Sandra Stotsky is Professor of Education Reform Emerita at the University of Arkansas and the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality. Her latest book is The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, published by Rowman & Littlefield in June 2012. She served on Common Core’s Validation Committee and on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. She was Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999 to 2003 and served on the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from 2006 to 2010.
It’s not just Common Core’s standards and the curriculum teachers are putting into place to address those standards that are dumbing our kids down. Our colleges are contributing in their own way to the problem by the books they assign incoming freshmen to read in the summer for their first “common experience.”
As Beach Books: 2013-2014 (www.NAS.org) notes, “most colleges seek to build community through their common reading programs.” Lest anyone think this experience means a book requiring high school-level reading skill, never mind college-level reading skill, the reading level of the most frequently assigned books (those assigned 5 or more times) should dispel that myth. The average reading level for the 5 of the top 7 books assigned as summer reading by 341 colleges and whose readability levels are based on Renaissance Learning’s readability formula (ATOS for Books), available at http://www.arbookfind.com/UserType.aspx, is 7.56 (grade 7, sixth month).
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: 13 assignments (RL: 8.1)
- This I Believe by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman: 11 assignments
- The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore: 9 assignments (RL: 7.1)
- Wine to Water by Doc Hendley: 6 assignments
- Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan: 6 assignments (RL: 6.1)
- Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen: 5 assignments (RL: 7.0)
- Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: 5 assignments (RL: 9.5)
When we go deeper into the list, the level gets lower. Of the 53 most frequently mentioned titles listed in Beach Books: 2013-2014, the readability levels of 23 were available, with an average ATOS book level of 6.8. The highest ATOS book level found so far is 10.2 for Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (assigned twice). The lowest ATOS book level found so far is 4.0 for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Alexie Sherman (also assigned twice).
Based on the information available, it seems that our colleges are not demanding a college-level reading experience for incoming freshmen. Nor are they sending a signal to the nation’s high schools that high school-level reading is needed for college readiness. Indeed, they seem to be suggesting that a middle school-level of reading is satisfactory, even though most college textbooks and adult literary works written before 1970 require mature reading skills.
However, our colleges can’t easily develop college-level reading skills if most students admitted to a post-secondary institution in this country read even high school-level textbooks with difficulty. Strong growth in reading starts in the elementary school. And it must include student willingness to read regularly in and outside school, a practice that hinges on kids “getting hooked on books.”
As the spirit animating Brave New World penetrates ever more deeply the nation’s language arts curricula in the name of Common Core, school administrators and curriculum specialists need to be reminded of what elementary and middle school children are missing if their teachers give them a steady and heavy diet of “informational” texts, dystopian literature (e.g., The Hunger Games), and realistic “narrative” fiction filled with sex and violence (see Young Adult Literature). The rich body of children’s literature written in the 19th and early 20th centuries helped millions of English-speaking children in the past to view reading as an enrichment to their lives, not as an alarm bell for global catastrophe or as a springboard for fear and depression. By listening to or reading the books and poems written for them, they would:
- Experience a pleasurable fantasy world (e.g., James and the Giant Peach, The Phantom Tollbooth, Peter Pan)
- Experience an exciting adventure (e.g., Treasure Island)
- Expand their imaginations (e.g., Mary Poppins)
- Develop an ear for wordplay with the sounds of the English language and for humor (e.g., poems by Laura Richardson, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll)
- Stretch their attention spans, especially when young (e.g., Babar the Elephant, Cat in the Hat Comes Back, The Roly-Poly Pudding)
- Empathize with other people’s feelings and problems (The Secret Garden)
- Widen their cultural horizons as they vicariously learned about the world (Around the World in 80 Days)
For almost 100 years, there have been many surveys in this country of what children prefer to read. Despite changes in immigration patterns, family literacy, and cultural influences, the overall differences between boys and girls have been relatively stable across the decades. Boys prefer adventure stories, military exploits, sports heroes, and historical nonfiction. Girls prefer books about people’s relationships and animal stories. But, as all teachers know, both love fantasy (e.g., the Harry Potter series). There are no shortages of books in most school and public libraries that children enjoy reading, whether or not there are books in children’s homes.
Today, however, teachers need help from parents in getting children “hooked on books.” They, too, can’t do it all by themselves, certainly not with grim, humorless, social issue-oriented books flooding the curriculum. Kids need to practice reading every day on their own, and enjoy it. The school day and the school week are not long enough for all the reading practice needed if all students are to become high school diploma-ready, never mind “college-ready.”
Public libraries can:
- Provide lists of counting, alphabet, and imaginative books available in their libraries.
- Put lists in pediatricians’ offices and in community boxes in public parks.
Local school boards can:
- Adopt a first-class set of English language arts standards. Local schools can add whatever they want to the state board of education’s adopted standards. There’s no law against it. And local school boards can require their own teachers to make up their own tests of these added standards, give grades, and send them home to parents.
- Strengthen the literature standards in Common Core if they want teachers to teach to them, too. Choice of texts to read can be guided by many sources: the Core Knowledge lists are among the many lists available on the web.
- Require every elementary and middle school to develop a writing folder that shows what each child is doing in every subject at each grade in the school. Every month, teacher and student select a paper from every subject (e.g., science, spelling, math, grammar, history) to put into it. A student’s reading skills will be reflected in these papers. The family should be able to see the writing folder every year at a Back-to-School Night or at a parent-teacher conference. Folders should be given to students’ families after they complete the last grade in the school they attend.
Distribute to all teachers of young children a copy of Appendix A in the Curriculum Framework for English Language Arts that I have made available free of charge and copyright to all school districts and states (see below). Appendix A was vetted by the editors of The Horn Book, the premier children’s literature quarterly in the country. It lists the names of authors whose works are culturally or historically significant for English-speaking people.
State legislatures can:
Establish volunteer-staffed neighborhood-based programs for young parents to learn from volunteers (1) how to read children’s stories to their children; (2) how to take them to a public library to choose books that appeal to them; (3) how to establish a reading hour at home to make sure children spend at least one hour reading at home.
College or University Faculty, Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts can:
Require a college-level book as summer reading for newly admitted college freshmen and let the high schools from which their freshmen graduated know its title and reading level. Appropriation committees in the state legislature can tie the amount of money allotted for “Beach Books” to the reading level of the book selected by the college faculty/president.
Stanford University mathematics professor R. James Milgram included an informative e-mail in his packet of information for state legislators when he testified at a hearing on Common Core in Milledgeville, Georgia on September 24, 2014. The e-mail explains why presidents of many of the major mathematical organizations in the country endorsed Common Core’s standards in July 2013. The author of the e-mail seems to believe that the societies themselves would be unlikely to endorse Common Core’s standards, but that readers (i.e., the public) might be misled into thinking they had if they saw that the presidents had endorsed the standards. Consequently, the e-mail wants just the presidents’ signatures because they would “likely” be just as “effective.” The underlying assumption is that the members of these organizations would not be apt to learn what their presidents had done, much less know anything about the contents of Common Core’s mathematics standards.
Appendix A shows the letter that Ron Rosier, Director of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS), sent to all society presidents on June 28, 2013. (Telephone numbers and personal e-mail addresses have been deleted.) Appendix B shows the “support statement” posted on July 24, 2013 by Professor William McCallum, a “lead” Common Core mathematics standards writer. It contains the signatures of all those who were willing to respond to Rosier’s request.
The appendices make it clear that the support statement was to be signed by the presidents of CBMS member societies as a personal expression of support, not on behalf of their organizations. But it is also clear that the presidents were to be identified by means of their organization, not academic affiliation. Nor were they asked to review the Common Core standards but, rather, to provide a promotional statement for the Common Core. The support statement was posted on CBMS stationery less than a month after the initial request for signatures was sent out.
It is worth noting that the somewhat hostile legislators at the Georgia hearing never asked Professor Milgram: “What about these endorsements?”
This past week, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by William Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues and once chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in which he defended Common Core as a conservative approach to school reform—allowing, he claimed, the preservation of our civic and cultural literary heritage. Several days earlier, Politico published a blog in which David Coleman, now president of the College Board and widely acknowledged as the chief “architect” of Common Core’s English language arts standards, is quoted as claiming that Common Core had been inspired by the work of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. All of this rightly sounded bewildering to those familiar with The Book of Virtues and the Core Knowledge curriculum—and with Common Core’s ELA standards.
Hirsch has consistently advocated for a content-oriented curriculum, while Common Core’s standards are chiefly content-free (and poorly written) skills. Bennett has long advocated for a curriculum that includes highlights from our civic and cultural literary heritage, a heritage almost nowhere required or encouraged by Common Core’s standards or in the tests based on them. (Sorry, sidebars and footnotes don’t count.)
Not surprising. We have simply become the victims of a confusing propaganda war now being conducted by the Gates Foundation and its funded friends. The public is regularly told that black is white, freedom is slavery, and war is peace. Why? Mainly to portray Gates’s national standards as the victim of critics who are filled with misinformation and myths about what Common Core is and could do for the nation’s children if we only give Jaws a chance to show how well-intentioned the great white shark really is.
For reasons best known to the Gates Foundation and to public relations firms like DCI Group that it helps to fund “to craft the right messages” (a firm Bennett acknowledged paid for his op-ed), they have decided that the English language is the chief problem accounting for Common Core’s nosedive in public opinion. Whether written or oral, words are, they finally realized, intended to mean something. For a list of commonly-used vocabulary items whose meanings are being changed 180 degrees—that is, to their opposite by Common Core propagandists, see http://truthinamericaneducation.com/uncategorized/a-vocabulary-lesson/
Most parents don’t need help in understanding the Gates Foundation’s new lexicon for defending the indefensible (Common Core’s mediocre standards, as well as the curriculum and tests based on them). Enough parents can still read the Common Core-aligned lessons their children are being asked to do in school and have drawn their own conclusions about their worth—and intentions. Enough parents have also read the grade-level lists of specified literary works in the Core Knowledge literature curriculum, as well as the topics to be studied in other subjects. Because they have had eyes to see with, they can see that these literary works and subject area topics are in no way specified in Common Core’s ELA standards or the tests based on them.
Unfortunately for the Gates Foundation, lessons have had to be written down if teachers are to remember exactly what they are to do for the purpose of evaluation. So, when David Coleman claims he was inspired by the Core Knowledge curriculum, parents understand the Orwellian game that is being played on them. So do teachers. Many are leaving the profession after reading what they are to teach and teach to.
As state legislatures begin to pick up steam in their efforts to get rid of the Common Core octopus, with its many hidden tentacles reaching into the entire curriculum (under the guise of “literacy” standards), Common Core advocates have come up with a new ploy to ward off efforts to repeal Common Core and put first-rate standards in their place. It takes too long and costs too much money, Common Core advocates are now saying, to come up with another set of standards for ELA and math. Here is what was in a newsletter put out by the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas.
States that drop Common Core standards under the gun for replacing them: States that drop the Common Core State Standards face the prospect of less time to create new academic standards, and under intense political pressure. Generally, states have years to review content standards and make major changes if state school board members, those usually charged with ultimate approval of content standards, and others feel it’s necessary. The process usually involves lengthy discussions, drafts, and revisions overseen by teachers at each grade level, as well as content-area experts and others who try to ensure the standards connect across grade levels. (OEP Web Links, July 16, 2014).
This is a bogus claim, since nothing like this process took place with the excessively speedy development of Common Core’s standards, violating every civic procedure in place for a state’s own standards but with no complaints by any state board of education or governor. Any state or local school district can come up with a first-class set of college and career-ready standards in ELA and math in a matter of minutes. Many states already had them: MA, CA, Indiana in 2006, Georgia, for example. They weren’t perfect, but they were far better than what Common Core has offered the 45 plus states now stuck with its low expectations and Common Core’s hidden strings.
All a state or local district has to do (and it takes only a matter of weeks, not years) is adopt wholesale once highly-rated standards and ask high school English teachers to tweak the high school literature standards to reflect state or regional authors and works. Good math standards should be similar across states (to paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy marriages are similar), and there is no need for any appointed group to diddle with good math standards right now.
A state board of education could immediately post the standards proposed by a revision committee for a two-week public comment period (the same two-week period allowed for Common Core’s standards) and adopt them in less than a month, at little or no cost to the taxpayers in the state.
Local districts are already beginning to do this since they have had the legal authority for hundreds of years to adopt and implement whatever standards they wish. That is what plucky little Wakefield, New Hampshire’s school board did last spring. Its board decided to adopt the old Massachusetts ELA and math standards (after all, they had an empirical record of effectiveness, unlike Common Core’s) and is already implementing them. The Wakefield school board, school administrators, teachers, and parents all seem to be working together to implement a far more demanding academic curriculum than will be in place in most other New Hampshire communities this coming year, as suggested by our two and one/half hour discussion on July 15, 2014. Their kids will become better readers and writers even if state-sponsored Common Core-based tests use test items that won’t show it.
But Wakefield will face a new hurdle next year. What happens when an appointed state board of education, backed by a commissioner of education, tells a district that it must use a Common Core-based test? And the local board refuses to do so, on the grounds that a Common Core-based test is incompatible with its locally supported and legally approved school curriculum, based on locally adopted standards that are far superior to Common Core’s? And that the local board has more trust in local teacher-made tests than in the unknown quality of a Common Core-based test that scores students’ Open Responses elsewhere, possibly by a computer? We don’t know.
The statutory issue may have to be adjudicated by a state court. Let such a case proceed. There are pro bono lawyers in the country to help local parents make the case that they should decide what they want their kids taught by means of their elected school boards, not Bill Gates and his minions on a state board of education.
In a front-page article in June, the Washington Post featured corporate billionaire Bill Gates as a political sinner who deserves sainthood because his heart is in the right place. He bought off every organization in the country and colluded with the U.S. Department of Education just to ensure that low-income students would get the same low education he wants other people’s kids to get. Not, mind you, his own kids; they will get a first-class non-Common Core education in a private school in Seattle.
On the other hand, the National Review Online featured a blog in June about Jenni White, the energetic mother of six who managed to get Oklahoma to reject Common Core officially. No front page feature article about her in any national newspaper. Her group of activist mothers doesn’t have the money Gates has to bribe everyone to promote Common Core for other people’s children. Her group of moms just wants a say in their own children’s education because they want a stronger curriculum than Common Core’s standards lead to.
What remains to be teased out is why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and our major teacher unions were so willing to be “useful idiots.” Why did the teacher unions agree to hold all teachers accountable for students’ scores on tests based on standards that are not only not internationally benchmarked (not comparable with the best sets of standards in high-achieving countries) but also lead to inequities in what is taught across school districts and states? (No pathway to calculus in Common Core’s math standards, unless mathematically sophisticated parents in high-performing school districts demand them.) How did their unions ever agree to tie teachers’ evaluations to tests based on Gates’ ludicrous “national” standards, whether next year or in several more years?
The trust that parents once had in their public schools has been ruptured—for good. But Duncan/Fordham/Coleman et al probably don’t care so long as the cut scores (passing scores) on Common Core-based tests can be set in a way to provide “evidence” that Common Core has “rigorous” standards. And the budget item recently passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives suggests that there is no shortage of legislators in this country who will believe whatever their state board, commissioner, and department of education tell them.
$5,000,000 shall be used for the one-time, non-recurring costs associated with the development and field testing of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness in College and Careers (PARCC) exam, so-called; provided further, that the PARCC exam shall not be adopted as the Commonwealth’s graduation standard nor for any high stakes assessment, until the field testing has shown that it is equal or greater in rigor than the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam.
One might wonder why Massachusetts legislators are spending $5,000,000 for a test that may be no better than the one already in place but is clearly less rigorous. The MCAS exam that the PARCC exam will replace is given in grade 10, while the PARCC test for high school graduation is to be given in grade 11. Moreover, students who pass the PARCC test will be declared college ready and entitled to credit-bearing coursework in their freshman year at Massachusetts institutions of higher education. No such reward was available for passing the grade 10 MCAS.
Bottom line: Massachusetts taxpayers may be shelling out $5 million for a test that may be no more difficult than the test already in place but which lets students bypass not only a year or two of high school coursework but also possible placement in remedial coursework in college. And we have not factored in where a cut score, or passing score, might be set on the PARCC test. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thinks Common Core’s standards and tests increase academic achievement!