Friday, November 22, 2013

A Response to Catholic Scholars' Letter to U.S. Catholic Bishops

During the past year, I have presented to several groups of Catholic school parents about Common Core ELA.  It's clear from these presentations that many parents, in light of what they've read and heard, are unsettled about the Common Core initiative (math in particular).  Of course, underlying parents' concerns about Common Core is a love of their children and a desire to give them a great education.  As a Catholic school parent myself, I get this.  However, many of the questions that parents have about Common Core ELA tend to focus on misconceptions that either stem from schools, districts or states' faulty implementation plans (e.g. a teacher eliminating the Great Gatsby from her curriculum so as to adhere to what she perceives to be a central tenet of the Common Core) or from Internet articles that often tend to conflate political concerns with quasi-educational arguments that often lack specificity, thoughtful analysis or sound reasoning.

Last month, more than 130 scholars representing many U.S. Catholic colleges and universities signed a letter condemning the Common Core as doing "a grave disservice to Catholic education in America."  I have little doubt that as I continue to visit with schools, Catholic school parents, who are smart and well-read, will reference this letter as a chief source of continued uneasiness about the standards.  With this in mind, and with due respect to these scholars who have every right to challenge the standards, let me offer a few thoughts on the points made in this letter:

In this brief letter we can only summarize our evidence and sketch our reasoning. We stand ready, however, to develop these brief points as you wish. We also invite you to view the video recording of a comprehensive conference critically examining Common Core, held at the University of Notre Dame on September 9, 2013.

This "comprehensive conference" was more an anti-Common Core rally than a conference.  No curriculum experts or scholars who support the Common Core were invited to speak or serve on the panel.  How can you "critically examine" Common Core without a presentation of alternative viewpoints?     


News reports each day show that a lively national debate about Common Core is upon us. The early rush to adopt Common Core has been displaced by sober second looks, and widespread regrets. Several states have decided to “pause” implementation.
Others have opted out of the testing consortia associated with Common Core. Prominent educators and political leaders have declared their opposition. The national momentum behind Common Core has, quite simply, stopped. A wave of reform which recently was thought to be inevitable now isn’t. Parents of K- 12 children are leading today’s resistance to the Common Core. A great number of these parents are Catholics whose children attend Catholic schools.
Absolutely true.  Of course Indiana is one of the states that has decided to pause its implementation of Common Core.  Let's keep in mind that pausing Common Core still leaves us with many critical questions as to how we handle standards and testing going forward.  For example, what alternatives exist if we decide not to go with one of the two consortia assessments?  
While the Indiana standards framework adopted in 2010 would be fine to readopt (I like Indiana's current ELA standards), taking this route would force us to either stick with ISTEP+ or design a new, more rigorous standards-aligned assessment.  The former seems hard to imagine in light of the feds' stipulation that all states adopt an assessment framework commensurate with the rigor evidenced in the consortia assessments.  ISTEP+ simply wouldn't measure up.  The latter seems to hard to fathom in the light of the costs inherent in designing a new state assessment.  So where does that leave us?   
Supporters say that Common Core will “raise academic standards.” But we find persuasive the critiques of educational experts (such as James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, and Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas) who have studied Common Core, and who judge it to be a step backwards. We endorse their judgment that this “reform” is really a radical shift in emphasis, goals, and expectations for K-12 education, with the result that Common Core-educated children will not be prepared to do authentic college work.

This is a familiar critique of Common Core.  Dr. Milgram and Dr. Stotsky have ascended to heroic status among those opposed to Common Core!  What about the other experts who have also studied Common Core and deem it to be a huge step forward?  Marzano, Wiggins, Shanahan, Porter-Magee, Jago, Danielson, Hirsch.  The list goes on.  Why aren't the opinions of these experts also a factor for critics?  Furthermore, it is insufficient to simply cite the names Milgram and Stotsky as proof that Common Core is inadequate.  Isn't it reasonable to expect critics to provide a more comprehensive argument than this?  I rarely, if ever, hear critics present a side-by-side comparison of the current Indiana standards and the Common Core.  Sure, we hear a lot about Indiana's standards being "world class," but what does this really mean?  What it is about Indiana's (or any other state's) current standards and testing framework that is so superior to Common Core?  Yes, as Stotsky points out, the Common Core does not isolate out the expectations associated with specific literary genres such as poetry and drama.  Instead, Common Core integrates specific genre types into the literature and informational text standards themselves (e.g. folktales, myths, fairy tales, epic tales, lit from other cultures).  And Common Core, to its detriment, does not offer specific instructional examples designed to showcase what  the standards might look like in practice.  There are other minor differences as well.  But, for the most part, the IN Standards and Common Core ELA are actually very comparable.  So, what is it about CCSS that, when compared to the IN standards and testing framework, is so "radical"?  Critics need to offer more substantive analysis of CCSS--and current state standards and testing frameworks--to make their case.  Simply citing the names Stotsky and Milgram isn't enough.
Even supporters of Common Core admit that it is geared to prepare children only for community-college-level studies.  No doubt many of America’s Catholic children will study in community colleges. Some will not attend college at all. This is not by itself lamentable; it all depends upon the personal vocations of those children, and what they need to learn and do in order to carry out the unique set of good works entrusted to them by Jesus. But none of that means that our Catholic grade schools and high schools should give up on maximizing the intellectual potential of every student. And every student deserves to be prepared for a life of the imagination, of the spirit, and of a deep appreciation for beauty, goodness, truth, and faith.
Who said that CCSS is geared to "prepare children only for community-college-level studies"?  This is the first I've heard of this.  Jason Zimba, the lead author of the math standards, said this after testifying here in Indiana about the math standards: "The definition of college readiness in the standards is readiness for entry-level, credit-bearing courses in mathematics at four-year colleges as well as courses at two-year colleges that transfer for credit at four-year colleges.  It is incorrect to say, as critics sometimes claim, that the definition of college readiness in the Common Core is pegged to a community college level."  

I'm all for students being prepared for"a life of the imagination" and "of a deep appreciation for beauty."  I'm just not sure what this has to do with Common Core or, for that matter, anything related to a rigorous set of ELA curriculum standards.
We do not write to you, however, to start an argument about particulars. At least, that is a discussion for another occasion and venue.
I think this debate has had enough of vague references and unfounded accusations.  To be credible to Catholic school leaders who are seeking guidance on this issue, an argument about particulars is exactly what this debate requires.
Promoters of Common Core say that it is designed to make America’s children “college and career ready.” We instead judge Common Core to be a recipe for standardized workforce preparation. Common Core shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government.
Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. The heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to “over-educate” people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college – if they end up there. Truck-drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses.
Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lost to do his or her day’s work. But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclidean geometry, and everyone is capable of it. Everyone bears the responsibility of growing in wisdom and grace and in deliberating with fellow-citizens about how we should all live together. A sound education helps each of us to do so.
There is a glaring lack of evidence presented as to what aspect of the standards make them "a recipe for standardized workforce preparation."  What specific standards advance this notion?  How are current state standards frameworks compatible with the mission of Catholic schools in ways the CCSS is not?  The argument you make here seems to imply that all standards--not just CCSS--are detrimental to the mission of  Catholic schools.  In your view, should Catholic schools be against any and all state standards and testing frameworks for reasons of their "bottom line, pragmatic approach to education"?

You indict Common Core for undermining the mission of Catholic schooling in the way it aims to discriminate between the college and non-college bound.  This indictment couldn't be more unfounded.  Above all else CCSS espouses the importance of all students reading, writing, and discussing thought-provoking and challenging questions emanating from quality, complex texts.  Expectations that feature multi-text comparisons and text-informed reading and writing, many of which were judged by the Indiana Department of Education to be more rigorous than those in the current IN standards framework, appear consistently throughout all grades in the Common Core ELA.  In fact, for the first time in a standards framework, Common Core includes an expectation that all students read grade level texts (as opposed to "just right" texts) "independently and proficiently" (see Standard 10 of the Reading Literature and Reading Informational Text standards).  Dr. Tim Shanahan, who supports the Common Core and was on the ELA feedback committee with Dr. Stotsky, has written extensively about how teachers using guided reading approaches (differentiating reading materials according to students' reading abilities) might need to adjust their approach so that all students, regardless of ability, are exposed to a common set of complex texts.  

If you ask teachers, they are not making plans to differentiate their instruction according to the college and non-college bound.  This question hasn't come up once in my dealings with teachers or administrators.  Instead, they are reevaluating the materials in their curriculum to ensure that they are appropriately complex and trying to figure out how to scaffold their instruction sufficiently so that students, who are used to reading less complex texts, can effectively transition to reading and writing about more difficult texts.  How again does CCSS "adopt a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education"?     
Professor Stotsky was the chief architect of the universally-praised Massachusetts English language arts standards, which contributed greatly to that state’s educational success. She describes Common Core as an incubator of “empty skill sets . . . [that] weaken the basis of literary and cultural knowledge needed for authentic college coursework.” Rather than explore the creativity of man, the great lessons of life, tragedy, love, good and evil, the rich textures of history that underlie great works of fiction, and the tales of self-sacrifice and mercy in the works of the great writers that have shaped our cultural literacy over the centuries, Common Core reduces reading to a servile activity.
Professor Anthony Esolen, now at Providence College, has taught literature and poetry to college students for two decades. He provided testimony to a South Carolina legislative committee on the Common Core, lamenting its “cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form.” He further declared: “We are not programming machines. We are teaching children. We are not producing functionaries, factory-like. We are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women.”
The rhetoric here rings hollow.  Which standards, in particular, would you consider "empty skill sets"?  How is Common Core ELA any different than the IN or Massachusetts English standards which, like Common Core, call for students to trace an author's argument through a text or use specific details from the text to identify the main idea?  In what ways does Common Core's substance or organization foster the teaching of "empty skill sets" any more or less than these state standards frameworks?  I don't disagree that often curriculum plans will treat skills such as identifying point of view or locating certain text features as ends in themselves.  This is an implementation problem, and it's not one unique to Common Core.  Let's remember that standards are not designed to be curriculum maps.  Good teachers and curriculum directors use the expectations inhered in the standards to bring together textual ideas/themes (e.g. good and evil) with skills (e.g. summarizing, finding main ideas, comparing characters, etc.) as part of a series of coherent instructional units.
Where in the standards is there contempt for "great works of human art and thought"?  It can't be from these Common Core standards, the first from 8th grade, the second from 9-10th and the remaining two from 11-12th grades, which suggest that analyzing the key ideas and themes contained in great works is critical to a good education:
Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.
Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).

Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.
Furthermore, Dr. Esolen's accusations are harder to understand in light of Common Core's long list of fiction and nonfiction text exemplars that privilege the kind rigorous and classical orientation he claims is so central to students' Catholic school experience.  Here is a sampling of the reading materials found in the Common Core list of text exemplars: Common SenseThe Declaration of IndependenceDemocracy in AmericaThe Great Great GatsbyCrime and PunishmentDon Quixote as well as poems by Keats, T.S. Eliot, Whitman and dramas by Miller and Shakespeare.  These exemplars (which serve only as recommendations and which teachers should feel free to use or not) as well as some of the sample test items emanating from PARCC and Smarter Balanced reflect an emphasis on analyzing and writing about important themes found in authentic, quality texts.  (Keep in mind that current state tests use reading passages constructed by test companies.  PARCC and Smarter Balanced are using authentic literary and nonfiction texts/resources that, in the words of PARCC to its test writers, "are worthy of reading outside an assessment context."  Think about the potential affect this might have on teachers' determinations about which resources to use in their classrooms.)

Underscoring this letter is the notion that because Common Core encourages the teaching of more informational text, the standards fail to help students "explore...the great lessons of life."  Reading fairy tales, fables, classic literature and the like is great.  However, can't books about Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, Mother Theresa and the Pilgrims also help students explore these lessons of life?  Furthermore, informational texts lend themselves to a different set of reading, writing and research tasks.  You can't trace or critique an author's argument with a literary text.  Every state standards framework currently includes a section on informational text (the IN standards actually have a relatively equal number of standards dedicated to both literary and nonfiction text).  In this respect, CCSS isn't that different.  CCSS is simply calling attention to the fact that, historically, many schools have overlooked the unique and important role nonfiction texts play in the context of the curriculum.      
Common Core is innocent of America’s Catholic schools’ rich tradition of helping to form children’s hearts and minds. In that tradition, education brings children to the Word of God. It provides students with a sound foundation of knowledge and sharpens their faculties of reason. It nurtures the child’s natural openness to truth and beauty, his moral goodness, and his longing for the infinite and happiness. It equips students to understand the laws of nature and to recognize the face of God in their fellow man. Education in this tradition forms men and women capable of discerning and pursuing their path in life and who stand ready to defend truth, their church, their families, and their country.
Again, what, specifically, does this have to do with Common Core?
...the Common Core standards lack an empirical evidentiary basis and have not been field-tested anywhere.
I've heard this argument before from Diane Ravitch and others.  I don't know of a state standards document that has been "field tested."  Yes, standards documents typically receive more public and teacher feedback than did CCSS, but, to my knowledge, no recent framework has been field tested.  Remember, state standards are only as good as are the assessment frameworks and implementation plans that accompany them.  It would be almost impossible to field test a standards document in such a way as to isolate the myriad implementation variables that have such a decided influence on whether the standards are effective or not.
I respect these scholars' right to question Catholic schools' adoption of the standards, but it's hard to accept their critiques with such scant explanation as to how CCSS undermines the mission of our Catholic schools.  Parents: Choose your sources carefully! 






Friday, November 15, 2013

Kudos to Mr. Churchill...

...Aaron Churchill from Fordham that is.  He writes a great piece citing an example of a West Virginia state test item as evidence of why CCSS and PARCC/Smarter Balanced has such potential to change the way we teach writing.  Worth a read!


Friday, November 8, 2013

If Not PARCC or Smarter Balanced, Then What?

PARCC released some additional ELA sample items this week for grades 7, 8 and 10.  These items continue to signal a dramatic departure from most of the items we see on most, if not all, state assessments.  The items require students to read challenging, authentic texts (Paulsen's Brian's Winter and London's Call of the Wild are used as sources for the 8th grade performance-based items); deeply read and seek out evidence to support comprehension and vocabulary; and, most importantly, respond thoughtfully to extended prompts that connect back to the reading passages.  There is a lot to like here, particularly when we compare these kinds of items to ISTEP+'s sample prompts, such as this one that asks students to read a short passage (the last two lines read "Though it is not listed in any recipe, love and care are what makes the baker’s products so sweet. A cinnamon roll made with love will always taste better than one made without!") and respond to the question, "Do you think you would like to have a job as a baker?"

Students' results on the Common Core-aligned tests out of New York and Kentucky suggest that these tests are significantly more rigorous than ISTEP+ and other state tests that were adopted in response to No Child Left Behind.  A 2012 RAND study found that on 17 U.S. state tests, only 21% of the items required students to apply higher-ordered thinking skills (think level 3 and higher on Bloom's Taxonomy).  Since the enactment of NCLB many states have been playing games with their proficiency cut scores, misleading folks to believe that the slow rise in student pass rates has been more a function of student achievement gains than the unpublicized changes to performance standards.  As Grant Wiggins notes, "Alas, what many critics of Common Core forget is that it has been politically untenable for states to fail or warn a third to a half of their students – yet, this is in fact the reality of where students stand in terms of genuine readiness."

While we have not seen a full test yet from PARCC or Smarter Balanced and while there are some school preparedness issues to work out, it seems apparent to me that these new assessments are a huge step forward.  They have the potential to encourage better assessment practices, challenge students to connect what they write to what they read, and reshape the way teachers use texts in their curriculum and instructional planning.  After seeing the rigor inherent in these upcoming tests, it's hard to conceive of a return to the status quo.

So would those in the state who are so quick to criticize the Common Core help me to understand how we handle the question of the state test?  What alternatives exist if we decide not to go with one of the two consortia assessments?  While the Indiana standards framework adopted in 2010 would be fine to readopt, taking this route would force us to either stick with ISTEP+ or design a new, more rigorous standards-aligned assessment.  The former seems hard to imagine in light of the feds' stipulation that all states adopt an assessment framework commensurate with the rigor evidenced in the consortia assessments.  ISTEP+ simply wouldn't measure up.  The latter seems to hard to fathom in the light of the costs inherent in designing a new state assessment.

So where does that leave us?