Saturday, July 18, 2015

Coleman's Double Disconnect

If you'd like to read a long, thoughtful and erudite consideration of Common Core, I'm not sure what you're doing on this blog. But this piece by Johann Neem at the Hedgehog Review provides all that and also provides an answer the oft-asked question, "So what exactly don't you like about Common Core."

There's a lot to chew on in the piece, but I was particular struck by a criticism of Common Core Creator David Coleman's reading approach that I have generally missed.

My most common observation about Coleman's reading concept is that it's not anchored in anything. When I looked at his long essay on reading, I saw the Coleman who wants to read works in a vaccuum-- let's look at the Gettysburg Address without talking about the Civil War, or the Sun Also Rises without considering the Great European War or Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from a Birmingham Jail without looking at what he was doing in the jail in the first place. How, I wonder, do you consider a work of literature out of time, out of context. How does it make sense to read the poetry of Anne Bradstreet without knowing anything about the Puritan faith that informed her every word?

Coleman's twisted version of Close Reading 2.0 has its practical approach. He'd like students to read short sections intensely, staying within the four corners of the text and not getting any preparation ahead of time. In short, David Coleman thinks that the kind of reading that's done on a standardized test is the Real McCoy.

In Coleman's world, we land in a piece of reading without anything to anchor us to the world we're coming from.

But Neem, looking at Coleman and the Common Core, sees something else going on as well. Here he is talking about Coleman's imperative to look only within the four corners:

Such an approach ought to elevate, even ennoble, texts. But Coleman seems to care little about the impact that a good, close reading might have on students as people and citizens. Reading King is important because it develops, as Coleman puts it at the beginning of his lesson, “a college- and career-ready skill”—not because of King’s insights into the human condition, Christianity, or American history. From the perspective of college- and career-readiness, the content is arbitrary.
Coleman’s invitation to engage texts is undermined by his presumption that instrumental skills matter more than the particular ends to which they are devoted.

 By ensuring that King’s letter is read in isolation from its historical context or larger conversations, Coleman does not allow students to learn much from King’s message. Far from ennobling the text, Coleman has dismissed what the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” might teach us.

In Coleman's Common Core, literature has no purpose except as a conduit for certain reading skills that will one day be useful to an employer.

I often argue that the purpose of education is to make each of us more fully human, to make each of
us more fully who we are to be. But Coleman has cut the literature off at both ends-- it is not attached to anything that the reader brings to it, and it will not carry over to anything meaningful in the reader's future. The reader is not to bring anything to it, nor carry anything away from it. As Coleman has famously said, nobody gives a shit what you think or feel out there in what he thinks of as the real world.

Reading Neem, I realize that for Coleman, literature is an empty ship adrift at sea and as readers, our students are simply to be flown in by helicopter, deposited on the deck, left on board long enough to retrieve some small piece of cargo from the hold, and then fly back out again. Are there signs of human life on board? Was the ship traveling from some place interesting, or headed for some place intriguing? Doesn't matter. It's adrift, not connected to any part of the reader's life, existence or humanity.

"The Common Core offers students instrumental skills divorced from the purposes for which those skills might be used," says Neem. That's as short, sweet and clear criticism of the Core as any I've read. Coleman's Core is like someone who's determined to be the very best as kissing another human being, but has no idea why they might want to.


  1. "In Coleman's Common Core, literature has no purpose except as a conduit for certain reading skills that will one day be useful to an employer."

    But even if we boil it down to just "the four corners of the text", I don't see how that's useful to any employer. I work in law, for instance. When lawyers read new laws, complaints, briefs, contracts, etc., yes, they need to know what that specific document actually says "in the four corners of the text", but they also need to be able to connect it to other laws, cases, rulings, opinions, etc. in order to do anything with it. A lawyer who couldn't do that would be useless (in fact, probably would never get to be a lawyer in the first place). Even in my job as a legal grunt, I'm good at what I do because of what I've previously learned, not because I take every assignment as an opportunity to learn my job all over again.

    I'm guessing the need to connect new information with old information is even more important in fields like medicine or other sciences where some new study might contradict what's previously been thought. A doctor/scientist would need the ability to remember or find those previous studies, analyze the data and methods from all of them and compare the validity of the new study against the old.

  2. The attempt to divorce reading from context is Coleman's way of solving the content knowledge problem. Had the writers of Common Core attempted to mandate the acquisition of knowledge, the standards would have been so controversial that none of the states would have signed onto them. The only way to maintain the illusion that CCSS will lead to higher levels of achievement is to insist that skills can be acquired in the absence of knowledge. Does Coleman actually believe this? Who knows? But practically speaking, I think that the fixation on this approach to reading is simply an attempt to side-step one of the central contradictions of CCSS.