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Gary Rubinstein’s Blog: Common Core vs. Common Sense

Four times a year the American Federation of Teachers publishes a magazine called American Educator.  Though I generally like what they have to say in this publication, I was somewhat disturbed by the cover story of the recent issue.  The article, which you can read online, is called ‘Letting the Test Take Center Stage.  How the common core state standards will transform English language arts instruction.’

For reasons that only the AFT and Randi Weingarten can know, they and she have been cheerleaders of the common core standards for a while now.  In a speech on April 30th, before recommending a one year moratorium on high stakes common core assessments, Weingarten spoke quite highly of the standards themselves:

what if I told you there is a way to transform the very DNA of teaching and learning to move away from rote memorization and endless test-prep, and toward problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork—things I know many of you have been advocating for years? And what if I told you there is a way to do that not a generation from now, but for students today, who will be the employees you’ll hire tomorrow?

In these are the potential to do that.

These are the Common Core State Standards for Math and English language arts that have been adopted by the District of Columbia and 45 states, including New York. The pages within these binders lay out the kind of learning I have seen in classrooms in Finland, Singapore and other top-performing systems throughout the world. These standards establish high expectations for all students, regardless of whether they’re from Bed-Stuy or Beverly Hills, Bay Shore, Long Island, or Birmingham, Ala.

Two years ago I read a very unconvincing article in American Educator praising the common core math standards called ‘Phoenix Rising.  Bringing the common core state mathematics standards to life’  This latest issue praises the ELA standards, in part, for a reason that as a twenty year teacher and a forty-three year learner, I find puzzling.

The author, Dr. Timothy Shanahan from the University of Illinois at Chicago, predicts on page 5 that “these standards will likely lead to the greatest changes in reading instruction seen for generations.”

He then compares a passage from ‘Dick and Jane’ with one from James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ to demonstrate that reading passages can be easy or much more challenging.  This leads him to this unbelievable analogy and analysis:

Think of it this way: if states had adopted weightlifting requirements, instead of reading requirements, past standards would have said “all students should do bench presses,” but would have omitted any mention of how much weight had to be on the bar or how many reps were expected. Let’s face it, bench-pressing 5 pounds once, which almost all of us could do, is nothing like bench-pressing 100 pounds 10 times, which few of us could do. And that is what we have been doing: emptily requiring particular mental gymnastics during reading, without consideration of challenge levels.

The CCSS change that equation. At each grade level, there are 10 reading comprehension standards. The first nine note the same kinds of cognitive processes long emphasized in standards, but the 10th one, in grades 2 through 12, sets a specific level of text challenge.

What is the problem with this for teachers? It flies in the face of everything they have been taught. Reading authorities have been dogmatic about the value of appropriate book placement, and the need to differentiate book placement by reading levels has been the major approach to differentiation; this is where ideas like the old “three reading groups” and the more recent “book rooms” have come from. The claim has been that there is a special text level at which students should be taught if they are to make optimum learning gains. This theory holds that if students are taught from texts that are easier or harder than their “instructional level,” then less learning or no learning results. Accordingly, teachers have been taught not to give their students hard texts to read. But now the CCSS are requiring just that.

That this is disquieting is an understatement. It seems to be a violation of principle and a rejection of the research evidence that teachers have been admonished to follow. This is why teachers are so surprised to find that there is not really a firm base of research supporting the idea of matching kids to texts. Despite the ubiquity of the practice, research has found no consistent relationship of student-text match and learning. Despite the hard work of so many teachers to make certain that students are in the “just right” book, doing so does not appear to promote better learning.

It seems that this guy is completely out of touch with reality.  Has he ever taught a class of actual kids and seen how they respond when they attempt a task that is not just a bit beyond, but way beyond their ability?  I would be interested to hear some comments from teachers who have been teaching reading to find out if my take on this article is accurate or not.  Are reading teachers looking at the common core and thinking “Golly.  As kids get better in reading they should read more difficult texts?  Who knew?.”

I know that I am not a reading teacher, but this oversimplified generalization of how reading teachers have been teaching in the past, I find very insulting.  Finding a task that is developmentally appropriate and that will interest the students without frustrating them into giving up is something that teachers do all the time.  Teachers have not been scared to give a reading assignment that is a bit over the student’s heads, when appropriate, but good teachers likely do not assign readings that are way too difficult.  And why?  Because every teacher and every learner knows that making it too hard can be counterproductive.

In my lifetime I’ve taken all kinds of lessons ranging from tennis lessons to piano lessons to kung fu lessons to chess lessons.  I once even took a series of ‘movement’ lessons to improve my posture.  (It required me chanting the expression “Let the neck be free so that the head can go forward and up so that the back can lengthen and widen.“)  And the teachers that I learned the most from were the ones that were able to gauge what my skill level was and then to help me progress to the next level.  Of course they would sometimes take me out of my comfort zone, but they knew not to take me too far out of it to discourage me.  And I am sure that my friends who have taught reading before the common core was carried down from Mt. Sinai also knew how to keep students engaged and motivated by directing them toward appropriate reading materials.

The author admits “Under the CCSS, students will be more frustrated by challenging texts, and this means other instructional supports will be needed to help and encourage them along this path,” and then as an example of this support shows two copies of the same, now text for 10 year olds, with the second marked up in a way that will ‘help’ and ‘encourage’ them.  Notice that the ‘supports’ use not two but THREE colors!

Not being a reading teacher, myself, this post is really a critique of this fairly lame cheerleading effort.  As a math teacher, I do plan to write a lot, eventually, about the common core math standards and why I am not so optimistic about their potential.

But the AFT, I think, needs to re-examine some of their positions.  As a general rule of thumb, I’d say that anything that Arne Duncan is promoting is bad for students, and buying into the idea that ‘low standards’ is a significant part of the problem that poor kids are getting low standardized test scores might be putting StudentsFirst, but it isn’t putting students first.

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Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a high school math teacher. He is the recipient of the 2005 Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship. ...