Common Core ELA “Shifts” Don’t Depend on Common Core Standards

Believe it or not, your old standards permitted students to read non-fiction too.

One of the frustrating, dis-jointed aspects of the discussion of the Common Core ELA/Literacy standards is that proponents have consistently focused on matters in the periphery or completely outside the scope of “standards” as we use them in the US. The upside of this is that now that the wheels seem to be coming off the CC bus, and people are asking “What now, smartypants?” CC critics can honestly point out that the heavily promoted “shifts” attributed to the Common Core, while reasonable sounding and somewhat popular, are not actually dependent on the standards.

Let’s look at the three shifts described by Student Achievement Partners, home of the apparent “authors” of the CC ELA/Literacy standards.

1: Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts.

This is not directly addressed or even particularly emphasized by the CC standards. It is a suggestion about how to approach the standards. Virtually every set of ELA/Literacy standards includes informational text requirements. If a state wants to emphsize those standards more, what you need to do write is some memos and maybe a revised appendix. At the local level, buy some different reading books. You don’t need whole new set of standards.

In particular, the idea that ELA/Literacy standards are the correct vehicle to encourage more science and history content knowledge is particularly odd. Wouldn’t the science and history standards be a better place for that, or should science and history/social studies experts defer to literacy experts regarding how to teach their subjects? Fewer labs, less observation, more informational texts?

2: Reading and writing grounded in evidence from text.

There is no school of reading and writing instruction which discounts “evidence from the text.” At worst, it is considered an implicit requirement. It may well be true that in some classrooms, discussion wanders too far from the text itself — as a former English teacher I can relate — but there is little reason to conclude that this is due to the standards. This subject would be appropriate for a garden-variety professional development topic. You don’t need new standards to encourage students to explicitly refer to textual evidence.

As a Rhode Islander, I would note that the NECAP Grade Span Expectations used by RI, New Hampshire and Vermont emphasize citation of evidence more emphatically and consistently than the Common Core standrds — 12th graders are explicitly reminded within the GSEs to cite or use evidence from the text 11 times by my count. I am sure other previous state standards shared similar language.

3: Regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary.

The CC is somewhat unusual insofar as it devotes a separate standard to the concept of textual complexity, and its appendix describing how complexity is to be measured is perhaps the most extensive to date. But certainly the general point — increasing textual complexity over the grade levels — is hardly novel. It is an explicit or implicit part of every set of standards or curriculum outcomes. If you’d like more “complexity” and rigor in your old standards, send out a few memos and, if you are a state, write a new appendix to your standards. You’re done! Want different words on the vocab lists? Same thing!

Changing pedagogical themes and emphases happens all the time, sometimes the result of a disjointed top-down edict, but also from nuanced evaluation of student work by teams of experienced teachers. You don’t need new standards to improve instruction.