The Little-Known Flaw Behind The ‘Failure’ Of The Common Core | #Education

The Common Core may be the most misunderstood education initiative of recent times. A new book provides some helpful analysis but overlooks a key mistake baked into the standards that has caused widespread confusion about what they require.

Back in 2018, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declared the Common Core was “dead.” In his new book, Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding the Failure of the Common Core, education researcher Tom Loveless attempts to write its obituary. He demonstrates that the standards have had no effect on test scores or gaps between racial groups, and he criticizes them as having no basis in research—or, perhaps, common sense.

Loveless questions the value not just of the Common Core but the concept of government-imposed academic standards, period. They’re too “top-down,” he says, with too little flexibility and too many opportunities for disruption before they reach the classroom. The only standards that might work, he concludes, are those that “evolve … between teacher and student in the classroom.”

I agree with some of Loveless’s conclusions, but he misses some fundamental points about the standards that I gleaned from researching my own book The Knowledge Gap. The fatal flaw—or original sin—of the Common Core was the false equivalence its creators drew between reading and math. The governors, state school chiefs, and businessmen who conceived of the Common Core in the mid-2000s were determined to steer clear of political controversy (one of several goals that proved illusory). That was in reaction to the debacle over proposed national history standards in the 1990s. Math and reading, it was thought, were both safe, content-neutral subjects—essentially, sets of skills.

But there’s a fundamental difference between math and reading, or—more accurately—literacy. There may be different ways of teaching math, but standards have to be specific about substance. They might say, for example, that second-graders must be able to add and subtract whole numbers up to 20. Literacy standards, on the other hand, say that students need to do things like “make predictions” about a text and “identify the main idea”—usually without specifying what they’re supposed to be reading.

Educators have long tried to “teach the standards” in literacy as they would in math, putting these supposed reading comprehension skills in the foreground. The content of texts has been seen as relatively unimportant, especially at the elementary level. Schools organize the literacy curriculum around “skills,” and they’ve marginalized substantive topics like social studies and science in an effort to boost reading scores.

But as evidence from cognitive science indicates—and dismal and stagnant reading scores confirm—comprehension can only develop alongside knowledge. The more you know about a topic, the better able you are to comprehend a text about it. And the more general academic knowledge and vocabulary you have, the better your reading comprehension is in general. So instead of shunting aside content-rich subjects like social studies, schools that want to boost reading comprehension should be prioritizing them. (The other aspect of reading—sounding out or decoding words—actually is a set of skills, although unfortunately it’s often not taught that way.)

The original draft of the Common Core literacy standards was basically a list of supposed comprehension skills. The idea was to increase the level of rigor by requiring, for example, that students be able to connect claims about what a text said to evidence in the text itself. The other key requirement was that all students read and understand text at their “grade level.” That was an attempt to curtail the widespread practice of restricting students to their “individual” reading levels, which might be years below their grade level. But the only texts specified were four “foundational U.S. documents,” including the Declaration of Independence, to be read in 11th or 12th grade.

Few commentators, including Loveless, have focused on the lack of specificity in the literacy standards. But shortly before the standards were released in 2010, someone did: E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who had long been an advocate for building children’s knowledge. Coleman felt he had a point, and a meeting resulted in some changes. The standards would require students to read a specific amount of “informational text”—50% through eighth grade and 70% in high school. And language was added in a couple of places about the need to build knowledge systematically, ideally through a coherent, content-rich curriculum.

But that language appears in supplementary material, not in the standards themselves; few people are aware of it, and Loveless doesn’t mention it. For most educators, the messages that did come across were that students needed to engage in “close reading” of complex text, and that they needed to read more nonfiction.

Loveless points out there’s no evidence that just reading a bunch of random nonfiction will build knowledge, and he sees the Common Core’s approach to close reading—which urges teachers to have students plunge into a text like the Gettysburg Address without providing context—as antithetical to the idea that students should acquire knowledge. But the intent behind the standards was that the nonfiction wouldn’t be random, and that close reading would only be one way of building knowledge. The assumption, perhaps mistaken, was that students would learn about Lincoln and the Civil War in other ways. (Loveless appears to assume that Hirsch has maintained his early support for the Common Core, but in fact he repudiated it in two subsequent books.)

To the extent that the Common Core literacy standards have failed to achieve their goals, the mistaken idea that they just require adding some new comprehension skills to the existing repertoire is largely responsible. Surveys have shown that teachers in Common Core states are actually focusing instruction more on generic skills than they used to, believing that’s what the standards require—even though, in another little-known statement, Coleman and the other lead author of the literacy standards said instruction should focus on questions specific to the text rather than generic “skills” like “finding the main idea.”

And rather than having all students grapple with grade-level text, under the Common Core middle and high school teachers are significantly more likely to choose texts based on students’ individual reading levels. (The proportion of elementary teachers doing that has stayed roughly the same, about 63%.) The reasons are unclear, but influential literacy guru Lucy Calkins may be partly responsible. Although Loveless cites her as a supporter of the Common Core, she has argued—in the face of clear language to the contrary—that the standards don’t actually require that all students read grade-level text. The shift to leveled reading could also stem from a decline in student preparedness: 32% of teachers in a 2018 survey said that the level of knowledge students need to understand texts they read in class had “gotten worse” in recent years, while only 26% said it had improved.

Why? The combination of skills-focused comprehension instruction and more nonfiction may be to blame. On a steady diet of simple fiction, which is what elementary students used to get, children without much academic knowledge at least had a chance of understanding the texts and acquiring some new knowledge and vocabulary. But if they’re handed nonfiction for which they have no background knowledge, they may simply get nothing out of it. There’s evidence that background knowledge is more important for comprehending expository text, and teaching nonfiction “skills” like distinguishing a caption from a subtitle is unlikely to help.

At the same time, the Common Core may have had some positive effects. Some educators and curriculum developers did get the message that meeting the standards would require building students’ substantive knowledge. A few years ago, it was impossible to buy an elementary literacy curriculum that focused on content; now there are several available, some of them for free. And a relatively small but increasing number of schools and districts are adopting them.

The question is whether that could have happened without the Common Core. We’ll never know, but it’s arguable that the literacy standards actually interfered with spreading the word that it’s important to build kids’ knowledge. If you want to get that message out, maybe it’s better to say it directly rather than burying it under what appears to be a list of skills.

I agree with Loveless that standards are less important than curriculum. But he seems to rely on teachers themselves to initiate change, and I’m skeptical. I have great respect for teachers, but their training has misled them about how learning works. And the educational superstructure that has been built on a flawed foundation is now so vast that it will probably take what Loveless considers “top-down” measures to initiate its overthrow. At the same time, those measures will only work if individual teachers can be convinced they make sense.

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