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You Can Do Better than Common Core: An Interview with Sandra Stotsky

June 1–5, 2015   |   Vol. 123, Week 8

Would you like some tips and strategies for teaching your child? This week on Home School Heartbeat, Dr. Sandra Stotsky gives her professional assessment of the Common Core’s shortcomings—and shares commonsense advice for giving your child a great education.

“Common Core standards in English are for the most part empty skill sets—and in mathematics they have a lot of missing, delayed, or muddled standards[.]”—Sandra Stotsky

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Would you like to learn more about the Common Core? You can start by checking out our Common Core articles and news pages. Click on the link to find out more.

What’s the difference between a standard and a skill set—and why does it matter? Today on Home School Heartbeat, education expert Dr. Sandra Stotsky shows how the Common Core gets this wrong, and how that mistake hurts its students.

Mike Farris: My guest today is Dr. Sandra Stotsky. She is professor emerita of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and she’s a nationally recognized expert on education. Sandra, welcome to the program.

Sandra: Thank you very much for inviting me.

Mike: You’ve spent a lot of time evaluating the Common Core standards. How do they measure up to your idea of a good curriculum?

Sandra: I have been writing for about six years indicating all the ways in which they do not measure up very well. They are standards, and they are not curriculum—but they do certainly guide what teachers will develop as a curriculum.

Common Core standards in English are for the most part empty skill sets. And in mathematics they have a lot of missing, delayed, or muddled standards, as my mathematician friend Professor Milgram at Stanford has indicated.

Mike: Can you give us an example of one of those inadequacies that you found?

Sandra: Sure. Here is an example of a literature standard for grades 9 and 10 in Common Core. It reads as follows: “Students are to determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.”

It is a very poorly constructed statement, to begin with, because it jumbles at least three different activities together: determining a theme, analyzing its development, and then objectively summarizing the complete text.

And it’s not a true standard, which is why I call this an empty skill set. (Most of the so-called standards in Common Core’s English language arts standards are like that.) It’s not a true standard because you can apply what I just read to Moby Dick, or to the Three Little Pigs. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t address literary knowledge, literary history, or any specific reading level.

And I can give you examples of true standards, if you would like me to read them off, so that the audience would know what I mean by a real English language arts standard.

Mike: Sure—go ahead.

Sandra: In California’s pre-2010 standards for grades 11 and 12 (a similar grade level range), students were to analyze recognized works of world literature from a variety of authors. They were to contrast the major literary forms, techniques, and characteristics of the major literary periods (for example, Homeric Greece, Medieval, Romantic, Neo-classical, and Modern times) and then relate literary works and authors to the major themes and issues of their eras.

Now THAT is a true standard. And here’s an example from the pre-2010 Massachusetts standards for grades 9 and 10 (also high school level, as you can hear). Students were to analyze the characters, structure, and themes of classical Greek drama and epic poetry.

English teachers wanted that standard in Massachusetts. It’s got literary history and literary content that students have to really learn as a part of addressing that standard. That’s what makes it a true standard.

And teachers have a choice! It isn’t like we’re dictating what specific works teachers should choose. In Massachusetts in grades 9 and 10, teachers often chose either the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid. And that’s what you would pick up from a standard like that. It would give you background to the understanding of Western literature and so much else.

Mike: I think that any person with common sense can hear the difference between a real standard that has some content and substance to it and, as you describe, empty skill sets.

Tell us about the Common Core’s approach to informational reading. How does it depart from more traditional ways of teaching students to read?

Sandra: Its approach to informational reading, first of all, consists in the fact that it has expected and asked teachers to teach well up to 50% (if not more) of what it calls “informational text” at every grade level in the English language arts class. This is inappropriate in the English language arts class, because informational reading should be taking place in other subjects. And in the elementary grades or classrooms that are self-contained, it would be taking place in all the other subjects that elementary school teachers teach.

But the approach to reading is something that one of the ELA Standards writers for Common Core came up with (maybe a brainstorm in the middle of the night): close reading.

Close reading was developed by some people who were professors at Yale University in literature (Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren). And it applied to poetry. It didn’t apply to informational reading. So close reading is not a technique that applies to informational reading. But right now, lots of teachers across the country are being Common Cored by Common Core consultants or professional development, and being told to teach kids how to do close reading of informational texts.

Mike: Augh.

Sandra: Now you also should be interested in how should students learn to read.

Mike: That was my next question—go ahead and answer it.

Sandra: That’s the important one.

And I come from a background, you have to understand, in reading research, as well as in beginning reading. That was my graduate school training at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, under someone named Jean-Charles, who was a well-known reading researcher in her day.

And the question about how should students learn to read. If you’re talking about beginning reading, that part is actually OK in Common Core. Because there is a strand from K to 5 on what it calls the fundamentals of reading. And that’s based on the research, and it’s sound.

But the informational reading is something separate from beginning reading. And this notion of having students do “cold readings” of informational texts is wrong. This is decontextualized reading! That’s part of the problem with Common Core’s approach to informational reading or even other reading later on (once kids learn to read in the early primary grades). Because you don’t approach any informational piece cold.

There is plenty of research that suggests that a teacher teaching a subject where you want kids to learn new or more information about something they’ve already been studying and maybe have learned a little bit—you want the kids to remember or recall what it is they’ve already learned about the subject. You stimulate what is called prior knowledge. It’s a big concept in reading research.

And we do that all the time ourselves. When we approach a subject that may be new, we think about, “Well, what do we already know about this subject? Whether it’s right or wrong, or true or false, at least what do we think we know?” And then we’ve got a mindset for reading what’s there: “Is this new? Does it contradict what I already know? Does it add?” And so forth.

So that’s part of what has been almost banned by this notion of cold reading and decontextualized reading for informational texts in the Common Core. It’s simply a wrong approach.

Mike: Sandra, for the average person who sees the good sense of what you’ve just said, how would you explain quickly two things where the Common Core is completely wrong about its approach to teaching reading, and a couple of things that it does right?

Sandra: The thing that it does right is in that strand called Reading Fundamentals, where it does deal with the code—decoding and phonics—and there is an attempt to focus a little bit on vocabulary. Ultimately it’s a weak strand, because it doesn’t contain enough specifics on vocabulary. But that piece of it, K5, Fundamental of Reading, is a good strand, if teachers literally teach it the right way.

But if they embed it in what is called Whole Language or Balanced Literacy, then they may miss [what is] for their kids’ sake the right approach to beginning reading that we would want kids to have if they’re going to acquire mastery of the alphabetic principle and learn how to be “rapid decoders,” as we call them—learning how to be fluent in their ability to look at words on paper and be able to identify them right away.

So that part of it is both good and has some caveats in what is in Common Core.

The other part of your question—what are some of the problems—are the things that I mentioned earlier. That it expects cold reading, decontextualized reading. You don’t come in with background knowledge or a stimulation of prior knowledge when you’re reading an informational text.

Obviously for a piece of literature, you don’t bring in prior knowledge, because it could be about anything, anywhere, and characters you don’t know anything about. So close reading for poetry is fine! But for a novel? That is not exactly how you would approach a novel. You would want to have some idea of where the novel is set, talk about the main characters after the kids have gotten into the first chapter or so—there are other things you would do with it.

So there are problems with the literary approaches that are suggested by Common Core consultants or professional development providers. And there are some good things that are in the very early part on reading fundamentals, if teachers do them the right way and are not told to embed them in something called Whole Language or Balanced Literacy.

I’m not sure if I’ve answered your question fully!

Mike: You have. My father was an elementary principal with a specialty in reading instruction, and I can hear him saying a hearty Amen! to your description of reading fundamentals. He would agree with you completely.

How does the Common Core approach student testing?

Sandra: So far as we know, it is being approached through a computer. Most of the test items, if not all of them, for assessing how students are learning to acquire whatever they need to, according to Common Core standards, they are being assessed by test items on a computer.

And in some cases this will be Computer Adaptive Testing, as it’s called. Kids will do one particular test item, and if they do poorly, they will be directed to easier ones; if they do well, they may be directed to harder ones. So kids will be doing different types of items. That’s part of the format for the testing.

But the problem that I have been raising recently is that what is happening, by having kids do computer-based testing (aside from the fact that a lot of kids don’t have good keyboarding skills, so they may have problems with keyboarding, in approaching a test that’s solely on a computer) is that they’re not going to get feedback from teachers and teacher-made tests!

I happen to have taught 3rd grade (many years ago) as well as high school. And I know the value of looking at what kids have done on short little tests of whatever you’ve taught, and then giving comments back to the kids: “This is what you did well. Here’s what you need to improve in.” They’re not going to get that kind of feedback from a computer.

Mike: Well, I can tell you that our family has homeschooled our kids now for 33 years. And what you describe is exactly the way my wife teaches our kids—and one of the reasons, I think, that they’ve done pretty well.

What does the Common Core have to say about teacher qualifications?

Sandra: Frankly, as far as I can see, in the Common Core Standards documents, it doesn’t have much of anything to say about teacher qualifications. It’s about standards. But it really isn’t saying anything about teacher qualifications, which is hugely important, because I had to deal with it when I was in the Massachusetts Department of Education. I was revising teacher licensing regulations and revising teacher licensing tests. So I do know a lot about what we should be doing with teacher qualifications—and they need to be beefed up in every state!

That was something I focused on. Because if you want strong standards, stronger academic standards, taught to kids, you have to have teachers capable of teaching to them. Which means you need stronger teachers.

And the one thing we do know from research—because I was also on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel from 2006 to 2008, which looked at all of the research in mathematics education. The purpose of the panel was to figure out what we knew in order to get kids to do Algebra I successfully. And we looked at just about all the research that could be found by the company hired by the project to come up with 16,000 abstracts. Most of that research isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on; there were less than 1,000 of the 16,000 studies we could even consider as being high quality. But when it came to teacher qualifications, about the only trait or characteristic that came through for “what made for an effective teacher” was the teacher’s knowledge of the subject they taught. Not surprising, huh?

Mike: Right.

Sandra: In other words, if you want to have an effective math teacher, you start out to begin with with a teacher who knows enough math for whatever level they’re teaching math at. And that is something that we don’t assess well enough before a teacher is given a license (in most states). We don’t make sure that they have mastery of subject matter knowledge.

Sandra: And there’s even a deeper problem right now, as you may know. There is a reauthorization taking place of ESEA, the Elementary Secondary Education Act, which is known as No Child Left Behind since 2002. And one of the positive things about No Child Left Behind—I happened to have been in the Department of Education in Massachusetts at the time, administering the Act, so I know about its details—it asked for teachers to have (and demonstrate) mastery of the subjects they were teaching. But that has been removed in the current reauthorization. And all it’s asking for, so far as I know, is that teachers are licensed. Well that’s dumbing down the background qualifications of teachers. Because that’s been precisely the problem for 50 years. A license typically does not mean in most states that the teacher knows much about the subjects they teach.

Unfortunately it’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland. We give you a license to teach, because you really aren’t well trained to teach the subject.

Mike: Well, there’s a lot of issues about teacher qualifications that have been important to the homeschooling movement for a long time, and I certainly agree with you that a lot of the standards that we have now really are without a lot of substance behind them.

Sandra, how can homeschooling parents apply the principles we’ve been talking about this week to strengthen their own homeschooling programs?

Sandra: One thing, as I mentioned earlier, is the feedback. We need to make sure—and this is something parents probably can do, with the writing that their children do—is to make sure that they give them the feedback on what are the strengths and weaknesses of whatever they’re writing. Because this is how writers grow. They really need to get comments back: “Is this a good introduction? A good conclusion? Does it follow from what you put into the body of the paper?” And so forth.

Writing is one of the areas where you really need feedback. Even the best of writers need feedback, in the form of review from friends. They usually pass out their drafts to friends and try to get feedback on big issues. But that’s how parents can really help. And to make sure, of course, that the kids are doing more and more challenging reading. This is one of the great strengths homeschooled kids usually bring: they are usually good readers, and they have read a lot.

Mike: Sandra, thank you so much for joining us this week, and thank you so much for your efforts to educate people about the truth behind the Common Core. I’m Mike Farris.

Sandra StotskySandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky is credited with developing one of the country’s strongest sets of academic standards for K–12 students as well as the strongest academic standards and licensure tests for prospective teachers while serving as senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999–2003. She is also known nationwide for her in-depth analyses of the problems in Common Core’s English language arts standards.

Her current research ranges from the deficiencies in teacher preparation programs and teacher licensure tests to the deficiencies in the K–2 reading curriculum and the question of gender bias in the curriculum. She is regularly invited to testify or submit testimony to state boards of education and state legislators on bills addressing licensure tests, licensure standards, and Common Core’s standards (e.g., Utah, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Texas).

She currently serves on several committees for the International Dyslexia Association and on the advisory board for Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform. She served on the National Validation Committee for the Common Core State Standards Initiative (2009–10), on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (2006–08), coauthoring its final report as well as two of its task group reports, on the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (2006–10) and on the Steering Committee in 2003–04 for the framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading assessments for 2009 onward.

Her major publications include The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012); Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey (Forum 4, Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, 2010); What’s at Stake in the K-12 Standards Wars: A Primer for Educational Policy Makers (Peter Lang, 2000); and Losing Our Language (Free Press, 1999; reprinted by Encounter Books, 2002).

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