Testimony to Indiana

My name is Kathleen Porter-Magee; I’m a senior director and Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also leads ground-level work in the great state of Ohio. We support a variety of education reforms, with a particular focus on school choice and standards- and accountability-driven reform. In addition to my own policy work, I’ve spent several years working to implement rigorous standards in urban Catholic and charter school classrooms. Fordham’s president, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan Administration, and its executive vice president, Mike Petrilli, served under George W. Bush.

I’m honored to be with you here today and am grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about what I believe is one of the most important education initiatives of the past decade: the development, adoption, and implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

I hope to help explain why the Common Core hold such promise, to demystify what the standards are all about, and to debunk some of the most common myths and misconceptions. But before we decide whether the CCSS is the right choice for Indiana students, it’s important to understand four facts:

1.   The Common Core State Standards are clear, rigorous, and nationally and internationally benchmarked.
2.   Common Core English standards emphasize the importance of reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science, and other courses.
3.   The Common Core effort is and has always been a state-led effort to improve the quality and rigor of K–12 academic standards, of which Indiana leaders have been full participants.
4.   By adopting the Common Core, states benefit from strong standards while retaining full control over curriculum, instruction, and pedagogy where it belongs—at the local level.

For states that have weak or unclear standards, then, adopting the Common Core is a clear-cut choice. But what about states like Massachusetts and Indiana, which have long led the nation in setting among the clearest and most rigorous standards? We believe that in these cases as well, Common Core is a step forward that will advance the students of your state.

That said, before these expectations can live up to their promise here in Indiana, there are a number of things leaders should remember.

First, Indiana has the opportunity to, like Massachusetts, take the best of its previous standards and use them to supplement the Common Core to usher in a set of Indiana-specific standards that are even higher than those they have replaced.

We at the Fordham Institute have a long history of reviewing state K–12 academic standards. Our latest evaluation of ELA standards (released in 2010) showed what Indiana leaders have long known: that the Hoosier state standards were among the best in the nation, and that the decision to adopt the Common Core would not be an easy one.

In that evaluation, there were three areas where we felt Indiana’s standards were particularly strong—perhaps stronger than the Common Core. They were

1.   the inclusion of specific examples that helped clarify what particular standards expected students to know and be able to do;
2.   the addition of genre-specific standards that enhanced and clarified expectations for the study of literary and non-literary texts; and
3.   the inclusion of a more detailed list of exemplar texts.

To be clear, though, there are also areas where the Common Core are stronger than the Indiana standards they replaced. Our expert reviewers found, for example, that the Common Core’s inclusion of student writing samples was exemplary and helped clarify what should be expected of writing students at each grade level. And the emphasis in the Common Core on reading seminal works of U.S. history, including the founding documents, is critical. Indiana’s standards suffer for the absence of this important content. Furthermore, the information in the Common Core about the centrality of using rich, complex texts to drive planning and instruction in literature class—and the guidance included that can help teachers choose them—is second to none.

In Massachusetts, where both the old and the new standards had strengths worth keeping, leaders faced a similar challenge. There, the State Board of Education sought guidance when they weighed the decision about whether to adopt the Common Core, and they asked a committee of educators—including English teachers and university professors—to review the Common Core and compare them to the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework. That committee unanimously recommended Common Core adoption because its members felt that the Common Core "is unequivocal in its insistence upon academic rigor and high expectations for all students K–12."

But their support came with some recommendations. They did not, for instance, want to lose Massachusetts’s strong standards for pre-Kindergarten, nor did they want to lose the guidance that was found in the state’s list of exemplar texts. To address those concerns, the State Board of Education voted (also unanimously) to adopt the Common Core, but with several strategic additions. The Board added the pre-K standards; they added specific standards, including several that included important genre-specific content; and they included their own list of exemplar texts. That means that, today, the Massachusetts Common Core standards look different than those that guide teaching and learning in other states. It also means that Massachusetts did not simply replace its previous, strong standards with something less rigorous. It took the best of both and created something even stronger that kept them, in the words of Commissioner Mitchell Chester, "right where [they] should be—at the table with other states to collaborate on innovative curricular and instructional strategies that will benefit students and educators for years to come."

Finally, there are benefits from the “commonness” of the Common Core that should be acknowledged. Teachers in Common Core states have access to a far greater number of curricular and instructional resources—many of them free—than teachers in non–Common Core states. Indeed, because publishers, both large and small, have access to a larger market for Common Core–aligned materials, the possibly of innovation is far greater. Whereas in the past, Indiana educators were subject to the whims of a smaller number of textbook creators who were able to define quality and control the market, in the Common Core era, their monopoly has been challenged. And the result is teacher access to a far greater number of resources that can meet the needs of a more diverse set of learners. In addition, Indiana has the opportunity to collaborate with other states on assessment development and professional development in a way not possible for states that have not adopted the Common Core.

Of course, the benefits of the “commonness” of the Common Core are less important than the quality of the standards themselves. But on this point, let me be clear: The Common Core are among the clearest, most rigorous standards of any K–12 English language arts standards in the nation or the English-speaking world. By choosing to leverage the Common Core and add to them the best of Indiana’s previous standards, you have the opportunity to create a set of standards that would rival the best in the world. That is a goal worth shooting for and something that would position Indiana students where they need to be in terms of national and international competitiveness.

In spite of the evidence of rigor of the Common Core, a small but vocal set of critics have spent the past year in Indiana and around the country spreading countless myths about what the standards ask, who is behind them, and what they mean for our teachers and students. For the purposes of today’s conversation, let me address three of the most prominent ELA critiques to demonstrate how these attacks don’t hold up under scrutiny. 

First, many critics mistakenly believe that the Common Core inappropriately prioritize nonfiction over literature in language-arts classrooms. This argument rests on two dubious assumptions or misrepresentations. First, many have either misread—or deliberately misrepresent—a two-paragraph section that appears on page 5 of the introduction to the Common Core. That introduction suggests that teachers should “follow NAEP’s lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.” Following NAEP’s lead would mean that fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders would spend 50, 55, and 70 percent of their time (respectively) reading informational text.

Some have led people to believe that these percentages are meant to direct learning exclusively in English classrooms. They are not. In fact, the Common Core immediately clarifies that “the percentages…reflect 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.”  What high school seniors read in history and science class would count, too.

That means that the only place where the Common Core explicitly mentions the amount of time teachers should spend on literary versus nonliterary reading is to clarify that literary study should dominate text selection in literature classrooms. Any contention that the standards say otherwise is patently false.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, one of the most outspoken critics of the Common Core, has also frequently claimed that the number of standards devoted to informational or literary study should be used to guide the percentage of time teachers should spend on each. (There is roughly the same number of reading standards for literary and informational texts and, because of that, Stotsky claims that the Common Core requires teachers to spend exactly the same proportion of their time reading literary and informational text.) No such requirement exists.

To be clear, though, the Common Core does ask for an increase in the amount of time and attention devoted to informational texts and literary nonfiction, both in literature class and across the curriculum. But this is merely a correction to the distressingly small percentage of time currently devoted to reading the appropriately complex, content-rich informational texts that students need to build vocabulary and deepen comprehension. This is especially important in the elementary grades, where students have almost no access to rigorous and interesting nonfiction. In fact, research has suggested that has few as 10 percent of books in lower-elementary classroom libraries are informational and that first graders spent as little as 3.6 minutes each day interacting with informational text. That puts them behind their international peers and doesn’t equip them with the skills they need to succeed in a twenty-first-century information  economy.[1] Yet reading informational texts, particularly in the early grades, is a well-documented way to increase academic and domain-specific vocabulary, two necessary elements of reading comprehension. This is precisely why education leaders like E.D. Hirsch are supportive of the Common Core—because the standards, if faithfully implemented, have the potential to bring content and rigor back to the curriculum.

In other words, while some pretend that the Common Core will lead to the end of great literature, the reality is that, for the past several decades, we’ve seen erosion in the quality and complexity of texts being assigned in schools. This dumbing down of the curriculum comes at a time when our students need rigorous preparation the most. The Common Core seeks to right that wrong by refocusing our attention on reading texts that are worth reading and doing the kind of higher-order literary analysis that will prepare students for college-level work.

A second common critique is that the Common Core ELA standards are merely a list of empty skills with no real content. Dr. Stotsky has argued, for instance, that the Common Core ELA standards are "very abstract and generic skills, like ‘analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.'"

The reality, however, is both that similar standards existed in the Indiana and Massachusetts standards that have been replaced, and also that the standard Dr. Stotsky cites is an “anchor” standard—anchor Reading Standard 3, to be precise—which is meant to be broad and general. Then, grade-specific standards for every grade, K–12, clarify what is expected of students. In Kindergarten, for example, the corresponding Reading Standard 3 explains that students should “identify characters, settings, and main events in a story.” By fifth grade this standard has evolved and asks students,

Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text

And by the end of high school, it becomes,

Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Anchor standards are deliberately broad. The grade-specific standards clarify—often very explicitly—what is expected of students at each grade.

It’s worth underscoring, however, that the Common Core makes plainly obvious that they are necessary but insufficient. The introduction to the English language arts standards explains, in no uncertain terms, that the expectations must be paired with a “content-rich curriculum” to drive comprehension and learning. This is where local leaders need to tailor curriculum and materials to meet the needs of the students they serve.

Finally, some argue that adoption of the Common Core—or any K–12 academic standards—will usurp local control over curriculum and instruction. On the contrary, by setting standards, rather than adopting statewide curricula, state education leaders are ensuring that local district, school, and teacher leaders remain in control of the decisions that most directly impact the students they serve. On the ELA side, this means that local leaders and teachers can and will choose the texts students will read. It means that parents, teachers, and leaders still need to work together to define the “content-rich curriculum” their children should be learning.

Standards set a minimum bar—a floor, not a ceiling. They are designed only to help define outcomes to help ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn the content they need to succeed. But educators still drive curriculum and instruction. Leaders still make critical, school-level decisions. In short, by setting standards, states can help preserve local autonomy, rather than taking it away. If better standards come along in the future, Indiana will be free to adopt these new standards, ensuring its students always benefit from the highest and most rigorous bar for achievement.

In the end, Common Core is a classroom-level reform. It is meant to refocus planning, curriculum, and instruction on the things that matter most to reading comprehension: books that are worth reading; content that is worth learning; and reading and writing that are tied directly to both. Whether the promise of the Common Core is realized depends on whether leaders are able to look past the politics into the classroom and make decisions that are in the best interest of the students we all hope to serve.




[1] Duke, N. K.  (2000). 3.6 minutes per day: The scarcity of informational texts in first grade. Reading Research Quarterly

More By Author

Related Articles