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When ASCD asked me to write about the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers' (CCSSO) draft English/Language Arts core standards, I agreed with delight—but also with a less pleasant sense of duty. I imagine very few people enjoy perusing pregovernmental documents, after all. However, I felt that as a language arts teacher at the gateway of American secondary education, I had better bite the bullet and read the document. I was not prepared to find a text that would make me nod, laugh, frown, think, and—literally—weep. Perhaps these varied responses are the best reflection of my primary concern about the standards: the massive unevenness of the document itself.
First, let me say what the document is not. It is not a core curriculum, reading list, or jingoistic treatise on appropriate K–12 language arts content. In fact, only four sentences in, the document explicitly states that states, districts, and parents (parents! How about that?) will be making "many important decisions about curriculum." No doubt, given the high-energy tussle over national standards, the need at least to pay lip-service to the republican nature of American schooling was uppermost in the authors' minds. But the very existence of this initial statement did surprise me, given the inflated rhetoric to the contrary floating around.
Here's the second thing the document is not: poorly organized. Its structure actually seems to take a thin leaf from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins's Understanding by Design, dividing its standards into two groups: what students should know (Range and Content) and what they should be able to do (Student Performance). The standards themselves are also a model of concision, clocking in at 57 total, covering both groups in four subdisciplines (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). If this doesn't seem concise, consider a 1998 study by Robert J. Marzano and John S. Kendall that numbered unique American state language arts standards and their corresponding performance benchmarks at 282.
The proposed core standards also do not minimize—or worse, ignore—the changing face of literacy via modern technology. Instead, they attempt to define responsible, quality-driven use of technology in reading, writing, and oral communication in each of the subgroups. For that, I was grateful. As a teacher, I find that my physical resources, training, and curriculum for technology in language arts are often hopelessly outdated. Sketchy professional development sessions, vague district improvement plans, and glacial roll-ins of laptops and Smartboards are no longer sufficient, and the standards seem to recognize this—if incompletely.
The document does its finest work when it outlines standards for the treatment and generation of information, argument, and evidence. I counted 37 standards that explicitly addressed these topics, or about 65 percent of the standards. Reading them, I couldn't help but think of the fear-driven rancor surrounding the current health care reform efforts here in the United States. It might be different today if our schools emphasized rhetorical analysis and logic. There is nothing more democratic than equipping our students with the tools necessary to participate in civil, informed debate.
Why do I bring up democracy? Because a lack of democracy is also the overwhelming central flaw in the proposed standards. Given our national image as a democratic beacon, I cannot overstate this problem.
Narrow Definition of Readiness
Let’s begin with the dominating rhetoric of the document: that the standards are geared specifically for "college and career readiness." Sample sources for the standards, listed in the back of the document, are apparently aligned to this vision. Some interesting percentages out of those approximately 70 citations:
I think this speaks for itself. The sources are not only morally questionable and not truly evidence-based, but they also do not appear to be a democratic sampling of either the communicative needs of our diverse workforce or those of various institutions of higher learning.
Another nondemocratic idea in these standards is that the highest aspiration of all students in our country should be either higher education or a job in business. I use the term "business" advisedly. A close look at the standards' language reveals that despite the repeated phrase "career-ready," the burden of career sources, explanations, and examples embedded in the standards text is overwhelmingly based on a hierarchical business model. The communicative needs of alternative careers that are either not business-based or do not require a college degree—farming, art of all kinds, skilled labor, nonprofit social work, or even teaching—are not similarly addressed. We can only presume that the CCSSO does not think these careers are worth addressing.
We have an even larger problem with the standards if their implicit educational reasoning is true. Let's assume that we do live in a society that requires everyone to have a college degree before they can start a truly meaningful career. If so, then it is impossible to have a set of language standards that define both college and career readiness, since students entering college can assume that they still have time to learn the language skills needed for a career. They wouldn't possess those skills already, as the doubled-up standards would (and often do) presuppose—for example, in the insistence on mastery of discipline-specific vocabulary.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), as reported in its president's general letter to members last week, was not invited to help write the Common Core Language Arts Standards. In addition to the obvious inanity of this decision, I believe that the document shows a glaring absence of input from experienced writers. For example, it breaks one of its own standards for strong argument by being peppered with undefined adjectives, such as "rich," "sophisticated," "exceptional," and "resonant." Who decides what these terms mean and to what works they may be applied? The CCSSO should either avoid this type of language altogether, or it should pay much closer attention to creating and anchoring specific definitions of quality.
And the final technical blow: missing referents; capitalization errors; omitted punctuation; and murky, run-on sentences. That's right: basic errors of mechanics in a document intended to represent the highest standard of language in the United States.
In Defense of Holistic Education
Yet all these problems pale in comparison with the standards' failure to recognize that in a true democracy, the primary aim of education is holistic. An excerpt of Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which is included in the document with no apparent sense of irony, states how the writer "is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service . . . for her a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written—it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis."
We are supposed to be helping our young people become both aware and expressive of their individuality, their general well-being, their talents and joys, their ethical code, their desire for lifelong learning, their sense of place, their local and global communities, and their responsibilities as members of the human race. These are what ensure that students are healthy, functioning members of our society. They are certainly my ultimate goals as a teacher, with language—particularly aesthetic, creative, and reflective language—as the vehicle. Yet beyond cursory mentions of citizenship, there are no sentiments like these—not a drop—in the current draft of the standards. Narrative, reflective, and creative communication receive relatively little attention in the standards, if they are included at all. All these things are included, notably, in other international standards of language, such as those of Finland—one of the highest-performing nations on the planet.
Do you agree with Strasser's evaluation of the draft standards? Join the conversation on Inservice.
Dina Strasser is a middle school English/language arts teacher in upstate New York and blogs at The Line.
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