800px-Bible_paperKaren Swallow Prior in late June wrote a piece entitled “The Good News of the Common Core” for Christianity Today.  She is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.  Reading the article I was taken aback by the title.  For Christians when we think of Good News and when we see it in the context of Christianity Today most of us think of the Gospel.

The true good news is the proclamation of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  I will give Dr. Prior or whoever wrote the title the benefit of the doubt and assume that they did not consider their words carefully.  Which is ironic considering this is discussing English and Language Arts standards.

Prior attempts to make a faith-based argument for the Common Core which I believe is misguided.  She brings up a meeting that she had with David Coleman who was reaching out to Christians to advocate for the Common Core.

David Coleman, also the president of the testing organization the College Board, recognized that Christians, as a “people of the book,” would take a particular interest in the next generation’s ability to read, think, and understand texts. Coleman invited about a dozen Christian thinkers and scholars to join him for a two-day conference held this spring to discuss the challenges and implications of the new literacy standards for people of faith…

….From the carving of God’s commandments on stone tablets to the narratives and letters circulated within the early church, from the painstaking preservation of the scriptures at the hands of medieval scribes to the Protestant Reformation’s birthing of the printing press and the invention of the modern university, ours has been a faith centered on the Word—and words.

The Christian obsession with text is not only a part of our history—but something that continues to shape contemporary Christianity. We readily engage questions around biblical interpretation in deep ways, as we consider infallibility, inerrancy, context, hermeneutics, canonicity, and scriptural authority. Even in the 21st century, entire spectrums of denominations, doctrines, and practices center around our reading, studying, and understanding of Scripture.

Thus, despite my own skepticism toward the countless education reforms I’ve seen in almost 25 years of teaching, the Common Core reading standards hearten me not only as an educator, but more so as a Christian who recognizes the centrality of words to our faith.

The deep, reverent reading that we find so essential to the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of Coleman’s driving passions. And it is this passion that informs the reading standards of Common Core.

Yes, we are concerned about people being able to read.  Historically the first public schools in America were started by Puritans who did  so in order to make sure people were literate so they can read the Bible.  I don’t believe that the Common Core ELA standards will achieve what she hopes.  I’m also not aware of anything in Coleman’s background that qualifies him to address how the Common Core intersects with the Christian faith.  As somebody who has been in ministry over 20 years and who has been researching the Common Core for the last two years I’m skeptical of faith-based arguments in favor of it.

Why?  Because I’ve been asked about concerns I had as a Christian about the Common Core.  I don’t have a specific faith-based argument other than perhaps the way the Common Core was implemented diminishes parental sovereignty.  I’m also concerned about the impact the Common Core has on private school choice and homeschooling, but that isn’t a specifically Christian concern.

I also know that Common Core advocates have made a concerted push to reach out to conservatives and apparently even Christian using lingo that is familiar in order to sway them to support the Common Core.

I haven’t developed a specific Christian argument against the Common Core.  I just share my concerns.  So a Christian defense of the Common Core frankly, to me, seems quite manipulative.  Especially when you consider the source of it comes from David Coleman.  I have kept my argument rooted with the Constitutional concerns, content concerns, privacy concerns and the cost of the Common Core.  I challenge people to consider these things and do the research themselves.

It seems to me that Dr. Prior swallowed the Common Core advocates’ talking points hook, line and sinker.

At this point, if you’ve heard of Common Core, you’ve probably heard from the opposition. Critics complain that it’s a federal program (it’s not) or that it’s too dramatic and difficult a shift for our public education system. As a college professor, I can tell you such a rigorous approach is needed, even if it’s a struggle for teachers and students to adopt. My colleagues and I in higher education see the deficits in reading comprehension far too often in the college classroom. The kind of sustained, deep reading taught through Common Core will require more discipline—on everyone’s part—but the rewards will have exponential results.

This is a shallow, at best, look at the Common Core State Standards.  First, it’s inaccurate to say critics complain it’s a federal program.  That’s a simplified description of the opposition.  No, it’s not a federal program, but it’s not a state-led program either.  It’s special-interest led.  It also violated the proper process for policy to be determined in our Constitutional republic – our elected representatives were circumvented.  I know there are many teachers and professors who unfortunately give very little thought about the constitutional implications of education policy.  Dr. Prior seems to be in that boat.

Secondly, not every scholar and content expert feels the same way about these standards.  Take Sandra Stotsky as an example.  Dr. Stotsky is professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas, and was on the validation committee for the Common Core English-Language Arts standards.  She also has experience writing state standards as she was one of the authors of the Massachusetts ELA standards.  The ones the state scraped for the subpar Common Core State Standards.  She recently wrote about the serious flaws with the Common Core.

Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least 50 percent of their reading instructional time on informational texts at every grade level. It provides 10 reading standards for informational texts and 9 standards for literary texts at every grade level. (An informational text is a piece of writing intending to convey information about something, e.g., gravity, bicycles, nutrition.) However, there is no body of information that English teachers have ever been responsible for teaching, unlike science teachers, for example, who are charged with teaching information about science. As a result, English teachers are not trained to give informational reading instruction—by college English departments or by teacher preparation programs. They typically study four major genres of literature—poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction—and are trained to teach those genres.

Common Core reduces opportunities for students to develop critical (analytical) thinking. Analytical thinking is developed in the English class when teachers teach students how to read between the lines of complex literary works. It is facilitated by the knowledge that students acquire in other ways and in other subjects because critical (analytical) thinking cannot take place in an intellectual vacuum. By reducing literary study in the English class, Common Core reduces the opportunity for students to learn how to do critical (analytical) thinking.

Common Core’s middle school writing standards are developmentally inappropriate for average middle school students. Adults have a much better idea of what “claims,” “relevant evidence,” and academic “arguments” are. Most children have a limited understanding of these concepts and find it difficult to compose an argument with claims and evidence. This would be the case even if Common Core’s writing standards were linked to appropriate reading standards and prose models. But they are not. Nor does the document clarify the difference between an academic argument (explanatory writing) and persuasive writing, confusing teachers and students alike.

Most of Common Core’s college-readiness and grade-level standards in ELA are empty skills. Skills training alone doesn’t prepare students for college-level work. They need a fund of content knowledge. But Common Core’s ELA standards (as well as its literacy standards for other subjects) do not specify the literary/historical knowledge students need. They provide no list of recommended authors or works, just examples of levels of “complexity.” They require no British literature aside from Shakespeare. They require no authors from the ancient world or selected pieces from the Bible as literature so that students can learn about their influence on English and American literature. They do not require study of the history of the English language. Without requirements in these areas, students are not prepared for college coursework.

Third her assertion that the Common Core opponents say “it’s too dramatic and difficult a shift for our public education system.”  I’m not sure where she’s heard that argument, but I will say we’re spending a lot of money and effort into a reform that essentially has zero data backing it up.  There is no empirical evidence that centralizing standards will do anything to raise student achievement or help students become college and career ready.  In reality it’s not very likely that educational standards in general will do very much at all to address some of the problems she cites in her piece.

Before Dr. Prior continues to laud the “good news of the Common Core” I’d encourage her to spend a little more time researching the bad.

Photo credit: Dave Bullock via Wikimedia Commons (CC By 2.0)

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