The Common Core English Standards: Content and Controversy

The Common Core standards call for reading more non-fiction in English classes, among other things.

Man reading a book

The new standards shift the focus from writing about opinions to concentrating on the evidence presented in the texts.

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The Gettysburg Address isn’t typical reading in a high school English class, where teachers have long favored literature such as "Moby Dick," "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and Shakespeare. The writers of the Common Core wanted to change that.

Although the Common Core standards are not meant to dictate pedagogy or curriculum—something that proponents have repeatedly highlighted in response to critics who worry about outside meddling in local school curriculum decisions—its writers have distinct ideas about what teaching and learning should look like once the new standards are launched. And in order to get across their vision for classrooms, the two co-writers of the English standards, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel—academics who founded the pro-Common Core nonprofit Student Achievement Partners—created a lesson for ninth- or 10th-graders on the Gettysburg Address that Coleman presented to educators in 2011.

In the lesson, Coleman highlighted two new ways of doing things under the Common Core: a shift to more nonfiction, informational texts and a push to do more teaching, class discussions and writing that are focused on evidence from the readings (and not the prior experiences or ideas of the students or teacher).

“This is not the only way,” Coleman said at the outset of the lesson. But he also criticized practices that are popular in many English language arts classrooms across America, including providing students context on what they’re about to read before they start, helping them with pre-reading strategies (such as predicting what a text will say), and asking students to focus on specific elements (such as the main idea, character or structure) as they read.

He also criticized the movement to assign students “just-right” books, a tactic that has caught on in many U.S. schools in the past decade. Teachers assign students reading material that fits their ability level, as a way to encourage them to read books that will challenge them without frustrating them. It is one of the signature features of the balanced literacy approach (as are the pre-reading and reading strategies that Coleman also dismissed), which school districts like New York City have adopted and popular curriculum models like Lucy Calkins’ Reading & Writing Project promote.

“When students are behind, the reaction has been to reduce the level of complexity,” Coleman said. “We’ve exiled them.”

Instead, Coleman argued that students should be primarily reading complex texts that are matched to their grade-level, even if their reading ability is below grade-level. To help them keep up, he said teachers should use techniques like close reading, where students spend an entire class period focused on how one vocabulary word is used in the text, for instance. Instead of more general questions (such as “Why did the North fight the Civil War?”), he recommended specific questions about the text, such as “Who are the fathers [that Lincoln mentions]?” and “What do we know about them?”

“It’s not a bad way to get at the idea of ‘Founding Fathers,’ ” he said. “The text is in large part the teacher, and we’re following it.”

He also argued for moving much more slowly through reading materials: The lesson on the three-paragraph Gettysburg Address is meant to extend over three days. “There might be many more silences in this classroom,” Coleman said.

The ultimate idea is to help students understand how to talk and write about reading materials using evidence. “You often see on assessments: ‘Do you think students wearing school uniforms is a good idea or not?’ But it’s untethered to any real evidence or real data,” said Pimentel. “The Common Core means to change that.”

“We know most of our writing as adults is tethered to some evidence or research that we’ve done. I’m not just going to make it up. I’m going to read about it,” she added. “Students won’t just be asked a question. They’ll be asked, ‘What’s your evidence for that?’ ”

The changes proposed in the Gettysburg lesson expose major rifts among educators about the direction the Common Core is taking American literacy education.

For one, Coleman’s cold reading of a particularly complex historical document, with little to no context or prior discussion, has raised hackles among proponents of the balanced literacy approach.

“[W]e believe it would be premature to channel half the teachers in the nation to work towards his untested image of literacy curriculum,” says a statement about the Gettysburg lesson on the website of the Reading & Writing Project, which has otherwise praised the Common Core and sought to adapt to it. “Two thirds of the nation’s schools have used these methods, leading to NAEP scores that have flat lined and to a nation where the average college graduate reads one book a year, and to mountains of data suggesting that approach does not work.”

In response to the criticism, the Common Core writers have toned down some of their strictures against helping students with context and providing less-challenging reading materials for struggling students. Pimentel said “just-right” books can continue to be used to help students in small, leveled reading groups, as long as all students also have access to tougher texts as well. And she said it’s important for teachers to provide context, especially for readers who may have fewer out-of-school experiences to draw on, as long as they don’t give away the main points of a complex text before students tackle it themselves.

“There were a lot of things said early on while Common Core was coming out that haven’t passed the ‘sniff test’ with teachers,” said Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education and a proponent of the new standards. “The whole idea that there should be no background knowledge … I don’t think teachers bought that, and they modified it and clarified it.”

But the choice of a speech for the Common Core model English lesson—and not, say, a passage fromThe Great Gatsby—has sparked heated debate and is not something Common Core proponents are backing away from. Based on concerns that before American students leave high school, they have little exposure to the informational texts that will dominate their college careers and future jobs, the Common Core standards make reading such nonfiction material a priority. In elementary school, students should be reading a mix of 50 percent literature and 50 percent informational texts, according to the Common Core. By high school, students’ reading will shift to be 30 percent literary and 70 percent informational.

English teachers have worried that important literature will be shunted aside in favor of historical documents, or even technical or scientific texts. The writers have dismissed this concern, however, saying that classics like Huckleberry Finn still have a prominent place in the Common Core framework.

But they’re also adamant that English teachers should be making room for texts like the Gettysburg Address—Coleman’s lesson was intended for English language arts—and critics have asked whether it’s appropriate for English teachers, trained in literature and literary techniques, to present historical material that previously might have been a part of a social studies unit on the Civil War. (Coleman says that ideally, texts like the Gettysburg Address will be taught in both types of classroom—in English for its structure and rhetorical style, and in history for its historical importance.)

Still, most of the informational texts are supposed to be taught outside of English classrooms, in history and science classes. This is another point of concern among critics.

“If a science teacher is trying to teach a chemistry lab, what do you want them to do?” asked Sandra Stotsky, who worked on the acclaimed Massachusetts standards. “Give them a book on Madame Curie? Is that part of learning about the periodic table or doing labs?”

Pimentel acknowledges that it will be difficult at first to get science and history teachers to change their ways. “I think this is a turn that is likely to happen slowly,” she said. But she argues that it’s also critical that these teachers require more reading and writing in their classrooms because students will be asked to do so in these subjects later in college and eventually in their careers.

“It shouldn’t be every single day we’re going to do a close reading of a text,” she said of the other subjects. “But it should be that students are asked to read and write.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. It was written by Sarah Garland for the Hechinger Report’s national reporting project on the Common Core.