Stotsky pounds the table

“When the law is on your side,” the saying goes, “argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table.”

Sandra Stotsky pounds the table
The Pioneer Institute is at it again. 

Writing for the Pioneer Institute’s blog, University of Arkansas professor Sandy Stotsky does a lot of table pounding in her latest post, subtly titled, “Why Do They Lie? And Why Do Others Believe Them?

The post is aimed at exposing Common Core supporters to be the charlatans she believes we are. Unfortunately, Stotsky’s piece is itself so riddled with misinformation and falsehoods that it ends up more effectively proving that her case against the Common Core is, at its core, substantively weak.

In between the name calling and cheap shots, Stotsky advances an argument that rests on three weak claims: 1) The Common Core are not internationally benchmarked, 2) they are really about curriculum and not about standards, and 3) the standards themselves aren’t rigorous.

First, Stotsky insists that the Common Core were not internationally benchmarked. Never mind that Fordham’s comprehensive study found that the CCSS math and ELA were a strong match to the best international assessments, including NAEP, TIMSS, PISA, and PIRLS. Or research conducted by international math expert and former director of the U.S. TIMSS study, William Schmidt, which found that agreement was “very high” between the Common Core math standards and those in place in the highest performing nations around the world. Stotsky brushes aside such evidence—or ignores it entirely—instead devoting several lines to a complaint about the reference to international benchmarking in an “Exxon ad, repeated multiple times during a recently televised national tennis match” and wondering “who influenced Exxon’s education director.” The implication is, of course, that big money, not thoughtful scholarship, is driving the benchmarking claim. It is not.

Second, Stotsky tries to argue that Common Core proponents are lying when we claim that the expectations are about “standards and testing, not curriculum.” Of course, standards will always inform curriculum; the question is whether they mandate it. Just as the Massachusetts standards (which Stotsky wrote) guided curriculum and instruction in the Bay State previously, so the Common Core will provide the foundation for what happens in the classroom. The key question is how much leeway teachers have to design the kinds of curricula that both matches their own teaching style and philosophy and that meets the needs of the students they teach. The simple fact is under Common Core, teachers will have the same degree of flexibility over curriculum and instruction they now enjoy. Stotsky doesn’t refute this. She just wishes they were beholden to different standards.

Finally, Stotsky questions the rigor of the Common Core standards themselves. On the ELA side, she asks,

[H]ow could “rigor” even lurk in Common Core’s ELA standards since they are mostly very abstract and generic skills, like “Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text”! Such an unintelligible statement is obviously applicable to any grade level and almost any text; it does not indicate any educational level or text quality, as an authentic, intelligible standard would.

There are at least two glaring problems with this analysis.

First, the Massachusetts standards she wrote (which the Common Core have since replaced) include very similar expectations, including a third-grade expectation that students “analyze how major events led from problem to solution” and a fourth-grade standard that asks students to “make judgments about setting, characters, and events and support them with evidence from the text.”

Second and even more critically, the “abstract and generic” standard Stotsky cites is actually one of ten “anchor” standards that are meant to be broad. The detailed grade-specific standards that follow clarify precisely what students should be able to do to demonstrate firm mastery of the “anchor.” In Kindergarten, for instance, the related grade-specific standard asks students to “identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.” By grade six, students are expected to

describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.

And by the end of high school, students are asked to

analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed)

These grade-specific standards are not only clearer and more explicit than the anchor standard, but they show a progression of knowledge and skills that is expected from year to year.

What Stotsky fails to acknowledge is the volume of guidance in the Common Core focused on clarifying the quality and complexity of texts teachers should assign at each grade level—including an appendix that exemplifies the kinds of great literature and literary nonfiction that students should be reading and analyzing to be prepared for college and beyond.

These are hardly the makings of “vague and general skills.” Indeed, they clarify the kind of higher-level literary analysis that students should do and how that analysis should build from grade to grade.

In the end, we—the Common Core supporters Stotsky decries—share many of her goals, chief among them to increase the rigor of reading and analysis in English language arts classes. While we can certainly disagree on the best way to achieve that end, we mustn’t lose sight of the goal itself—which is now being lost amidst the noise, fist pounding, and unnecessary ad-hominem attacks.

This article was updated on Thursday, June 20, for the Education Gadfly Daily.

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute