they have succeeded or failed in their teaching, and how they can improve. And in pretending to be what they are not, these English “standards” reflect the traditional muddle in this subject which continues to baffle teachers and leave students still wondering what their teachers want. In the end, this conglomeration of the conventional wisdom defines no standards for, or curriculum of, an English education worth the trouble.