Thoughts on Common Core

by Lisa VanDamme

Most of the rhetoric in defense of Common Core is so insipidly conventional and blandly optimistic that it is hard to know what its proponents are advocating – and hard to object. Who wouldn’t want to “provide a world-class education for all students” [i] and “ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life” [ii]?

But how are these lofty and unobjectionable goals to be achieved? By the implementation of the Common Core Standards, a “consistent framework for educators” [iii] that establishes “strong, clear benchmarks in English Language Arts and Math.”[iv]

Are these standards truly so “clear,” “strong,” and “consistent” that they will guarantee for all a “world-class education”? Let’s take a closer look by examining the first of the standards for 7th grade literature, since that is what I teach at my school, VanDamme Academy.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7.1: “Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”

No competent literature teacher could argue with that as a goal. All middle schoolers should be able to analyze a text and to defend their analysis with evidence both stated and implied.

In fact, my 7th graders are currently reading the great Greek tragedy Antigone, and Friday’s lesson plan could be said to involve just that. In the opening pages of the play, we are introduced to Antigone and her sister Ismene, who are discussing whether to violate the king’s order that their dead brother’s corpse be left unburied. We carefully observed and discussed the characters’ responses to this dilemma in an effort to penetrate their souls. Ismene is meekly obedient, fearful of punishment, and reluctant to defy the law of man. Antigone is strong and independent, determined to die nobly rather than live a coward, and moved, not by authority, but by morality.

Understanding the basic nature of a character is always a feat of inference. Antigone does not stand on stage and proclaim her strength, her independence, and her uncompromising allegiance to moral law, but those traits are implicit in, and given life by, every action she takes and every word she utters. Making those traits explicit, and contrasting them with those of her weak-minded sister, is what ultimately enables us to appreciate Antigone’s timeless heroism. Nearly three millennia later, students are still inspired by Sophocles’ portrait of a young girl with the courage to defy a king.

Reading Antigone, analyzing the text, drawing inferences about the characters, and deriving inspiration from its heroine – this was a valuable exercise in a quality education.

Is such an exercise unavoidably mandated by standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7.1?

A quick Google search yields many tools for teaching “inference” that boast compatibility with Common Core. Hampton-Brown, for example, provides a lesson plan titled “Drawing Inferences and Conclusions.”

The teacher is to begin by modeling inference, first by displaying the sentences, “Metin dreamed of becoming a writer. As he walked in the fiction section, he scanned the row of books,” and then by declaring, “I think Metin is in a library.” After modeling this impressive feat of conjecture, the teacher is then to have the students try their hands, asking them to identify who is described by sets of words such as “helmet, hose, truck, ladder.” (In case you are not practiced at literary inference, the answer is: a firefighter.) Later lessons involve the inevitable group project, with students working in partnership to scan for “inferences” (any inferences) in random paragraphs of books from the classroom shelves or banal stories provided in the Hampton-Brown reader.

One standard, two lesson plans. Has the standard served to level the educational playing field, to set a clear benchmark of academic achievement, and to assure superior schooling for all? One group of students is using inference as a tool in the discovery of world-altering ideals in a classic work of literature, and the other is playing an intellectual connect-the-dots game on a par with the toddler TV show Blues Clues.

Such is the problem with the Common Core Standards, and with any effort at standardizing curriculum via the imposition of a set of vague and abstract goals. Even the most astute and apparently valuable of the standards is valuable only given a proper interpretation, within a specific context, for the achievement of a particular goal. Standards do not replace judgment; the quality of the lesson plan depends on the teacher’s judgment of how the standard should be implemented.

Many criticisms of Common Core can be (and have been) made from various political and pedagogical corners. Here I am just highlighting one of the most fundamental: They don’t work. They can’t work.

It is not just the rhetoric in support of Common Core that is vague and insubstantial; it is the standards themselves. Educational reform requires a sea change, not a sprinkling of standards over the entrenched body of educational practice. And until we see a sea change, a shift in the basic educational philosophy guiding practice in our schools, we can expect more failure, more frustration, more initiatives – more and more of the same.