Common Core Endgame: Social Justice

Welcome back to school. This year most children in America will be tested and taught based on the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Though these standards are already deeply implemented in many school districts, most still know very little about them. Common Core State Standards are an initiative of the Obama administration and not the states, and just as Pelosi said about ObamaCare, we had to pass the standards, to find out what was in the standards. According to the Common Core State Standards initiative website, one of the goals of the CCSS is to produce workers (the emphasis is mine) in the global economy, and that the development of CCSS was driven by a concern over the deficit of highly-skilled workers in America. We are told that CCSS aim to improve the achievement levels and test scores of all students regardless of their background, and that every student should be held to the same rigorous standards of success.  However, when looking closely at some aspects of CCSS, one can’t help but be cynical and wonder what the endgame really is. The “close reading” strategy is just one of many examples.

Success under CCSS is measured by student performance on Common Core tests. The CCSS reading test consists of reading passages and answering questions that test a student’s understanding of what they have read. Most teachers know that the most important factor in determining how well children will comprehend a text is their level of knowledge about the topic they are reading. Children with prior knowledge will have more interest and a deeper understanding of what they read, and therefore perform better in school and on state exams. Many parents recognize this and have spent the summer reading with their children. They have visited museums, libraries, parks, and historical sites. They have enrolled their children in camps where they could learn a new sport, a new instrument, a new hobby, or a new language. For parents with the means or desire to do this, it pays off. These students score higher on standardized tests than their less well rounded peers. The creators of CCSS felt this needed to change.

Under Common Core the activation of prior knowledge is deliberately discouraged. CCSS reading standards require that teachers and students engage in “close reading” of a text. During a close reading each piece of text is an isolated bit of information devoid of any context or connection. Teachers are to instruct students to read a difficult passage “cold”. These passages are often described as “rigorous” because they are not texts that the students are usually familiar with and they are usually above their grade level. Quite often they are uninteresting. The texts selected for close reading may be excerpts from historical documents, without putting them in historical context. The point is to try to select a text that the kids have never seen before and on a topic they probably know nothing about. This is why when doing a close reading, the text needs to be read over and over again “to gain deeper understanding”. Even though the texts are “rigorous”, teachers cannot ask students any questions to build knowledge or help them activate what they already know. Students are assessed by questions that are text dependent and students are repeatedly reminded to go to the text for evidence to support their answer and not rely on prior knowledge. Even when asked for a written response, children will be graded on whether they include specific examples from the text.

There are even instances where a child may be penalized on a Common Core test for having prior knowledge. In one example from a Common Core test, children are given a sentence in which the word “apprentice” is used. Some children may already know that an apprentice is someone who works for another to learn a trade. However, in the Common Core text excerpt, the word “apprentice” means a jockey with less than one year experience. The question asks for the meaning of “apprentice” based on the text. This method of questioning focuses the child to rely solely on the text.  If a student puts choice “A”, an “apprentice” is “someone who works for another to learn a trade”, the answer would be wrong in this example.

The “experts” who created Common Core do not believe this is a problem. David Coleman, the architect of Common Core, tells us that the close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text and not on privileging background information and levels the playing field for all students. Will the goal of “leveling the playing field” have the effect of punishing children who come to class with prior knowledge?

All children should be held to high standards and have the same opportunity to achieve success regardless of their background. However, the close reading strategy seems more concerned with providing social justice by attempting to close the achievement gap and attempting to create a false equality. Will the close reading strategy ultimately make all students regardless of their intelligence, background, or skill set equal in their ability to comprehend complex texts, and equal in their ability to pass state exams? Ignoring children’s prior knowledge or acting as if they have no prior knowledge is phase one of dumbing down. Calvin Coolidge famously said “Don’t expect to build up the weak by tearing down the strong.” Are the “experts” who gave us Common Core trying to do just that?

Mary Anne Marcella has a B.A from New York University and an M.S in Elementary Education from Lehman College.  She is a parent and public school teacher who wants the best for her children and her students.  Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others in the education field. Twitter MaryAnne@maryannemercog