Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Core vs. Content

Since the Core first popped its tiny head out of its crinkly shell, advocates have insisted that CCSS ELA standards, demand rich content. Meanwhile, I have become increasingly convinced that the demands for rich content and the assertions that rich content must be part of Core implementation rise up precisely because the Core actually has a giant gaping hole where rich content should be.

In other words, rich content Core-o-philes are like guys looking at an automobile with no wheels saying, "Well, obviously the makers of this car intend for us to put on wheels." It's not that the wheels are in evidence; it's that their absence is an obvious fatal flaw. Or to put it another way, surely the emperor must mean for us to buy him some clothes.

But the longer the Core sticks around out in the field, the more obvious it becomes that the Core is anti-content-- particularly once you throw in the Core-based standards-measuring Big Standardized Tests.

Consider this article, written by someone whose intent is to show us how the Core is perfectly swell, even as it explains that part of the swellness is how it "eases literary classics to the sidelines."

Consider some of these quotes:

“It is true that the days for ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Great Expectations’ might be numbered, but the question that teachers have to ask themselves is ‘What is the purpose of reading this text?’" said Mark Gardner, a high school English teacher in Clarke County, Washington.

“While it may seem like sacrilege, there are many goals that can be achieved by digging deeply into a series of well-curated selections of a text rather than all of it, and then relying on teacher lecture, lessons or even Sparknotes to fill in the gaps,” Gardner said in an interview.

 As an AP English and composition teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, Ambereen Khan-Baker has included political cartoons and shorter, more complex texts while cutting out longer novels. Using multiple texts instead of focusing on one book has allowed her to teach diverse opinions.

The article is presenting, uncritically and with a light tone of  "you old fossils need to understand the new, cool way of doing things," the idea of trimming the classics down to a chapter or two. I've encountered this more than a few times-- cover a couple of key chapters in depth and fill in the rest with a summary or even, I swear, sparknotes. 

Making such changes could be a positive thing if it provides students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of literature and the skills that can be applied to reading non-fiction, according to Gardner, who said that is a key reason the classics are taught in the first place.

This is what the Core promotes and requires-- reading as a conduit for transmitting certain skills to students, and because it's teamed with the BS Tests, the skills do not include wrestling with full-length texts in any sort of depth. And apparently we can't think of any reason that classics are classic and need to be taught. Because it's easier to work on relevant themes and skills by folding in current YA hits.

Look, there's a whole worthwhile (and generally unending) conversation to be had among language-teaching professionals about the canon and what should be in the canon and what makes a classic classic and why we teach anything that was written before our students were born and how we should teach it. But the Core's contribution to that conversation is to say, "Screw content. Just teach them the skills they need for the test."

When I write lesson plans and plug in the standards, it makes absolutely no difference what actual content I'm teaching-- the standards are completely divorced from content and I can recycle the same standards-aligned plan over and over again, just plugging in some piece, any piece, of reading.

And in turns of getting great "student achievement" results (aka high test scores) I could spend the whole year having students read nothing but newspaper extracts and single pages ripped from any current fiction. If I totally lost my mind and any sense of why I actually became an English teacher, I could crank out students with great BS Tests scores who knew absolutely nothing about the literature, history and culture of their own country (or any other).

The article closes with another quote from Gardner: "We don't read books in school so we can write papers or do projects about that book; rather, we read books in school so we can more deeply understand all of the texts – books, blogs or advertisements – that we will face beyond school.”

I think Gardner is half right-- we don't read books in school just to do projects or papers. But if we only read in school so that we can practice skills we'll need to read things later in life, what will we be reading those works later in life for? If there are no riches to be found in Great Expectations or Hamlet or The Crucible or Song of Solomon or To Kill a Mockingbird, why read them just to get some practice with reading skills? If they have nothing to say to any of us about understanding what it means to be fully human and more fully ourselves, if they have nothing to tell us about the human experience as it has unspooled throughout human history, if they have nothing to say about the power of language to communicate across the gaps that separate us, if they have nothing to say about culture, if they have nothing to say about the rich heritage of the English language, if they have nothing to say about understanding the universal and the specific in human life, about how to grow beyond our own immediate experience-- if they are, in fact, nothing more than fodder for test prep, then what the hell are we doing?

The article sets out to address the effect of the Core on the classics, but it only addresses the question of how much the standards push in non-fiction and many, multiple short texts. What the article does not address is how the Core assaults the very notion of why we bother to teach reading or writing or literature in the first place. Instead, like so many Core-ophiles, it assumes that such an assault is appropriate. Rich content fans are correct to believe that the empty head and empty heart at the center of the Core screams out to be filled with real study of real literature, but they are missing the fact that the Core itself thinks that vast emptiness is a good thing, a feature instead of a bug.


  1. Couple that with measuring content by using lexile scores that count words, sentence length and voila "complexity" is achieved without any regard to meaning or concepts. Then use these measurements to determine reading ability and grade level growth so teachers can be evaluated on effectiveness...and we are being served a big common core cake of ca ca.

  2. Roll on the Enlightenment. Neither a Luddite nor a Philistine be.

  3. A content rich Common Core? Just take a look at the tests. Not a shred of their beloved evidence to support any claim that the Common Core ELA standards are content rich. As a general rule, one does not look to ELA when searching for concrete and meaningful content. That's typical left to the disciplines of history and the sciences.

  4. The 2013 - 2015 grade 8 Common Core ELA tests that I have seen have been completely ignored content knowledge. Though content knowledge, generally speaking, is not the realm of ELA. It is the narrowing of the curriculum to very narrow views of ELA and math, that have left the K to 12 content void big enough to drive the death star through. Any CC advocate who makes the bogus claim that the Core is content rich has failed their close reading assignment.

  5. "...surely the emperor must mean for us to buy him some clothes."
    See what you did there?
    Conveyed a complex idea in 12 words..
    Poetic efficiency
    made possible by a common language derived from reading literature.
    And also, water is wet.

  6. Sparknotes? That's ridiculous.

  7. I had to suppress my urge to scream expletives when I read the bit about Sparknotes. The only upside is that it reminded me of this:

  8. Common core is almost completely skill based. The other day when.I began to visualize how great it would begin I didn't have to teach to the test I realized that if I was forced to use common core I would have nothing to teach except for skills needed to pass a BS test.

  9. This post resonates deeply with me, Peter. Thank you for expressing one of my deepest frustrations with the current state of things from my POV as an English teacher. It's getting increasingly more and more difficult for me to hang on.


  10. Excellent stuff as usual Peter! One other major flaw in the "Great Core Designers" thinking comes to light. If the "Great Thinkers" were as concerned about students from poverty, rigor, closing the achievement gap, and the BS test they would require quality content, and NOT just vaunted the supposed college and career readiness skils.

  11. As usual another excellent piece Peter! If the "Great Creators" of the Core were as altruistic as they claim to be about equity and closing the achievement gap; the "Great Creators" focus of the Core would have quality content at its, well Core. Instead the "Great Creators", like and evil ruler seek to punish and lie about their precious core.

    If the "Great Creators" were as benevolent as they sound they would fight any attempt at school closures; any attempt to cut education budgets and INCREASE education spending: they would shut the charter industry down; they would embrace teachers in the co=creation of "stuff" that works. In other words the exact opposite of what the "Great Creators" are doing...