Former Georgia Teacher of the Year decries myths about Common Core State Standards

Dr. John Barge names Jemelleh Coes Georgia Teacher of the Year in 2014. (DOE)

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

The Common Core State Standards are now in place in most states, although they're often called something else to avert controversy. Here, the standards are known as the Georgia Performance Standards.

A few days ago, D'Lee Pollock-Moore, an English teacher and department chair at Warren County High School, wrote a critique of the standards I shared on the blog. Many people praised her commentary for its clarity.

But not everyone was a fan. The daughter of immigrants and a first-generation college graduate, Jemelleh Coes taught English language arts at Langston Chapel Middle School in Bulloch County before serving as Georgia’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. She is now pursuing a doctorate in education theory and practice while working as a supervising instructor for teacher candidates at the University of Georgia.

In this piece, Coes responds to Pollock-Moore's critique.

By Jemelleh Coes

While the seven deadly sins don't actually appear as a consolidated list in the Bible, they're far from myths. The same cannot be said for "Seven Deadly Sins of Common Core English Standards."

These so-called “sins,” outlined by Georgia English teacher D’Lee Pollock-Moore, not only feed public confusion and misunderstanding, but also put the rigor, equity, and achievement encouraged by high standards at risk.

Many of us are parents and we’ve all had our fair share of sleepless nights, filled with worry. Will my child get into a good college? Will she be able to get a well-paying job when she graduates? Will he be prepared for whatever the world throws at him?

Here’s a bit of good news: High standards set kids up for success.

The reading and writing standards are not ambiguous, and teachers benefit from the flexibility and creativity the standards offer.

The Common Core English standards are at once specific and flexible. For example, the third Anchor Standard for Reading indicates students are expected to analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text. In third grade, that might mean students describe why a character does something in a story, but if your child already knows how to do that, he could begin to work toward the fourth grade-level expectation by using specific details in the story to support his description.

And teachers are not better off being told exactly what to teach. Instead of being restricted to teaching the exact same literary terms every year, we have the autonomy to assess what students already know, and then build on their skills and knowledge.

In the world in which Pollock-Moore wants to teach, your kids would be copying definitions like protagonist and antagonist out of a dictionary. As parents and educators we should want and expect more for our children, and with Common Core, our children are developing skills they can apply to a variety of contexts.

Students don’t need to mimic famous authors to become great writers.

Pollock-Moore complains high standards fail to teach students to emulate famous authors. Never mind that what we admire about these great authors is their unique voice, not how they emulated someone else when they were starting out. The fact is the Common Core does suggest a review of great works, without requiring a specific set of authors.

The Common Core encourages teachers to employ the work of great authors like Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (along with over 80 poems, which Pollock-Moore claims are "not even acknowledged by the standards") – but not just for the sake of copying them. Instead, we use those texts to help kids develop skills, like close reading, analysis, and argumentation, that will support their success no matter what college major or career they choose.

Outlining her experience in sixth grade, Pollock-Moore writes she learned how an author "creates the narrator's voice," "and motivates his reader with including figurative language, dialogue, specific details," and then used those same strategies to write her own stories. Unfortunately, she's failed to notice she's describing a classroom aligned to the Common Core.

Common Core does not devalue teaching the most important things about reading and writing.

The tension in Pollock-Moore’s essay lies in what she values as important (teaching students about literary terms and 17th century poetic forms) and what is actually important (regular practice with academic language and building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction).  As teachers, we work to develop learning experiences our students will find relevant and engaging. Sometimes, that means using poetry to develop argumentation skills, or using a scientific text to practice using context clues. We are thankful for the freedom and flexibility the Common Core affords us to do just that.

Instead of limiting our students to specific literary terms (which may only be relevant to students who want to be English majors or poets), they are attaining all-encompassing skills that are applicable to students with a wide range of background knowledge, motivations, and experiences. Pollock-Moore should take comfort in the fact there is nothing about the Common Core that will prevent the rise of the next Emily Dickinson or Allen Ginsberg.

Standards for each grade level are meant to help students deepen the skills they were taught in previous grades.

While Pollock-Moore alleges there are too many standards for each grade level, she overlooks the fact that when you examine the standards across grade levels – instead of in isolation – you'll see students are not just mastering new standards; instead, they are working to deepen the skills they were taught in the previous grade.

Take the first reading standard, for example. Pollock-Moore claims there isn’t enough time to master this standard at the 10th grade level. We would agree this is a skill too rigorous and complex for one school year, but the good news is that by 10th grade, students have been working on this skills for nine years. Pollock-Moore ignores not only that the first English standard for 9th and 10th grade is exactly the same, but also that students are first exposed to the idea of citing evidence in a 4th grade standard.

Common Core supports foundational learning from kindergarten to high school.

Good teachers continue to address any skills with which students struggle. The standards are expectations, and the expectation is that middle school and high school students will have mastered foundational skills by the end of elementary school. There are several issues that contribute to the achievement gap, but a lack of elementary school skills being taught in high school as a standard isn’t one of them.

Each of the foundational skills from K-5 – including decoding words, spelling, and using context clues –  directly support comprehension. In each grade from K-12, Standard 10 indicates students should be able to read and understand texts at their grade level, and if they don't, teachers can use the standards outlined in the foundational skills as a guide to diagnose student weaknesses and help them get back on grade level. In that way, the standards actually serve as one of many tools educators can use to close gaps in achievement.

No, the standards are not proof of a political conspiracy.

This red herring deliberately diverts attention away from an important conversation about teaching and learning. Instead, the author’s flawed argument jives more with a Hollywood thriller than with any sort of fact-based conversation about education.

We agree teachers in many states did not have enough preparation or professional learning to adequately begin teaching in a way that prepares kids to master high standards. In fact, Pollock-Moore is proof of that. Her errors about the standards indicate she might not have even had the opportunity to read them fully, to understand them and implement them in a way that engages students in rigorous learning.

High standards in reading, writing, language, speaking and listening give kids the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge early in life, and deepen them over the course of their time in school. They provide opportunities for deeper learning and achievement than any previous set of standards.

Pollock-Moore’s article should serve as a call to action for states and districts to ensure their teachers are fully prepared to faithfully implement these rigorous standards. Our kids will never reach the high expectations we have for them if their teachers are uninformed or under-trained.

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