What the Media Is Getting Wrong About the Common Core State Standards

By Katherine McKnight, Ph.D., author of The Common Sense Guide to the Common Core

McKnight, Kathering , FSP AuthorHaving 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.

CCSSFirst, 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.

CommonSenseGuideToTheCommonCore1Katherine 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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4 Responses to What the Media Is Getting Wrong About the Common Core State Standards

  1. Dear Peter,
    Thanks for reading my post and sharing your opinion, however I have to say that I disagree with some of your assertions. First, you mention that I am trying to sell the “state initiative” storyline. There are many professional organization in education that support CCSS (i.e. NCTE, NCTM, IRA).
    Second, the Lexile measurement is grounded in significant reading research. Since text by its nature is complex, Lexile is not comprehensive for the determination of the rigor and complexity of a text. This is why CCSS developed a three-part model and the point that I was making in the blog post. For further reading and information about text complexity, the International Reading Association (the premiere professional organization for reading and literacy educators) published the following to book by leading national reading educators Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading. It provides a rich understanding of the text complexity model:
    Since the Common Core State Standards have encouraged that complex texts become a part of every student’s curriculum, the authors provide a revisiting of the topic of text complexity with attention being paid to quantitative and qualitative features, the match between readers and texts, and the significant role that teachers play in making the match a success.
    Thank you again for taking the time to express your passionate opinions. Discourse about our children and the education that they deserve is paramount.

  2. Stephen says:

    In my many years as an educator, I don’t recall a single teacher, parent, or student who called for national standards as a way to improve our educational system. On the other hand, I’ve had numerous conversations in which educators, parents, and students called for a more student-centered, community-based approach. Smaller class sizes? Yes. More prep and planning time for teachers? Yes. More art, music and PE? Yes. But national standards? Not once. In evaluating the CCSS, its origins are relevant. From what I have seen, CCSS comes to us as part of the corporate reform package deal, together with high stakes standardized testing, data-gathering, and the privatization of public education. You can discover it for yourself by simply following the money.

    • Stephen,
      Thank you for taking the time to post a reply to this blog. I completely agree that more resources for teachers and classrooms are more necessary. I am also a strong supporter of student-centered learning and community based schools. My cautiously optimist support for Common Core is not adversarial to these realities. In fact on page 4 of the introduction to CCSS, the authors make it quite clear that teachers, school communities, and educators are the ones who know best how to develop the college and career readiness skills that are articulated in the document.
      “..the Standards leave room for teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached and what additional topics should be addressed. Thus, the Standards do not mandate such things as a particular writing process or the full range of metacognitive strategies that students may need to monitor and direct their thinking and learning. Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.”
      Again, thank you for participating in the conversation.

  3. Peter says:

    First, I’m kind of amazed that anybody is still trying to sell the “state initiative” storyline. “Corporate initiative with federal facilitation” would be more accurate.

    Second, are you suggesting that the wildly useless lexile scores aren’t a problem because they’re only one third of text complexity, the text complexity computations are sound? Bad measurement plus good measurement equals bad measurement. I am sorry that you found this staggering– I hope you have recovered from your hyperbolic suffering.

    Third– well, this time you are correct. The continued insistence that CCSS materials house psychic probes that will lead to alien mind control and other fanciful is just silly. There are so many real reasons to reject CCSS that making things up is hardly worthwhile.

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