More Than One Fatal Flaw in Common Core’s ELA Standards (by Sandra Stotsky)

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There isn’t just one fatal flaw in Common Core’s English language arts standards: its arbitrary division of reading standards into two groups: 10 standards for “informational” text and 9 for “literature” at all grade levels from K to 12. Based on these numbers, school administrators have told English teachers to reduce literary study to less than 50% of reading instructional time. And their interpretation of this 50/50 division in ELA reading standards has not been contradicted by the chief architect of Common Core’s literature standards, now head of the College Board, who has managed to confuse everyone by insisting that literature remains the focus of the English class.

A second flaw is Common Core’s writing standards. They are an intellectual impossibility for the average middle grade student. Nor are they linked to reading standards that would require students to read models of what they were being asked to compose.

Last November, I had an opportunity to see the results of teachers’ attempts to address Common Core’s writing standards at an event in New York City. The teachers who had been selected to display their students’ writing showed detailed teacher-made or commercial worksheets structuring the composing of an argument. It was clear that their students had tried to figure out how to make a “claim” and show “evidence” for it. But the conceptual problems they were having were not a reflection of their teachers’ skills or their own reading and writing skills. The source of their problems was the standards themselves.

[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″]A second flaw is Common Core’s writing standards. They are an intellectual impossibility for the average middle grade student.[/quote]

Common Core’s first writing standard for grades 6, 7, and 8 is: “Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.” While this request may sound impressive to the New York Times editorial board, most children don’t understand what a “claim” in a piece of writing is. Many may think it has something to do with collecting one’s baggage.

Worse yet, I discovered, there is NOTHING on what a claim in an argument is in Common Core’s reading standards in grades 3, 4, and 5 (and in 6, 7, and 8). In addition, the reading standards are almost identical in grades 6, 7, and 8 for both literature and informational text. It seems that children are being expected to analyze literary and non-literary texts as if they are both genres of expository prose.

How can middle grade children be expected to understand how to set forth a claim and provide relevant evidence to support it if they haven’t been taught how to identify an academic argument, a claim, and irrelevant evidence in anything they have read? Perhaps they are not expected to. Maybe this pretentious writing standard is there simply to convince people like the New York Times editorial board that Common Core has higher expectations than New York’s abandoned state standards, especially after large numbers of children get low scores on Common Core-based tests.

One NYC teacher admitted spending a lot of time trying to help her students come up with a topic sentence (it is close to a claim, so her efforts were reasonable). But even a topic sentence doesn’t come easily to many middle school student writers when they haven’t been taught how to read well-written articles with topic sentences in order to learn what one is and what one does for the paragraph it is in.

Years ago, it was common practice for English teachers to initiate students into the art of the essay in grade 9—after students  have read some essays. Now students in grade 6 are to attempt composing an essay with a thesis or a claim. Some kids who are already strong readers will get it. Their English teachers will eventually figure the problems out, or their parents will. But guess which children are going to be the most confused? Most likely, the least able readers and writers, the very ones Common Core wants to make “college-ready.” But will anyone point the finger of blame at Common Core’s inappropriate and uncoordinated writing standards?