Op-Ed: Common Core

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I’m taking a break from my normal format here to talk about some things that haven’t been sitting right with me for a while. As the title suggests, it has to do with the oft-reviled Common Core.

I have degrees in English Literature, History and Adolescent Education. One of the reasons I don’t hold a New York State certification for teaching is that I abandoned the career path after I completed my mandatory hundred hours of observation. Originally, I was poised to be placed in an English department classroom as a student teacher, and I would eventually become certified to teach History or English– and English teachers who are dudes are a rare commodity in New York State.

But I was turned off the job by a host of reasons (and the fact that I don’t have the right temperament to teach high school– I would’ve been fired for flying off the handle within a year). The most egregious thing was the curriculum, which I loathed.

In English, for example, students weren’t reading a novel in class until ninth or tenth grade. Gone was To Kill a Mockingbird or The Outsiders that we picked up in seventh or eighth. For some kids, the first time they would see a novel in class would be when they started reading The Lord of the Flies— which isn’t even a novel, but a novella.

There was a far greater emphasis placed on short fiction and poetry. One of my students, a tenth grader, had several poems assigned each week, and he had to identify literary devices (like alliteration or imagery) for every one. And these were lame poems, about the merits of ditch digging and things like that. None of the great naturalist poems were found, or freakin’ awesome Battle Hymns or something that would actually interest students. I mean, okay, the poems weren’t to my liking, I can deal with that, but c’mon. Do you expect a tenth grade boy on the baseball team to enjoy reading about ditch digging? What the heck is that supposed to teach kids? About the intrinsic nobility in manual labor?

History was almost worse. The amount of factually inaccurate information I would be expected to teach revolted me. History is not a static subject. They like to tell us that History is fact, that verifiable data for events a few thousand years ago presents a single, clear picture.

It is not. Our knowledge of history is constantly shifting as new information is uncovered. A hundred years ago, for example, the existence of the Hittite Empire was debated, as the only references to it were pulled from the Old Testament. Then came the advent of the field of archaeology, which uncovered significant information that verified that Hittites were a thing, and were one of the two combatants in the oldest battle in history, Qadesh (or Kadesh, if you don’t like “Q”). Further, there a whole mess of discoveries popping up, like tobacco found in mummy burial chambers (actual leaves were found with Ramses II, friggin’ Ozymandias) in 1992, when tobacco isn’t and wasn’t grown anywhere in the region– it is a New World crop, dang it! Which has all sorts of implications, namely that there had to have been some kind of connection between Ancient Egypt and the West. The list is groaning under the weight of recent discoveries.

Good luck incorporating that into a lesson plan, though. Students are expected to learn certain things, and if what you want to teach doesn’t fall into that curriculum, you’re only doing them a disservice. Because students, at the end of the day, need to pass a test, and teachers don’t get to design that test– a regulating body does that for you. And if you spend too much time teaching actual fact then that means less time can be spent preparing them for the crap test. The real world effectively punishes students who spend their time learning beyond what is taught– even if what is taught isn’t correct— and, by extension, the teachers who endeavor to adjust the curriculum to fit modern discoveries, since test scores are a key metric in determining teachers’ efficacy.

Now, I don’t have a problem with testing, it should be noted. Tests determine a variety of things, like retained knowledge, direct application of that knowledge, and, of course, the ability to test well.

The idea that some people “aren’t good test-takers” annoys me. I heard that excuse all the time. Students would insist that they actually did know all of the information, but that it magically fell out of their head moments before it came time to prove it. And I get nerves and all that, but come on. You aren’t being asked to stand up in front of a room of judgmental people who are going to then systematically break you down if you mess up. You’re being asked to prove that you’ve retained the information that has been transmitted to you over a length of time, in a relatively private conversation between you and a list of questions. As I’ve said many times in my life, if you know something but can’t communicate it, you might as well not know it.

My problem with the standardized tests is that they are always the freaking same. Seriously! For example, in preparation for my Global History Regents Exam, my teacher handed out a list of questions from past tests, spanning a period of several years. About ninety percent of them were found on that year’s exam.

What the hell does that mean? It means that the test hadn’t been updated to reflect new discoveries. It means that, in order for a teacher to be considered effective in this metric, all they need to do is have their students take these questions and memorize the answers. They don’t actually have to teach. Ninety percent of the multiple choice is about half of the total score for the test. The students can phone in the two essay portions and still get a “C” (assuming you scored 50% of each, equal to about 23 points). The essay portions are usually only covering a handful of topics, and they typically give the same questions for each topic, which means it’s pretty darn easy to coach students through it.

I would much prefer a model that changes year by year, that is far less predictable and winds up being a far better proof of mastery of a subject, and is frequently updated with new information as it develops, rather than staying stagnant and continuing with the same, inaccurate curriculum. It would make teachers actually freakin’ teach the subject, and would require them to be in far better command of their subjects than some of them are, and it would make the test score metric mean something beyond coaching ability.

Now, all of this is to demonstrate some of the reasons I didn’t become a teacher, and some of the problems I have with the education system in general.

Common Core was supposed to usher in a new era of academic achievement, a great mix of new standards and practices that would revitalize the fractured landscape of the old education system. It was supposed to prepare students for college or careers, and ensure that they all learned a common core of skills that would set them up for success.

In my opinion, it doesn’t do any of that.

Now, the math standards have been under fire for quite some time, pretty much since they were introduced. I have never excelled at math in my life. I don’t use the excuse that “I’m just not good at math,” however; math, like most things, is a skill, and practice can and will increase mastery of it, but I was interested in developing other skills. I’m not really qualified to explain why the new approach to math is terrible, but there are plenty of people (a lot of engineers and mathematicians, for example) who believe that and articulate it better than I ever can. (It is something to do with poor attempts to teach simplification that wind up significantly more complicated than the old approach, as I am led to believe).

No, my main concern is the new English Language Arts standards.

Common Core calls for a new division between literary and nonfiction texts. They tier it out by grade level: 4th graders should be reading 50% literary, 50% informative, 8th graders 45% literary, 55% informative, and 12th graders 30% literary and 70% informative.

That in and of itself doesn’t sound terrible, until you start to realize that this standard is applied to the entire school, not just one course. That means that all of the reading materials assigned to students are supposed to fit into this ratio.

The design philosophy of this section of Common Core is that literacy instruction is not restricted to English courses. That means all subjects should be assigning reading material of appropriate complexity. The problem is that there is not a lot of relevant material of appropriate complexity for each subject.

I’ve read the Common Core standards myself, because education is an important topic for me, and I’d like to know what changes are being implemented. Some of the standards are relatively benign, but some are downright destructive, especially when you realize what they do when they’re all applied.

One of the biggest offenders is this new mix of fiction of nonfiction. In order to meet the standards mandated by Common Core, education administration has concluded that instructional reading should be split into half literature, half informative texts in English courses.

English courses are based on reading and writing. The content that they typically read is fiction. This includes short stories, poetry, novels, and plays. Shakespeare is important, but so is Walt Whitman, William Golding, and Edgar Allen Poe. Not so anymore; now, because of this mandate, they must add in some speeches and essays of questionable literary merit.

Now, here is the question: as an 11th grade English teacher, you would typically be covering something like The Catcher in the Rye (which I hate, but whatever). What else do you teach to reach this mandate? Don’t worry, the Common Core Standards Guide has you covered!

“Appendix B” has a list of what they term “Exemplar Texts.” These are not mandates, they are suggestions. Thank God for that, because the suggestions they offer for English are pretty freakin’ awful.

9th and 10th grade English teachers are suggested to cover the Gettysburg Address, FDR’s 1941 State of the Union, or Patrick Henry’s 1775 “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention,” among a few others. (“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. actually is a pretty good text that is suggested, if only because he writes one sentence that lasts for about three pages). 11th Grade instructors are invited to consider Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” or a bunch of essays nobody wants to read.

I did a bit of cherry picking for these, but scroll up to that link and jump to Appendix B to peruse the list.

Now, the problem with these suggestion is that they don’t fit into any of the English curricula that are out there right now. When, precisely, are 11th grade English teachers going to fit “Common Sense?” Is it between “Catcher in the Rye” and “The Grapes of Wrath?”

Further, do a majority of English teachers actually have the grounding in history necessary to properly place FDR’s 1941 State of the Union Address in context?

I remember in 8th grade, my English teacher tried to teach us about the Holocaust. And it was ludicrously clear that she had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. It appeared as though she had learned everything about it from movies or The Diary of Anne Frank. I mean, that’s okay; she’s an English teacher, she’s not supposed to cover history. But the fact that she was forced to was a serious disservice to us.

I can probably do a pretty good job of incorporating these into an English curriculum, but I also have a degree in History. Most English teachers do notAnd if you think for a second that taking the 100-level Western Civilization courses is enough to teach you history, man do you have another thing coming. One of my favorite history professors specialized in a period of history covering about thirty years– Late Colonial America. The higher your mastery, the more focused your discipline; that’s why particle physicists are different from biophysicists. And, honestly, a general appreciation for a topic doesn’t give you the mastery necessary to speak about it at length.

Now, I understand that these Exemplar Texts are suggestions. But I do not like what it means. Think about it; anyone with a cursory knowledge of English curricula knows that there is no place to put these texts, and the teachers do not have the expertise to properly teach them. So why on God’s green earth would they recommend these texts in the first place?

I can draw a few possible conclusions: either

1. They have no idea what they are doing.

2. This is a joke, and they are pulling it on America.

3. This is a deliberate attempt to annoy the crap out of teachers, students and parents.

4. This is designed to fail miserably.

Conspiracy theorists will probably say that Common Core is pitched this way so that it will fail on purpose, which will make way for more sweeping changes to the education system and a federal takeover. I’m not one of them; I think that this was well-intentioned idiocy.

If you really want to have fun, look at some of the texts suggested for other disciplines! How about The Tipping Point, an informational text on sociological changes and how they respond like epidemics?

Or how about my favorite one: Recommended Levels of Insulation, a report put out by the EPA?

When the !#@#!$ is your chemistry teacher supposed to assign that? Or your biology, history, or math teachers? Your economics teacher? Civics? Maybe if you happen to go to a charter school that offers a freakin’ sociology program, you can pick up The Tipping Point, but that’s unlikely.

Honestly, the ignorance here is baffling. It is as though a whole bunch of people got together in one room, slapped together a list of stuff they had read over the past week and said “Yeah, that’s about right.”

Some of the suggestions I get, but they’re listed for a discipline that makes no sense. “Common Sense” could be taught somewhere in 11th grade American History, sure. In fact, I’d love it if they assigned that to my kid (but I’d also recommend they assign The Federalist Papers). But English? Come on.

There’s something even worse about this 70/30 mix that worries me, however.

How’s your vocabulary? Is it good? Would you say that you know a plethora of words?

Do you know what a plethora is?

One of the most effective ways we learn new vocabulary words is by reading things that interest us despite unfamiliar diction. Someone who reads Harry Potter for the first time (in America, at least) will likely not know what the heck a “prefect” is. But we figure out what it means from the context in which it is applied. This is the type of thing that happens all the time without us realizing it. Read Stephen King, and you’ll pick up words like “explicate,” “obstreperous,” or “ephemeral.”

Running into difficult vocabulary words doesn’t intimidate us in fiction, because we are driven to continue reading by the plot. When you read novels, you’re actually learning stuff! But you don’t realize it, because you think that you’re just enjoying a story.

G.K. Chesterton once said “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity,” and while that is debatable, it cannot be denied that stories shape our culture. When stories like Spartacus enter the cultural zeitgeist, we all feel like standing up against tyranny. When The Lord of the Rings grabbed a cultural foothold, we all feel that even the smallest and weakest of us can make an enormous difference.

Harry Potter has probably unseated Star Wars as the next Great Generational Gap Bridge. Its market penetration is so deep that you would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t read it (or at least watched the movies), and they will doubtlessly share it with their kids. I can’t wait for my niece to be old enough to pick up The Sorcerer’s Stone, because that story will be a shared experience between the two of us. For my generation, it was Star Wars; my dad introduced it to me, and that was something that brought us closer together.

And, damn it, we learn things when we read. And novels can lead to more interests. Timeline got me interested in quantum physics. Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series probably foisted enough love of Roman history upon me that I was forced to pursue it as an academic discipline.

Look, man. We want students to read. And you are not going to make students to want to read by having them study EPA reports on &^%$ing insulation.

I firmly believe that getting someone to want to read is all about finding a book that will speak to them. For some, it’s a book about baseball. For others, it’s a trip to the Forgotten Realms. It’s the reason why, even though it’s a horrible piece of crap, Twilight isn’t the worst thing to happen in the past decade, because at least young people are reading.

To make matters worse, we have to remember that one of the teacher’s most valuable resources is time. They’re given X amount of time to cover Y amount of topics. These standards require greater focus to be given to informative texts. Time, unfortunately, is a zero-sum game. Time spent doing A means less time to do B, correct?

We spent about three weeks covering Lord of the Flies. That is about 7.5% of the school year, right? We also covered Julius Caesar, and a seriously wide swath of poetry, from Poison Teas and haiku to Whitman. Now 50% of that course must be informative texts. Which means that teachers must either remove some texts from the course or, even worse, teach from… excerpts.

I write a lot. Basically, it’s what I do. Excerpts freaking suck. They yank out all of the good parts of a story and boil it down to crap. Imagine trying to read Lord of the Flies on excerpts. Like, they pull out twenty pages, plop them in front of you, and say “Here, this is almost a story.”

Stories aren’t excerpts. They take the amount of time necessary to unravel. You can’t expect to get the same thing from an excerpt that you do from the whole. Imagine watching an episode of The Blacklist, but only watched the scenes with Red in them. I’d still watch that show, because Red is awesome, but the plot of each one wouldn’t make much sense.

It’s cherry picking, but it’s what some English teachers are pretty much forced to do. And it sucks. It sucks hard. These are the people who actually like stories, and they’re told that they can only share parts of them. And then… I guess you make the kids analyze them out of context? For longer works, context becomes more and more important for scenes. Picture someone walking in on Pulp Fiction right as Marsellus Wallace is getting… well, you know the scene. With no setup for it, you would be confused as hell. And you would think that Pulp Fiction is an entirely different movie than it actually is.


One artifact of the reading standards is an unexpected gap in writing standards. In the old system, students began writing real essays in 9th grade. That is when they were introduced to the concept of a thesis, a claim, and supporting evidence. 8th grade science spent a lot of time on the scientific method– state the problem, gather information, hypothesize, experiment, record and observe, and draw conclusions– which meshes very well with the concept of essay construction.

9th grade English usually involves reading some kind of essays. Students are taught how to recognize claims and theses by these examples. They begin writing their own after this instruction.

Common Core begins applying the standard “Claim– Support” method in sixth grade. The actual language: “Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.”

I get it. I like the idea of reaching for the stars, of expecting great things from students and encouraging them to clear a high bar. But sixth graders are eleven years old.

I wrote my very first short story in fifth grade, when I was ten. It was two pages. And it was based entirely upon a book I read about miniature blobs that were basically goo-monsters.

At that age, a lot of new skills are based on mimicry. You see something that is done, you try to do it too. Are we expecting children who haven’t even pubed yet to be able to do something they had never seen before? Or are we going to have them begin reading complex essays when they should be reading Goosebumps or Dragonlance?

The reading standards for K-5 make no mention of identifying claims (neither does 6-8, exactly). The object of Common Core is to build. You’re supposed to start small, and grow into gradually more complex learning. Unfortunately, 6th graders are in for a rude awakening, because a whole lot of new stuff is going to be expected of them.

Is this going to be a problem? I don’t know. That’s one of the issues with Common Core; if there is any danger, we won’t see it for years, and then we’ll have to scramble to fix it.


I get why this whole thing was implemented. They really want to help. Unfortunately, I think they’re doing the exact opposite of what is necessary. By cramming these informative texts down our kids’ throats, they’re going to turn off a whole lot of students from reading. Reading is supposed to be fun. Kids are supposed to want to read. That’s the goal, right? At least one of them?

Can’t we agree on that? Can’t everyone say that more kids should be reading more? And can we further agree that reading about insulation practices is !%$&ing lame?


I’m not an educator. I don’t believe in making education a political issue. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to be happy about regulatory bodies inflicting their peculiar brand of idiocy on what students should be freaking reading. Let them read Moby Dick or Hamlet. But don’t make them choose. And don’t make teachers have to shoehorn scholarly articles well beyond the reading levels of their students in order to meet an arbitrary quota that you think is better.


I can go on for another several thousand words, but I won’t. I’ll simply finish by saying that I encourage all of you to voice your concerns about Common Core to your legislators.

Unless you think it’s great. Then… well, you’ve already won, so, you know. Good for you.

Category: Essays | Tags: , , ,
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