Posts Tagged CCSS

Common Core Badly Disrespects Literature

Published by — If educators are not cultivators of the culture, who’s left?


Last week I had kind words for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Building intelligence through building knowledge is a far better approach to educating kids than the current obsession with covering vast amounts of content.  In last week’s column, CCSS expert Kate Gerson fleshed out some of the Standards’ strengths.

That said, however, the huge landscape of CCSS resembles the complexity of a human personality — fundamentally good, but not without fault.  We can appreciate the sinner while rejecting the sins.  The CCSS have been criticized for many flaws, which in most cases is due, I think, to misunderstanding what the Standards actually say.

But there is no misunderstanding their aggressive devaluing of the role of literature in teaching English.  Dr. Sandra Stotsky is probably the most vocal critic, here discussing the reduction of reading literature to no more than 50% in English classes.

Many others have also cried foul on this issue, and rightly so.  Great literature — poetry, drama, philosophy and seminal religious texts like the Bible — have been the foundation for educating the “learned” since time immemorial.  If the goal is to help students feel comfortable analyzing and understanding complexity, what better way than cultural classics?  But no longer.

In literature’s place — and doesn’t this say it all? — goes “informational text.”

Can’t the academics hear themselves?  I’m reminded of Richard Mitchell’s lament The Graves of Academe, a laugh-out-loud meditation on the deadly language academics often use that kills communication.  We know what non-fiction is, and we know great writers, journalists and biographers can tell a factual narrative as a riveting story.  My kids loved reading The Hot Zone in science class, and in Physics, QED was so impressive to them, Richard Feynman became a much-quoted hero.  But according to the CCSS these books could be read in English class and held in higher esteem than mere stories such as, say, King Lear.

And what, pray, seems to be the problem?  Of course, kids don’t like classical literature unless they’ve gotten enough background to appreciate it.  But shouldn’t education prepare them to see through the eyes of the culture that created Tom Sawyer, for example?  Understanding other times and cultures trains students’ empathy, among other things, even if we don’t identify with or approve of the non-modern values.  Private schools certainly guide students through a wealth of great literature, but they can teach what they like and don’t battle political correctness.  If public education is about training the workforce, who needs Jane Austen?

I think that what’s at issue is that “informational texts” confine themselves to scientifically verifiable truths that are intrinsically a-cultural.  Like philosophy and religion, fiction by its nature has no hard information about the objective world.  It is culture-bound.  Historical fiction may use historical facts to set the stage, but is not responsible for being correct in every detail.  But that reduces its value for the CCSS.  Facts must anchor what students should know and be able to do.

To me the scientifically verifiable truth is essential, to be sure, but the truth of fiction is often deeper.

Prior to “the media,” human entertainment was sitting around at night after a long, hard day and talking, telling stories, gossiping.  Sometimes stories took on a life of their own, growing from favorite anecdotes about people we actually know, to honored tales about one’s ancestors, to the Olympian scale of gods, goddesses, and God.  These stories were the transport mechanism of great wisdom that the elders of a culture related and preserved from their generation to another.  The stories evolved and changed, along with the culture itself.  Embedded in such stories were lessons critical to that culture’s values.  Lear and Oedipus both allow their giant egos — Aristotle called it “hubris” — to blind them to a truth they were unwilling to face.  I have seen little hard data emanating from research on ego blinded to truth, but that doesn’t make the lesson less valuable.

As a Rhode Island resident, I wish our students got a firm grounding in The Emperor’s New Clothes so they could be far more discerning of their leader’s so-called facts.

But no one dares claim the authority to say what ancient wisdom should be received by contemporary students.  Instead, the CCSS displaces the remnants of Western Civilization, adjusted as it has been in recent years with the riches of James Baldwin, among others, to make way for inarguable facts.

Charles Dickens lamented this very issue in his aptly-named novel about education: Hard Times.  Louisa, the schoolmaster’s daughter, nearly comes to ruin having no instruction in the truth of fiction, specifically the nature of love.  Instead, her father taught “Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.  Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

We’ve been down this road.  If educators are not cultivators of the culture, who’s left?


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Common Core Math Expectations Are Only A Baseline

Published by — There’s surprisingly little controversy over the meaning of “college-ready math.”  Ready for which college?

We’re going to discuss Common Core today, so take a chill pill.  I’m not saying CC presents nothing to be upset about, but getting upset just clouds clear thinking.

CC is by no means perfect, but it’s not Evil incarnate, either.  So let’s get to know it.  Finding the good parts will remind us that we don’t really want to return to zero accountability, or 50 definitions of proficient, such as we got from No Child Left Behind, or continued stagnant progress in the country’s educational achievement.  Most importantly, if not, Common Core, what?

Conveniently, the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) wrote two one-pagers that describe “The Shifts” in thinking that are at the standards’ philosophical heart.  If you look at no other CC materials, read these.  Even for educators, digesting the standards themselves is a daunting task.  So before joining one of the inflamed bandwagons out there, get a bit of grounding in original documents.  Many CC controversies are bogus hysteria — such as the standards requiring limits on bathroom time — but some are very real.

Using The Shifts’ math page, let’s examine the frequent accusation that CC “dumbs down” math expectations, in part by notrequiring Algebra I until the 9th grade.  This is a legitimate concern since Algebra II is generally the gatekeeper to all but the least selective colleges.  Historically, schools found that only by pushing Alg I into middle school would it give struggling math students, often low-income minorities, plenty of time to repeat math classes and still reach the “college-ready math” benchmark.  Not an insignificant worry.  Let’s consider it:

The philosophical shifts for math are organized under “Focus,” “Coherence,” and “Rigor.”  The first shift is this:

The Standards call for a greater focus in mathematics.  Rather than racing to cover topics in a mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum, the Standards require us to significantly narrow and deepen the way time and energy is spent in the math classroom.  We focus deeply on the major work of each grade so that students can gain strong foundations:  solid conceptual understanding, a high degree of procedural skill and fluency, and the ability to apply the math they know to solve problems inside and outside the classroom.

Admit it:  that’s not so nuts.

So let’s make three points:

1.  CCSS are about the timing of testing skills. 

Despite opponents claiming otherwise, standards are NOT a curriculum.  CC offers “exemplar” curricula suggestions — some truly bad — but by all means, ignore them.  The standards only identify when particular skills will be assessed.  Algebra I concepts won’t be tested until the spring of 9th grade.

But no standard prevents schools from offering advanced math to any and all students, so talented kids absorb the sequence of math skill-building that ends with Calculus as fast as their clever heads let them.  Shame on schools that don’t push all their kids to their highest potential.  Kids on a fast track will ace those Algebra I skills by spring of 9th grade.

2.  The CCSS are only a bottom line, a minimum guarantee.

There’s surprisingly little controversy over the meaning of “college-ready math.”  Ready for which college?  Because they range from community colleges to the Ivies.  A recently published research report, “What does it really mean to be college and work ready?” addresses the issue directly.  The NCEE researchers found that at any given time, 45% of all American college students are attending community colleges.  The great majority of these students bomb basic skills tests, especially in math, and end up paying for remedial classes that do not get them closer to an actual degree or certificate.  The report argues that the math needed for most of the Associate’s degree programs, as well as passing the Accuplacer or other placement tests are solid 8th-grade skills with a smidge of Algebra I and Geometry.

Algebra II is usually the gatekeeper to college, and often a high-school graduation requirement.  So schools race through a bazillion topics without ensuring that all kids acquire at least a solid set of practical skills.  The lack of those skills is wrecking the academic careers of largely low-income students attending community colleges.

3.  Redefine “college-ready” math to ensure all kids get the basics. 

I am totally gung-ho for the training that Algebra II offers the mind, but not at the expense of setting up those community college kids for success — never mind winning back the hearts of students who give up high school altogether or any dreams of post-secondary training.  After all, the NCEE report found that only about 5% of jobs require the skills in Algebra II and above.  We might have to be more specific about which-college ready we mean.

Yes, the lack of Algebra II would likely keep students out of highly-selective Ivies, but frankly, the kids I’m concerned about weren’t going to Dartmouth, Vassar, or Reed anyway.  By all means intrigue, cajole and push the low-income, statistically-least-likely-to-succeed kids so some of them get over the hump and into selective colleges.

But are we “dumbing down” or recalibrating “college ready” so tons more students could be prepared for an accessible success?  Again, nothing is stopping schools from challenging the daylights out of the students who can handle it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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If Common Core Isn’t Our Common Vision, What Is?

Published by — The public needs to weigh in on these Standards.

To my chagrin, people whom I respect took my column of last week out to the woodshed for a thrashing. I’d conflated those objecting to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) into a single not very nice cohort of “Chicken Littles.”

Actually, the voices protesting CCSS fall into two very different groups. Last week I took on the group whose objections are largely prompted by resisting change, by being asked to work towards aligning curricula to new standards, or by the need to sling the word “socialism” around whenever peeved. (Aren’t public highways, colleges and fire protection socialistic?) So I got that off my chest.

The other group, however, has much more legitimate concerns about a wide range of issues. I don’t agree with all of their objections either, but this group includes thoughtful people who are concerned for the kids and not merely whining. To them I apologize.

However, my intention was and still is to assert is that we’ll never get anywhere if we don’t know where we’re going. We need common goals and objectives, at least in part to protect students from being pawns in our adult battles. The CCSS are the goals currently on the table. If they’re not good enough, what are? Propose a positive alternative before just saying no.

For example, I’ve long admired the 2008 Educational Goals for Young Australians, over-arching statements of purpose that guide the education decision-making in that country. Australia has no national tests nor curriculum, so each of that country’s six provinces meets the goals however they see fit, which is how it’s supposed to work with the CCSS. According to international tests, Aussie kids do very well.

I envy a culture that has these aspirations for their young people:

Goal 1: Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence

Goal 2: All young Australians become:

– successful learners

– confident and creative individuals

– active and informed citizens

Achieving these educational goals is the collective responsibility of governments, school sectors and individual schools as well as parents and carers, young Australians, families, other education and training providers, business and the broader community.

Since we’re good, practical Americans, the CCSS goals focus on ramping up skills and knowledge. The mission statement concludes: “With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.” It’s not as loving as I would like, but it is a vision for all U.S. children, and not just some.

The irony is that last week I felt some urgency first to support the considerable work that went into creating the CCSS common vision, precisely so I could address the specific problems that I am also finding in the standards.

Yes, I should have realized last week that I am far from alone.

To date, the most commonly-expressed complaint is that the attention given to classical literature is radically reduced in the English Standards. I adore Dickens and the rest. I hate watching the Western-Civilization canon all but disappear in the face of political correctness and the challenges of teaching plugged-in students. But no one is dictating how the districts meet the standards. The CCSS are specifically designed to bolster critical thinking more than memorization. If educators are serious about critical thinking, they’d be hard pressed to find anything more intellectually challenging than great literature, drama and poetry. It’s particularly weird that the CCSS emphases non-fiction reading, in English, while seeming to forget entirely about science and history, subjects populated only by non-fiction. Surely districts would straighten that out.

The test creators seem full-on incompetent. 

But while the CCSS soft launch of three years ago was unencumbered by the reality of implementation, now rubber is meeting the road. The abstractions typical of educational standards are now becoming more concrete in the actual curricula and tests. Sadly, the CCSS vision does not seem to be delivering educators’ best work.

The recent CCSS-aligned pilot tests in New York state were a disaster. They seem to have been written by people who hadn’t the foggiest idea as to what is developmentally appropriate for a kid to know. The questions were wildly confusing. Find a teacher’s
comments and a copy of the test here.

With the implementation of the standards getting botched here and there, one by one, states are pulling out of the testing programs. That’s fine. Delay the tests. Big relief.

In fact, now that the standards have finally caught the public’s attention, we have an opportunity to focus on what we’re trying to accomplish. The public needs to weigh in.

What’s the vision? Personally, I believe the CCSS is a strong enough draft, it can be honed to help children become truly successful. But if not, we could just adopt the work of the Australians who at least give a poop about their kids’ confidence and creativity, as well as excellent schooling.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.


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Common Core Standards Totally Freak Out Chicken Littles

Published by — America is the only developed country without national standards.

It’s true:  if allowed to survive, the Common Core State Standards would be a massive, necessary, though slow-moving overhaul of American education.

Finalized and welcomed by the education community three years ago, the standards are now starting to trickle into classroom practices, so hackles are up. But somehow the American public has lost the habit of raising questions in a civil manner or asking pointed questions to spark a needed debate.  That’s for wusses.  Better to reach for emotional Uzis – name-calling, vicious accusations, and rallying cries to kill the Standards dead rather than improve them.  This is life in the post-moral culture.  Fight first.

At the risk of adding to their current unpopularity, the situation with the CCSS is not unlike that of the Affordable Care Act.  Both are messy, flawed, and huge.

But in both cases, they’re also necessary and long overdue.  I concede their imperfections.  They are human-made, after all.  But no virtue or value lies in reverting to the bad old days.  In the case of the ACA, we’ve had the most expensive and ineffective healthcare system in the world, which doesn’t even reach huge swaths of the population.  At least we are headed, however stumbling, towards something better.

In the case of the CCSS, the very purpose of public education in America has been unclear for decades.  We’ve desperately needed a description of “better.”  CCSS are such a description.  They are not curriculum and they’re not testing programs.  They’re just standards –  goals, objectives, targets to sharpen our aim and elevate our hopes for kids.  We can’t get anywhere if we don’t know where we’re going.

America is the only developed country without national standards.

All the countries with whom American students are compared have national standards and even national curricula (Finland).  Weirdly, national standards are about the only thing those countries’ education systems have in common. The Asian countries have their Tiger Mamas and their cram schools and a focus on test scores that makes my skin crawl. The European and Euro-like countries (Australia) have more appealing (to me) national goals and standards that at least mention preparing young people for happy, fulfilling lives.  So the comparison countries have highly diverse, but national standards.

Just for the record, if the state of Massachusetts were a county unto itself, it would be at the top of the international rankings, right up there with Singapore.  In the 1990s, MA set a high bar for their students and weathered nasty complaints of opponents that sound exactly like the hues and cries voiced now against CCSS.  Over the course of years, MA’s students’ academic performance climbed from middling to the top of the U.S. state rankings, where they have remained for years.  MA did not mandate a curriculum; that was up to the locals, just as it is with CCSS.  Interestingly, MA just announced it would take a pass, for now, on the CCSS testing program they’d agreed to use.  If they can tweak their MCAS, which has served them well, it might remain their testing system.  Every state can decide for itself how their kids will meet the new rigorous standards.

Let’s back up to the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law. 

NCLB bowed to states’ rights and local control by mandating each state develop a standards-and-accountability system.  Three states pooled their resources to create the NECAP, bringing the number of unique sets of state standards to a ridiculous 48.  With very few exceptions (like MA), states set fairly low expectations.  Furthermore,
NCLB’s strategy was to punish under-performing schools, so most states tried to avoid consequences with pathetically unambitious testing goals.  Other than developing very useful data-gathering machinery in each state, NCLB mainly left the education industry confused and defensive.

To dig out of that mess, the National Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers collaborated on the CCSS.  They assembled all manner of teachers, boards of education, researchers, institutions of higher education, administrators and business leaders to figure out what a high school student should know and be able to do.  With the end goals in hand, they designed a sequence of grade-by-grade benchmarks to help students reach newly ambitious academic heights,  In 2010, the CCSS authors presented their work in English and Math.

Generally, experts agreed that the standards were good — more rigorous, more aligned with higher education, business and the emerging economy.  Many people, including me, take issue with some of the specifics.  (The early-childhood standards need revision.)  But let’s work on them in isolation.  One bad standard does not spoil the lot.  Killing off the CCSS initiative will not address specific concerns, never mind improve public education.

How the CCSS plays out in your district or your child’s classroom is a local matter. Anyone worried about over-testing needs to take it up with their state, where the problem actually lies.

But stop already with the Chicken Little behavior. CCSS is not the doom of America’s kids. Review your lesson on the Baby and the Bathwater, because while we probably need to change some bathwater, this Baby is critical.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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