Standardization: From Carnegie Units to Common Core Standards (Guest Blogger is Steve Davis).

Steve Davis just finished his ninth year teaching English to high school sophomores and seniors in a large northern California urban school district. This is Part 1 of a two-part post.

The end of the year is always bittersweet for me. Feels much like Ernest Hemingway’s description of finishing a story. “After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy…and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.”

I am sure that I did some good with my students this year although I will likely never know truly how much good, regardless of test scores or performance evaluations. But for now, we move on to another reform push: The Common Core Standards. Here come national education standards and California is on board

I received a copy of the Common Core Standards from my district complete with a “messaging toolkit” to address my FAQ’s and concerns. The toolkit also has talking points so I can stay on message should I choose to become an advocate. It’s safe to assume that I will come to know the Common Core Standards well. It shouldn’t be too hard; a cursory glance reveals standards that look much like the ones that I am already familiar with. The Common Core Standards for English Language Arts boil down to: read and understand a variety of genres of text, compose clear texts in a variety of genres, and engage in class discussions and presentations. Technology standards only get a wink and a nod even though they are considered essential for the 21st century workforce. Same as it ever was. Of course I am oversimplifying, but only a little.

Some will bemoan that the Common Core Standards are stifling, but a certain amount of standardization is necessary in any system. Systems naturally tend towards entropy so it’s necessary to periodically reestablish order and consistency. The fact that standardization is at the heart of the business model has made business and education unlikely and uneasy bedfellows since the Carnegie Foundation pushed the Carnegie Unit to standardize education with the implicit aim of creating better (or at least more standardized) workers for industry.

It may not seem like it on the surface, but the Common Core Standards are being backed by top business leaders. Both of the organizations behind the Common Core Standards, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) are beholden to corporate interests. I wonder what type of vested interests companies like McGraw Hill, ETS, Scantron, The College Board, and Apple might have in the adoption of The Common Core Standards? The NGA Center is a little less transparent. “NGA’s Center is funded primarily from federal grants and contracts and through private foundation grants.” Perhaps I am too cynical.

Maybe these partnerships and grants are just examples of corporate philanthropy intended to benefit society. On the other hand, we may be headed into an era where privatization may drive schools to become the new company store. Don’t worry teachers, they’re not going to tell you how to teach the standards, and that is one of the Common Core Standards’ weaknesses. National standards can’t hurt and don’t be fooled into thinking that their implementation will change the way teachers teach. Current political rhetoric casts aspersions on teachers, conjuring a false image of incompetent and lazy teachers refusing to educate students. It’s not that students aren’t exposed to the right concepts or standards. The problem is much more fundamental than that.

The achievement gap and the dropout problem stem from the fact that the schooling system, which mirrors and reinforces societal inequalities, doesn’t respond to a significant and growing proportion of its students’ needs. The idea that we need Common Core Standards presupposes that individual state standards are inadequate and further that teachers don’t know what students should learn. It’s more of a case of teachers struggling to find ways to engage students. We should be focused on methods not on laundry lists of vague skill sets with no real roadmaps showing us how to get our students there when they don’t really want to go along for the ride.

Reformers and business representatives don’t agree with me. “There is a common notion in American education reform circles that we are falling behind other countries with high-achieving school systems in large part because we don’t have national standards.” On the other side of the aisle, “Many educators and parents oppose national standards, fearing that this will lead to a national curriculum and national assessment test that would take away local control of education as well affect how teachers operate in the classroom.”

The real problem about the Common Core Standards is that they do not reconcile a disconnect between high school and college expectations, don’t address the soft skills that employers desire, and fail to prescribe effective methods for arriving at desired outcomes. Furthermore, it’s disingenuous for the Common Core Standards to expect rigid adherence to standards while differentiating six ways from Sunday to ensure access for the spectrum of learners in a class. Note that the standards movement of the last ten years has made very little impact on students’ performance as measured by standardized tests.


Filed under school reform policies

6 responses to “Standardization: From Carnegie Units to Common Core Standards (Guest Blogger is Steve Davis).

  1. “The Common Core Standards for English Language Arts boil down to: read and understand a variety of genres of text, compose clear texts in a variety of genres, and engage in class discussions and presentations.”

    When you look more closely, you’ll see that the Common Core’s treatment of “genre” as a fundamental analytical frame in the discipline of English is weak to non-existent, and in particular a much more narrow range of written genres are required than in California.

  2. Steve Davis

    Hi Tom,

    David B. Cohn (InterACT) did a really thorough analysis of some of the points that I touch on below regarding the California writing standards.

    I hear you saying that the Common Core Standards actually dilute California’s ELA Content Standards; is that correct?

    I agree that the Common Core Standards are less specific than California’s Content Standards, which will be especially troublesome for newer teachers. The Common Core’s writing standards seem to include all of CA’s genres except 2.5 (see comparisons of writing standards below). I don’t like the fact that the Common Core Standards don’t seem to have a numbering scheme. CA’s numbering scheme allows for easy discussion of standards while collaborating.

    I also have a bone to pick with CA’s standards. The California Standards Test (CST) in ELA doesn’t even test actual writing. According to the CST blueprint, writing conventions (grammar, sentence structure) counts for 22% of the ELA exam and writing strategies (audience, purpose, writing process, organization) count for 12% of the ELA exam. Real writing is only assessed on California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), and I am not too impressed with that writing assessment either.

    Common Core Standards, Writing 6-12:
    write arguments,
    write informative/explanatory texts,
    write narratives,
    write in response to literary or, informational sources.

    California Content Standards, writing 11-12:
    2.1 write fictional, autobiographical, or biographical narratives,
    2.2 write responses to literature,
    2.3 write reflective compositions,
    write historical investigation reports,
    2.5 write job applications and resumes,
    2.6 deliver multimedia presentations.

    • OK, I scanned the California standards pretty quickly and probably overstated my case about the range in writing. The difference is more subtle.

      California asks for (auto)biographical narratives or short stories. Common Core asks for “narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events” which are presumably the same thing, but note the weird aversion to the concept of literary genre.

      California asks for responses to literature, but the Common Core just asks you to apply the reading standards, none of which asks for a full, open ended response — they are a set of specific analytical tasks.

      California’s standard for expository composition is simply more coherent and literate than the Common Core’s. CC doesn’t call for a thesis, for example, and specifies that the purpose of a research paper is to answer a question or solve a problem, which strikes me as arbitrary over-specification.

      California asks for persuasive compositions that include a reasonable sense of rhetoric. Common Core only asks for logical argument.

      CC doesn’t do business letters (an inclusion I approve of in California).

      CC’s informative/explanatory text standard is, I think, overwrought compared to California’s equivalent, although one might argue that CC is more rigorous, I think it is just overcomplicated, pretentious and over-emphasizes craft (as CC tends to do).

  3. David B. Cohen

    Thanks for picking up the conversation here, Steve. I see the parallel issues of standards and assessment coming into play here. First, your summary of the standards resonates with me, and in fact, it’s an essential component of working effectively with standards to be able to distill some “power standards” from the more detailed framework. Skipping from standard to standard with the idea you really have to cover all of them is counterproductive, and in some academic disciplines, impossible. But once you’ve got a handle on the architecture beneath the standards you can get some more substantial work done. Then of course, assessing student growth measured by those standards is the challenge, and it’s a challenge that the current testing system can’t handle. So the question is, are we going to transfer vast sums of money to testing and publishing companies to fund their attempts at assessment, or could we invest that money in schools and teachers so that we can actually assess students in a way that helps them learn? I’d have to do some digging, but I’m pretty sure Robert Marzano’s book on assessment and grading cites evidence that teachers are just as capable of designing reliable measures. The obstacles are absolutely surmountable. The other issue I have with the Common Core Standards is the “recommended” reading list – which runs the risk of becoming “the” reading list – especially for struggling schools led by the same types of people who think scripted curriculum solves problems. Think it won’t happen? I’d love to know why not.

  4. Pingback: Standardization: From Carnegie Units to Common Core Standards (Guest Blogger is Steve Davis). | Common Core Common Ground |

  5. Pingback: The Best Articles Sharing Concerns About Common Core Standards | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

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