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Arguments that the Common Core literacy standards are not developmentally appropriate in elementary school don’t hold up to scrutiny

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Common Core critic Sandra Stotsky says that the standards’ requirements for opinion based writing are inappropriate for children in the early grades.  Dr. David Pook responds asking children to form opinions based on what is in the text is entirely appropriate.

UNH English faculty member Dr. Tom Newkirk says the the writing sample offered in an appendix to the Common Core set too high a standard.  I say that’s a discussion worth having but not a serious criticism of the Common Core.

I discussed the question of whether the kindergarten standards were developmentally appropriate here.  Common Core opponents sometimes also make the case that the standards are inappropriate in the higher elementary grades as well.  I’ll discuss a couple of examples here.

“Opinion based writing” and “emotion based words”?

Dr. Stotsky says (here at 52:54 in this video of a recent meeting) that the Common Core writing standards are developmentally inappropriate in that they require opinion based writing and emotion based words in the early years.  That is not the way to develop analytical writing, she says.  (I discuss this and other critiques of hers here.)

Dr. David Pook is a teacher of English and other subjects at the Derryfield School in Manchester.  He helped write the literacy standards and consults nationwide helping teachers implement them in their classrooms.  He  responds to Dr. Stotsky’s criticism this way:

The use of the word “opinion” in the K-5 writing standards (as opposed to “claim” in 6-12) is tied to the expectation of writing in a formal style (i.e. it is developmentally appropriate not to expect students to write in the third person in second grade).

K-5 kids can offer up the opinion that “I think Charlotte’s Web is about friendship” and then back that up with evidence from the book (but not merely their feelings about the book).  Starting in 6th grade, students should be expected to formulate claims that say “Lincoln’s views about slavery evolved over time” and not “I think that Lincoln’s views about slavery evolved over time.”

The writing samples in the Common Core are too good

Dr. Tom Newkirk is on the English faculty at UNH and is vice-chair of the Oyster River School Board (Durham, Lee and Madbury, NH).  Here’s what he says in an essay discussing why he opposes the Common Core standards:

The target student texts in Appendix C are clearly those of exceptional, even precocious students; in fact, the CCSS has taken what I see as exceptional work, that of perhaps the top 5 percent of students, and made it the new norm. What had once been an expectation for fourth graders becomes the standard for
second graders as in this example:

Write informative/explanatory texts in which they [i.e., second graders] introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points and provide a concluding statement.

Normally this would be the expectation of an upper-elementary report; now it is the requirement for seven-year-olds.

It might be argued that high standards, even if they are beyond the reach of many students, will still be useful in raising performance. But if legitimately tested, these standards will result in a substantial proportion, in many schools a majority, of students failing to meet them—thus feeding the narrative of school failure (already the case in Kentucky). Given the experience with the unrealism of the No Child Left Behind demand for 100 percent proficiency, it seems to me unwise to move to a new set of unrealistic expectations.

First, it’s worth pointing out that Dr. Newkirk doesn’t get his facts right.  He quotes the second grade informative/explanatory writing standard and says that the writing sample provided sets too high a standard.  However, there is no second grade writing sample provided for informative/explanatory writing in Appendix C, though there is one from the first grade and one from the third.

Dr. Newkirk’s essay suffers from the disease that infects the writings of Dr. Stotsky and many other Common Core critics: it starts with the conclusion – the Common Core is bad because of how it was developed – and then fills in with arguments that seem to support that case.

And, as arguments go, this one is pretty darned subtle.

Dr. Newkirk’s point here is not that the standard itself is inappropriate but that the writing sample provided in an appendix sets too high an expectation.  Actually, when you read those writing samples from the early grades, you may even find yourself agreeing with Dr. Newkirk’s overall point that they do represent a very high expectation (though, it’s hard to imagine the authors of the standards choosing to provide lower quality examples to be used as “exemplars” for the country).

And the reason that is a problem, Dr. Newkirk says, is that, if that level of writing were used as the testing standard, most students would fail, “feeding the narrative of school failure.”

I would call this a pretty speculative argument.  It may indeed be one side of a legitimate debate about the need to modify this or that standard or flesh out the expectations better to provide teachers improved guidance, but it is not a strong argument for un-adopting the standards and starting over.


  1. wgersen says:

    As I’ve written in previous comments on the Common Core, the tests linked to the CCSS are the problem… and there is a lot of evidence that the tests administered so far support Dr. Newkirk’s assertion that the tests will feed the “narrative of school failure”. In Education Statistics 101 you learn that setting norms based on high expectations will necessarily yield low test scores and in Public Relations 101 you learn that repeating a slogan over and over will make it stick in people’s minds. Most of us who express concern about the CCSS are not opposed to higher standards, we are concerned about HOW these new standards are being used to manipulate test results that reinforce an incorrect message about our public schools… I remain hopeful that the Smarter Balance Assessments will be different from the tests rolled out in NYS and KY and wholeheartedly endorse the approach taken in NH in terms of implementing the standards…

    • Bill Duncan says:

      Actually, no consortium tests have been administered so far. NY and KY did their own and who knows what those represent. If and when writing is included in an early grade CCSS test, we will all look at it and debate it, I’m sure.

      In the meantime, Tom’s essay is opposing the standards, not merely the testing.

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