A Brief Analysis of Two Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] in ELA

450px-FirstFolioMacbeth“And be these juggling fiends no more believed, / That palter with us in a double sense.”
–William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The defenders of the CC$$ often make the claim that “the standards do not tell you what to teach.” That’s purest equivocation.

The standards are a list, by domain, of outcomes to be measured in mathematics and in English language arts. If a standard says that a student will be able to x, then that means that the student will be taught to x. It also assumes that x should be taught, implies that x is to be taught explicitly, and, importantly, takes time from teaching y, where y is something not in the standards. The whole point of implementing standards is to have them drive curricula and pedagogy, and claims to the contrary are equivocation.

The equivocation from deformers on this issue means one of two things: a) they don’t know what they are talking about or b) they are dissembling. So, let’s look at a couple of specific “standards” taken at random from the CC$$ and do the sort of work that would have been done if the CC$$ in ELA had been subjected to any real critique. Bear in mind that the same sort of process that I’m going to carry out below could be carried out for almost any “standard” on the CC$$ bullet list.

Analysis of a Sample CC$$ Language “Standard”

150px-Minimalist_Syntax_Tree_1CC$$.ELA-Literacy.L.8.1a. Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences.

This standard tells us students are to be assessed on their ability a) to explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and b) their function in particular sentences. In order for students to do this, they will have to be taught, duh, how to identify gerunds, participles, and infinitives and how to explain their functions generally and in particular sentences. That’s several curriculum items. So much for the Common Core not specifying curricula.

Furthermore, in order for the standard to be met, these bits of grammatical taxonomy will have to be explicitly taught and explicitly learned, for the standard requires students to be able to make explicit explanations. Now, there is a difference between having learned an explicit grammatical taxonomy and having acquired competence in using the grammatical forms listed in that taxonomy. The authors of the standard seem not to have understood this. Instead, the standard requires a particular pedagogical approach that involves explicit instruction in grammatical taxonomy. So much for the standards not requiring particular pedagogy.

So, to recap: the standard requires particular curricula and a particular pedagogical approach.

Let’s think about the kind of activity that this standard envisions our having students do. Identifying the functions of verbals in sentences would require that students be able to do, among other things, something like this:

Underline the gerund phrases in the following sentences and tell whether each is functioning as a subject, direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition, predicate nominative, retained object, subjective complement, objective complement, or appositive of any of these.

That’s what’s entailed by PART of the standard. And since the standard just mentions verbals generally and not any of the many forms that these can take, one doesn’t know whether it covers, for example, infinitives used without the infinitive marker “to,” so-called “bare infinitives,” as in “Let there be peace.” (Compare “John wanted there to be peace.”) Would one of you like to explain to your students how the infinitive functions in that sentence and to do the months and months of prerequisite work in syntax necessary for them to understand the explanation? Have fun. Then tell me whether you think it a good idea to waste precious class time getting kids to the point where they can parse that sentence and explain the function of the verbal in it.

Shouldn’t there have been SOME discussion and debate about this, at the very least? Do the authors of these “standards” have any notion how much curricula and what kinds of pedagogical approaches would be necessary in order for 8th-grade students to be able to do this?

And so it goes for the rest of the long, long list of specific, grade-level standards. All have enormous entailments, and none of these, it seems, were thought through, and certainly, none of them were subjected to critique, and no mechanism was created for revision in light of scholarly critique.

Given what contemporary syntacticians now know about how gerunds, participles, and infinitives function in general and in particular sentences, I seriously doubt that that the authors of this “standard” understood what they were calling for or that students can be taught to explain these at all accurately, at this level (Grade 8) without that teaching being embedded in an overall explicit grammar curriculum. Furthermore, the authors of the standard doubtless had in mind a prescientific folk theory of grammar that doesn’t remotely resemble contemporary, research-based models of syntax–so they are doing the equivalent, here, of, say, telling teachers of physics to explain to kids that empty space is filled with an invisible ether or telling teachers of biology to explain that living things differ from nonliving ones because of their élan vital.

Of course, people do not acquire competence in using syntactic forms via explicit instruction in those forms and the rules for using them. Anyone with any training whatsoever in language acquisition would know that. For example, you know, if you are a speaker of English, that

*the green, great dragon

is ungrammatical and that

the great, green dragon

is not. But you don’t know this because you were taught the explicit rules for order of precedence of adjectives in English.

While there are, arguably, some reasons for learning an explicit grammar (for example, one might want to do so in the process of training for work as a professional linguist), what we are (or should be) interested in as teachers of English is assisting students in developing grammatical competence, which, again, is done by means other than via explicit instruction in taxonomy and rules (e.g., through oral language activities involving language that uses the forms properly, through committing to memory sentences containing novel constructions, through exposure to these constructions in writing, through modeling of corrections of deviations from standard grammatical rules). The science on this is overwhelming, but the authors of these standards clearly weren’t familiar with it. Their “standard” requires particular curricula and pedagogical approaches if it is to be met, and these aren’t supported by what we know, scientifically, about language acquisition–about how the grammar of a language is acquired by its speakers. Many of the new “standards” assume and/or instantiate such backward, hackneyed, prescientific notions about what we should teach and how.

And, of course, again, these “standards” were foisted on the country with no professional vetting or critique, and no mechanism was created for ongoing improvement of them based on such critique.

Imagine, if you will, the whole design space of possible curricula and pedagogical approaches in the English language arts, a sort of Borges library of curricula and pedagogy. Standards such as these draw rather severe boundaries within that space and say, “What is within these boundaries is required, and what is outside these boundaries is not permitted.” In other words, the new “standards,” as written, preclude some curricula and pedagogical approaches and require others. Basically, they apply a severe prior constraint on curricular and pedagogical innovation based on current knowledge and emerging practice and research

I happen to believe, BTW, that there is a role to be played in the language and writing and literary interpretation portions of our curricula for explicit instruction in some aspects of current scientific models of syntax. However, that’s another discussion entirely, and it’s one that none of us will be having because the decisions about what we are to consider important in instruction have been made for us by Lord Coleman, and ours is but to obey.

That seems, sadly, to be OK with the defenders of the amateurishly prepared CC$$ in ELA.

Let’s turn to the place of this “standard” in the overall learning progression laid out by the Common Core.

Why verbals at this particular level? Why not case assignment or the complement/adjunct distinction or explicit versus null determiners or theta roles or X-bars or varieties of complement phrases or any of a long list of other equally important syntactic categories and concepts? And why are all those left out of the learning progression as a whole, across all the grades, given that they are key to understanding explicit models of syntax, which, evidently, the authors of these “standards” think important for some reason or another? Answer: this “standard” appears at this grade level pretty much AT RANDOM, not as part of a coherent, overall progression, the purpose of which was clearly thought out based on current best practices and scientific understanding of language acquisition. It’s as though one opened a text on syntax, laid one’s finger down randomly on a topic, plopped it into the middle of the Grade 8 standards with no consideration of the prerequisites for tackling the topic.

Let’s move on to how the existence of the “standard” precludes development of alternative curricula and pedagogical approaches—to how it stifles innovation in both areas. Suppose I had an argument to make that it’s useful for kids to learn construction of basic syntax trees for coordination as part of a section of a writing program in which students are learning how to create more various, more robust sentences. Now, you can agree or disagree with this proposal, but the point is that you should have the right to do so–to look at the specific proposal and accept it, reject it, or accept it with modifications. The answer to the question, “Should we do that?” should NOT BE, “Well, it’s not in the standards.” And your answer to that question should not be, “We can’t do this because we have to be concentrating on the functions of verbals at these grade levels.” Instead, educators should consider the relative merits of these proposals.

But now, because of the CC$$ in ELA, and previously, because of the state “standards,” those are the standard answers to most suggestions for innovation in curricula and pedagogy.

That’s not how you get continuous improvement. Continuous improvement comes about when people put forward their suggestions for curricula and pedagogy, without such prior constraint, and those are evaluated critically.

Why has there not been more critique, like this one, of the “standards” themselves? Now, THERE’S A PROBLEM. In order REALLY to be able to counter claims about the new “standards” made by the education deformers promoting them, one has to do fairly detailed analysis of particular “standards” and what they entail. That’s a big job. And the moment one starts to talk about those matters, people’s eyes glaze over. This stuff can’t be done in pithy soundbites of the kind that are the stock in trade of organizations like Achieve, the Chiefs for Change, Students First, and the Thoms B. Fordham Institute.

There are some nasty devils in the materials ancillary to the Common Core–the ones that present the educational philosophy of that renowned pedagogical theorist ex nihilo, Lord Coleman. But there are many, many devils in the details. Many of them. And there are NO MEANS WHATSOEVER built into the CC$$ implementations for exorcising those.

Analysis of a Sample CC$$ Literature “Standard”

Fragonard,_The_ReaderCC$$.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5. Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

One of the problems with the CC$$ is that they are full of unexamined assumptions (one can also drive whole curricula through their lacunae, but that’s another issue). In this case, the standard [sic] assumes a particular hermeneutics, or theory of interpretation–that an author’s choices are THE proper object of study. This is an extremely controversial position, and one that I hold, with reservations, but it is taken for granted in the standard [sic] as though there were no learned disagreement regarding it. The authors of these “standards” seem to be oblivious of the fact that E. D. Hirsch stood almost alone, throughout much of the past century, in his heroic defense of the author’s choices, or intentions, as proper objects of scholarly attention. During that time, many scholars and critics, perhaps most professional literary people, contended that the author’s choices, or intentions, were irrelevant or irrecoverable or both and that we must attend, instead,

• to the text itself (Ransom, Tate, Empson, Brooks, Warren, Wimsatt, Beardsley, and others of the New Critical school) or to formal or structural features or relations within the text (Propp, Jakobson, Stith Thompson, Levi-Strauss, and other Formalists and Structuralists);

• to the reader’s construction of the text (in their various ways, Barthes, Fish, Rosenblatt, Derrida, and other Reader Response, Postmodernist, and Deconstructionist critics); or

• to historically determined responses to the text and differences in these over time (Heidegger, Gademer, Foucault, Greenblatt, and other Historicist and New Historicist critics).

It’s fairly typical of these standards [sic] to be worded in complete obliviousness of the fact that people have thought pretty seriously about literature over the past hundred and fifty years and have, in the course of all that, learned a few things and in complete obliviousness of the fact that there are many possible approaches to literary study that the authors of the “standards” seem to have been clueless about. The controversial notion that we should focus on authors’ intentions was CENTRAL to the raging debates over approaches to literary interpretation, or hermeneutics, in the twentieth century. Who decided that David Coleman and Susan Pimentel had the right to overrule every scholar, every teacher, every curriculum designer, every curriculum coordinator, who belongs to a different camp, who champions a different approach? Are we to have a central committee deciding what IDEAS are acceptable? And isn’t the New Critical approach of these “standards,” generally, incompatible with this emphasis, in this one standard, on this one example, of an author exercising intention?

Now, let me hasten to add that I understand and share the concern that led Hirsch to his defense of the author’s intention. Hirsch recognized that our basic ontological position is that your mind is over there, and mine is over here, and that cultural products are created to bridge that ontological gap. If we throw out the idea of the author’s intention, we undermine that faith in the notion that an idea can be conceived and communicated–faith in the very possibility of faithful cultural transmission. The Ancient Mariner wants you to hear HIS story, not your deconstruction of it, and he fairly clearly insists upon that. So, the reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated. However, all that said, it’s valuable for us, as readers, to poke at that author and intentions that we’ve posited in our reading when we are doing our rereading. The best reading is often such rereading.

Often, for example, in rereading my own work, I’m surprised at the one or ones I glimpse there, behind it all. And as I sit down to write, who is the “author” there? We are all of many parts and roles and conditionings, layers upon layers, worlds within worlds. At times when we write it seems that we are simply transcribing (that’s almost always when the writing is best, of course), and at others we are very much aware of consciously assembling an experience for the reader–laying a trap, casting a spell, tossing the reader off a cliff into something dark and disturbing–whatever. And at times the autoclitic or peformative aspect of the speech is definitely foregrounded, both when we are writing and in a text we are reading. Intention is complex.

I read Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, for example, and it seems to me that I am reading someone intent, foremost, on my having an authentic encounter with someone like him, encountering a mad genius of many parts content, often, with simply displaying those parts in all their dazzling self-contradiction. God or gnat? Well, both, in superimposition, like Schrodinger’s cat, and much more besides, and he’s aware of that and having a good laugh at us and himself whenever we presume to attain a bourgeois clarity, though he has experienced that other clarity, the Eleusinian one, atop the mountain, and shares some of what that is like, too, or claims to–even that he laughs at, as a model to us of what is, finally, it seems to me, a stance he wants to show us how to take or a dance to dance. The author I posit, there, is one who demands that I be him reading him but in his irreducibly suggestive, pregnant, generative entirety, not at all in the way of the narrow propagandist, not at all at all.

So, as writers, we cannot know, ourselves, all that went into the work we have produced and clearly sort out what was intentional and what was not (for a great many reasons and in a great many ways) in what we have produced. How much more removed are we then, in our vantage as readers, given all our complexities,  all our unexamined interpellations of everything, our often great distance in time and place from that author we think we are conversing with? For example, when I was a lot younger, Plato seemed, to me, clear as Bach cantata, but now that I am older, much of what is there seems to me extremely alien and perhaps irrecoverable, and that may be true of the Bach, too. I have my theories about Plato. I think, for example, that he had a transformative experience when he participated in the mysteries at Eleusis that is key to understanding him, but that’s an informed speculation, not a fact, about Plato. My notion, there, is a valuable lens through which to read him, I think, but I cannot claim more for it, though without the presupposition that there was a Plato with an intent that it is my work to discover, I cannot believe that the critical enterprise makes any sense.

So, I thought of myself in Hirsch’s camp on this stuff long before I met the man and came to admire him close up, but I also read critics of other schools to my great instruction and delight. We don’t even know ourselves, so it’s some presumption to think that we can have an easy grasp on the intentions of an Other–often a very distant Other–who is, after all, not some specimen of Lepidoptera labeled, pinned to a card, archived, and cataloged. There are many, many ways in and out of poems and tales, and it’s possible to read by many lights. A deconstruction of a text may run afoul of sense about cultural transmission and common understanding, and it may confuse significance for what Hirsch calls “verbal meaning,” but even if it’s a mistake in interpretation, as Hirsch contends in his valuable Validity in Interpretation, one can learn a lot from it.

The ed deformers, bless their simple, walnut-like hearts, don’t seem to understand that–that one can read by many lights.

This essay is not the place for me to lay out a hermeneutics of my own–the theory that informs my own teaching of literature (I will post more on this in time). Suffice it to say that there are complex issues involved that were not understood or ignored by the framers of these “standards.” There are many ways in and out of literary texts, and attempted positing of intent is only part of that, though an extremely important part. I believe that Hirsch is right that to the extent that we deny the determinacy of meaning, we deny the very possibility of faithful communication, but it is also true that we read because doing so matters to us, and it matters because of the significance of the text as vicariously and potentially lived experience, which will vary. There are many meanings of meaning, and one of these, the one that matters in the end, is “mattering” itself. Imagine Heidegger, in his mysticism about the German Volk, writing in the early days of Nazism, in praise of folk festivals. Then think of him rereading his own words in 1948. Words with the same meaning as intended model (Bild) will have a different meaning as mattering and so meaning in possible use. He might be able to re-cognize his intent, but he will find living in that building uncomfortable enough to drive him quite insane for a time. Enowning can be difficult.

Let’s proceed with analysis of the rest of this “standard.” Why, at this level (Grades 11 and 12) are students are being asked to concentrate, in particular, on the structures of specific parts of a text? Would it make more sense, instead, to address overall structure at these grade levels, building upon analyses of structures of specific parts of texts done at earlier grade levels? Was this possibility considered? Might this not be the time, at the end of the K-12 program, to sum up what has been learned in earlier grades about specific literary structures, to draw some broad conclusions about common overall literary structures and their determinative influence on the making of literary works? Do we want to make sure, before they graduate, that students understand the basics of conventional plot structure? Shouldn’t we review that because it is so fundamental and because this is our last chance to do so before we ship kids off into their post-secondary colleges and careers? Shouldn’t a school system or a planner of an instructional sequence be free to decide that such an approach would be more preferable in grades 11 and 12? Did someone make Coleman and Pimentel the “deciders” (to use George Bush’s unfortunate phrase) for everyone else in this regard? Were such questions considered by the authors of these standards [sic]? I doubt it.

Another issue: aren’t the relations of specific structure to a) overall structure, b) meaning, and c) aesthetic impact quite distinct topics of study? Why are they lumped together in this standard [sic]? Don’t these require quite a lot of unpacking? This is a common fault of the standards [sic]. They often combine apples and oranges and shoelaces and are ALL OVER THE PLACE with regard to their level of generality or specificity. Often, there seems to be no rationale for why a given standard is extremely specific or extremely broad or, like this one, both, in parts.

Yet another: does it make sense, at all, to work in this direction, from general notions about literary works as expressed in a standard [sic] like this, rather than from specific case studies? Wouldn’t real standards be encouraging empirical, inductive thinking, beginning with specific works, with study of patterns of relationship in those works, and then and only then asking students to make generalizations or exposing them to generalizations made by knowledgeable scholars who have thought systematically about those patterns of relationship? Wouldn’t that be a LOT more effective pedagogically? Isn’t that what the Publishers’ Criteria say? Isn’t the overall approach taken in these standards [sic] antithetical to the very “close reading” that they purport to encourage? Isn’t it true that by handing teachers and students nationwide a bunch of implicit generalizations like those in this standard [sic], the makers of the standards [sic] are encouraging uncritical acceptance of those generalizations about texts rather than an empirical approach that proceeds inductively, based on real analysis, to build understanding?

And another: what is meant by this word structure in the standard [sic]? The examples given (where the piece begins, comedic or tragic resolution) suggest that students are to analyze narrative structures, but there are many other kinds of structures in literary works. Are teachers to ignore those and concentrate on narrative structures? Was that among the “choices” that the authors of the standards made for the rest of us? Certainly, there is much that we know about structure in texts that is quite important to the interpretation of works of all kinds, literary and otherwise, that is never addressed anywhere in the standards [sic]. Unfortunately, the standards [sic] do not build in students, over time, familiarity with many extremely common structural patterns–episodic structure, cyclical structure, choral structure, the five-act play, the monomyth, the three unities–one could make a long list. What about rhetorical structures? metrical structures? logical structures? imitative or derivative structures based on forms in other media (e.g., John Dos Passos’s “Newsreels”)? Are teachers to ignore those? Is it unimportant for 11th- and 12th-grade students to learn about the reductio (Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan or Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King); the thesis, antithesis, synthesis structure, or dialectic (Rebecca Goldstein’s Mazel); choral structure (The Book of Job, Antigone); or metrical structures like the ghazal or formulaic oral composition (the Sundiata, the Iliad)? Again, one could pilot whole curricula, whole learning progressions, through the lacunae in these standards [sic].

And doesn’t all this attention, based on the “standards” to identification of tropes and forms skip right over, render unimportant, authentic engagement with what the author intended to communicate–what he or she is saying to us? Shouldn’t THAT be what we are emphasizing, not why the author chose to use this or that structural element? Aren’t we concentrating on making sure the brightwork is all nice and shiny and ignoring the gaping hole in the hull?

One asks oneself, again and again, when reading these putative “standards,” why are students studying this, in particular, and not that? Why at this grade level? Why is this and this and this and this left out? And the answer seems to be that the authors of these standards [sic] didn’t think to ask such questions. Or, in short, that they didn’t think.

One could do the same as I have done here for most of the other CCSS ELA literature standards [sic]. My more general point is that these standards promote some approaches and preclude others and so enforce dramatic prior restraint on possible curricula and pedagogy.

Another significant issue is that the authors of these “standards” did not bother to think about differences in what might be meant by standard in each of the domains covered. In other words, they did not revisit the notion of a “standard” at its most fundamental level, that of its categorical conceptualization. Did anyone involved in drafting these standards stop to think for one moment about the fact that with very, very few exceptions, they are descriptions of abstract formal analysis skills? Did that not strike them as BIZARRE? It does me. The writing “standards” are almost identical from grade level to grade level and encourage the writing of five-paragraph themes in one of three spurious “modes” and contain no mention of any of the thousands and thousands of concrete techniques from the toolkits of writers, and so they will inevitably lead, are already leading, to non-operationalized instruction in vagueries, to writing instruction that is worse than useless because of its opportunity costs. One gets the impression, reading the writing “standards,” that Coleman and Pimentel simply ran out of time or energy and decided to copy over a few puerile generalizations at each grade, with slight rewording from year to year. These are amateurish in the extreme and will have dire consequences for writing instruction. Really, Coleman and Pimentel could have bothered to learn even a tiny bit from the vast and fruitful literature on instruction rhetoric and composition before foisting their embarrassing writing “standards” onto the entire country. And the language standards–well, I have given you a taste of those above–these are backward, unscientific, and seem to be placed at particular grade levels almost entirely AT RANDOM. In general, no thought was given by the authors of these “standards” to the differences among different kinds of learning and acquisition and thus to what should be measured, if at all, and how. I read these “standards” and think of the line spoken to Mehitabel, that cat of ill repute, by the elderly theater cat in Don Marquis’s “The Old Trouper”:

mehitabel he says
both our professions
are being ruined
by amateurs

And here’s another general point: Why weren’t these standards [sic] subjected to nationwide critique of the kind that I have given here, for these two standards [sic]? And why should we not be continuously subjecting proposals for standards, frameworks, pedagogical approaches, etc., to revision and critique? Why shouldn’t there be MANY voices as opposed to these two, the voices of a couple people chosen by Achieve to dictate to the rest of the country?

As I mentioned above, I happen to be one of those literature teachers who thinks that the reports of the “death of the author” (the phrase comes from Roland Barthes) were exaggerated, but it is not for me (or for Lord Coleman or for anyone else) to make that decision FOR EVERY OTHER LITERATURE TEACHER IN THE COUNTRY. The critique of the idea of authorial intention was fundamental to many schools of literary criticism developed in the twentieth century, and the authors of the standards betray, in their reference to analyzing the author’s choices, what has to be either complete ignorance of that or complete disregard of the opinions of thousands and thousands of scholars and critics and teachers of literature.

But who are we mere mortals to argue? After all, the masters at Achieve have appointed David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, by divine right, absolute monarchs of English language arts instruction in the United States, and surely, as Hobbes argued in the Leviathan, monarchy is best. Surely, in Hobbes’s words, we all need to live under “a common power to keep [us] all in awe,” for as Queen Elizabeth I wrote in 1601, “The Royal Prerogative [is] not to be canvassed, nor disputed, nor examined, and [does] not even admit of any limitation.”

In other words, forget about thinking for yourself about outcomes to be measured and learning progressions in the English language arts. Lord Coleman will do that for you. What a relief! All that thinking was so hard.

An Alternative to the CC$$

Education deformers love asking, “What’s your alternative?” But they expect stone-cold silence in response. Sorry to disappoint. Here’s an alternative to top-down, invariant, inflexible, mandatory, amateurish “standards” like those foisted on the country with no vetting whatsoever:

In place of the grade-by-grade bullet list, states could promulgate a few general guidelines (a very broad framework–perhaps four or five principles in each field of study), continually revisited and critiqued, that provide the degrees of freedom within which real curricular and pedagogical innovation can occur


open-source crowd sourcing of alternative, innovative ideas. In other words, we could have

  • Competing, voluntary learning progressions, curriculum outlines, reading lists, pedagogical approaches, lesson and exercise templates, model diagnostic and formative assessments, etc.,
  • for particular domains,
  • posted by scholars, researchers, curriculum developers, and teachers to an open national portal or wiki, and
  • subjected to ongoing, vigorous, public debate and refinement
  • based on results in the classroom and ongoing research and development,
  • freely adopted by autonomous local schools and districts
  • and subjected to continual critique by teacher-led schools–teachers who are given the time in their schedules to subject those, and their own practice, to ongoing critique via something like Japanese Lesson Study.

General Objections to Standardization

Albert_Einstein_Head“I believe in standardizing automobiles. I do not believe in standardizing human beings. Standardization is a great peril which threatens American culture.”

— Albert Einstein, Saturday Evening Post interview, 10/26/1929

“There’s no bullet list like Stalin’s bullet list.”

—Edward Tufte, “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint”

I’ve shared, above, some objections to a couple specific ELA Common Core “standards.” Again, one could do the same for the rest of the CC$$ bullet list. But let me emphasize that the comments above reflect my own views, and no individual’s views of these matters should be transmogrified into mandates for the entire country. I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about K-12 ELA curricula, but I would not presume to tell everyone else in the country how he or she must teach English. Beyond the level of basic decoding skills, there are many, many possible paths that can lead to desirable outcomes. There are many, many possible ways in which to develop  superb readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and thinkers, and the best of these have yet to be conceived. What strikes me most, reading through the CC$$ in ELA, is how mind-numbingly unimaginative, hackneyed, received, and pedestrian they are. They are Common in the sense of being base and vulgar. The last thing we need is a forced march along a path of mediocrity.

Let me conclude with the following list of general objections to the whole idea of a single, invariant, top-down set of national standards and summative tests. Each could itself be a suitable topic for a book-length work. NB: If you haven’t the patience to read through this entire list, please skip to the last two, which summarize extremely important objections to the general approach taken in the CCSS for ELA.

  1. The CC$$ in ELA seem to have been written by amateurs with no knowledge of the sciences of language acquisition and little familiarity with best practices in the various domains that the standards cover. Achieve would have got similar results if it had handed David Coleman copies of Galen and of the 1858 edition of Gray’s Anatomy and sent him to a cabin in Vermont to write new “standards” for the medical profession.
  2. The CC$$ in Math barely tweak a long-existing consensus about the progression and approach to mathematics education, one that leaves most adult products of that education, a few years after they’ve happily put it behind them, basically innumerate and fine with that. (The preceding state standards were almost all based on the NCTM standards and so were remarkably similar.) Furthermore, the grade-by-grade math standards are forcing math teachers, all over the country, to teach and test whatever the standards [sic] say for that grade level, even when their students haven’t, at all, the necessary background for this study. So, for example, if you are a junior, you’re doing precalc, period, even if you can’t add and subtract fractions.
  3. Having national standards creates economies of scale that educational materials monopolists can exploit, enabling them to crowd out/keep out smaller competitors. This is a HUGE issue with the new national “standards” that has received almost no attention. There’s a reason why the education materials monopolists kicked in a lot of money to create these “standards.”
  4. Kids differ. Standards do not.
  5. Standards are treated by publishers AS the curriculum and imply particular pedagogical approaches, and so they result in DRAMATIC distortions of curricula and pedagogy. Every publisher in the country–God help us–is now beginning every project in ELA by making a spreadsheet with the amateurish CC$$ in one column and the places in their program where these are “covered” in the next. So much for curricular coherence.
  6. Innovation in educational approaches comes about from the implementation of competing ideas; creating one set of standards ossifies; it PRECLUDES potentially extraordinarily valuable innovation.
  7. Ten years of doing this standards-and-testing stuff under NCLB hasn’t worked. It’s idiotic to do more of what hasn’t worked and to expect real change/improvement.
  8. In a free society, no unelected group (the CCSSO) has the right to overrule every teacher, curriculum coordinator, and curriculum developer with regard to what the outcomes of educational processes should be.
  9. High-stakes tests lead to teaching to the test–for example, to having kids do lots and lots of practice using the test formats–and all this test prep has significant opportunity costs; it crowds out important learning.
  10. A complex, diverse, pluralistic society needs kids to be variously trained, not identically milled.
  11. The folks who prepared these standards did their work heedlessly; they did not stop to question what a standard should look like in a particular domain but simply made unwarranted but extremely consequential decisions about that based on current practice in state standards that were themselves the product of lowest-common-denominator educratic groupthink.
  12. The tests and test prep create enormous test anxiety and undermine the development of love of learning.
  13. Real learning tends to be unique and unpredictable. It can’t be summarized in a bullet list. The last thing that we need is this Powerpointing of U.S. K-12 education.
  14. We are living in times of enormous change; kids being born today are going to experience more change in their lifetimes than has occurred in all of human history up to this point, so they need to be intrinsically, not extrinsically, motivated to learn; high-stakes tests belong to a nineteenth-century and older extrinsic punishment/reward school of educational theory and fly in the face of the prime directives of the educator: to identify the unique gifts of unique kids, to build upon those, and so to assist in the creation of intrinsically motivated, independent, life-long learners.
  15. If we create a centralized Common Core Curriculum Commissariat and Ministry of Truth, that is a first step on a VERY slippery slope. Have we come to the point in the United States where we are comfortable with legislating ideas?
  16. The standards-and-testing regime usurps local teacher and administrator autonomy, and no one works well, at all well, under conditions of low autonomy.
  17. The standards and the new tests have not been tested.
  18. The standards and the new test formats, though extremely consequential in their effects on every aspect of K-12 schooling, were never subjected to national debate, nor were they subjected to the equivalent of failure modes and effects analysis.
  19. The legislation that created the Department of Education specifically forbade it from getting involved in curricula, but as E. D. Hirsch, Jr., pointed out on this blog a few weeks ago, the new math standards clearly ARE a curriculum outline, and the USDE has forced this curriculum outline on the country.
  20. No mechanism exists for ongoing critique and revision of these standards by scholars, researchers, and practitioners.
  21. The new tests—PARCC (spell that backward) and not-Smart imBalanced (collectively, the Common Core College and Career Ready Assessment Program, or C.C.R.A.P.) are just awful. There’s going to be a policy supernova when these hit nationwide.
  22. The ELA standards are a bullet list of abstractly formulated skills that barely touches upon knowledge of what (world knowledge) and that treats procedural knowledge (knowledge of how) so vaguely–without operationalization–that valid assessment based on the standards as written is impossible. I heartily approve of some of the general guidelines that surround these standards–read substantive, related texts closely–but I disapprove of the narrow New Critical emphasis of the standards generally (texts exist in context) and of the general formulation of the CCSSO bullet list as descriptions of abstract skills.
  23. The creators of these standards did not seem to understand that much learning in ELA is acquisition–is not acquired by explicit means. ALMOST NONE of the vocabulary and grammar that a person commands was learned via explicit teaching of that vocabulary and grammar. It’s extremely important that English teachers understand this and understand how, in fact, grammar and vocabulary are acquired so that they can create the circumstances wherein this acquisition can happen, and they are not going to begin to do that based on this bullet list, which, in its treatment of acquisition of linguistic competence, can most charitably be described as prescientific–as instantiating discredited mythologies or folk theories on which it is counterproductive to build curricula and pedagogy. In their instantiation of prescientific, folk theories of language acquisition, the new “standards” are rather like having new standards for the U.S. Navy that warn of the possibility of sailing off the edge of the world.

Copyright 2014, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This essay may be freely copied and distributed as long as this copyright notice is retained.


Postscript: Some examples of what general framework statements, in place of bullet lists of standards, might look like:

Students will experience curricula and pedagogy designed to foster intrinsic motivation that will result in personal commitment to independent, life-long learning.

Students will read complete, substantive works of literature from the US, British, and world traditions and gain knowledge of specific literary tropes, rhetorical techniques, genres, structures, periods, styles, authors, and works.

The major emphasis in literary studies will be upon engagement with and discussion and debate about the ideas and experiences being communicated, in keeping with the understanding that people read and write primarily to communicate meaningful (i.e., significant) ideas and experiences.

Students will receive skills instruction in reading, speaking, listening, writing and critical and creative thinking that focuses upon imparting specific, concrete procedural knowledge–news they can use–and necessary incidental descriptive knowledge (e.g., the parts of a sonnet, a press release, or a fable).

Students will work collaborative and independently on mentored projects that require research, synthesis, and creative response and assemble portfolios of their completed work.


Are these debatable? Sure they are! Should they be debated and periodically revised? Absolutely–that’s what we do in a democracy. Are they broad enough NOT to stifle innovation as the Gates/Coleman bullet lists do? Yes.





About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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37 Responses to A Brief Analysis of Two Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] in ELA

  1. So, if we give the CCSS-ELA authors a little credit (that may not be their due) we might conclude this: They know learning is way messier, complex and contingent than the standards permit. However, they prefer strict direction to the investments what would be required for well-informed teacher autonomy. They do not believe it is possible. They are elitist and profoundly anti-democratic at the core. So, any standards (of their design) are better in their minds than the alternative. This is what they mean when they say, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It means, “Trust us (because you can’t be trusted).”

    The objections of the Tea Party to the CCSS notwithstanding, the impulse that led to the CCSS’s specificity overreach and its tight linkage to consequential testing reflects a inherently conservative outlook: flexibility for the able (privileged) and command and control for the rest of us.

    The alternative, I hope, is not to abandon all hope of common agreement. We seem to be stuck between authoritarianism and total individualism. I say more about this here:

    Click to access Past-Gets-In-Our-Eyes1.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      Yes, Arthur. I cringe every time I hear this mediocrity, the CC$$ in ELA, referred to as “higher standards.” I have characterized them as the work of amateurs. The alternative that you suggest, that they are intentionally mediocre–that they are intended by elites as “standards for dummies”–is even more disturbing. Certainly, these are about command and control. Why anyone would think a monoculture more productive than an ecology, with its rich diversity, escapes me. It’s particularly bizarre that such centralized command and control would be championed by the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, ALEC, and other traditional enemies of top-down regulatory fiat.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      So, by that reading, the standards are “Common” in the sense of being “for the commoners”–intentionally base and vulgar

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Robert, I can’t thank you enough for this brilliant expose of the “amateurish,” “oblivious,” “heedless,” and “random” nature of the CC (sic) $tate (sic) [$tealth] $tandards (sic) for ELA. It’s incredible that Americans have sunk to the point of passively allowing this monstrosity to be perpetrated. I hope enough people wake up before it’s too late.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      It’s a bit shocking that “standards” this bad have gained acceptance. I think that that’s because when people talk about these standards, they almost always limit themselves to a few glittering generalities from the material ancillary to the standards themselves–to the framework from the introductions, appendices, and Publishers’ Criteria, which calls for close reading of substantive texts, as if we hadn’t already been doing that and as if anyone would champion superficial reading of texts lacking any substance whatsoever. People say, “Who could be against that?” and don’t look closely at the putative “higher standards” themselves. I suspect that most of the politicians and business people who support these either haven’t read them or didn’t understand what they were reading. And, of course, these “standards” weren’t subjected to learned critique and trial before they were foisted on the entire country, even though they are very, very consequential. There was no equivalent of failure modes and effects analysis for these, for example.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nancy Hudak says:

    I admit to not understanding all of what you wrote concerning a professional analysis of the ELA standards [sic]. However, I get the gist and thank you so much for doing this work.

    Two other points that bother me: (1) the Common Core only deals with ELA and Math. Therefore, all too many school systems are focusing on those two subjects alone to the detriment of Science, History, Social Studies, Art, Music and every other possible curriculum topic.

    (2) Given that the standards [sic] are so flawed, each school system that *does* try to implement them is doing/will do so differently. There will ultimately be nothing in “common” about them, thereby defeating whatever purpose they may initially have been created to address.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Terrific stuff. I did something similar with California’s state standards several years ago as part of my dissertation. When I turned my analysis into an article and submitted it to English Education it was rejected and I was told by one of my reviewers that standards documents “weren’t meant to be examined with such scrutiny.” Of course my argument is that it’s only through scrutiny such as your own that we can bring to light just how intellectually dishonest the whole CCSS endeavor really is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      Ah, so the reviewer thought that standards documents were supposed to be sloppy and ignorant. Interesting.


    • Bob Shepherd says:

      The gulf between these standards and what Prof. Shanahan says of them is breathtakingly large. I read what he has to say of them and often find myself wondering whether we’re talking about the same document. These CC$$ advocates always move, very quickly, to talking about what they imagine to be the “big ideas” behind the CC$$, but this is not simply a set of general guidelines. It’s a 1,600+-item bullet list, and much of that list is idiotic, puerile, amateurish, uninformed, backward, and constricting.


  5. Bob Zahm says:

    I’m sorry but should I understand the critique to be saying that the common core’s requirement that students understand the parts of speech is a mistake? Further, that students be able to identify and use the parts of speech correctly is a problem?


    • Bob Shepherd says:

      Bob. That is not what I said. I refer you to my comments above. It makes no sense to repeat them here.


    • Bob Shepherd says:

      The identification of syntactic forms (possession of an explicit descriptive model) and the proper use of syntactic forms (possession of competence) are, of course, completely different things, having nothing whatsoever to do with one another. They are as as unrelated to one another as the ability to walk is to the ability to pass an anatomy exam. The amateurs who wrote the CC$$ in ELA didn’t seem to understand this, though they would have if they had themselves taken even a single introductory course in linguistics. This is what happens when one hires amateurs like Coleman and Pimentel to do a job that requires expertise. The only explanation that can be put forward for the atrocity committed by Coleman and Pimentel and given the ludicrous name “Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts” is that they were asked to combine and rationalize existing state “standards” that were themselves the product of lowest-common-denominator state education department groupthink. That’s an explanation but not an excuse.


    • Bob Shepherd says:

      In fact, I support explicit teaching across the grade levels of a scientific model of the language that has been simplified for pedagogical purposes (technically, a version of an X-bar phrase structure grammar). This model would be taught in a sensible learning progression for reasons other than those that seem to have informed the inclusion of traditional grammatical terminology in these amateurish “standards.” What’s not acceptable is teachers’ being forced to follow “standards” sprinkled AT RANDOM with concepts from a prescientific folk theory of grammar based on the ignorant notion that learning concepts from the folk theory will somehow reduce the incidence of errors in student writing and speech. It would be important for teachers to understand that such explicit instruction in syntactic form would not be for the purpose of directly building syntactic competence or fluency (there are other methods for doing that, ones that are, alas, PRECLUDED BY the learning progression in the CC$$ ELA “standards”) but for purposes such as giving students and teachers a simple, concrete language useful for work in literary stylistics and for concrete activities in sentence combining, expansion, editing, etc. (which aren’t treated in the amateurish CC$$ writing “standards,” BTW; those deal in the vague and the abstract rather than in concrete procedural knowledge, or knowledge of how). However, even though this proposal of mine is much more informed than what was done in these putative “standards,” I would NOT support making it mandatory and invariant across the nation, as was done for the CC$$ in ELA, because doing that stifles curricular and pedagogical innovation.


  6. Lauren Cohen says:

    This is one of the best takedowns of Common Core I’ve read, and you did it by eschewing the fraught political context in favor of “close reading.” I’m not an English professor, but I think that qualifies as irony?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. plthomasedd says:

    Great work. Just FYI, one of my looks at CC, re: “close reading” (fits with your nod above to New Criticism):

    New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again


    Liked by 1 person

  8. plthomasedd says:

    Bob, any chance you could do a submission for my March 15 deadline? See info here:


    And here (see March 15 call)


    A version of this would be great…


  9. Julia Weston says:

    Someone give this man a microphone. Thank you for this, as I am a mom in the same boat as many, who can formulate plenty of arguments against CC$$, except against the standards themselves.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Peter says:

    It is amazing the degree to which CCSS resembles the work of sophomore business majors who remember some English stuff from that one class they took last year. And I share your dislike for national standards. Nice piece of work here.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. This is beautiful and needs wide distribution. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Barbara Madeloni says:

    A bit off topic, but given what you say here, I am surprised by your comments to the LDH post on Ravitch’s blog. As a person under the pressure to impose LDH’s edTPA, a standard performance assessment for student teaching, I know too well that performance measures cannot be ‘scaled up’ and that corporate interests need to get out of my classroom, never mind that performance assessments are not to be ‘evaluated’ by ‘objective’ scorers. If we care about performance assessments and teacher autonomy, why not give teachers and students lots of time to engage in conversations and sharing about their practice/learning, in their classrooms/schools/communities, with people who they know and trust? It seems a twisted version of authentic assessment to standardize and package it.
    Posting here, because the other conversation makes me too tired.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Dave S says:

    Amazing write-up on the ELA. And the list of Ed terms on the other post was great.
    The math list takes what we used to *try* to teach in four years and puts into three. And the methodology they want us to use takes twice as long for students to learn. I think we can make that into a word problem.
    But at least the students don’t get tested this year, and that baseline next year might as well start off really low.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. neanderthal100 says:


    Bob S is a genius..

    Yes..Give him a microphone….and the position now held by the Basketball Dunkin’ Man.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. zinkster says:

    ~ 41 year old, product of very good PUBLIC SCHOOLS, straight “A” student, college graduate, mother of two boys (5th grade & 3rd grade).

    Mr. Shepherd,

    First, I would like to thank you for this incredibly insightful analysis!!!
    Everything about Common Core SCREAMS big business and government manipulation! It makes me sick, as this SHOULD ONLY BE ABOUT THE EDUCATION OF AMERICA’S FUTURE LEADERS and how best to help teachers and administration teach our little sponges!!!!

    Second, and I fear I may not word this correctly as Common Core seems so dissolve any filter I may normally have…
    Many of the population can read your words, fully understand them and can appreciate what you wrote here…it IS brilliantly written…I just fear that this article, as well as many others written about Common Core, may be written in speak that not all Americans may be able to completely comprehend. I have found in my research (FOR & AGAINST CC) that too many of the best writers, the ones that genuinely can convey the truths as well as the horrors of CC, write ABOVE the comprehension of some parents. Said Parents, that if they actually understood what y’all were saying…MAY ACTUALLY REALIZE COMMON CORE IS NOT RIGHT FOR OUR CHILDREN OR THIS COUNTRY AND IN DOING SO…WOULD HELP US FIGHT THIS MANIPULATION!!!

    Lastly, with the talent you possess, I implore you to write a piece that everyone may be able to understand. I do not know if this is possible…ALL I KNOW IS AN ARTICLE LIKE THIS IS SO NEEDED!!!

    Thank you again for the above analysis…
    It was dead-on in my eyes!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. J. C. says:

    Thanks for this. I teach high school English and I shared this with all my department members. I have both a BA and MA in literature and I cannot figure out how these standards passed muster with anyone who has even the slightest inkling of what literature IS. In my six years studying literature at the college level I never had a professor who conducted classes in a way that I would call “aligned” with these standards, and I am thankful for that.

    The CCSS English standards remind me of one of the opening scenes of Dead Poets Society when the student reads aloud the essay “Understanding Poetry by J. Evans Pritchard, PhD.” I would like to paraphrase Mr. Keating’s response to that essay and say, “Excrement. That’s what I think of the CCSS. We’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry.”

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I love this blog! Brilliant work! By the way, Einstein and I have the same hairstyle!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Jen B says:

    Great blog article. I have often looked at my childrens homework, and I can sense there is something I don’t like about it, but I don’t know what. My daughter has to do this book report every week, except it’s not really a book report, it’s a Reading Response Log. She has to choose responses from a menu. They are things like “If you could choose one of the characters to be a family member, which one would you choose and why”. “What characteristics do you and the main character have in common? How are you and the main character different?”. On the surface these seem inocuous but I just didn’t like this assignment, and I didn’t know why. It was just a gut feeling. People a lot smarter than me (like yourself) know exactly what is wrong with it, and why the ELA standard that connects to this assignment drove the curiculum this way. Reading this article I feel like I understand a lot better what it is about this curriculum that rubs me the wrong way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      Our job as English teachers is to create intrinsically motivated readers. Kids want to read about snakes or dragons because they want to learn about snakes or dragons. The point of reading is not to find out what method of expository development the author used in paragraph 12. That crap is completely secondary, and concentrating on it, which is what the Common [sic] Core [sic] forces people to do KILLS the joy in reading AND completely MISSES THE POINT OF READING–why people read, and think about and discuss what they read. The CC$$ is a recipe for creating a nation of nonreaders. Ironic, isn’t it, that that should be so of supposedly “higher” standards. Ironic and tragic.


  19. Shulamith Bakhmutsky says:

    I know that you are very busy, and, probably, don’t have the time now to read the philosophical staff I have sent you. As those things go, our personal philosophy determines our choices at any given moment, but, when in writing it rarely presents an emergency.
    Susan read to me your short expose on swear words. How could I leave this unanswered?! Ten minutes later I sent her an email. Though, she tells me, you are chained to the computer, I hope you are still allowed to laugh.
    Here it goes:
    pukoid formation
    common hore
    to puss-smear-ate
    maltiple chows

    If you like it, I can go on…

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Caligirl says:

    TCM – Turner Classic Movie channel is celebrating its fortieth year and had Alex Baldwin interview Robert Osborne. Maybe Robert Osborne, who has immersed himself in films since he was a youth could answer a question on a particular film about the ending or the writer’s intent and if it was changed would it be more this or that but I think even he with his vast knowledge would not go in that direction. Asking a teenager, who is working on just understanding and relating a more complex piece of literature to his own life is enough of a challenge.
    Dylan: I have always felt Dylan is a shape shifter. One day a song is happy and the next day, the same song is sad. It is one`s reaction to it. Sir Coleman – I, and my students, have a right to my own thoughts and feelings.

    Liked by 1 person

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