At the end of April, Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss wrote in her Answer Sheet blog that the Harley Avenue Primary School in the town of Elwood, N.Y. recently canceled its annual Kindergarten play so they could dedicate more time to making certain the children are prepared for “college and career.” The cancelled show was to be performed in the middle of May, and a letter to parents explaining the rationale was dated April 25th of this year – so there is little chance that this is actually an elaborate April Fool’s prank. In the text of the letter, the school told parents:
The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.
A Kindergarten play. Canceled. Because Kindergarten children need to be prepared. “For college and career.” And the play would taken too much time away from THAT.
We can certainly start with the obvious – for five year olds, putting on a play DOES help them learn “valuable lifelong skills.” Working together, learning dialogue and songs, taking direction, expressing themselves, pushing their boundaries, taking risks — in what possible universe are these not fantastic learning experiences for Kindergarten children? If there is a better recent example of missing the forest for the trees, I haven’t seen it.
New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.
Very young children need play. This is hardly in dispute. But in recent years, there has been increasing focus on test based performance by third grade that has created pressure to ensure children are “ready” by increasing academics in earlier and earlier grades. While very young children are capable of learning skills and knowledge that will feed into academic performance later on, they need to learn it in ways that actually meet their needs. By the time a Kindergarten class cannot spare the time to put on a show — which, incidentally, will teach the children a lot – because of pressure to focus on “college and career” readiness, then something is horribly, horribly wrong.
It is also bizarre that a community like Elwood would feel this kind of pressure. According the United States Census, 47.9% of the community residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with statewide number of 33.7%. Median household income in Elwood is $108,401 compared to a statewide median of $58,687, and only 2.7% of the population lives below the federal poverty line while the average is 15.6% statewide. The median value of owner occupied homes in Elwood is $478,300 while the statewide median is $283,700. Elwood also compares favorably to Suffolk County on Long Island as a whole. In Suffolk County, 37.5% of the population has a B.A. or higher, the median household income is $88,323, and the median home value is $376,800.
So – we have a small town. Better educated, wealthier, and performing better on state assessments than other communities in its county and state. But they cannot spare time in Kindergarten to put on a play. And while this example has raised many eyebrows, it goes without question that the high stakes environment has taken an even heavier toll on minority students in the form of narrowed curricula and ever increasing pressure to teach to the test. Sadly, we knew this even before No Child Left Behind was passed as evidence from the so-called “Texas Miracle” showed diminished quality in education at all schools, but especially at Latino majority schools. Our ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged students were the canaries in the coalmine showing us how high stakes testing diminishes educational quality. By the time towns like Elwood are figuring it out, we’ve pretty well killed every canary we have.
Something else stands out here as well. Administrators in Elwood have taken significant flack from all sorts of critics for both canceling the show and then for justifying it on the grounds that those tiny Kindergarten kids need to be subjected to more rigor and more college and career readiness. And yet, those administrators did not invent the policy environment they work within. In today’s zero sum game of education as competition, perhaps Elwood’s administrators are looking around at the nearby schools that “outrank” them and figuring they need to up their game in order to look good enough. The pressure to think like that is not exactly new, but recently it has increased dramatically, and three men bear far more responsibility for that than the public school administrators in Elwood:
So if Kindergarten children in Elwood, New York cannot have a play because they need to be “college and career ready,” we should aim our disgust at the people who invented that phrase and made 50 million school aged children chase it without a single public debate on the issue.
ADDENDUM: When the article from The Washington Post was forwarded to me, I failed to notice that it was dated from April of 2014. Unfortunately, as an Elwood parents affirms in the comments, the annual Kindergarten play has not been reinstated. I hope the children of Elwood get a return to sanity in the near future.
Three months ago, I wrote about the very narrow theoretical perspectives that appear to inform the Common Core Reading Literature standards from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and I followed it in October with an exploration of how the incentive systems written into the Race to the Top grant programs are likely to lock in a very narrow reading of the already narrow standards. This entry takes a look at those same Reading Literature standards and posits what possibilities and pitfalls await young readers as the potentially learn reading via these standards. This is speculative and highly dependent upon a certain degree of fealty to the Common Core State Standards project that is not precisely guaranteed. However, in all of the discussions on the process and content of the CCSS English Language Arts standards, I’ve seen little that takes these standards and posits what they would mean in classroom implementation for teachers approaching literature instruction using them.
I want to open by stating that people I admire think that aspects of the CCSS ELA standards have potential, and it would be a mistake for any opponent or advocate to assert that the literacy acquisition standards are entirely with or without merit. In any complex endeavor such as the adoption of common standards for the ELA, there will be conflicting views of the research and developmental appropriateness of the standards. Regardless, the International Reading Association (IRA) has taken a stance of what I would call cautious optimism that, if implemented correctly, the CCSS ELA standards have strong potential especially in literacy acquisition, fluency, and vocabulary development. Throughout the chapters in the linked book, authors offer hopeful visions of what teachers could accomplish with the standards, but also sound cautionary notes about the need for development, education, quality materials, and systems that do not narrow what teachers are doing. P. David Pearson of the University of California at Berkeley notes:
Teacher prerogative and the comprehension model, two assumptions that are strongly represented in the standards and clearly based on research, will not, in my view, be implemented with a high degree of fidelity because the guidelines in the Publisher’s Criteria (Coleman & Pimintel, 2011) are likely to undermine the standards as they are written. Only if schools can resist these guidelines and stay true to the version of the standards in the original document do we have a hope of a high fidelity implementation of what we know about reading comprehension and about teacher learning within school change efforts.
He goes on to state that he still supports the standards because he believes they are an overall improvement because they are “the best game in town”, a hope that they can be used as a “living document” that can reflect best research knowledge, and his reading of the research literature on reading and comprehension supports that the standards are a “move in the right direction.”
I should note that I know Dr. Pearson personally, having studied with him in graduate school, and I have a deep admiration for his body of work and his perspective. I also note that the qualifications he has made on his endorsement are striking to me because given the policy environment that surrounds CCSS most of his cautions, just like the cautions of his fellow authors for the IRA volume, are being plainly ignored in states that adopted CCSS alongside the high stakes testing and teacher evaluation models based upon them. Further, while the questions of early literacy acquisition and text complexity are worthy of continued discussion, I remain convinced that the CCSS ELA standards on reading are so text-centric that questions of student engagement and the very purpose of a complete English Language Arts curriculum remain woefully underdeveloped as the nation moves into full implementation of the standards.
Blogger Peter Greene took the CCSS chief architect, David Coleman, to task recently in a response to an essay entitled “Cultivating Wonder” where Coleman, who has never studied early or adolescent literacy and who has never taught in a secondary ELA classroom, posits the “proper” way that teachers can inspire students to engage deeply with texts with “good questions.” Greene shrewdly notes that Coleman’s perspective on reading literature is so tightly confined to reading within the “four corners” of a page that he misses that Shakespeare’s lack of stage directions is a likely byproduct of the playwright being present at productions himself, and he misses aspects of Shakespeare’s story telling craft that are common across his plays. Professor Nicholas Tampio of Fordham University goes further than Greene, postulating that Coleman’s approach to reading does not prepare students for college because his intense focus on what is just in the text limits students from being able to make insights within and across texts, and preparing them to be graded by software:
As a professor, of course I demand that my students provide evidence to support their arguments. Coleman’s pedagogical vision, however, does not prepare students for college. He discourages students from making connections between ideas, texts or events in the world — in a word, from thinking. Students are not encouraged to construct knowledge and understanding; they must simply be adept at repeating it.
His philosophy of education transfers across disciplines. After analyzing literary passages, he observes, “Similar work could be done for texts … in other areas such as social studies, history, science and technical subjects.” Like a chef’s signature flavor, Coleman’s philosophy of education permeates the myriad programs that the College Board runs.
Computers can grade the responses generated from his philosophy of education. Students read a passage and then answer questions using terms from it, regardless of whether the text is about history, literature, physics or U.S. history. The Postal Service sorts letters using handwriting-recognition technology, and with a little tinkering, this kind of software could seemingly be used to score the SAT or AP exams.
Grading writing by computers is probably a long way off, but taken together, both Peter Greene and Professor Tampio’s critiques highlight that David Coleman’s reading perspective is narrowly confined to the “four corners” of the page of text which, when coupled with high stakes testing and teacher evaluations based on testing, will likely produce students responding narrowly, citing small segments of text, in ways that will fall into predictable patterns.
Looking at the CCSS 11-12th grade Reading Literature standards, we can see the boundedness that Peter Greene calls the “four corners of the page” because even in standard number 7 which deals with “multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem” the language of the standard draws readers immediately to evaluate “how each version interprets the source text” with no indication how it is that different actors, designers, and directors might come to various stagings of a play as representative of time, place, and audience; the analysis remains text bound. The other anchor standards are similarly bound, with standard 1 calling on students to “Cite strong textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly, as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain;” standard 2 stating students will “Determine two or more central themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text;” standard 3 requires students to “Analyze the impact of author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g. where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed); standard 4 requires students “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful;” standard 5 puts students to work to “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g. the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact; and standard 6 says that students will “Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meany (e.g. satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).”
I do not have enormous difficulties with much of this. The Reading Literature standards for the upper grades of high school outline a tightly textual approach to analysis that, if done well, could train college bound students in the kind of “text as puzzle” thinking that is often rewarded in introductory level college courses. The standards require students to support their statements about the meaning of the text with “strong” evidence from the text, and they set students both to understand the tools of text that authors employ when writing and to speak and write analytically about those tools. It seems very likely to me that a student armed with a mastery of these Reading Literature tools would be capable of crafting spoken and written arguments that would satisfy the grading criteria of many introductory college English courses.
But (and you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) this remains a narrow vision of what an English Language Arts curriculum can be. For example, the standards make frequent notice of Shakespeare, and Mr. Coleman’s “Cultivating Wonder” essay includes a pass at making students “wonder” at Hamlet, but can one truly imagine a English Language Arts classroom bounded by just the tools needed to write a competent college English essay? It is not that those tools are unimportant, but given the Sword of Damocles hanging over teachers via assessment, can they expand their vision of powerful engagement with literature outside of those tools? I have my doubts, and I have my doubts that David Coleman sees that engagement as important.
However, most English teachers I have known would agree that it is critically important. Hamlet, for example, even for students in a college preparatory curriculum, is far more than a textual puzzle to be picked apart and analyzed to determine if Shakespeare believes that Hamlet has actually lost his mind or if the scholarly and dickering Hamlet is actually ill-suited to rule compared to the villainous but capable Claudius, the noble and active Laertes, or the militaristic and decisive Fortinbras. It is a play worth reading and performing because it holds up an uncomfortable mirror to our own human failings, and it asks ourselves what we value in our most human of endeavors, seeking understanding of our place in the continuity of human experience. And that is because the English Language Arts are much more than tools for advancement to the next phase of education or economic obtainment; they are an exploration of the richness and power of language, which ranks with religion and art as the most universally deployed tools for understanding ourselves. William Shakespeare has not survived for four continuous centuries of reading and production because his works provide interesting textual puzzles for essays; he has surveyed because he remains one of the English language’s greatest instructors in the meaning of being human.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Coleman, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Also troubling is that the Common Core way of reading literature makes no express acknowledgement of what we know about sophisticated reading in adolescent literacy. There is no mention of students reading intertexually, using what they know from other texts and applying it to create nuances in the meaning of what they are currently reading. Nor can one tease out an understanding of the processes by which a student reads in order to make sense of how they will use the close reading perspective so privileged by the standards themselves. Before a student can deploy the directives of the standards to create a piece of close reading analysis, that student will first need to read and comprehend, and as demonstrated in the Rosenblatt text I’ve linked to, that is a layered process that deploys an incredible number of resources both inside and outside of the text. This cannot be emphasized enough: it does not matter that the lesson is directed at citing “strong textual evidence” in order to substantiate a point about the text, if the lesson does not allow for the face that two different readers will be drawn to different points and different “strong textual evidence” depending upon factors that exist entirely outside of the text itself.
It is not that teachers and readers cannot acknowledge that reality within the confines of the standards; it is, however, something they will have to acknowledge entirely on their own because the Reading Literature standards provide no vision of a reading process.
If teachers were holding that perhaps this tightly contained vision of the ELA was restricted to upper secondary levels, it looks like that hope is in vain. The first three Reading Literature standard looks like this in 8th grade:
Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
And like this in 5th grade:
Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).
And like this in 3rd grade:
Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
Even in Kindergarten, children who are not yet fluent are tasked with being little reading detectives:
What is striking in this backwards engineered set of reading standards is not what is included, but what is excluded and how it remains excluded (and how it cannot help but remain excluded given that states agreed to add no more than 15% of their own material to the standards upon adoption). I have no problem with Kindergarten students having reading discussions with teachers to practice recall and retelling. I have no problem with 3rd graders asking questions that can demonstrate whether or not they comprehended what they read. There is no harm in a 5th grader being asked to locate where in a text he or she developed a particular idea about the text or in an 8th grader honing that skill into a more formal tool. None of these things harm children, and for those on a path to a four year liberal arts education, the end goal is defensible.
But what is left out absolutely harms them.
What is left out is an understanding of both reading as a process to be fostered and developed over the lifetime of a reader, and what is left out is also any reason for reading that strays from that eventual college English 1 essay and into the multitude of reasons why people read. As written, these Reading Literature standards would make at least somewhat subversive a teacher who asked students to consider why certain features of the text attracted their attention, who asked students how a piece of reading made them feel initially, who asked students to place authors and literature in the context of place and time to see them as social commentary, who connected works of literature to other works of art, who asked students to connect the text to other pieces of literature except to delve into the author’s use of allegory, who explored the role of literature in the history and sociology of a culture…all of these can only be squeezed into the standards after the total fidelity to close textual reading has been duly observed.
And with the policy system that is currently in place, I fear many teachers will have no idea how to find the space for all of the other purposes for reading literature. I can think of few tactics more likely to DISCOURAGE a lifelong relationship with reading outside of the classroom.
I’ll take my A on that essay now, Mr. Coleman. Can I have my Tolkien back, please?
In September of 1981, I was beginning seventh grade in the suburbs of Boston. Our junior high school, catching on to the growing home computing revolution, had purchased approximately 20 Tandy Corporation model 3 TRS-80s which we referred to as “TRaSh 80s”. Our class was enrolled in a half year long computing course that aimed to teach us to program using the BASIC computer programming language developed by Dartmouth Professors John Kemeny and John Kurtz in the 1960s. The course was intended to familiarize us with the concepts of computer programming in an economy that saw more and more computer presence in everyday life via the home computers developed in the late 1970s. However, our teacher introduced the “need” for us to learn programming in a singular manner. In the 1970s and 1980s, many popular media sources played on fear of Japan’s perceived economic power as an industrial and technological powerhouse and corresponding perceptions of American decline to place our nation in an almost existential competition with our ally for economic security.
So our computer teacher told us that we needed to program because “in the future, everyone will need to know how to program computers,” and he layered it with a patriotic appeal that if we did not learn to program that Japan would “take over everything.” I won’t claim a sophisticated understanding of the global economy and politics at the age of twelve, but I immediately questioned his assessment. As I looked at my computer screen with a five line program on it, I spoke up and announced that I did not believe him. With my classmates looking on, I said that in the future, there would be people who knew how to program computers and people who knew how to use computers just like how most tools that we used were designed and constructed by other people. My teacher, to his credit, did not allow himself to be baited into that argument, and we continued the class as per his plan. I did my assignments. I learned IF-THEN statements and FOR-NEXT loops, and built tidy little programs that made my name scroll diagonally across the screen of our TRS-80s. Then I went home, and I buried myself in “The Hobbit”.
I have not used a computer programming language another day after the class ended, although I have probably used a computer most days since beginning college in 1987. Some of my classmates, fascinated by the ability to make a machine do what they told it to do, pursued computer science degrees and have, indeed, spent their working lives programming. I, like most computer users between the late 1970s and today, have been content to use programs and applications designed by others.
And even though the majority of American workers did not learn to program computers, Japan failed to “take over” as predicted by my computer teacher. America, in possession of a computer workforce of trained specialists, saw Gross Domestic Product grow to 16.8 trillion dollars in 2013. In 2013, 48.7% of all patents granted were issued to developers of U.S. origin. US share of global “triadic patents” that indicate higher value inventions has remained constant since the turn of the century at between 27-30% of global patents. In 1992, American citizens and permanent residents earned 28,013 doctorate degrees in all fields, and that number grew to 32,927 in 2012.
All of this, even though I was less than enthusiastic about learning BASIC in 1982.
Interestingly enough, today we are seeing a new push for wider access to computer programming through the “coding for all” movement. I certainly will not prognosticate whether or not this is truer today than in 1981, but it is not hard to imagine it being reasonably true. 63.6% of households have some form of hand held computer, and their integration into our daily lives, even our hourly lives, is far greater than the home computing pioneers probably could have imagined outside of science fiction. Computers masquerading as cell phones are integral to an astonishing number of people, and the number of mobile app developers worldwide may be as high as 2.3 million individuals. It is hard to turn around today without a story about a person in high school seeing a need and developing an “app for that” whether it is for reasons personal or deadly serious.
So as I said, it is possible that “coding for all” is not simply an attempt to democratize the field of app development and raise overall awareness of the devices that we have deeply integrated into our lives and that we rely upon for more and more of our daily tasks. It is possible that this will be an important indicator for how our economy will grow over the next decades, but it is also entirely possible that, like the predictions offered to me in 1981, that it will not. App development may very easily be a part time hobby for many and a serious professional endeavor for a few, and while long term trends could easily impact how people buy and utilize programs in much the same way that the way they consume media and entertainment have been impacted in the digital age, that does not mean that most or even a significant plurality of us are going to be coding on a regular basis. Nor does it mean that the fate of our economic future hangs on the percentage of our population that code daily.
And this ought to be a cautionary note for today’s education reformers who insist, absent much evidence beyond the rankings of American students of international examinations, that if we do not follow their path of education reform, we will fall into national economic ruin. Today, the catchphrase for proponents of the Common Core State Standards is that our children must be “college and career ready,” such readiness to be defined as scoring “proficient” on a Common Core aligned examination designed and delivered by publishing and testing magnate Pearson. They betray no doubt at all that this is a need, and they are entirely certain that “college and career readiness” in 2014 is captured by the CCSS and appropriately measured by the CCSS aligned examinations. They further insist that the network of state standards that existed before CCSS were not sufficiently aimed at “college and career readiness” and thus were heading our nation’s students towards educational and economic doom.
A bit more humility really is in order.
A detailed examination of whether or not the CCSS are aimed at “college and career readiness” is not necessary here (although I would like an explanation from CCSS enthusiasts why being able to write an entry level college English course essay to David Coleman’s satisfaction is the sine qua non of college readiness). What is necessary is questioning the ability of any group of individuals to make such sweeping pronouncements about what the nearly 60 million American children of school age need in order to be successful in life. Predictions of the future of society often turn out to be dead wrong or hinge upon matters that are inherently unpredictable. Futurists of the 1960s looked at technological development and predicted a world by the year 2000 virtually disease free and full of people who enjoyed a lifestyle typified by an excess of leisure. The advent of home computing eventually led to today’s handheld mobile devices, but few in the late 1970s could have accurately predicted the ways in which computers have become integrated in our daily routines. Observers of the economic landscape in the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a future where America’s position as an economic power was deeply threatened by a rising Japan, and while our economic landscape today looks vastly different than in the decades before 1980, we are certainly not subsumed under Japan or any other of the purported “Asian Tiger” economies. Simply put: predicting the future and what it will need is hard. So hard that the most prescient people are sometimes science fiction writers.
When it comes to school, this is complicated because, despite the heavy emphasis on economic needs, we purpose universal, compulsory education to goals that are not tied to economic ends. A healthy democracy dedicated to goals of pluralism is embedded deeply in our educational system, and schools have been on the vanguard of our expanding enfranchisement since World War II; however, those are aims not readily placed on a standardized test. The humanistic development of individual intellectual, social, and emotional potential is deeply embedded in the beliefs of many of our nation’s teachers, but again, it is not a purpose of school that is readily testable. Regardless, if we are asking whether or not schools today are “meeting our needs” as a society, we ought to consider them alongside whether our children are “college and career ready” — and in the early grades, perhaps we ought to consider them far more than today’s reformers allow.
So do we know the future of education and what changes are truly necessary for our children over the next several decades?
If we are being honest, no, we don’t. And we shouldn’t take very seriously those who think they do know.
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.
Back in 1993, when I had barely been teaching in my own high school English classroom for a month, I had an epiphany. I looked around my classroom of ninth graders and realized, consciously, that they were not all going to become high school English teachers. As epiphanies go, I admit that does not sound exceptional, but it was actually foundational for the rest of my career in education. The reason for this was that I simultaneously realized that I was teaching English because of the lifelong qualitative relationship that I had with reading and writing in English. My father probably read “Oscar the Otter” to me every night for a month when I was four. As a young reader, I often wondered if I would ever have a friend as cool as Encyclopedia Brown’s sidekick, Sally Kimball. Later, I was positive that I found a lifelong friend in Charles Wallace Murray, and my copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” and “A Wind in the Door” were shortly falling apart from their spines. Bilbo Baggins’ fate trading riddles in the dark is still a matter of tense anticipation, and what I remember most about a bout of chickenpox was that it gave me an opportunity to read all three existing “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books in one afternoon. Why was I a high school English teacher? Because of the transformative power of reading to develop relationships over distance and centuries, to teach about cultures and ideals, to illuminate human nature, to amuse and to challenge. I am a better person because of books, and I wanted students to discover similar experiences and to build skills that would allow them to both read and to write powerfully.
That most of my students would not seek the same path did not mean that they were incapable of such reading and writing, but it did mean that I could not ignore that they had their own reasons for being where they were, and that I had to allow them to find reasons for reading and writing that mattered to them. In other words: You cannot be an English teacher and aim your instruction at the students who most remind you of yourself.
Common Core English Standards, you really need to learn that lesson.
I have read the standards, many times. I have introduced them in foundations classes. I am now working with teacher candidates in an English language arts methods class with the standards used for planning. In this class, candidates not only are learning classroom methods for teaching English, but also they are learning the theoretical basis for adolescent literacy. I have told them that if they squeeze the standards really hard and shake them a lot, it is possible to get something other than close textual reading out of them.
Common Core English Standards, you are making me a liar.
It is not that the Common Core English Standards do not describe aspects of reading and interpretation. It is that they describe them from a single literary perspective, and then they backwards engineer them from high school all the way down to Kindergarten. But don’t take my word on it, let’s look at the Reading Literature Standards themselves.
The Reading Literature Standards are laid out by what they call “College and Career Readiness” anchor standards that are iterated in each grade level. Those ten anchor standards are organized in groups by Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Text Complexity. For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to select one standard under each of these groups to present at different levels.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain. Craft and Structure:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
Range of Reading and Text Complexity:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10: By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
If you have graduated from a 4 year liberal arts college or university, odds are good that this sounds familiar regardless of your major. The selected standards in Reading Literature represent a description of the close textual reading you were required to do as part of your introductory English coursework, possibly taught by an enthusiast of the New Criticism school of literary analysis from the mid-twentieth century. For college bound students, this is not off the mark as far as a portion of their work with literature is concerned. However, reading the entirety of the reading literature standards demonstrates that close textual reading is pretty much ALL that they contain. Each of the anchor standard descriptors reiterates the anchors’ focus on the text — to the exclusion of the reader.
As mentioned, these standards then move down to Kindergarten, largely describing simpler tasks for less experienced readers. From 6th grade:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7: Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.5: Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7: Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.10: By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.1: With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.5: Recognize common types of texts (e.g., storybooks, poems).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.7: With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the story in which they appear (e.g., what moment in a story an illustration depicts).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.K.10: Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding.
So what is wrong with this? It represents a very specific purpose of reading literature, a purpose that does not serve the reasons why all children read, not even all children destined to become college English majors, and it is backwards engineered to grade levels when students cannot be expected to have full fluency. What Common Core does is take reading literature and purpose it entirely to close textual reading, which is a tool of literary criticism, especially for the New Criticism school of analysis. In New Criticism, the text is treated as self-contained, and it is the job of the reader to investigate it as an object to be understood via the structure of the text and without reference to external resources such as history, culture, psychology or the experiences of the reader.
This stands in stark opposition to Reader Response criticism where the role of the reader in creating meaning not only cannot be set aside, but also is absolutely essential for the words on the page to have any meaning whatsoever. Louise Rosenblatt informed this school of thought by demonstrating that the process of reading is best understood as a transaction between the text and the individual readers who approach the task of reading it:
The transaction involving a reader and a printed text thus can be viewed as an event occurring at a particular time in a particular environment at a particular moment in the life history of the reader. The transaction will involve not only the past experience but also the present state and present interests or preoccupations of the reader. It stresses the possibility that printed marks on a page will become different linguistic symbols by virtue of transactions with different readers….
Does not the transactional point of view suggest that we should pay more attention to the experiential framework of any reading transaction? Is it not extraordinary that major social upheavals seem to have been required to disclose the fact that schools have consistently attempted to teach reading without looking at the language and life experience, the cognitive habits, that the child brought to the text? And should not this same concern be brought to bear on more than the problem of the language or dialect that the child brings? Should not a similar concern for reading as an event in a particular cultural and life situation be recognized as pertinent to all reading, for all children at all phases of their development as readers, from the simplest to the most sophisticated levels? (pp. 15-16)
Reader Response does not deny that there is a text with a structure that readers must encounter in order to make meaning, but it also recognizes the robust and essential elements brought by each individual reader in the meaning making process. Instead of the text containing a single meaning to be derived by close textual analysis, the text is brought to many different meanings because of the histories, cultures, dispositions and experiences of the multitude of readers who transact with that text.
At this point, some advocates of the Common Core standards may protest that the Reading Literature standards are not trying to shoehorn all readers into New Criticism, and that with the tools of close textual reading, students and teachers could possibly engage in any number of reading experiences incorporating social, cultural, historical, psychological and personal knowledge. To some degree, it is upon this that I have been hanging my promise to my own students that you can shake a social reading out of the CCSS if you just shake hard enough. The problem is that I am not really convinced of that myself. To begin with, even when the standards suggest some form of reading that is connected to something other than the text, it circles right back to close textual analysis. From the third grade standards:
Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events
Looking at these, I get somewhat hopeful. RL3.2 states that students will recall some rich literature such as fables, folktales and myths which could become a great basis for comparing current and past societies, understanding the concept of a the heroic figure and how it relates to the child’s life. But the standard quickly segues right back to picking out “key details in the text” in service of determining “the central message, lesson, or moral.” (emphasis added) Similarly, RL3.3 begins with some hope that students might develop personal relationships with the characters in the story and use those character traits to better understand themselves. Then the standard immediately purposes their understanding to “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.” In Common Core, all literary roads lead to close textual analysis. The reader is a bit player.
This shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise. After all, one of the key players in the creation of the English Language Arts standards is David Coleman, current president of the College Board, philosophy graduate from Yale and Rhodes Scholar in English literature at Oxford University. He is, plainly, a man of great intelligence and of sincere interest in the classical liberal arts. What he is not, however, is a person with even the slightest credentials in literacy acquisition, elementary literacy or adolescent literacy. As a student of classical philosophy and literature, he is no doubt quite familiar with literary criticism, but to infuse common standards in the English Language Arts with tools for literary criticism to the exclusion of all other ways to interact with texts all the way down to Kindergarten is a thoroughly strangled view of the role literature plays in the classroom. This seems entirely unproblematic to Mr. Coleman, and while I have not read his thesis from Oxford, I have little reason to doubt that he is an enthusiast of New Criticism and other formalist schools of thought. When presenting on the Common Core standards, Mr. Coleman derided what he described as a heavy emphasis on personal writing in most school curricula, thus:
If children in classrooms using the CCSS English standards learn to love reading on a deeply personal and affective level and develop a life long relationship with reading as a means of self exploration, it will be in spite of those standards, not because of them.
Did anyone have anything better for children before Common Core? That’s difficult to answer because while states have been held to progress in examinations since the No Child Left Behind act of 2001, this is the first time that nearly nationwide assessments are going to be aligned with a single set of standards. However, it is possible to speak about how states with standards different from Common Core did on nationally administered assessments prior to this endeavor. For example, Massachusetts has long been recognized as a high performing state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2009, when Common Core was still twinkling in its authors’ eyes, Massachusetts’ 4th grade NAEP reading scores were higher than any other state in the nation. At the time, Massachusetts was still using its own English Language Arts framework, adopted in 2001. I would like to draw attention to Standard 9: Making Connections:
Students will deepen their understanding of a literary or non-literary work by relating it to its contemporary context or historical background.
By including supplementary reading selections that provide relevant historical and artistic background, teachers deepen students’ understanding of individual literary works and broaden their capacity to connect literature to other manifestations of the creative impulse.
The standard is then extrapolated forward, requiring that students examine works as related to the life and experiences of the author and in relationship to key concepts, ideas and controversies that existed in the society that produced the work itself. Examinations such as these are fruitful grounds for personal experiences and comparisons of current society and events as well. This is similar to principles articulated by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (NCTE/IRA) in the standards for the English Language Arts that they released in the 1990s. Standards 1-3, in particular, articulate a broad vision of what reading is for and how readers go about doing it:
Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
Neither of these documents rules out close textual reading, nor do they dismiss the need for students to develop skills in creating sophisticated analyses using the tools of text. Common Core, however, provides no explicit space for any other kind of reading or analysis, and it appears entirely uninformed by any framework of reading as a process that includes the reader in any capacity other than as faithful seeker of the text’s internally constructed meaning. Readers who want to understand society and history via the text? Readers who want to explore their own humanity across space and time with characters who live and breathe after centuries? Readers who want to enjoy the feelings of a work of art without picking it apart into its component parts?
People don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.