By Katherine McKnight, Ph.D., author of The Common Sense Guide to the Common Core
Having been an educator for more than 25 years, I am always suspicious of new initiatives, since they often serve political agendas rather than the best interests of our students and teachers. Yet back in 2010, when I read through the recently launched Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I was pleasantly surprised. I delved into the framework and realized it was grounded in research-based methodology. In fact, the document was overflowing with what I knew in my head and heart were examples of good teaching and learning. This was especially true in my field: literacy. And I was delighted that the CCSS were less restrictive than the standards created under the No Child Left Behind legislation. Yet the CCSS are often misunderstood and distorted by media outlets.
One element of the CCSS that comes in for the most egregious misrepresentations is the text complexity model. For those of you needing a quick reminder, the CCSS text complexity model consists of three parts: quantitative measures, qualitative dimensions, and reader and task considerations. This model is addressed in full in the CCSS ELA (English Language Arts) document, which can be found here.
Now consider Blaine Greteman’s October 29, 2013 article in The New Republic, “Federal Bureaucrats Declare ‘Hunger Games’ More Complex Than ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’” Here Greteman asserts that the federal government is using the CCSS to dumb down student texts. Let’s unpack this assertion.
First, the CCSS is not the result of a federal initiative or mandate. Rather, the standards were initiated by states in order to create skill coherence (not curriculum coherence) that is necessary for college and career readiness. The standards were developed and are governed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center). Federal legislators were not involved in the creation of the standards, and the implication that they are involved in determining which books are or should be offered at different grade levels is absurd.
Second, Greteman supports his flawed premise by focusing on Lexile scores, which are only one aspect of text complexity. The CCSS document makes it clear that as a quantitative measure, Lexile is not a comprehensive indicator of text complexity. It is one component of a three-part model. Lexile measures vocabulary and word frequency; it is not intended to measure important factors like text structure, required background knowledge, or sentence complexity. Works of literature often have lower Lexile scores, while discipline-specific texts that introduce new vocabulary tend to have higher Lexile scores. As a professor of English, Greteman should have realized that a text’s rigor is determined by looking at Lexile in combination with the other two text complexity components: qualitative dimensions and reader and task considerations. It’s staggering that The New Republic editorial staff didn’t identify these easily debunked fallacies prior to the article’s publication. Even some critics of the Common Core, most notably Diane Ravitch, acknowledge that Greteman’s argument is flawed.
Another media-perpetuated myth is that the CCSS form a curriculum that promotes specific political and religious views. The most frequently encountered version of this claim is that Common Core brainwashes children with partisan liberal values. For example, on November 25, 2013, former Texas State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar appeared on Fox News. Dunbar wondered aloud if the goal of CCSS, which she called “Obamacore,” was to help “indoctrinate” students through textbooks. Let me state again that the CCSS are a framework of college and career readiness skills, not a curriculum. They neither require nor suggest that schools use certain textbooks. Anyone who has read the CCSS document knows that it doesn’t endorse any one teaching method, curriculum, or educational model. Nor do the standards promote any political or religious views. The CCSS are intentionally appropriate for use in diverse K–12 public and private schools—this includes private schools with religious affiliations. This “partisan brainwashing” argument was thoroughly addressed by MediaMatters.org. But as with Greteman’s article, once this particular anti–Common Core argument, however fatuous, saw the light of day, it was hard to contain. You’ll find its erroneous claims cited as fact on editorial pages around the country and in comment sections and blogs all over the Internet.
I heartily welcome intelligent debate about the Common Core. Coincidentally, the Common Core State Standards promote debate as an indicator of literacy. But I expect evidence-based argument—not misrepresentations based on opinion, wishful thinking, or a desire to emotionally manipulate. Ironically, these fallacious arguments tend to underscore the need for our students to master the CCSS literacy goals—so they can identify when some media outlets get it grossly wrong.
Katherine McKnight, Ph.D., is an educator, consultant, and author of several books, including The Common Sense Guide to the Common Core. Her career in education began as a high school English teacher in the Chicago Public School system more than 25 years ago. She has been an onsite professional development consultant for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and today she serves as a professor of secondary education at National Louis University and a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.
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