Posts Tagged Common Core

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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Challenge Is Uncomfortable. Live With It.

Published by — Kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.


Speaking at the RIMA’s High Expectation’s Conference, keynote speaker Kate Gerson says, “The number one way we love our students is by rescuing them from struggle.  We hate and feel so uncomfortable with kids struggling.”

When you pose a challenge just out of a kid’s reach, she’s forced to think.  She’ll have to sort through what she already knows to come up with an educated, if not necessarily correct, answer.  The kid blinks at you, deer in the headlights.  You assure her she can figure it out, but the wait for her to wrestle through the problem is nerve-wracking.  Often we spare her the struggle and give her the answer, which she’ll never remember.  Had she dug around in her prior knowledge and figured it out — or even come up with a wrong but thoughtful solution — she’d have exercised her mind.

Gerson, teacher, principal and now CCSS Fellow with the NY Regents, explains that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) encourage just this kind of challenge.  They cover fewer topics, allowing time for a deeper understanding of each.  (CCSS offer clearly-written one-pagers about their philosophies about math and ELA that cut through a lot of the noise generated by the media.)

Gerson distinguishes between “productive struggle and toxic struggle.”

Productive struggle is about thinking.  By protecting kids from thinking, we accidently produce toxic struggle.  She gives the example that when high schools set low standards in order to improve their graduation rates, they “send more kids to college who aren’t ready, and those kids take more remedial courses, grow debt and don’t finish.”  The easy standards gave those students a false sense of their own mastery.  Then they hit a wall.  That’s toxic struggle.  If they’d learned to persist at hard tasks early, they’d have a sense of self-mastery and confidence that pushing themselves will pay off.

The Standards are big, broad, and now under fierce attack, even though few people know much about them, including most of their attackers.  I too have my issues with certain specifics, but on the whole, they challenge American education in a healthy way.  Gerson says, “The CCSS demand that every single student gets smarter.  This is something they can achieve when you slow down, unpack what you’re doing, and get intentional about how it’s done.”

Most current curricula are a mile wide and a centimeter thick.

CCSS are designed to help students analyze texts so they can understand them, not merely pick out bytes of information.  Ten correct facts do not add up to comprehension.  Gerson sees “students who know what you [the teacher] are looking for, so they know what words you want them to use.  But do they actually get what’s going on?”

As a high school English teacher, Gerson all but danced Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to convey her own passion for the book to her students.  She looks back now and realizes that likely they remember only her performance.  They engaged with her, not the book.  She didn’t have them dig into the historical period or the political conflicts.  They didn’t have enough background to comprehend what the book was saying.

Such books are demanding.  Many teachers who are not natural performers turn instead to easier, “high-interest” literature, like Harry Potter.  Reading for pleasure is great.  But during the school day, the kids need to be working on materials that are out of their comfort zones.

Figuring stuff out for oneself is the definition of smart.

Math is similar.  Teachers tend to model how to do the problem; kids practice.  Little to no thinking.  Teachers feel they can’t take time to allow kids to wrestle their way to an answer.  But no matter where they start, such struggle makes them smarter.

As teachers, “we were taught to explain things to students over and over again.  So now we need to unbraid wrong answers, and do so publicly.”  I love that.  Don’t just let the wrong answer be Wrong, but unpack it.  Where did the kid’s thinking go wrong?  And even better is teaching publicly.  Bleeding red ink on a paper or quiz is a ton of work for a teacher and does not get the kid invested in the intellectual puzzle at hand.  No one wants to humiliate a kid in front of a class.  But having students see each others’ thinking, right and wrong, is far more instructive than letting them blow off a teacher’s red-inked corrections.  Learning publically helps kids be more thoughtful.  Rich thinking is a better goal of education than acquiring a canon of right answers.

Honestly, I think kids would be less bored in school if they were asked to put their minds to something intriguing, but difficult.  Achieving mastery with intellectual persistence is an acquired taste that needs to start early.  They can’t be lured into education the way they’re lured into the media.

CCSS is a complicated subject; Gerson did a good job.

[Photo: Christine Lopes Metcalf]

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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Teach Real Algebra Instead of Wasting Time with Fun Apps

Published by — “The student-engagement bandwagon has gone too far.”

Emmanuel Schanzer majored in Computer-Science at Cornell University.  With such a high-value degree, he knew he could sail into a lucrative, snazzy job.  But he was keenly aware that he was a C.S. hotshot (my word) because he’d entered college with good math skills already under his belt.  No one codes who doesn’t understand algebra — you know, the hard stuff that looks like a Slavic language with some numbers thrown in.  To get a lot more kids, especially ill-prepared urban kids, into the bright future that comes with computer science, someone had to build up their math first.

So later on, Schanzer would create Bootstrap’s curriculum.  Because — buyer beware! — most of the apps and programs that currently promise to teach kids algebra are fun, but a total waste of time.

“When you hear, ‘This is so amazing!  These apps teach kids to program!’  That’s snake oil.  Every minute your students spend on empty engagement while they’re failing algebra, you’re assuring that they’re not going to college.  Studies show that the grade kids get in Algebra I is the most significant grade to predict future income.”

A Man With a Math Mission

In college Schanzer searched for a way to improve math instruction through real programming, and found Program by Design (PxB, about which I’ve been writing for the last 2 weeks).  While excellent, it’s pitched too high, assuming strong math skills that challenged urban students haven’t yet acquired.  He vowed to redesign it one day — after cashing in on his computer-science degree.

But his years working in the tech sector were no match for his passion.  Plan “B,” then.  With an education degree in hand, he started teaching his beloved algebra in urban schools.  But the programming tools available to his students were maddeningly off the mark.  “First, none of the popular K-12 computer languages/teaching tools had anything to do with math, which seemed insane to me.  They had things called “functions” and “variables,” but they didn’t behave at all like the functions and variables students see in their math classes.  How’s that supposed to help them?  Students were expected to entertain themselves by playing with the tools, but it wasn’t clear what they were supposed to learn.”

“The student-engagement bandwagon has gone too far.”

“The goal is to help kids get the computer to do something, because there is an intangible value in being in control.  It’s engaging, no question.  So in the last 5 years, all the sexy languages are drag-and-drop programs, like Scratch and Alice.  I have enormous respect for these tools, as long as they’re a first step towards PythonJava.  But by themselves, they are a terrific answer to just one question:  How do we make it seem easy to code?”

Those programs have built-in blocks of code, represented by icons that kids can manipulate.  But kids don’t interact with the code itself, never mind write it or program.

“Typing code is hard.  If you forget a semicolon, the program doesn’t work.  So the supposition has been that if they play with a tool, it will help them later.  But that’s not programming and it’s not algebra.  Classroom time is valuable.  If you’re spending 50 hours in the course of a year “coding” in block language, you’re stealing time from real learning.  Students get an “A” in high school and then go to college and find programming is something else entirely, and get totally turned off.”

Bootstrap Is Born

Like a good Millennial, Schanzer founded a start-up to solve the problem.  Bootstrap’s programming language behaves like the algebra students learn in class, reinforcing honest-to-God algebraic concepts.  Yes, Bootstrap teaches kids the basics of game building, but only by teaching the math that supports the code.

The materials are free and online, though professional development is available.  Every lesson is cross-walked with the Common Core, assuring teachers that their efforts will result in real learning.  A growing library provides homework assignments and warm-up activities.  Teachers can use each lesson’s script until they’re familiar with the program.  And a pre and post-test measures the learning.

“Teachers know if it’s not real math.  You have to do things the way teachers do it in a classroom.  Bootstrap enforces mathematical behavior — same vocabulary, steps, style as a math book.  This is a math class.”  The fun video on Bootstrap’s homepage shows kids loving the approach.

As luck would have it, Schanzer found himself Boston’s subway one morning and noticed a guy, a German, working with Program by Design.  Lo!, the man was none other than Matthias Felliesen, creator of PxD.  With that chance meeting, Schnazer secured allies in his efforts to get math to urban kids.  Bootstrap started to take off.

And if a Bootstrap student starts to soar, a teacher can point the budding computer-scientist to PxD for more challenge, and a pipeline to college.

Schanzer is fulfilling his college-born dream to propel bunches of kids into bright futures at places like Cornell.  Absolutely, engagement is important.  But the key all along has been to shore up math itself.

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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It’s Building Kids’ Vocabulary, Stupid.

Published by — You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.

In the tedium of tests, testing, test scores, and so-called accountability, the point of education is lost.  Tests are not the point.  Learning is.  Testing is merely the read on the dipstick into a kid’s tank of knowledge.  Tests assess How Much learning has taken place.

E.D. Hirsch is an education thinker I greatly admire, largely because he’s comfortable with specifics about what actual knowledge is.  He’s so specific — very refreshing among squabbling education reformers — that he assembled teams of experts to create the Core Knowledge Curriculum.

The simple idea embedded in Hirsch’s large canon of writings is this:  knowing more words makes a kid smarter.  How?  Consider his 2006 example that has haunted me since I first ran across it:

Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

As a confident reader, I can tell you what every one of those words means.  But as a sports idiot, I read the sentence without comprehension.  Which is to say I can’t really read it.  Any baseball nut can tell you exactly what the sentence means because their understanding of the sport provides the context that give baseball meanings to “sacrifice,” “knock” and “run.”

Reading comprehension is all about understanding the context.

Hirsch unpacks the above sentence by describing a bit about the landscape of baseball to help, say, a British reader understand how those words might be bent to mean what they do.  Frankly, I learned details about America’s favorite pastime that I never knew before.  (Sports bore me to death.  Sorry.)

Likewise, if I knew nothing about the Egyptians, on a test I might think the “mummies” were the moms.  If the above sentence appeared in a reading comprehension test, I would have failed.

The SAT and even the GRE tests are essentially vocabulary tests.  Whatever subjects you know well, you know by the vocabulary used to discuss them.  If you don’t know what “binomial probability” means, then surely you haven’t a clue as to how to do the related math.

Build new contexts; build vocabulary. 

Not surprisingly, the Core Curriculum leans heavily on classic literature and actual history, geography, and civics — as opposed to hard-to-define social studies.  Designed for students pre-K through 8th grade, the Curriculum systematically teaches the sort of knowledge that was far more common in my day.  Yes, modern works have been woven in, and in interesting ways.  But the spine is, well, good old Western Civilization built out to be more inclusive and contemporary, but not dumbed-down.  Rigorous literature and primary historical sources have chewy syntax and unfamiliar words.  Challenging language requires more effort, but the payoff is that with teacher guidance, children enter new worlds that expand their horizons.  Each new context, like baseball, has words or word-meanings all its own.

Contrast classical literature with the vapid, politically-correct writings found in the Basal readers developed by textbook companies whose goal is to market their wares.  Textbook companies have long lists of rules that govern what goes into their sanitized texts, rules designed to reduce offense to easily-offended public School Committees.  One rule is to avoid everything written before 1970 — too many white male protagonists and authors, among many other sins.  (For infuriating details on corporate educational publishers and why public school kids read such dreck, read Diane Ravitch’s painful but brilliant book, The Language Police.)

Classics are inevitably offensive because their values come out of other times, places and cultures.  But it is precisely by taking a child into those other contexts that broaden their horizons and their historical, cultural and linguistic foundations.

Instead of actually reading broadly, kids learn “reading skills.”

Hirsch says, “The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading. It is true that students benefit from learning and practicing reading comprehension skills, but a key point has gotten lost: More training in these skills is not necessarily better.”

Today’s new teachers have been taught to waste a lot of time on explicitly teaching the sorts of skills readers naturally pick up.  Students have lessons in “reading strategies,” like predicting, summarizing, questioning, clarifying and identifying the main idea.  By all means give the kids the vocabulary for what they are doing when they discuss Charlotte’s Web.  Name “summarizing” when that’s what they’re doing.  But Charlotte’s world is vastly more important and interesting — the farm, the critters, and the agricultural cycle that would normally turn Wilbur into food.  Help kids build vocabulary for all of it, the book and their approach to it.

We’ve grown so crazed with assessments that we’ve forgotten what on earth it is we’re trying to measure.  By all means measure.  I love data.  Measure words.  You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.  If we immerse students in real contexts that expand knowledge and build vocabulary, kids will have a shot at an education.

And, God help us, they’ll get better test scores.

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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Poll Shows 62% of US Clueless About Public Education

CoCommPublished by — We are growing a nasty future for ourselves by ignoring kids’ education, specifically Common Core.

I have been, in Facebook lingo, a lurker rather than a poster regarding the new national initiative: the Common Core Standards (CCS).

CCS is the biggest thing to come along in education since the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. NCLB is not gone, exactly, but it’s quickly becoming a mere shadow of itself, as national educational policies shift from one philosophical strategy (NCLB) to a radically different one (CCS).

But I’ve lurked because CCS is HUGE. NCLB is puny in comparison. Start with the fact that NCLB had no standards whatever. Each state was told to define and test for academic proficiency. Without any actual goals or agree-on standards, NCLB created a mania for test scores — which meant what? NCLB was about passing and failing, winning and losing, schools labeled “A” or “F.” It was simple. The public engaged in all that judgment.

The only problem was that it didn’t much improve learning, according to the very data the feds forced the states to collect.

As a result, academic, government, and business associations of all kinds began to fashion and later support a set of academic criteria that would make educational attainment comparable among states. Skim through the standards themselves to understand the effort’s scale and complexity. Individual goals for students to meet are nuanced and not simple. Yes, I take issue with some of the CCS decisions, but as a culture we’re finally discussing what on earth we’d like education to be for kids, in detail! This is potentially creative, probably more effective than what we’ve been doing, and an encouraging step in the right direction.

So I was shocked, frankly, to learn how clueless the public is about CCS. The annual report on the annual education survey conducted by Gallup with Phi Delta Kappa, called “Which way do we go?,” reports that fully 62 percent of the general public has never even heard of CCS’s existence. Really? This is not okay.

Common Core is big, but you can wrap your arms around it.

The Alliance for Excellent Education created quite a helpful primer, Common Core 101. Yes, the Alliance is a friend of CC, which also has passionate foes. This primer sketches its comprehensive scope. And it notes what aspects are causing controversies, without getting into the specifics about what’s fueling the fires. You’ll never understand the truly laudable things CCS is trying to do if you get lost in the dense weeds of controversy, which can suck you in like a teen into a video game. Yes, certain testing and textbook contractors are going to make out like bandits as a result of CC, but there really are pros and cons even in that toxic thicket.

Try to avoid passing judgment until you have the big picture. But don’t leave the decisions up to the 38 percent who are paying attention.

The key to CCS is that it’s about standards, not curriculum — big dif.

An academic “standard” is broad benchmark that a kid should meet by a certain time. They’re inevitably vague-sounding. So: children should be able to read by 3rd grade. The way the CCS puts it is that third graders should

* Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words, and

* Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.

Yes, they go on to spell out what skills and knowledge reaching those standards would involve. But they say nothing about curriculum. Teachers, states, districts, and schools, along with parents, are going to have to figure out the how-to of curriculum. And this could be really exciting.

A great curriculum lays out all the interesting, hopefully delightful experiences for kids to DO to help them learn the building blocks. A smart sequence of books, activities, games and projects get kids familiar with the skills and knowledge that make meeting standards easy. (Or at least possible.) Parents, employers and others surely have thoughts about what these experiences should be. If local manufacturers and tech businesses want more kids interested in their industry, work with educators on creating relevant, engaging learning experiences.

For once it seems as if the education industry has left room for the rest of us to get in the game. Education was never for passing tests, though assessment will always be a necessary gatekeeper. Teaching was about passing down values, skills, knowledge that the culture’s adults felt were important for survival. Great! Let’s talk about those values and skills. If CCS has set a standard too low for your taste, help kids meet it and beat early. Aim for something with the kids. The public’s success, your success, is entwined with theirs.

C’mon. Everyone needs at least a passing knowledge of what’s going on with the nation’s kids. Not having kids of their own lets no one off the hook. If you know the unemployment rate, you should also know that 21 percent of America’s children are growing up in poverty. You should know that kids’ education is everyone’s responsibility, and that Common Core is the current strategy. We are growing such a nasty future for ourselves by ignoring the plight of the nation’s kids. And blaming the parents and schools is waaaay too easy. It’s all of us. Get on board.

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 Snubs Literature, Loves ‘Informational Text’

Published by — Ah, the restorative powers of great art.

by Julia Steiny

Ah, the restorative powers of great art.

Too bad classical art is so hard to enjoy without understanding the historical context and culture of the time.  It’s difficult just to imagine people who knew nothing of TV and cell phones.

Trinity Repertory Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear was a stunner.  The old king howled his wrath when his truly devoted daughter refused to fawn over him in public, as his ego demanded.  In a drenching, on-stage rainstorm storm, distraught characters reacted passionately, with famous lines of poetry, to what we could all see in front of us.  Blood spurted from Gloucester’s eyes during the on-stage blinding.  And when the king realized what he’d done, his grief was massive.  Three jaw-dropping hours flew by.

But Lear is a tough play for an advertising-saturated audience hundreds of years away from the original production.  It was written for people with patience, people who pictured scenes in their heads as they listened, instead of seeing each cinematic detail.

Now, instant gratification dulls our taste for a long view.  Entertainment is king, and courses in Art Appreciation have gone the way of Home Economics.  Ever fewer people –  well, I can only speak for Americans — can appreciate how thrilling great classical art can be.

The beauty of the classics is not so much in the eyes of the beholder as in the eyes of the educated.

Which is one of the reasons that the new national curriculum standards, called the Common Core, are so upsetting.

The Core’s English Language Arts standards shift much of the focus from literature to non-fiction, or what they call, “informational text.”  The very phrase makes my skin crawl.  And yet, the Core’s defenders are correct when they argue that far too few students know how to extract facts out of history and science books — never mind the contracts and fine print they’ll encounter as adults.

The Core’s publicists emphasize that the attention given to informational text is only a starting point, a base from which educators can build.  Their goal, in their words, is “to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.”  Presumably, once kids have mastered mining facts, their teachers can then build up students’ backgrounds so they can enjoy the rich language of Charles Dickens or George Eliot.  Not that teachers assign much of that sort of work any more.

The new Common Core will lead to a huge battery of new tests — a controversy in its own right, but for another day.  The tests will be online, which will be a relief to educators who want results right away.  The faster the results, the faster teachers can adjust their lessons to improve the next round of results.  Students will read and analyze several documents to write extended answers. or mini-essays.  But computer-scored tests make it all the more important to get the facts, grammar and punctuation right, according to a computer’s understanding.  Currently forty-five states have signed on to the project.

Curiously, among them is Massachusetts.  Pundits and researchers ask why on earth that that state would bother with the Common Core when its own standards are by all accounts far superior, very successful and steeped in literature.

Many of us think that teaching great literature well — not drearily — will produce the intellectual curiosity and broad background that will also, oh by the way, improve the over-valued test scores.

As it happens, I was a professor of theater arts in a prior life.  So at Lear the other night, while settling into our seats, my companion asked me to give her the “Cliff Notes” on the play.  Okay.  Both the main plot, about Lear, and the sub-plot, about his friend the Earl of Gloucester, are stories about parents who misjudge their children.

A fun trick with Shakespeare and his contemporaries is to peel back the characters’ names to find allegorical clues to the theme and structure of the play.  When I taught college, I loved telling students that Lear’s oldest daughter, Goneril, was named after a venereal disease.  Regan is just an echo of her sister.  And at the center of the play is the ideal heart, Cordelia — coeur is French for heart, and “delia” is a favorite Shakespearean anagram for “ideal.”

Then I’d ask my female students:  When you walk past a construction site, what do the male workers do?  They’d answer that they whistle, hoot, and make rude noises.  But inevitably, the student trying to figure out where the teacher lady was going would exclaim “leer.”  Bingo.  They leer.

Ah, so the play is about sight — insight, clear versus rain-pelted vision, blindness.  Excruciatingly, Lear finally sees that he’s rejected the true love of his adoring daughter.

Just because we reviewed a bit of cultural background, both my friend and I clearly heard every word of the dialogue that exalted the virtues of clear sightedness.  Especially seeing love clearly.  That life lesson can not be rendered into informational text.

This new focus on non-fiction is about improving the quality of workers for the economy.

But I’m betting that our money-skewed vision is blinding us to what it means to be truly educated, with a culturally big and historically rich background.

So beware the Common Core.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears 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, Providence, RI 02903.

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