Georgia teacher: Seven deadly sins of Common Core English standards

Dan Ray, holds up a sign with other opponents of Common Core outside the Palm Beach County School Board offices before a meeting by the 11-county group,"The Greater Consortium of School Board Members," September 19, 2014, in West Palm Beach. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post) The battle against Common Core never gained the traction in Georgia that it did in other states. (AJC File.)

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

D'Lee Pollock-Moore is an English teacher and department chair at Warren County High School in Warrenton, Georgia. She blogs at Musings from Master P, where this critique of the Common Core English standards appears in much longer form. (I edited her blog from more than 3,400 words to 1,600 but go to Pollock-Moore's blog to read in full.)

She sent me a note about sharing her critique with my readers here at the AJC Get Schooled blog, which I thought was an excellent suggestion once I read her blog. She writes with a lucidity that parents will appreciate. A teacher of high school English for 11 years, Pollock-Moore also recently published her first book of verse entitled "The Twenty-Fifth Year."

In jargon-free, acronym-free terms, Pollock-Moore offers her list of what she dubs "The Seven Deadly Sins of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards."

By D'Lee Pollock-Moore

The Common Core English Standards are too ambiguous

Before Common Core, many state English standards were specific.  For example, the 2010 Massachusetts standards for 9th grade English specified that students had to know how to analyze various character types like protagonist, antagonist, tragic hero, and foil. The Common Core standards do not even address character types in any grade level, yet character types remain on testing materials and example lesson plans published by many states. The problem here is that teachers now choose whether to teach character types or not, despite the fact that college level English courses demand that students already know how to do this. By the way, before the implementation of Common Core, the Massachusetts English Language Arts Standards were considered one of the best in the nation, and the state’s test scores and rankings reflected that; alas, this is no longer the case.

Students do not learn how to emulate famous authors

We learn how to write well by first emulating the published masters, and then as we grow, we develop our own unique writing styles. For example, if I want a fifth grade student to learn how to write a story, I might have a unit where we read and analyze the writing strategies employed by Joan Aiken in “The Third Wish,” Natalie Babbitt in “Wishes,” and Lloyd Alexander in “The Stone.” We would study not only the story elements, but also how the writer creates the narrator’s voice, captivates his or her audience, and motivates his reader with including figurative language, dialogue, specific details, etc.  Then, we would learn to write our own stories mimicking the writing style of one of these authors.  By 6th grade, students should then be able to begin developing their own writing style.

The Common Core devalues teaching key components of the ELA curriculum

One of my biggest issues with the Common Core is that it devalues literature as art; it ignores that within literature there are many different genres. Nowhere in the ELA standards for middle and high school does it even address key literary terms like fiction, short story, novel, or poem. The only genre it recognizes under literary texts is drama.  In fact, the only time that students learn about genre is in 4th grade. FOURTH GRADE.  How can a fourth grader understand the complexities of a villanelle, a prose poem, or an anticlimactic short story? How can a fourth grader understand that some works cross into multiple genres? Why are we not required to still teach genres in middle and high school? Why is poetry, one of the most important bibliotherapy tools for our children, not even acknowledged in the standards? Are Longfellow, Dickinson, and Ginsberg now irrelevant?

Teachers and student teachers were not fully trained for the change to Common Core

In school districts and universities across the nation, teachers received little to no training on how to correctly adapt the new Common Core standards into our classrooms. The movement came too quick, had no transitional period, and gave teachers little time to prepare new teaching materials. Even the textbook companies could not stay abreast of the changes.

One of the most complex changes to the English Language Arts curriculum involved the equal treatment of literary and informational texts. Prior to the Common Core, English teachers focused on teaching literary works (fiction, drama, and poetry), using informational texts as background and supplementary texts to the literature; with the CC change, they were expected to shift to spending their time focused equally on literary and informational texts. Most school districts had to purchase more informational extended texts because they were not previously taught in ELA, but in the subject area that they were more closely associated.  Environmental Science teachers might have lost their “right” to teach Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring so that it could be taught in 9th Literature and Composition. The problem here is that not only did that cause dissension between teachers of various subject areas, but English certified teachers, who are experts in teaching novels, were now teaching science and social studies texts.  Teacher training is an important and necessary step in changing curriculum and cannot be ignored or trivialized.

Common Core contains too many standards for each grade level

Simply put, there are too many English Language Arts standards for each grade level; there is no logistically feasible way for regular education students to master each standard within the time constraint. For example, in 10th grade English there are 41 standards students are expected to master within one school year; this does not even account for the number of standards that also have more pieces of standards (strands and elements) under them.  The first tenth grade reading standard alone is something students must work on in small parts throughout the year due to the rigorous demands of the standard:  “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (Common Core RL10.1).  This standard is so complex because it involves close reading skills, citations, understanding how to choose significant quotes, analysis and interpretation, explicit versus implicit meaning, and making inferences.  That standard by itself could take many tenth graders weeks to master; it is also one of the most highly tested standards on state and national assessments, but we don’t have enough time to give it the attention it deserves.

Common Core English does not teach students the basics

People on both sides of the Common Core debate can agree on one thing -- the Common Core Standards are rigorous. They do represent college preparatory curriculum as they were modeled after Advanced Placement and College Board standards, BUT they fail where it really matters. The Common Core fails to teach students the basics from kindergarten through 12th grade. Foundational reading skills end in fifth grade, yet middle and high school teachers still teach foundational skills like fluency and syllabication. This lack of foundational standards in the upper grades creates an achievement gap that can never be closed.

Not only are we missing the basics in the lower grades, but we’re also missing the foundations in middle and high school.  Students need to be taught how to write an email, how to create a blog or website, and even how to write a professional letter and resume (and not every child takes a business class to learn these skills).  Does Common Core acknowledge these necessary and fundamental skills? No. You will not find any technical writing standards in the 6-12 Common Core Curriculum. This is why we still have to teach 12th graders how to write a thank you note or how to sign their name for a legal document (don’t even get me started on the cursive writing debate — there is no cursive writing standard in Common Core).  Students used to learn key job skills in English class, but now only college-readiness standards are important. What about the future welder who needs to learn how to read a welding manual?  Are his needs not as important as the future lawyer?

The Common Core also fails to understand that one of the fundamentals of teaching literature involves character education. When we read a work like Walden by Henry David Thoreau or “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we internalize those works. They change our hearts. They help us become better people. They create a national ethos. Good teachers will always help students understand the themes, morals, and ethics presented in the texts, but this should be more explicitly stated in our standards. Notice that the 8th grade Common Core Reading Standard 2 is about theme, but not about how themes and morals apply to our lives. Reading shapes who we are as people and what we stand for as adults.  Shouldn’t we be formally practicing the teaching of character education with our literature studies?

States have misrepresented Common Core to their citizens

This is the deadliest sin among my list of seven.  First, educators and parents alike are upset by the leaders of the Common Core Initiative like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, testing / assessment companies, and textbook companies who have made copious amounts of money and kickbacks off this national education blunder. We cannot continue to give them a “hall pass” on this massive mistake. The people who benefitted from Common Core financially are mendacious; they used their own agendas to serve their own financial purposes, disregarding the thousands of educators and millions of students who continue to pay the cost of the Common Core.

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