Indiana’s Potemkin Standards?

As opposition to the Common Core State Standards has gained momentum in parts of the land, it’s important to ask what happens if a state changes its mind and renounces those standards—which, as we’ve long said, states have every right to do. But then what? Does the state revive its old academic standards, be they good, bad, or average? Does it rewrap the Common Core and affix its own label thereon? (That’s happened already in several places, including some states where the Common Core wasn’t particularly controversial but state pride and sense of ownership are intense.) Does it keep the substance of the Core but add some content of its own—as Common Core authors always expected? (This has occurred, inter alia, in MassachusettsFlorida, and California.) Does it come up with something altogether new and better? Or does it come up with something new and worse?

Last month, when Governor Mike Pence signed a bill officially repealing his state’s 2010 adoption of the CCSS, Indiana became the first Common Core state to formally repudiate the standards. Unfortunately, it appears that, in its haste to reject and replace the CCSS, Indiana seems poised to adopt a set of Potemkin Standards—expectations built with a façade that impresses but with very little enduring substance.

Repealing the Common Core left the state’s teachers and school districts with no curricular or instructional guidance, and it left the state Department of Education little time to finalize a new set of K–12 English and math standards or to develop a workable implementation plan for those standards. (Indeed, there was so much confusion that state leaders proposed administering two entirely different summative assessments this year, considered adding a third in September, then scrapped plans for the second and third tests—and are still wondering what tool to use to measure student achievement as they transition away from the state’s existing ISTEP test.)

At the same time, Indiana Department of Education officials scrambled to develop new “college- and career-readiness” standards for Hoosier schools—which are obligatory under the state’s ESEA waiver agreement. The first draft of the new standards was released for review in February; the second draft was shown privately to a small group of national experts in March. And the final standards were released earlier this week and are to be voted on by the state Board of Education at its April 28 meeting.

What are they like? Like the Potemkin villages built to wow (and deceive) Catherine the Great, they are intended to impress—and very possibly will deceive. Indeed, Indiana Standards–scriveners have cleaned up much of the superficial confusion that made its February draft difficult to navigate and have attempted to add specificity to previously vague expectations.* More than that, however, the Indiana Academic Standards for English language arts bear a striking resemblance to the Common Core—a clear attempt to assure CCSS supporters that little has changed. In fact, as Achieve noted in its review of Draft 2, “the majority of their draft 2014 standards verbatim from [the CCSS].”

Unfortunately, in the course of that transcription, at least in English language arts, while Indiana may have kept the CCSS façade, they have stripped away three of the most important elements of the Common Core—elements that, in my judgment, set the Core’s expectations apart from nearly every set of K–12 ELA standards that preceded them. I describe these elements below. (Understand, please, as you review them, that none of these remain in what Indiana’s state Board will vote on next week.)

1. A clear link between content and comprehension

Prior to the Common Core, no state ELA standards made explicit the crucial connection between content and comprehension. The Core’s authors changed the instructional game by making this link unambiguous. On page 6, for instance, the document explains,

…while the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document. [Emphasis added.]

On page 33, the Common Core document goes further, providing detailed guidance about how thoughtfully to sequence texts to build and deepen content knowledge over time:

At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period. The knowledge children have learned about particular topics in early grade levels should then be expanded and developed in subsequent grade levels to ensure an increasingly deeper understanding of these topics.

Research consistently shows that once students learn how to decode, their reading comprehension is more directly related to their knowledge and vocabulary than to their fluency with reading skills and strategies. The Common Core standards recognize and underscore this connection and call for curricula that build both skills and knowledge.

2. The centrality of text selection

Whereas state ELA standards have long emphasized skills development as a means to improving comprehension while downplaying the choice of what students actually read, the Common Core makes explicit on page 8 that

The Reading standards place equal emphasis on the sophistication of what students read and the skill with which they read.

The importance of choosing texts worthy of reading and analysis—and of reading texts that are appropriately complex for the grade—is emphasized consistently and unambiguously throughout the CCSS. At every grade level, for example, students are expected to read and analyze texts that fall within the grade-appropriate complexity band. On pages 31–32 and again on 57–58, the standards make clear exactly what is meant by “grade-appropriate texts” both by including guidance about how teachers can use quantitative and qualitative measures to judge text complexity and by including a list of texts that exemplify the expected complexity of each grade band. In addition, the standards are accompanied by an appendix that lists, for each grade, examples of literary and informational texts that meet the content and rigor demands of the Core. This guidance is clear, thorough, and integral to the standards themselves.

3. Historical and cultural literacy

The Common Core ELA standards obviously place heavy emphasis on what is read and go to great lengths to help educators select the right readings for their students, but the expectations themselves require only five readings by name: these are the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the Bill of Rights, and one play by Shakespeare. These texts were chosen specifically because of their cultural, historical, and literary importance.

Furthermore, the CCSS include standards that ask students to

analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), including how they address related themes and concepts. (Grades 9–10, page 40)

Such requirements signal the importance of learning about our nation’s history, they underscore the importance of reading essential primary source documents that are a critical part of civic education, and they illustrate the core fact that reading is something that schools must address far beyond the English teacher’s classroom. By contrast, the Indiana standards require that students read “seminal U.S. and world texts,” with no such texts identified by name, no explicit emphasis on the Founding Documents, and equal weight given to American and “world” texts.

Bottom line

To repeat, each of these three vital and praiseworthy elements of the Common Core has been erased from the new Indiana Academic Standards. No longer are students required to read Shakespeare. No longer are they expected to read the Declaration of Independence or Bill of Rights. Teachers will find no exemplar reading list for any grade level; they will find no examples of the kinds of texts that students should read to meet the content and rigor demands of particular standards.** This is a real step backwards for Indiana, especially because their previous ELA standards included an exemplary reading list that helped guide text selection and curriculum.

Yes, the new Hoosier standards have retained language that requires students to read “appropriately complex” texts, but the guidance that helps define what that means has vanished. This means any vendor or publisher can step in and define for itself what it means for a text to be “appropriately complex,” leaving Hoosiers with little confidence that children across the state will be exposed to and asked to read and analyze equally rigorous and challenging texts.

Perhaps worst of all, the explicit link between content and comprehension—the call for a content-rich curriculum and the guidance about how a teacher or publisher might thoughtfully sequence texts to build students’ knowledge over time—is gone. Disappeared. Banished. Whereas the CCSS explicitly asks to “be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum,” the Indiana standards merely ask to “be complemented by well-developed, aligned, and appropriate curricular materials, as well as robust and effective instructional best practices.” The word “content” appears nowhere in this context. And no further guidance is offered.

In short, Indiana has inexplicably gutted the Common Core of its strongest elements, renamed what remains, and moved forward swiftly with a campaign to secure adoption of this pale, skills-heavy, content-light, text-neutral document. The Indiana Department of Education appears to have built Potemkin standards that give the illusion of substance without the foundation they need to drive teaching and learning.

It may be too late for this generation of Indiana schoolchildren. But by revealing in stark detail how repealing Common Core can lead to a significant step backward, this event will shift the dialogue away from procedural debates about the past to the critical choices that must be made regarding what academic expectations we will set for students, educators, and schools in the future.


 * In the February draft, for instance, a fourth-grade standard asked students to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text.” Now the standard asks that students “determine the meanings of general academic and content-specific words and phrases in a nonfiction text relevant to a third grade topic or subject area.” Sadly, the extra words add little substance or guidance.

 ** The state has promised a “supplemental” resource guide that promises to include a reading list, but it appears that this resource will be optional, not part of the standards themselves.


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