Dr. Sandra Stotsky introduces herself as the only English Language Arts “content expert” on the Common Core Validation Committee, She and her teammate, retired math professor John Milgram, are virtually the only critics you see quoted on the merits of the Common Core State Standards. They served together on the Validation Committee, rebelled together and, now, write together. Here’s some background on Professors Stotsky and Milgram.
Dr. Stotsky spoke at a meeting hosted by the Epping Town Republican Committee. Here is video of the two hour meeting. Below, I give my own condensed summary of what she said. The timings (in parens) refer to that video. For greater precision, check the video.
The standards writers were not qualified
Dr. Stotsky opened by saying that there were important behind-the-scenes activities affecting the standards development process.
Standards used to be called “standards” (39:20) and were used to develop exit tests for high school graduation. Now we call them “college and career readiness standards.” That means that students who pass a test aligned with these standards must be given credit for all first year college courses they take in college.
But there were no teachers of first year college courses or teachers of high school English and math courses on the development or other committees. Most on the validation and development committees were from testing and college board or education schools. They were able to set that college and career ready line, but with no legitimate basis. “I was the only expert on English Language Arts standards” (45:54) And the two content experts – Milgram and I – refused to sign off. It was all secret.
The people chosen to write were almost unknown to the field (48:35). They had no K-12 experience and no standards writing experience. The result is that the standards are uninformed by real world experience (49:10)
Actually, there were many teachers involved. One was New Hampshire’s own Dr. David Pook, who teaches English and other subjects at the Derryfield School in Manchester. Dr. Pook helped Susan Pimentel, co-author of the English Language Arts standards, draft the standards and review extensive comments from all over the country. He says,
The standards were created through compromise. Experts from colleges and universities, entry level industries, teachers, education departments, and the public all weighed in to create the standards.
Except for the lead writers Susan Pimentel and David Coleman, everyone – including Dr. Stotsky – were just touching different parts of the elephant at different times during the process. The standards reflect literally thousands of voices, including teachers, even if Dr. Stotsky didn’t perceive that part of the process.
Jason Zimba, one of the authors of the math standards, explains the process this way:
The writing team, consisting of William McCallum, Phil Daro, and myself, worked within a working group of experts including state math directors, mathematicians, education researchers, and teachers. Drafts went out to all the states periodically, which led to mountains of feedback. A feedback committee, a validation committee, and educator organizations brought in by CCSSO and NGA such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics also commented on drafts and offered a lot of feedback. I remember when the draft was still very rough, the American Federation of Teachers put Bill and me in a room with a group of practicing teachers. They came from across the country with their drafts covered in red ink. They weren’t gentle with us, but we made a lot of progress that day. And later, of course, there was the release of the public draft – after that, we got something like 10,000 public comments from individuals and organizations.
So if you ask what role the other writers and I played, it was certainly about writing and taking first cuts at things. But it was even more about reading, listening, revising, and finding ways to problem solve and reconcile all the different signals. During this process, we went back to the evidence continually — the available research, the best of previous state standards, the major reports, and international comparisons.
Heather Driscoll, New Hampshire curriculum consultant who helped organize feedback sessions on successive drafts of the Common Core standards, says:
Over 200 educators provided feedback in meetings held in every region of New Hampshire. Anyone who wanted to get involved was involved. We were working with a confidential draft of the standards and looking very specifically at every standard.
Does this work? Could this be misunderstood by a classroom teacher? Do we need additional examples? Is this a logical progression from grade to grade? Does it make the transition to the middle school and the high school the way it needs to? Is this realistic?
We were actually using “track changes” in Word to say ‘Right here, this needs to be changed.’
At one point, I emailed DOE’s curriculum administrator that, “After reviewing the specific improvements that were made, I am speechless: the public draft addresses almost all of our teachers’ concerns…using their suggested changes (simplify phrasing, terminology suggestions, needs example, etc.)”
Tina Proulx, who teaches 7th grade English learners in Manchester’s McLaughlin middle school, was one participant in those sessions. She says:
The notion that teachers didn’t have input on this is untrue. I have the surveys that went out to math teachers. I was among the language arts teachers who went and sit on committees that provided input. The math coach and I actually went to the DoE for an input session in which we were allowed to type on the draft documents our ideas for editing and revision – she sat in the math group, I sat in the ELA group.
This fib gets told all over the country. Here it is getting put to rest in Florida.
The English Language Arts standards are bad
Dr. Stotsky says (50:15) that the ELA standards are skills, they are not standards. They have almost no content. There is no list of recommended authors or works, no British literature aside from Shakespeare, no authors from the ancient world or selected pieces from the Bible as literature, no study of the history of the English language. She goes on to say (50:50) that the standards cannot prepare students for college coursework.
The standards are skills, not content, because content is curriculum, not standards. Dr. Stotsky is engaging in a category mistake.Those that criticize the standards for putting forth a national curriculum (which is false) can’t turn around and say, “Where’s the national curriculum (recommended authors and works)?”Different communities will find texts that work differently in their environment – the Little Red Hen in the Northeast versus a southwestern version of the tale, say, Burro’s Tortillas, for Arizona and New Mexico.Dr. Stotsky seems to want a return to the canon and to be able to dictate what she thinks students should read: Jane Austen, Ovid, and the King James version of the Bible. But an equally strong argument could be made for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Homer, and the Torah.What all students do have in common is that they are a part of the American experience shaped by founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural – all documents that are required reading in the standards.Lastly, the close reading skills and argumentative writing skills the standard inculcate are precisely what students need to be successful for college coursework, since college coursework is so diverse now. They need the skills to read texts from anthropology to zoology.
A lot of what I’m hearing is that people don’t like the language arts standards. But they’re confusing what is a standard versus a curriculum. Those are all different things. The talking heads are not able to untangle it all.
Improper balance between reading and writing
Dr. Stotsky says (at 51:00) that there are more writing than reading standards at every grade level. This is the opposite of an academically sound curriculum. Reading should be paramount. Good writing depends on reading.
There are exactly the same number of reading standards in each grade (10) as writing (10).Reading is paramount. That’s why it’s first. The very first standard says “read closely.”But reading frequently leads to writing. All writing in the standards is writing to sources–writing about what you have read. There’s a clear priority of reading over writing.
Dr. Stotsky says (at 52.50) that the Common Core writing standards are developmentally inappropriate in that they require opinion based writing and emotions based words in the early years. That is not the way to develop analytical writing, she says.
Dr. Pook responds:
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.”
Too much instructional text
Dr. Stotsky says (at 54:00) that the Common Core expects English teachers to spend half of their instructional time on informational texts. She goes on to say that social studies and other teachers cannot possibly be expected to teach close reading and other Common Core standards, plus their textbooks aren’t suited to it.
As I discuss here, she is just wrong about this. And here is Kathy Kirby, social studies teacher the Hollis/Brookline Cooperative High School, unaware of Dr. Stotsky or her analysis:
[The Common Core] is very much in line with what we do naturally. It’s skills based and content based…It helps us develop and graduate successful writers and critical thinkers and people who have highly developed reading skills…
Asked how her classroom is actually different as a result of implementing the Common Core, she says,
We are more focused on primary source material – less on text books, more on actual experience in history. I teach social studies so the focus has been finding grade level appropriate primary source material that inspires students and gets them to think about developing questions for the author and understanding their point of view, which is a Common Core standard, and be able to turn that around and almost engage in a conversation with [the author] and ask them critical questions. Then they should be able to write a summary the primary source author is trying to communicate the audience.
The Common Core standard definitely gives us a roadmap.
Anyone who reads the standards can see that the Common Core does not require that 50% of English class in the upper grades to be informational text. The expectation is that the requirement that the reading of informational texts will be shared over all the disciplines covered by the standards – English, science, social studies, and technical subjects. Obviously the latter three disciplines read almost exclusive informational text, freeing English teachers to still concentrate on literary text.
A good rule of thumb for upper grades is 1 in 4 texts should be informational in nature in ELA settings.
There is the 50% expectation in lower grades – and that’s appropriate. Kids still get read lots of stories, but they also get to learn about horses, farms, and animals. This is how they build content knowledge. Lots of learners love to learn about the world who otherwise wouldn’t connect to reading through stories alone.
For anyone who wants to ventilate this question further, this Huffington Post article by David Coleman and Susan Pimentel puts the issue to rest.
The standards are poorly written
Dr. Stotsky says (at 57:20) that this anchor standard, for example, has too many things in one standard. “Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details.” This is three things in one standard. So it’s not really fewer, focused, deeper standards. They’re just all piled together.
She goes on to read the grade 12 standard: “Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text” That would get a failing grade from the teacher.
But here is a former New Hampshire standard:
Demonstrate initial understanding of elements of literary texts by identifying, describing, or making logical predictions about character (such as protagonist or antagonist), setting, problem/solution, or plots/subplots, as appropriate to text; or identifying any significant changes in character, relationships, or setting over time; or identifying rising action, climax, or falling action.
And the Common Core equivalent:
Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
You be the judge.