The Naked and Procrustean Common Core
Dan Guernsey Ed.D.
Ave Maria University
National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS)
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are new and controversial national educational standards adopted by 45 states. Other writers have ably pointed to deficiencies in the Standards. Former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, Joanne Yatvin, notes that the Standards are “out of line with research and observation of young people’s development” (Yatvin, 2012, p. 27). The Alliance for Childhood warns that “effective learning in the early years requires a very different starting point than the one presumed in the cores’ standards” (Alliance for Childhood, 2010, p.1). Dr. Sandra Stotsky, who refused to sign off on Common Core’s standards while on the Validation Committee notes errors in alignment and that the standards actually “reduce opportunity to develop critical thinking” and are “empty skills” (Pioneer Institute, 2012, p. 1). The purpose of this piece is to point out a further weakness in the Standards: that the CCSS sweeping efforts to change the balance of literary vs. informational (expository) texts is in error and is not based in research or in real world experience.
The CCSS claim they are “relevant to the real world” and “research based.” (National Governors Association, 2010 p. 1). Real world preparation for the Standards writers means reading more expository (i.e., informational) texts in school. The CCSS justifies this increase of expository text stating in Appendix A p.3. “What is more, students today are asked to read very little expository text—as little as 7 and 15 percent of elementary and middle school instructional reading, for example, is expository (Hoffman, Sabo, Bliss, & Hoy, 1994; Moss & Newton, 2002; Yopp & Yopp, 2006)” Bukins and Yaris (2013) looked at the 3 research articles mentioned to support this statement: One is not about this topic; one is a practical how to teach piece which only references the statistic, and one looks only at reading instruction texts in use more than 15 years ago. Disturbingly the author of that piece, Moss, did a more recent study (2008) of the same topic and found the percentage of informational texts in the readers had increased to 40% (Burkins and Yaris, 2013). Why did the Standards writers use old data that was contradicted by new? If one reads the sources behind their next statement that “students need sustained exposure to expository text to develop important reading strategies (Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008; Kintsch, 1998, 2009; McNamara, Graesser, & Louwerse, in press; Perfetti, Landi, & Oakhill, 2005; van den Broek, Lorch, Linderholm, & Gustafson, 2001; van den Broek, Risden, & Husebye-Hartmann, 1995).” One sees the same dynamic: none of these cited works makes that claim. They do broadly discuss developing reading strategies in general, but do not cite research for or specifically advocate for more exposure to expository text. Misapplied research is being used to advance the “real world” agenda of the Standards writers.
However, all is not lost. There is in fact some research on the relationship between the type of text students are exposed to and reading scores, but it does not fit the “real world” of the Common Core’s informational text push. It turns out that the more informational texts students report reading, the lower their reading scores go. According to the US Government report on the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS):
“The average score on the combined reading literacy scale for U.S. students who read stories or novels every day or almost every day (558) was higher than the average score for students who read stories or novels once or twice a week (541), once or twice a month (539), and never or almost never (509). In contrast, the average score for students who read for information every day or almost every day (519) was lower than the average score for students who read for information once or twice a week (538), once or twice a month (553), and never or almost never (546). The higher performance of U.S. students who read for information less frequently relative to U.S. students who read for information more frequently was also observed internationally.” (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2008/2008017.pdf, page 16-17) (Cited at http://literacyinleafstrewn.blogspot.com/2013/05/evidence-shows-that-reading.html.)
Another source of data on informational texts vs. literary texts comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), part of which is a federally developed reading test. In 2009, scores on that test revealed that students on average did better on their informational text reading (257) than on their literary text reading (253). (Idaho Department of Education, 2013). The scores suggest we should concentrate more on literature, not adding more informational texts to our English classes.
The irony is that the Common Core writers did not use the NAEP scores to guide their national Standards (which is not surprising since the data doesn’t fit their agenda.) Instead they used the NAEP testing description to try to restructure English Language Arts programs around the country. Herein lies their second main mistake. Instead of setting the appropriate percentages of literary and informational texts present in a school on research and best practice or test results, they base the percentages on the federal reading test “test description.” In its English Language Arts Key Design section, the CCSS document states, “The Standards are not alone in calling for a special emphasis on informational text. The 2009 reading framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) requires a high and increasing proportion of informational text on its assessment as students advance through the grades” (National Governor’s Association, 2010, Key Design Considerations, p. 1). There is no correlation between these two sentences above. While the Standards themselves do call for more informational text, the NAEP does not “call” for more informational texts to be added to the curriculum: it just self-describes its testing materials. The percentages of literary vs. informational texts on the federal reading test do not come from research or best classroom practices, but from surveying various states’ reading tests (National Assessment Governing Board, 2009, p. 11).
The CCSS use the following chart from the NAEP and add a footnote to make their case for increasing informational texts in schools across the nation:
Distribution of Literary and Informational Passages by Grade in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework
The percentages on the table 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. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.
Since the Standards writers based their argument and recommended percentages of texts on a federal test and not on research: the numbers are just plain wrong.
A concrete example may help. For the sixth grade, and based to the federal test question percentage chart above, CCSS wants 50-55% of curricular reading to be informational texts. However, actual research in this area has determined that by sixth grade, more than 75% of students’ reading demands in school are with non-narrative text (Moss, 2004a, 2004b). To meet the CCSS’s demands, schools would actually need to cut 20-25% of their sixth grade informational texts and replace them with more literature. This does not make sense.
It also does not make sense that in practice many schools are not looking at the data, nor have they actually calculated and calibrated the texts currently in use in their schools. They simply take at face value the errant CCSS statement that, “Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional” (National Governor’s Association, 2010, Key Design Considerations, p. 1). Schools across the nation are scrambling to add more informational texts as required by the CCSS and in this process are reducing literary texts. While defenders of the core point to the statement above that “The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings.” Compare this comforting statement seeming to protect literature classes to what the Standards writers tell publishers on p.5 section B of the official Common Core Publishers Criteria: “English Language Arts Programs will need to increase substantially the amount of literary non-fiction they include.” This message has been heard loud and clear by America’s teachers and administrators: “English teachers across the country are trying to figure out which poetry, short, stories and novels might have to be sacrificed to make room for non-fiction. Jamie Highfill is mourning the six weeks’ worth of poetry she removed from her eighth-grade English class at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, Ark.” (Layton, 2012).
Poor curricular decisions are being made in the real world based on bad Common Core direction. So mistakes were made. Perhaps that is understandable since neither of the two main ELA Standards writers, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel has ever taught English in K-12 or in college or published or conducted serious researched work on K-12 curriculum and instruction (Pioneer, 2012). But we can hope that our professional educators will stand up to this nonsense, right?
Wrong. Some defenders of the CCSS when presented with the inconsistency that the Standards tell schools to increase informational texts to a level they already surpass refuse to face reality. The reality is that the Standards got it wrong. But this is anathema to some Standards advocates, who rather than considering the possibility that the Standards may be bare, assume a 6th grade class which research discovers is exposed to 25% literary texts should indeed change its curriculum to increase literary texts to the CCSS recommended 45% in this case. Two experts consulted on this topic (one university professor advocating for the CCSS on a national level and one web-based initiative purporting to defend and answer questions about the CCSS) each responded to the above scenario with the advice that a school in such a situation should actually increase literature, perhaps by adding science fiction to its science classes. This is frightening. On one hand the Standards tell schools to put in much more informational text, on the other hand to meet Standards’ text percentages most schools would have to reduce the amount of informational text. Even though something is clearly amiss, schools- not the Standards- are the ones forced to change.
Since schools may now need to add more literature, perhaps the classical Greek story of Procrustes should be included. Procrustes was a tyrant who only had one size of bed to offer his guests. If a guest did not fit into Procrustes’ iron bed he would stretch them if they were too short or he would cut off their feet if they were too tall. The fictional Procrustes reminds one of these “real world” Common Core advocates forcing schools to adjust their reading to match their “evidence based standards” which it turns out are not based on evidence. Yes, as research suggests, schools should use the informational texts already in their curriculums to enhance reading comprehension and develop skills and strategies to attack such critical texts. However, this can be accomplished without eviscerating literary texts which are too valuable and too often brutally illustrative of the “real world” to simply be supplanted by more informational texts. Nevertheless, in deference to the Standards writers schools might want to do away with some classic literature such as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Such a story might reveal that the Standards writers, like the weavers of the emperor’s fine but invisible clothes that only they enlightened were supposed to be able to see, have made their money, sold their wares, and have left the curriculum naked.
Alliance for Childhood. (2010, March 16). Joint statement of early childhood health and education professionals on the common core standards initiative issued by the Alliance for Childhood. Retrieved fromwww.allianceforchildhood.org.
Burkins, J. & Yaris, K. (2012, April 10). A close reading of the Common Core’s informational text recommendations. Retrieved from http://www.burkinsandyaris.com/a-close-reading-of-the-common-cores-informational-text-recommendations/
Idaho, State Department of Education website. NAEP. Retrieved from http://www.sde.idaho.gov/site/naep/data/g12p/menu.htm NAEP 2009 Test Scores Literature/Informational Text 221/218–261/264- -279/290
International Reading Association Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Committee. (2012). Literacy implementation guidance for the ELA Common Core State Standards [White paper]. Retrieved from http://www.reading.org/Libraries/association-documents/ira_ccss_guidelines.pdf
Layton, L. (2012,December 2). Common core sparks war over words. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-12-02/local/35584536_1_informational-text-middle-school-teacher-english-teachers
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National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors.
Pioneer Institute. (2012). How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk [White paper] Retrieved from http://pioneerinstitute.org.
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Reading framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Retrieved 28, September, 2013 from the National Assessment Governing Board website: http://www.nagb.org/content/nagb/assets/documents/publications/frameworks/reading09.pdf
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