Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is concerned about reading instruction in the Common Core State Standards. More specifically, he is concerned that the standards will be perceived as demanding exclusivity of close reading in the classroom which will lead to damage both to the standards and to reading achievement. Mr. Pondiscio does not seem to hold the criticisms of the standards in much esteem, but he is sensitive to the potential for close reading to be overused in classrooms trying to align themselves with the CCSS English Language Arts standards. Teachers who try to use the standards to stamp out students’ prior knowledge, experiences and preferences are on a fool’s errand. Mr Pondiscio writes:
In a recent piece on RealClearEducation, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham rightly takes exception to a common interpretation of close reading. “We will read the text as though we know nothing about the subject at hand; the author’s words will be not only necessary for our interpretation, we’ll consider them sufficient.” Says Willingham, “That seems crazy to me.”
It doesn’t just seem crazy. It is crazy. It’s impossible not to bring your prior knowledge to reading. It’s like being told, “Don’t think of a pink elephant!” It’s suddenly hard to think of anything else.
Writing is not interpretive dance. When authors commit words to paper, they do so expressly to create associations in the reader’s mind. As Willingham notes, “Writers count on their audience to bring knowledge to bear on the text.” Students may lack background knowledge to fully appreciate a work of literature or an historical document. But it does no good whatsoever to keep them in a state of ignorance on purpose, let alone make a virtue of it. If teachers are being told that close reading means telling students to disregard all their prior knowledge, they’re being given bad advice.
Now let me state very clearly, that Mr. Pondiscio is quite correct on this (although I am unsure about the interpretive dance metaphor). It is impossible to read without reliance on prior knowledge, personal experience, and personal preferences. Literacy is a rich and often unpredictable interplay between the reader and the text, and within classroom settings, a range of other readers and a teacher mediator. When a reader approaches a text, the ensuing transaction incorporates the reader’s knowledge of genre, audience, and textual features, the reader’s knowledge of other texts, the reader’s knowledge of society, culture, and history, the reader’s experiences in the world, the reader’s aesthetics preferences, and the reader’s sense of an author’s purpose in having written. Further, readers do not merely set about the task of understanding and interpreting a text. Readers create personal relationships with texts of widely various qualities. Does my daughter see qualities of herself in Hermione Granger? Does she fear for Harry Potter’s safety as he breaks the school rules trying to help his friends? Does she empathize with Ron Weasley’s insecurities as he compares himself to others? The answers to these questions (largely affirmative, by the way) impact not only how she understands the story, but also it impacts how she responds emotionally to it.
So yes, students will have to bring a variety of resources to their reading in a Common Core aligned curriculum just as all readers do with or without a curriculum.
But I am afraid that the standards, despite Mr. Pondiscio’s assurances that they do not intend this, provide so little room for anything other than close, textual reading that far too few classes will find the space and time to make reading more than exercises in close reading. I have written on this at length before, and I stand by the concerns I laid out last month. As written, the CCSS ELA standards purpose reading literature towards the textual analysis skills necessary for writing a successful piece of literary criticism in a college level English class, and then the standards backwards engineer that goal all the way to Kindergarten. While this goal is not bad on its own, it is the exclusive goal embodied in the standards. From grade 12 to Kindergarten, students are set about the read closely and to determine meaning from the text with no overt recognition of what resources students bring to their reading or to what purposes one might read other than to pry meaning from the text. While I believe that Mr. Pondiscio is correct that reading so narrowly is impossible for lay readers, I cannot find overt room for readers to bring to bear all of their knowledge and dispositions to texts within the standards. Mr. Pondiscio is concerned that an over emphasis on close, textual reading will harm the standards and will harm reading achievement. I am concerned that such an over emphasis is baked right into the standards themselves.
Interestingly enough, the likelihood that the standards were written to embody a single perspective on literary analysis was one that I postulated based upon what I know about the standards’ chief architect, David Coleman and his likely literary interests based upon how the standards turned out. This was, inadvertently, confirmed by Michael Petrilli, President of the Fordham Institute, in a Twitter discussion with New York Principal Carol Burris:
On their own, however, this narrow perspective would merely mean that the CCSS ELA standards are woefully narrow in how they envision students’ reading, but that would not necessitate the dreaded “over emphasis” on textual reading without attention to experience, culture or history.
However, the Common Core State Standards did not come to classrooms on their own. They were super glued to a set of accountability measures and incentives that take the form of Common Core aligned mass standardized testing and teacher evaluations tied to students’ yearly progress in those tests. Setting aside questions about the developmental appropriateness of the early grade standards and tests (of which there are many), the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) provides sample questions of reading items at different grade levels, and they are, unsurprisingly, aligned with the standards’ intense focus on digging through a text for specific evidence of meaning contained within the text itself. Left to its own devices, even the PARCC examinations would be a lengthy exercise in testing a relatively narrow band of reading skills that most middle and high schoolers will find uninteresting. However, when coupled with value added measures of teacher effectiveness and when coupled to the tests and the accompanying drops in student proficiency, teachers have legitimate and compelling reasons to focus their instruction on the skills validated by the tests.
The Common Core reading standards have two powerful problems from the perspective of teaching children to appreciate a rich and multifaceted approach to reading, enjoying, and interpreting texts. The first is the tightly delineated null curriculum embedded in the reading standards. What is left out of the standards is powerful precisely because they make absolutely no mention of them, and because they repeatedly draw readers back to close textual reading in standard after standard. A teacher conversant in literacy theories (not to mention literary critical perspectives less dependent on restricting oneself to the text) has no choice but to notice this absence and to conclude the standards privilege training students to be literary critics first.
Most English teachers that I know have something of a subversive side to them, and I fully expect that they will go beyond the strictures of the CCSS when possible. “When possible” is a giant question mark, however, given the Sword of Damocles that accompanies the standards and aligned testing: value-added models of teacher effectiveness. When rated as ineffective, a teacher can be denied promotion and tenure or can be removed from teaching regardless of tenure. Given that even the American Statistical Association has warned that VAMs are unreliable and that teacher input explains only a small percentage of student variability on tests, the time that teachers may feel free to go beyond the standards’ narrowness could easily be “never.” Even working with advanced students is not necessarily a guarantee of a favorable VAM assessment as was demonstrated by the experiences of Carolyn Abbott in New York City, whose gifted seventh and eighth grade math students got standardized test scores that labeled her as the LEAST effective teacher in New York City in 2011, even though all of her students who took the Regents Integrated Algebra exam, a high school level examination, in January of that year passed, a third of those passing with 100%.
Reading well and with passion, anywhere, requires everything that Mr. Pondiscio notes, and more. However, if he wants to save the Common Core reading standards, he needs to do more than advocate for not forgetting everything that goes into genuine reading. He needs to advocate that the standards be permanently decoupled from the toxic mix of testing and teacher evaluations that take their inherently narrow focus and demand that teachers produce students who can perform within that focus — or else.