By Lynn Fedele
As a high school English teacher (not in Montclair), my professional life has been consumed by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and I am all too familiar with the high school level English Language Arts standards. As they are currently the law of the land, I am implementing them in my classroom, and so I witness them in action on a daily basis.
The CCSS were designed – not by practicing educators, by the way – from the top down, meaning that their creators started with the upper levels of the high school standards and then reversed engineered them down to the early elementary grades. That said, as I teach seniors, I am among the lucky; the CCSS are more closely aligned with what I have been teaching and are more developmentally appropriate for my students than many of the standards are for younger children. Nonetheless, they leave much to be desired.
In short, the standards are not out to make life-long readers and thinkers; they are out to train students to think about what other people have to say and to think more about how it is said than what it means.
Last year, I was directed by my administration to list the standards on the board that my class was meant to cover that day, which is not an unusual practice. But I balked. Language arts skills are not taught in isolation; the skills overlap and are recursive in nature, meaning that we teach and re-teach the same skills at increasing levels of difficulty, often teaching several skills simultaneously. On any given day, students may read a passage, discuss it in groups, and then write about it. This involves reading skills, speaking and listening skills, language skills, and writing skills. So instead of taking five to ten minutes each period, every day, to write the standards, I created a few posters and hung them up over the board in my classroom. For the sake of space, I condensed them.
The 11-12 Reading Literature standards, in essence, call for this:
1) Cite strong and thorough textual evidence
2) Determine two or more central ideas of a text
3) Analyze the author’s choices in presentation
4) Determine the meaning of words and phrases in a text
5) Analyze the effectiveness of the structure of a text in creating meaning
6) Determine what the text implies rather than states
7) Analyze multiple interpretations of a story
8) [not applicable to Lit]
9) Analyze 18th, 19th, and 20th century American works
10) Read complex texts on grade level
And that’s when it became obvious to me that there is so much missing.
The standards seem reasonable when looked at in isolation. In other words, we can pick out any one standard and it will name something high school seniors should do: they should cite evidence; they should understand vocabulary. That’s fine.
So what’s missing from the Core?
First, what’s missing is context. The CCSS assume that each text is a discreet entity. Students are not required to think of their pre-existing knowledge in any given field in order to integrate new information. They are not required to do any background research to complement and extend understanding. They are not required to draw connections between disciplines – just never mind what a book might imply about history or philosophy. Even when comparing texts on the same subject, students do not need to understand why the texts differ – how historical/political/socioeconomic/race/sex/gender/culture/identity issues affect the content – just how they differ (one gives more detail; they have different forms; they use different narrative perspectives).
What else is missing? Oddly enough, for all they banter the word around, at grade 11-12, they are missing “rigor,” which becomes evident when aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy – a long-standing holistic learning model – categorizes and explains how children learn. In the cognitive area, there are six levels. The CCSS Reading Literature standards do not call upon the students to use the top two levels of critical thinking: Synthesis and Evaluation. It is in these two levels that students combine information into new, creative wholes and judge what they read and learn. These are the levels in which they challenge their own assumptions and use newly gained knowledge in creating something original. The standards, on the whole, stop at analysis, which is an important step in critical thinking, but not the top.
In essence, the CCSS are missing the reader. While students have to analyze how a text is structured, how its parts work together, how the author makes choices to get his/her point of view across, they have no personal interaction with meaning. They do not have to understand the work’s content as relevant to themselves or to the lives they live. They do not have to make judgments about what they read or bring the content into themselves on any level to complete the tasks outlined by the standards. No agreeing or disagreeing with an author – just explain how the text functions. In sum, no opinions necessary.
And lastly and sadly, readers, the standards suppose, never read for enjoyment.
So, why omit all the best stuff? Because the best aspects of reading and interacting with literature simply cannot be measured on a standardized test.