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Questions in response to a Barrington, NH, middle school teacher’s critique of the Common Core

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Larry Graykin, Barrington Middle School English teacher, recently posted a guest editorial opposing the Common Core on NH Labor News.  He brings a lot of credibility as a teacher, but I do have questions about his post.

First, why does Mr. Graykin rely so much on secondary sources and outside experts when he could draw upon has his own classroom experience and that of his peers in Barrington and around the state?  He uses familiar references that are in general circulation but his classroom is more interesting and credible.  Mr. Graykin is in his classroom every day and can make a valuable contribution to the discussion based on the results he is seeing – or not – as he uses the new standards.

Here are some examples where I think Mr. Graykin’s own experience would have served him better than the experts.

Are the standards developmentally appropriate?

The debate about what’s developmentally appropriate to teach young children is decades old but it reappears these days framed as whether the Common Core is developmentally appropriate.

There is a fundamental reality to acknowledge here first.  The Common Core does set a higher standard.  Expectations for our students, especially those from low-income families, have been too low.  We see it in low graduation rates, high college remediation rates, low college completion rates…and, of course, in poor results on the international tests.

The changes we must make to meet these higher standards are difficult.  Not every school and every leadership team will be prepared or will have the support needed to make this transition easily.

So it’s not surprising that some think the new standards are too hard.

But why go all the way to Connecticut for  a quote from an elementary school principal concerned about the standards?  Mr. Graykin could just walk over to the Barrington Elementary School and write about what he finds there. Whatever he reports, pro or con, would be a contribution to the conversation because he could provide context and insight.

Teachers down the road at Sanborn Regional think that the standards are entirely developmentally appropriate – that it’s just a matter of how you teach.  Maybe he’d find that in Barrington and his concerns would be addressed.  Or maybe not.  Either way, readers would get some deeper insight from the exchange.

But are the new standards a big enough leap forward to justify these new concerns about developmental appropriateness?  New Hampshire’s previous set of standards, adopted in 2006, were called the Grade Level Expectations (GLEs).  When you compare the Common Core math standards to the GLEs, the new standards are clearly more focused on a smaller number of topics each year, but the topics themselves are not that big a jump in difficulty.

Kindergarten math:  Here is a comparison of the GLEs to the Common Core math standards.  Much of the concern about developmental appropriateness focuses on kindergarten,  so look at that comparison in particular.  The two standards look pretty close to me.

It is true that Dr. Milgram, whom Mr. Graykin cites as an authority,  thinks the kindergarten standards are a problem but when you look (here and here, for instance), Dr. Milgram’s argument doesn’t hold up.  In any case, experience in Barrington’s kindergarten classrooms would be more interesting than that of a retired California math professor.

Second grade writing: Mr. Graykin goes on to say makes that the writing expectations for elementary school children are too high.  He cites June 2010 commentary by UNH English Professor Tom Newkirk as his authority.  (Prof. Newkirk expanded on that in this 2013 essay.)  

One of Prof. Newkirk’s major complaints about the Common Core is that the standards for “informational writing” in the second grade are not developmentally appropriate.  

But how different are the Common Core standards from New Hampshire’s former GLEs.  Here is what GLEs said about informational writing for the second grade:

In informational writing (reports or procedures only), students effectively convey purpose by: Establishing a topic

  • students demonstrate use of a range of elaboration strategies by: Including details/information relevant to topic and/or focus
  • students demonstrate use of a range of elaboration strategies by: Using sufficient details/pictures to illustrate facts
  • students organize ideas/concepts by: Providing a concluding statement

And here is the equivalent informational writing Common Core standard, called “informative/explanatory writing” for the second grade:

“Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section.”

The Common Core standards is much simpler, but the expectations of the second grader are clearly similar.  So Prof. Newkirk goes to an appendix to try to make his point.  He says,

“The target student texts in Appendix C [of the Common Core standards] 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…Normally this would be the expectation of an upper-elementary report; now it is the requirement for seven-year-olds.”

If you look at the appendix, though, there is no sample informative/explanatory essay for second graders.  Here is one for the end of the third grade.  That would certainly represent “exceptional, even precocious” work for a second grader.

Prof. Newkirk is a respected teacher of writing and runs a well-regarded writing program at UNH.  But he has strained so hard to reach the desired conclusion in this case that he got his facts wrong.

Rather than drawing on this kind of academic debate about pushing second graders too hard, why wouldn’t Mr. Graykin just ask a Barrington second grade teacher?  Whatever she said would be a real contribution.

Poetry in middle school

Mr. Graykin says,

“There are NO standards for the writing of poetry.  None.”

That’s kind of true, but it’s a longer story.  The Common Core standards actually pay more attention to poetry than the GLEs did.

Here are the GLEs for writing poetry.  There are no poetry writing standards at all until the 7th grade and then there are only what’s called “local” standards.  That means that poetry is not tested on the NECAP, the statewide annual assessment.  And, when you think about it, how could the annual state assessment test the poetry writing proficiency of all students?  Would parents even want that?

The Common Core standards do make suggestions for poetry readings in every grade.  Here are the grade 6-8 reading “exemplars,” suggestions the standards make for the Barrington Middle School.  The actual selection is left up to Mr. Graykin but the list of suggested poets includes Longfellow, Whitman, Carroll, Navajo tradition, Dickinson, Yeats, Frost, Sandburg, Hughes, Neruda.  Not bad.

As the standards say here, although poetry writing is not part of the standards, the teaching of many types of poetry and other creative writing is left to the discretion of the teacher.

So the Common Core standards take pretty much the same position about poetry that the GLEs did – teach poetry but don’t make proficiency in writing poetry a testing goal for every American student.  Seems pretty logical to me.

In addition, while the NECAP did not use poetry readings in its eighth grade test, the Common Core test (in New Hampshire it’s Smarter Balanced) uses poetry readings throughout its testing.  So poetry actually plays a stronger role now that it did before.

Mr. Graykin says parenthetically that his school can’t change the standards because they are copyrighted and only 15% can be added.  The 15% rule is and urban myth.  Has anyone ever seen it acted upon?  How would that even happen?

Here is the very flexible copyright.  And teachers and school districts all over NH are using that flexibility to change their standards to meet local needs.  Here are Manchester’s changes, in process.  Sanborn Regional does it.  Many other districts do.

Mr. Graykin should feel free to assign as much poetry as he wants.

Narrative and fiction in middle school: Mr. Graykin’s assertion that there is no reference to fiction writing is incorrect.

Narrative writing –  defined as “creative fictional stories, memoirs, anecdotes, and autobiographies” – is an important part of the Common Core standards in every grade.

The 8th grade Common Core standard for the narrative writing says,

3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

a. Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.

b. Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, and reflection, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

c. Use a variety of transition words, phrases, and clauses to convey sequence, signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another, and show the relationships among experiences and events.

d. Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to capture the action and convey experiences and events.

e. Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on the narrated experiences or events.

This standard clearly supports teaching as much fiction writing as the teacher decides is appropriate.  A teacher who thinks that fiction is more important than autobiography or memoir can make that choice.  The same techniques of narrative writing apply.  It’s the writing techniques, not the specific genres, that the standards want students to master.

For comparison, here is the GLE 8th grade standard for narrative writing:

In written narratives, students organize and relate a story line/plot/series of events by…

  • Creating a clear and coherent (logically consistent) story line
  • Establishing context, character, motivation, problem/conflict/challenge, and resolution, and maintaining point of view
  • Using a variety of effective transitional devices (e.g., ellipses, time transitions, white space, or words/phrases) to enhance meaning
  • Establishing and maintaining a theme
  • Providing a sense of closure

Could they be any closer?  So why all the new complaints about the Common Core?  Is it because New Hampshire developed its former standards with only a few New England states and participated, as hundreds of our teacher did, with many states to develop these standards?

Mr. Graykin and Prof. Newkirk may have criticisms about federalism, but the points they make about the standards themselves don’t hold up.  The standards will surely need to evolve, hopefully based on the experience of classroom teachers like Mr. Graykin.  But the political side of the debate doesn’t add much.


3 Comments

  1. You will, I assume, provide me with space here for a response? It won’t happen this weekend–I have a trimester to close out–but I’ll get to it as soon as I am able.

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