The Common Core: Diamond in the Rough?

Cheryl Dobbertin and I have teamed up again at Education Week to find joy within the Common Core. I don’t think it takes away from our message at all to say we have been working on this SINCE JANUARY– yet another symptom of the pure, hard slog up the mountain that this year has been for many educators, and certainly those in New York State. As if an average of 3 posts in the 2012-13 school year didn’t tip you off.

Right, so, I’ll make a deal with you, readers. If you leave a comment somewhere, it will remind me that I still have readers. (I put that in bold for you.) And perhaps The Line will travel with you through the July 1st implosion of Google Reader.  So I’ll have that going for me. Which is nice.

In return…but, you know, never mind. I’m not going to make posting contingent on your blog love; that isn’t fair.  Just know I’m gathering up my get-up-and-go for some more…regular…much more regular…posting, as Jose Vilson advises.

And thank you for your support

UPDATE: My old friends at Teaching The Hudson Valley have also posted some parts of the Ed Week piece, in part because their Summer Institute is focusing on sifting through the ambivalence surrounding the Common  Core. Check them out, especially if you live in New York or downstate. They are kick-ass. And, the picture of me isn’t bad.

Tom Hoffman on the Common Core: It’s What You Need to Know to Get a “C.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, particularly on the ELA side of things. Tom explains more below. Bolded emphases are mine.


The primary goal of the Common Core English Language Arts standards is very specific: To create high school graduates ready to pass their freshman college courses.  Literally (if uncharitably), what do you need to know and be able to do to get at least a “C” in all your community college courses?

The research base of the standards, such as it is, focuses on that question: what do college freshmen need to know?

This approach is somewhat disarming to teachers, because almost all would agree that college readiness is an important and worthwhile goal.  The problem is that in the CCSS it is essentially the ONLY goal.  And they are narrowly drawn even within that, as the standards do not consider the needs of, for example, the future creative writing major.

If you are wondering, “Why is X not in the standards?” ask yourself  “Can a student get a passing as a freshman in community college without X?” and if the answer is “yes,” then you know why X isn’t in there.

The problem of course is that this isn’t what we used to think of as the goal of public education, it is radically narrower than the objectives of higher-performing countries, nor is it the result of some kind of robust public discussion of our nation’s educational philosophy.  This shriveling of our educational goals has been imposed on us by the 1% working through a system of bought and paid-for non-profits and politicians.

Within the context of college readiness Common Core English Language Arts standards are mostly about one thing:

Generating academic textual analyses of complex texts.

And within that, it is textual complexity uber alles.  There has been a lot of discussion about reading lists and fiction vs. non-fiction, but when the rubber hits the road, it will all be about text complexity and comprehension.

For each text, there are between seven and nine applicable analysis tasks.  These are very narrowly defined, for example, “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of several word choices on meaning and tone” and they don’t change that much over the years or text type, so students will get PLENTY of practice coming up with a passable answer for texts they can actually comprehend.

The limiting factor for most students will be comprehension of complex texts.  The curriculum and assessments will emphasize increasing text complexity.  Value-added scores determining even high school teachers’ evaluations will primarily be determined by reading level as determined by text complexity.  English teachers need to think about the implications of this for their discipline as a whole.

Finally, it is important to emphasize the narrowness of the individual reading standards.  Some people look at a standard like “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of several word choices on meaning and tone,” and think “Gee, that’s pretty broad.”  But it is not.  It is very specific.  It is essentially the template for writing a test question. What your students need to do is very specific: answer multiple choice questions based directly on that standard or respond to that prompt with a written response.

~ T0m Hoffman


Tom’s blog can be found here, a staple of many teachers’ online reading. Go give it some love.