Monday, October 13, 2014

Fordham and CCSS and Reading and Writing

Robert Pondiscio opens a recent Core defense over at the Fordham blog with a nice display of verbal fireworks. Maybe that's why I always end up responding to the Fordham boys; they may be dead wrong on many educational issues, but at least they can write. And as it turns out, writing is on the menu of Things We Think Are Swell About the Core in "What's Right About the Core."

Pondiscio believes there are a few (three, actually) big ideas worth "preserving and promoting." Let's see if we're really ready to gives these puppies a warm, loving home.

Reading To Learn

Pondiscio is a member of the Rich Content Club, and he rails against reading that is context-free, focused on decoding, and not connected to the process of using and acquiring broader knowledge. Confused yet? Pondiscio seems to be, because his rant leads us to this sentence:

By contrast, Common Core’s recognition that content matters — the more you know, the more you can read with understanding—is an important recognition of how reading comprehension actually works.

The Rich Content Club is bound and determined to believe that Common Core is on their side, when it is clearly, explicitly, not. David Coleman has repeatedly made it clear-- Common Core reading is Close Reading, and Close Reading is done "between the four corners of the text." It is also supposed to be done only with short texts (kind of like the ones you'd find on a standardized test).

So the Rich Content Club's belief that full, deep texts that allow students to draw on and add to a broad background of knowledge-- well, David Coleman disagrees with them way more than I do. Content rich reading to learn is not a thing to preserve and promote about the Core any more than beautiful flowers in rolling green fields are the best part of winter in Minnesota.

Curriculum Matters

Pondiscio toots the Ed Hirsch horn here, and again I ask-- what on earth does Hirsch's knowledge-rich cultural literacy have to do with Common Core (which only addresses two content areas in the first place)?

Pondiscio is explicitly not a fan of the fuzzy-headed progressive child-centered hippy-dippy baloney, and I am not inclined to argue with him a great deal about that. But many members of the Rich Content Club seem to think that since CCSS promises to be Not That Fuzzy Thing, it must ipso facto be the kind of rigorous, tough-minded content-rich knowledge-pumping engine of cultural literacy that they dream of. It isn't. It just isn't. There isn't a word of the standards that would make me believe for a moment that it is what they hope for, and the the CCSS-linked high stakes tests clearly and explicitly push in another direction entirely.

It's like listening to one of my sixteen-year-old students explain that her cheating, lying boyfriend is really a wonderful guy, but people just don't know him like I do. Yes, we do, honey, and he does love you like you love him.

Show What You Know

Pondiscio is certain that writing is in "appalling shape" in schools. He's upset that fuzzy child-centered stuff is still leaving a mark, somewhere, I guess. That particular wave never rolled in very high or heavy in these parts, but my aunt ran an open school in Connecticut in the sixties, so I've seen it go both ways.

He shares Coleman's disdain for the personal essay. I'd offer one observation for him, as a teacher of writing-- personal essays allow students to write about subjects on which they are experts. A personal essay lets students focus on craft and technique without having to also worry about researching and supporting content. I would never do a whole year of them, but I'd never do a whole year without them, either. They serve a purpose.

He has this complaint. "If kids enjoy writing, the theory goes, they’ll write more." Well, yes. Duh. I don't know what he's offended by-- students enjoying schoolwork? Back in my day, we hated school, uphill, both ways, in the snow. Made real men out of us (even the girls). Seriously, Pondiscio is starting to go full schoolmarm here.

Pondiscio takes a shot at developing "voice" over structure or grammar (although I suspect he means usage, not grammar-- common mistake). It's an odd criticism from a man who opened this particular essay with about three paragraphs worth of raw, unadulterated voiciness. In fact, there isn't a successful writer I can think of who doesn't have a strong, distinctive voice.

He pulls things back a bit and admits there's a place for personal expression, but the pendulum has swung too far back, and it's about time it swung back, young man.

This is all a conversation worth having. I just want to offer one observation-- there is not the slightest need for Common Core in order to have this discussion. On writing, CCSS offers standards that are so weirdly bad that they will never affect anything anyway ("Never mind. We'll just see what the test wants and cover that separately," say thousands of writing teachers). So let's have the writing pedagogy discussion (for English teachers, it is the conversation that never, ever ends). But don't tell me that it has anything to do with Common Core.

That's Three

So Pondiscio has pulled up three highly debatable topics, but what is most debatable about them is whether or not they have anything at all to do with the Common Core. But that's turning out to be yet another reason that CCSS should just go away-- they are becoming an odd distraction in the midst of discussions of more worthwhile topics. They have nothing useful to add to the conversation, and if we're not careful we get sucked into arguing about what they say about instruction instead of, as we should be, arguing about what good instruction looks like.

Pondiscio ends with an imploration not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but I think we're really talking about not throwing the baby with that old bicycle out behind the barn. They don't have anything to do with each other. Though Andy Smarick also ended his piece in praise of testing, published the same day as Pondiscio's column, with the same baby-bathwater image. Kind of makes me wonder if the Fordham Foundation is expecting.


  1. Hmmm, maybe I should comment on a day that wasn't partially filled with having students complete a reading work sample so that if they fail the new test and have two work samples "banked" they will get to graduate. They were reluctant at first and then I told them about a student I had last year who had all 24 of his credits had passed the Reading and Math State Assessments, but failed the Writing and then had only one passing work sample in Writing. He didn't graduate. I have never been so frustrated and angry in my life. My passion is the Social Studies, so when I see the letters CCSS I want to scream, "What happened to Science, History and Civics?" It is obvious from our current Congress that skipping Science and Social Studies is NOT a good idea. Taking a deep breath and moving on now.

  2. Had this same argument with Rob on the Ravitch blog. I'm still waiting for him to copy and paste just one content rich ELA standard form the CC. Once again Peter pulls back the curtain on the unsubstantiated, snake oil claims of the reformers,

  3. if you can comment at the Fordham Institute site please do… also they post many of their articles on National Review Online … I've been trying to comment on F.I. for two years now… Some people think it is Fordham University it is not...

  4. The education system the reformers complain about is the result of the reforms of the last 30 years foisted on the educational system...every wave of "best practices" have only made things worse....every decision the non-educator reformers make is bad...the older teachers know better....the younger ones feel forced to comply.
    Ccmmon core won't fix it...just hasten destruction.

  5. I'll have to comment on the post instead of Twitter. Yeah, he blocked me. LOL

  6. Dang, having issues today, so apologies if this appears more than once. *grin*

    Anyway, can't find a Comments option on the Fordham page on my screen, so ended up Tweeting anyway.

  7. I swear that CC admirers THINK that CC is an honest rehash of Ed Hirsch's stuff. It's not. It's not even a bastardization. Completely disconnected. But they tout Hirsch all the time.

  8. "The Rich Content Club is bound and determined to believe that Common Core is on their side." Guilty as charged - here's one former middle school teacher (in a Core Knowledge school) who sees many good references to strong literature in CCSS.

    a) while nothing is required by CCSS, I find it reassuring to see the website includes many of the works of fiction I read with students at various times in my 18-years of teaching: Homer’s The Odyssey; Macbeth (1592); Pride and Prejudice (1813); Jane Eyre (1848); Fathers and Sons (1862 ); A Doll’s House (1879); The Great Gatsby (1925); The Grapes of Wrath (1939); Fahrenheit 451 (1953); A Raisin in the Sun (1959); To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) (

    b) Other “illustrative texts” for literary nonfiction include:
    Grades 6-8 -“Letter on Thomas Jefferson,” by John Adams (1776); Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, by Ann Petry (1955).
    Grades 9-10 – “Farewell Address,” by George Washington (1796); “Hope, Despair and Memory,” by Elie Wiesel (1997).
    Grades 11-12 – Common Sense, by Thomas Paine (1776); Walden, by Henry David Thoreau (1854); Black Boy, by Richard Wright (1945); and “Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell (1946).