Close reading of text: Has the Pioneer Institute misread the Common Core?

The Pioneer Institute released a report last week entitled How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness At Risk. As the title suggests, this is the latest in a series of Pioneer broadsides against the Common Core. Readers who find their way through the reflexive criticism and confusing presentation will be rewarded with some genuine insights into how to get implementation right. Unfortunately, because that guidance is buried deep amidst a sea of misrepresentations and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, it is unlikely to further the discussion of how best to implement the CCSS.

The authors hammer home their message with all the subtlety of a wrecking crew.

The authors hammer home their message with all the subtlety of a wrecking crew: The Common Core English language arts expectations are poor—far lower in terms of content, clarity, and rigor than the Massachusetts English language arts standards, they clearly believe—and their adoption in states across the country “places college readiness at risk.”

The reality—as evidenced by the substance of the report, if not its title—is far more nuanced. And the authors of this report, Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, have much to contribute to the discussion of how best to implement the CCSS.

For starters, and despite the promotional material Pioneer has issued surrounding this publication and its associated event, Huck Finn is not in at risk of disappearing from high school English class. At least not any more so today than it was the day before forty-six states and the District of Columbia adopted the CCSS for English language arts. This implication that it, and other classic works of literature, are headed for the dustbin of ELA history rests on Bauerlein’s and Stotsky’s false assertion that the Common Core mandates that English teachers in grades 6-12 devote a minimum of 50 percent of their instructional time to informational texts.

That is simply not true.

On the contrary, while the ELA standards do ask that, by twelfth grade, all students spend as much as 70 percent of their in-school time reading informational texts and literary nonfiction, the document explicitly says that that percentage

…reflect[s] the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.

Bauerlein and Stotsky themselves even acknowledge, in a parenthetical, that “nothing in the standards themselves requires 50/50 teaching.” Yet, the bulk of the paper is devoted to a thin and fairly unconvincing take-down of this non-existent “quota” for English classes. At one point, in fact, the authors hint at how a thoughtful teacher could organize her curriculum to weave carefully selected works of literary nonfiction that complement the rigorous literature students should be reading. “Informational readings,” Bauerlien and Stotsky explain:

should either come directly from the foundational/classic corpus (we may treat Franklin’s Autobiography, Emerson’s essays,  Walden, important speeches such as Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” and other non-fiction, non-poetic, non-dramatic classics as informational texts) or apply directly to them (for example, assigning essays about Huckleberry Finn as well as the novel itself).
There is useful information and pushback in this report amidst the noise.

Given that the standards clarify that English teachers, particularly in high school, should not shoulder sole responsibility for teaching informational text, guidance that prioritizes literary nonfiction over informational texts in English classrooms is sound. In fact, weaving together fiction and literary nonfiction as the authors suggest could help broaden students’ understanding of complex literature while also helping them understand the history and significance of the texts they’re reading. And yet, this is used as part of a broader argument against incorporating more informational text and literary nonfiction into English class?

Still, the most unfortunate aspect of the dismantling of the non-existent 50/50 instructional mandate is that it distracts attention from some thoughtful criticism and useful guidance for policymakers and practitioners. The authors wisely caution, for instance, that the increased attention that the Common Core draws to reading informational text could

…produce less rigorous English classes than we already have if teachers assign more topical, present-oriented, and ‘relevant’ readings that lack the literary craft and historical remoteness demanded by Common Core’s literary-historical standards and text complexity requirements.

True, and a useful caution for curriculum developers earnestly working to align their materials to the Core—or to practitioners sifting through materials that have been aligned in name only.

Bauerlein and Stotsky also seem to support Common Core’s emphasis on reading appropriately complex texts, but worry that the guidance included in the standards about how teachers can select appropriately complex texts misses the mark. They argue, for instance, that CCSS guidance weights subjective observations about text complexity too heavily and they believe the standards “should have warned against letting subjective judgments about text complexity always trump objective measures of text difficulty.” They also criticize the standards because:

The terms “exceptional” and “foundational” are not defined, and the discussion of “text complexity” in Common Core’s Appendix A does not emphasize texts whose difficulty derives from their literary-historical nature…

And they lament the absence of a list of “recommended” authors and titles. (Although this is a curious criticism, since the CCSS do provide a list of exemplar texts for each grade band.)

Those are fair, if not exactly spot-on critiques of the standards, and it’s useful to help state policymakers focus their time and attention as they develop state-specific implementation guidance for educators.

In the end, though, Pioneer’s near myopic focus on knocking down the standards overwhelms the smaller number of useful contributions made by Bauerlein and Stotsky in this report. But just as the authors of this report shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the Common Core, nor should CCSS supporters be too quick to dismiss the authors’ caution and feedback as the empty rantings of CCSS foes. There is useful information and pushback amidst the noise. And we would do well to listen carefully.

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