Top 5 misconceptions about the Common Core State Standards

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The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are part of an initiative to develop and promote a national curriculum for U.S. schools. Although forty-five states, four territories, and the District of Columbia have formally joined the initiative, public debate over the content and adoption of the standards has raged on, sometimes fueled by mistaken beliefs. In this post, we examine five major misconceptions about Common Core, and provide links to additional reading at the end.

  1. The Common Core State Standards drastically reduce — basically ban — the reading of literature in classrooms. Teachers are no longer allowed to teach The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath or To Kill a Mockingbird.
  2. The standards supply a federally-approved and mandated reading list.
  3. The country is moving towards cookie cutter education for cookie cutter students.
  4. The standards are a first step in a federal takeover of education.
  5. We’ll have to teach to the test!

I’ll look at numbers one and two together since they stem from the same misinterpretation.

1) The Common Core State Standards drastically reduce — basically ban — the reading of literature in classrooms. Teachers are no longer allowed to teach The Great GatsbyThe Grapes of Wrath or To Kill a Mockingbird.
2) The standards supply a federally-approved and mandated reading list.

I’ll admit the CCSS team could have conveyed the guidelines for reading literature much more clearly. The CCSS follow the National Assessment of Educational Progress framework for distribution of fiction vs. nonfiction reading (see chart on this page) which recommend that grade 12 student reading should comprise 30% literary passages and 70% informational texts. A frequent assumption is that reading in the English Language Arts (ELA) classroom can necessarily be just 30% fiction, but this is incorrect. A footnote on the page linked above clarifies:

“The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.”

Indeed, it is expected that non-informational literature will constitute the bulk of ELA reading:

“Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.”

In practical terms, this means that a 10th grade ELA class would cover:

  •  two major fiction texts
  •  two major literary non-fiction texts
  •  8-12 works of short fiction
  •  4-8 works of short literary non-fiction[1]

Do I think that information should have been presented more prominently? Yes, I do. But it is there and I wish more people would read it.

How am I sure that the Common Core is not banning fiction? Because Appendix B of the ELA standards (pdf) has a list of example texts — including a lot of fiction — that “serve to exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with.”

The texts are categorized as Stories, Drama, Poetry, or one of three categories of Informational Texts: English Language Arts; History/Social Studies; and Science, Mathematics, and Technical Subjects. Folks, that means that students should be reading critically and writing in all subjects. Historical documents in Social Studies. Articles on current research and new discoveries in the sciences. Publications on real world applications of math in math class. And plenty of literature in English class.

Please note that these texts are not required. They are examples. Teachers, school districts, states, or whoever currently decides what books students read in a given classroom will continute to decide what titles land on students’ desks.

3) The country is moving towards cookie cutter education for cookie cutter students.

Related:

  • The standards will lead to schools training our students to be automatons who all think and act alike.
  • The standards are Education Lite.
  • The standards are the first step in brainwashing students.
  • All teachers will be required to teach the same lessons.

Standards are the learning goals for students at each grade level. Before the Common Core, each state developed their own. Some states went into more detail than others, i.e. specifying that all 9th graders read Romeo and Juliet or that all 6th graders study the Holocaust, and some states sought more rigor. The Common Core seeks consensus across states.

The Common Core Standards have been released in two subjects, English Language Arts and Math. The goals in math, as it happens, are not especially controversial. Is anyone going to argue that it makes sense for each state to decide separately what to teach in Algebra I or whether to teach Algebra at all? Or that teaching students the same concepts in Algebra I denies their individuality and creates robots?

The ELA standards are more prone to dispute. They are based on big-picture anchor standards, such as:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CRA.W.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reCasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

I guess you can make the argument that teaching all students to use the same standardized English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling in their writing is taking away their individuality. I certainly tried to use that argument in elementary school, as well as the argument that I was a poet and therefore the rules of grammar and punctuation did not apply to me. And since the poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll is listed as an example text, I’m guessing that the authors of the Common Core have some sympathy for this point of view. But I don’t really think that insisting that students should learn to evaluate reasoning, use evidence, and employ rhetoric (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.3 ), gather information from multiple sources and assess their credibility and accuracy (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.8 ), and read and comprehend complex texts independently and proficiently (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10) sets students on a path to conformity.

Let’s compare education to cooking. As a nation might decide what constitutes the educated citizen, so a type of cuisine implies some skills that constitute an accomplished cook. In this analogy, individual lesson plans are like recipes. What recipe a cook uses for, say, macaroni and cheese depends on if they are a cook in a middle school cafeteria, a chain restaurant, a gourmet restaurant, or a home chef. And different cafeterias, restaurants, and cooks use different recipes. I might make boxed macaroni and cheese but add sriracha sauce, or broccoli, or both. I could use a recipe from a cookbook or make up my own.

In the same way, a teacher could use lesson plans from an educational publisher, lesson plans developed by the school or by a fellow teacher, or create their own. No two teachers teach a lesson the same exact way, and even the same teacher rarely teaches the same lesson more than once the same way. Even different students make the lesson different in the same way one customer might add hot sauce, or salt, or extra cheese to their dish.

Nowhere in the standards is there a mandate for how these concepts must be taught. Yes, some of the new Common Core aligned curriculum products do have very detailed and explicit lesson plans. And some of the existing non-Common Core branded curriculum products have very detailed and explicit lessons plans. The amount of freedom each teacher has remains up to the same people that decide that now: the school district and the principal.

4) The standards are a first step in a federal takeover of education.

Related:

  • The standards are something President Obama and the federal government are forcing states to adopt.
  • The United Nations is somehow involved in the standards and they take away both local and national control of education.

I think some of these fears come from mixing up education standards with lesson plans and textbooks, as discussed under number three above. So a re-cap is in order: even if every state has the same standards, that doesn’t mean they are using the same lesson plans, textbooks, philosophy, or techniques.

The Common Core State Standards were not developed as a federal initiative. The Standards have their roots in an effort by the National Governors Association—a group that includes the governors of all 50 states, plus the U.S. territories and commonwealths—and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a non-partisan association. Each state can choose whether or not to adopt the standards. Of course, if states wanted to apply for Race to the Top grants, they were required to adopt either the Common Core or similar standards, which may be how this misconception got started.

As for any connection to the United Nations, all I can see is that in creating the standards, the development team looked at the standards of other countries, especially high-performing countries, to see what they were doing well. Some best practices were incorporated into the standards, such as covering fewer math concepts in more depth.

All of the questions in this vein are red herrings that distract from the main issue—are these the best standards for our students? I am much more concerned with questions such as: Are these standards high quality? Do they support critical thinking and innovation? Will they lead to increased achievement? Are they tested and/or research based? How can we foresee and prevent unintended consequences? We ought to look at the actual standards and potential consequences for the actual students and educators.

5) We’ll have to teach to the test!

In a perfect world, we would have a foolproof, cost-effective way to evaluate each whole student, school district, and program. We do not live in that world. I do not support teaching to the test and sometimes wonder if education would be in better shape if teachers and schools had no idea what would be on standardized tests and just had to focus on giving students the best education possible. But I am not going to address the many drawbacks to standardized tests and teaching to the test here.

What I will say is that anyone who thinks schools do not currently teach to tests is not familiar with the high-stakes testing required by No Child Left Behind or the accountability movement. My hope is that the Common Core’s focus on critical thinking and deep understanding will decrease the emphasis on teaching to the test. The consortiums developing the Common Core assessments seem very conscious of the flaws in the NCLB tests and appear to be trying to mitigate some of the issues. They are producing some interesting tasks and prototypes that will make teaching to the test more difficult and, consequently, less likely (e.g.: PARCC ELA Task Grade 7 and Smarter Balanced Mathematics Sample Items).

Will that end teaching to the test? Probably not. As long as we have standardized tests, schools and teachers are going to look for methods to give their students an advantage. Advanced Placement (AP) teachers often ‘teach to the test’ by having students complete sample exams from previous years. This isn’t because the AP Standards or curriculum require them to do so, it is because they want students to get good scores on the AP exams. The problem is not unique to the Common Core implementation.

Conclusion

The Common Core State Standards are not out to destroy schools, criminalize creative teaching, or throw away the novel. The CCSS aren’t perfect, so there are plenty of real arguments to be had — let’s not lose ground arguing over false ones!

Here, quite simply, is why we at the Saylor Foundation have climbed on board:

  • 45 of 50 states have signed on to them.
  • We are trying to reach a diverse audience, and these standards are applicable to a wider audience than any one of fifty different sets of state standards.
  • These standards were built having looked at international standards. While it is impossible to say that they apply in every country, we hope that they will be more applicable internationally than if we built our courses without using standards or by using standards that were developed using less diverse input.
  • While educators and learners can certainly quibble about aspects of the standards, our course designers have generally agreed on the big picture and feel that the standards incorporate a lot of the best practices of great educators.

Additional Reading

Myths vs. Facts (The Common Core State Standards Initiative)
The Common Core Standards: A Defense (Grant Wiggins)
Supporting Common Core is a conservative win for our state (Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli)

Still Curious? Why not take our course?
Saylor version: http://saylor.org/courses/common-core-101
iTunes U version: https://itunes.apple.com/us/course/common-core-101/id584399394

Photo Credit: adapted from “Strawberry Schoolhouse” from kevin dooley via photopin CC BY 2.0


[1] http://www.parcconline.org/mcf/english-language-artsliteracy/reading-complex-texts-6 See the chart from the PARCC assessment consortium organizing reading complex texts into four units for 10th grade as an illustration. [Go back to text]

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