A missed opportunity for Common Core

Last week, I had the privilege to speak in front of a group of education journalists convened by the Poynter Institute and the Education Writers Association about identifying strengths and weaknesses in curriculum.

This is a heavy lift for journalists. It’s simply asking too much for even the most seasoned education reporters to develop a discerning eye for curriculum; it’s not their job, and it makes their job covering the instructional shifts taking place under Common Core uphill work.

I referred my listeners to a recent NPR effort to get “super-specific about what makes a good Common Core–aligned lesson.” The reporter enlisted the aid of Kate Gerson, who works with EngageNY, a New York State Education Department’s web site. She’s one of the leaders of New York State’s transition to Common Core; NPR asked her to walk through a supposedly exemplary ninth-grade lesson—a close reading of a short story by Karen Russell entitled, “St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves.”

Great idea! I’m all for reporting that sheds light on Common Core. I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Russell or this particular story, but no matter. Standards are not curriculum. Common Core isn’t top-down and lock step. Local control and teacher choice rules! This is gonna be great!

NPR’s report continues,

Russell’s work meets recognized benchmarks for literary quality—her debut novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she’s the winner of a 2013 MacArthur grant. Being new is good, too. “The phrase ‘contemporary authors’ is in the standards in multiple places,” Gerson says. This story was originally published in 2007. Finally, including work by a younger, female writer meets the standards’ call for diversity of all kinds.

Hmm. The phrase “contemporary authors” appears in CCSS exactly two times, but why quibble? And this is NPR, so diversity rules. OK, let’s see how Common Core helps students dig in to some rich and meaty literature!

The students actually start by reading and discussing the standards themselves. The teacher passes out a list of all the standards, and they focus on the ones they’ll be learning that day. Gerson says discussing the standards is not necessarily part of the standards. But generally it’s part of good pedagogy—“to name the goal, tell students what you’re asking them to accomplish.”

Oh no. Please, no. This can’t be happening…

First the teacher reads an excerpt of the story aloud. “There is an orientation aspect,” says Gerson. “We’re going to do this new thing”— understand vocabulary in context, cite textual evidence—“and we’re going to get smarter at it as the year goes on.” Then, students turn to individual close reading. They are told to reread sections and draw boxes around unfamiliar words. They write the definition of new words on Post-It notes. Forty percent of the class time—the biggest chunk of the lesson—is spent this way.

Shoot me now.

This is what “good” Common Core instruction is supposed to look like? Hardly.

The biggest problem is that this is simply a deadly dull lesson. Given a golden opportunity to illustrate the promise of Common Core for a national audience, Gerson offers up a mechanistic, skills-driven lesson about a story whose place in literature is far from assured.

Lest you think I’m being unfair, I invite you to check out the source of this exercise: a fifty-three-lesson (!) module titled, “Reading Closely and Writing to Analyze: How Do Authors Develop Complex Characters?” The other works in the unit are excerpts from Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell; excerpts from Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke; and excerpts from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Excerpts. No complete works. Bleeding chunks of literature chosen because they presumably offer opportunities to learn and practice a reading “skill.” The Common Core standards are supposed to give students the opportunity to grapple with texts worth reading. If nothing else, it should mean a transition from skills-driven literacy to curriculum-driven literacy. Skills are tools for analyzing text; literature is not a delivery mechanism for teaching skills. And fifty-three lessons on character development? At one point in the NPR piece, Gerson says under Common Core, “It takes two to three days to complete a lesson.” Is this one unit on character development going to last all year?

“A curriculum as a whole should have coherence and meaning,” Diana Senechal notes in a critique of the lesson.

A ninth-grade literature course may well be a survey course—but the works can still be selected to combine in interesting ways….Without a literature curriculum, a Common Core lesson quickly turns into a lesson on reading skills. That may explain why, on the very first day of the school year, the students begin by reading and discussing the standards, and then turn to their main activity of circling and looking up words.

Senechal is a frequent Common Core critic, but she’s exactly right when she observes, “Common Core advocates are zealously repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.”

Those of us who have supported Common Core owe it to the field to do better. We can start by holding up as exemplary lessons that represent a sharp break with the skills-driven, all-texts-are-created-equal approach has come to dominate too many classrooms. A curriculum-driven approach means using the limited time we have with students to engage them with challenging and enduring texts worth reading closely and rereading. If you’re choosing those texts because they are a delivery mechanism for skills—even useful and valuable skills—you’re already at risk of losing your way. Choose a story, poem, or novel—something beautiful, important, or enduring that you want your students to read—and then use the standards to drive the work you ask students to do. The “fewer, clearer, higher” nature of the standards guarantees that if a literary work is worth teaching, you can apply the standards to it. That’s the difference between being standards driven and curriculum driven. In the former, you choose a skill to teach and practice it on any ol’ text. Under Common Core, the text is king.

I can’t pretend not to be disappointed—not at NPR’s reporters but, frankly, at Engage NY’s Gerson. Given the opportunity to show what a great reading lesson might look like under Common Core, she offered up something dull, uninspiring, and not that much different than what too many teachers are doing today.

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