Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas Fordham Institute, and one of the very view reformsters who has actually taught in a classroom. He has worked in journalism, and he worked for Core Knowledge, E. D. Hirsch's group that advocated for the preservation and passing on of, well, core knowledge. Pondiscio and I disagree when it comes to the Common Core, but we agree that background knowledge is critical for the development of reading ability.
Pondiscio's support for the Core, and the heart of much of his edu-philosophy, boils down to 57 words:
By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.
When he says (as he did in the comments section of the above-linked piece) that his support boils down to those 57 words, he's not kidding-- here he is way back in 2012, in front of a not-particularly-core-friendly audience making his case for the Core, based on those 57 words.
So where did those 57 words come from? And what do they have to do with anything? And why are they so rarely referenced as part of anybody's clolege-and-career-standards song and dance?
Those 57 words come from a slightly longer paragraph. Let's look at the whole thing.
To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.
You'll see that context doesn't change the point of Pondiscio's 57 words-- it just strengthens the call for rich content. Where does that come from? Well, from the Common Core, sort of. Right here on the page of CCSS ELA anchor standards, you'll find this graph at the end as "Notes on range and content of student reading."
Did you know that was in there? Don't feel bad. Many folks don't.
I actually agree with Pondiscio on this one, and in fact think the entire paragraph is an important one. So why is it that the vast majority of CACR standards skipped right past it?
First of all, they aren't standards. They're kind of an idea meant (or tacked on) to supplement the standards. And if like most people who just went directly to the list of standards for your grade to see what you were dealing with, you sailed right past the 57 words. They only appear on the anchor standards page; there's no hint of them on the actual standards pages.
That means that if you are using a handy digital software frame for aligning and organizing your lessons like, say, eDoctrina, then the handy pull-down menu that you use to tag your lessons and units with the various standards that you've met-- that pull down menu has only the state standards and no hint of the 57 words.
It's even worse if you're in a state like mine, where officials repudiated the Core Standards and replaced them with pretty much the exact same thing under a different name. If you check through your list of standards, you'll find pretty much the same standards with different tag numbers. But you know what you won't find? "Notes" about how to best approach or reinforce the standards. You won't find the 57 words-- not even in the Big Goals section. (It's only fair to note that I haven't checked every single set of Faux Core Standards-- but I'll be really surprised if any of them include the 57 words).
And in all cases, the Big Standardized Test does not address the 57 words at all.
In fact, the BS Tests runs away from the 57 words. Because the Core itself and the Core tests as well assume that reading is a set of skills that exist in a vacuum, independent of any background knowledge or context, test selections are set up to "level the playing field." How do you level the playing field? By choosing selections for which close-to-zero students have background knowledge. So third graders get test reading selections about Turkish tribal trade practices because nobody will have the unfair advantage of knowing what the hell the selection is talking about (we can also level the playing field by choosing selections that are so uniformly boring that no student will actually be engaged or interested-- because that would be unfair, too).
It's my shortest answer to the question "What's so bad about the common core standardized tests?" What's so wrong is that the very best way to truly prepare my students for the test would be to throw out all the textbooks, all the short stories, all the novels, even all the non-fiction works and do nothing all year except a daily drill of reading one-page excerpts from random sources and answer multiple choice questions about each. That's what's so bad about the common core standardized tests.
The 57 words appear next to the Core standards, but they are not part of the standards, and the vast number of people, from those implementing the standards to those manufacturing tests for the standards-- all those people have ignored the 57 words completely. Those 57 words (and their host paragraph) appear like nothing so much as a compromise that someone included to make somebody happier, but with no mechanism or intent to implement. Like a party platform that the party adopts to make some folks happy, but to which the candidate never, ever refers again.
I have always maintained that the rich content crowd has made a fundamental error in their embrace of the Core, what I call the "Well, surely they don't mean it" fallacy. Your colleague says he's going to punch you in the face and you think, "Well, surely they don't mean it" because you believe that a face punch wouldn't make any sense and so surely your serious-looking determined-sounding colleague doesn't mean it. You keep thinking that right up until you're holding a cold compress on your nose.
The argument that the Core calls for rich content is mostly people saying, "Well, of course it is meant to include rich content, because if it didn't, then it would be stupid."
They have pointed to those 57 words, but there's no sign that anyone anywhere takes those 57 words seriously, and the writers of the standards deliberately did NOT include the requirement for rich content as an actual standard. And the very existence of the paragraph, the 57 words, means that somebody in the room knew what the right thing to do was-- and then they didn't do it. They stuck the paragraph right where it could be easily overlooked, easily ignored, easily dropped. And it has been all those things. Keep that paragraph and we can easily dump the entire rest of the standards. But ignore it, and the Core standards are just as dull and dumb as some of us have always claimed.