Questioning the Common Core: Pathways to the Common Core, Chapters 1-3

I’m reading this book with Tiffany at The Intersection of Teaching, Learning, and Technology. Tiffany is also participating in the #EdbDaily challenge.


Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement has been on my TBR stack for a few months. I teach in Nebraska, one of the few states that has not ratified the Common Core State Standards. Even though I am not technically required to cover the CCSS in my Methods courses, I do know that many of my students go on to teach in other states that have adopted the CCSS, so I wanted to increase my familiarity with the standards and include them for discussion when we study the Nebraska State Standards.

It should be noted for my readers who are not as well-versed in education policy that most states have been coerced (Obama prefers the word “convinced”) by the federal government into adopting the CCSS in exchange for waivers freeing them from the requirement to reach No Child Left Behind’s absurd 100% proficiency rate by 2014 in order to continue receiving federal education money.  No educators were involved in writing the CCSS. The standards and their supporting documents do not reference any independent, scholarly research on teaching and learning. The entire document was created by looking at academic skills and abilities students need to be successful in college and working backwards to create standards for each grade level that will support college and career readiness.

All of that raises a lot of red flags for me.

But I decided I would try to set those concerns aside and read the document itself as objectively as I could, using Pathways to the Common Core, written by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman, to support my reading of the standards themselves.

Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman smartly begin by letting us curmudgeons have our say. They highlight a number of objections to the Common Core and explore the implications of those objections at some length.

But then they ask us to play what Peter Elbow calls “the believing game” and “read the text as if it is gold,” looking for what is good about the standards. They do highlight a number of positives, noting several potential school reforms that I would love to see enacted. If the CCSS prioritize reading and writing whole texts, textbooks and worksheets have little-to-no place in such a curriculum. Schools would need to invest in books, actual books, and fill school and classroom libraries with interesting and current fiction and nonfiction. The writing standards strongly support a writing process approach to writing. And, as a whole, the CCSS would seem to offer more of a “thinking curriculum” than what we typically see in school.

Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman then offer a few broad strategies for those about to begin the adoption of the CCSS before they turn to the 10 Reading Anchor Standards.

I have to say, I was feeling more positive about the CCSS than I had anticipated after I finished Chapter One.

And then I started a careful reading of the 10 Reading Anchor Standards.

And nearly lost my mind.

It was as if 70+ years of literary theory, developmental psychology, and reading research had never happened. Because we’re back squarely in the world of New Criticism.

The authors of the CCSS clearly knew something about the theories of teaching writing that dominate the field, because the standards reflect what the research shows about how we write and how we can most effectively teach writing.

But the standards do not reflect the thinking that currently dominates the field about how readers make meaning. While the standards do ask students to perform important analytical work on texts, that is all the standards require.

I’m not knocking close reading, because it’s a valuable skill. But the CCSS overlook perhaps the most fundamental thing about reading: we read not to understand how texts work, but to understand how we work.

So why overlook all of the theories about how and why we read? What is gained by removing readers, background knowledge, and context from the reading experience? Theoretically, you end up with a level playing field. If all of the meaning is in the text, and the text is right in front of you, there is no longer any such thing as a disadvantaged reader. If we just have lots of experience and practice reading texts, we should all be able to read them equally well. So we don’t have to worry about the disadvantages that economically and socially disadvantaged students bring to the classroom as long as we don’t teach text-to-self or text-to-world connections or ask students to activate prior knowledge about their reading. And since we don’t have to worry about it, we certainly don’t have to do anything about it.

Now the CCSS are specifically designed to ensure that all students are college- and career-ready. But college reading, at least in my field, pretty much demands that students be able to read texts through the lenses of the social, economic, and political systems and events that shaped their construction–as well as to acknowledge and articulate the different subject positions the reader herself brings to her reading of the text.  Yes, we want students who can comprehend a text at its literal level. But there is much more at work even in the literal comprehension of texts than the CCSS standards acknowledge. Reading is a much more complex action than the “architects” of these standards seem to understand.

Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman do point out a few of their own disagreements with the CCSS, but their goal is to play the believing game, sketch out the implications of the standards, and propose specific ways for schools to begin implementing them. They basically use the same close reading techniques the CCSS advocates to figure out the meaning of this document, and they use their considerable experience researching and teaching reading and writing to advocate for best classroom practices. 

I suspect that many schools would see quick improvement if they followed just two of Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman’s recommendations: outfit classroom libraries with at least 20 books per student and ensure that students spend at least 90 minutes per day with eyes-on-print reading (not reading extension activities).

3 thoughts on “Questioning the Common Core: Pathways to the Common Core, Chapters 1-3

  1. This blog caught my attention because we are currently studying New Criticism in our Theory of Literary Criticism class with Dr. Tucker.

    While reading this blog post, I found myself nodding like a bobble head. I went back and reread the 10 reading anchor standards that you shared with us…and it is all about the literal level of an individual piece of work.

    I always get self conscious to write on your blog posts because you are ridiculously smart/passionate about your theory of teaching that I feel like when I agree or disagree I sound like a blubbering idiot. ANYWHO–point is. I agree. The one standard that kind of made me knit my eyebrows was “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently”. (Because of AYP and NCLB, I have really come to hate the word “proficient”).

    Like you said, yes we need our students to understand at its basic level and how it reads on its own accord, but we need to, as you say, “demand that students be able to read texts through the lenses of the social, economic, and political systems and events that shaped their construction–as well as to acknowledge and articulate the different subject positions the reader herself brings to her reading of the text.” This is where I started to REALLY nod.

    I look forward to more feedback/review you have on this particular reading/review!

    • Are you kidding? I love comments! I am also very bothered by the CCSS’s exclusive focus on college and career readiness. I take seriously the need to prepare my students for college and careers, but I think it’s much more important to make today’s learning meaningful and relevant and personally significant for students. The CCSS create situations where teachers have to say again and again, “No, this isn’t remotely useful for you right now, but you have to trust me that in 10 years when you’re in college, this is going to be really important.” The CCSS also do not reflect what a great deal of other research says about the skills and intelligences that students are going to need in the future–creativity, problem solving, collaborative learning, etc. I’ll be interested in what you think of the standards as you continue your study of 20th-century literary theory! Thanks for commenting, Nikki.

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