What Happens When Amateurs Write “Standards”


John Martin, illustration for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Satan Presiding at Internal Council.” (Or is this an illustration of a meeting of the CCSSO and NGA to come up with a totalitarian set of “standards” to foist upon everyone else in the country?) 

I am having a lot of fun identifying the howlers in the Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] for English Language Arts. Here’s one for your amusement:

This is reading “anchor standard” 8:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Amusingly, the “literature standards” tell us, over and over, that this “anchor standard” is “not applicable to literature,” that it applies only to “informative text.”

That would be news to the speaker of Milton’s Paradise Lost, who invokes the Holy Spirit, at the beginning of the poem, and asks this Christian Muse to help him, in the poem, present an argument to “justify the ways of God to men.”

Maybe it’s been a while since you read or thought about Paradise Lost. Go have a look at Book I. You will find, at the beginning of it, something the author actually calls “The Argument.” It’s a brief preface that serves as an abstract of the claims, reasoning, and evidence to be presented in the book.

Did the folks who put together these amateurish “standards” actually think that literary works never present arguments, make claims, use reasoning of varying degrees of validity, nor present evidence of varying degrees of relevance and sufficiency?

Do they actually think that Ambrose Bierce‘s “Chickamauga,” Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing” or “The Man He Killed,” Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” do not present implicit and explicit arguments against war, do not advance specific claims (Tolstoy: Napoleon had no clue what was going on at Battle of Borodino, and generals rarely do) , and do not employ reasoning and evidence in support of those claims? And what on earth would they imagine such poems as Hesiod’s Works and Days, Lucretius’s De rerum natura, Pope’s “An Essay on Man” and “An Essay on Criticism,” Wordsworth’s The Excursion, Shelley’s “Queen Mab,” and Erasmus Darwin’s The Temple of Nature to be if not, primarily, arguments?

And do they really think that arguments are not put forward in, say, Rumi’s “Like This,” Donne’s “The Sun Rising,” Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” “Gray’s “Stanzas Wrote in a Country Church-Yard,” Burns’s “Song Composed in August,” Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,  Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse,” Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” Wallace Stevens’s “Credences of Summer,” MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” Frost’s “Directive,” Levertov’s “A Tree Telling of Orpheus,” Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” and Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”?

Really? Seriously? I know, it’s almost unimaginable that they do.

But let’s do a little CLOSE READING of the “standards” to see what EVIDENCE we can find to help us answer those questions. Inquiring minds want to know.

If you turn to the writing “standards,” the suspicion will grow in you that the authors of these “standards” were, indeed, that naïve. The breathtakingly puerile Common [sic] Core [sic] writing “standards” neatly divide up all writing into three “modes”–narrative, informative, and argumentative–and encourage teachers and students to think of these as DISTINCT classes, or categories, into which pieces of writing can be sorted.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are reading an exposé on this blog or Mercedes Schneider’s or Diane Ravitch’s that tells the story of how some people got together in a backroom and cooked up a bullet list of “standards” and foisted these on the entire country with no learned critique or vetting.

Perhaps such a piece would only SEEM to be an informative narrative told to advance an argument. Perhaps writing consists entirely of five-paragraph themes written in distinct modes and we’ve been hallucinating JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING ELSE EVER WRITTEN, which doesn’t fit neatly into the categories advanced in the “standards.”


And, standard after standard, one encounters the same sort of simple-mindedness about literary types and taxonomy. One gets the impression, reading these “standards,” that a group of nonliterary noneducators–some small-town insurance executives, perhaps–got together and made up a bullet list of “stuff to learn in English class” based on their vague memories of what they studied in English back in the day. (I don’t intend, here, BTW, to disparage the literary sophistication of all insurance executives; Wallace Stevens was one, after all, and he may well have been the greatest American poet of the twentieth century. On what other would we place the red cloak?)

Of course, what the folks behind these “standards” really did was convince one plutocrat to hire an amateur who hadn’t taught and who knew very little about the domains he was going to work in to hack together a bullet list based on a cursory review of the lowest-common-denominator educratic groupthink in the previously existing state “standards.” In effect, a few plutocrats appointed this person (by divine right?) absolute monarch of instruction in the English language arts in the United States. My feeling is that similar results would have been obtained if a group of plutocrats had handed David Coleman a copy of the 1858 edition of Gray’s Anatomy and sent him to a cabin in Vermont to write new standards for the practice of medicine.

And, of course, the one rich plutocrat who wrote the checks hired Coleman to do this hack job because he wanted ONE set of standards for the entire country to which to correlate the ed tech products (computers, operating systems, Orwellian databases of scores, standardized tests, depersonalized education software, etc) that he and others planned to sell “at scale.” In other words, the single bullet list was a necessary part of an ed tech business plan. One ring to rule them all!

And that ought to be obvious enough, for surely no one who thought even a bit about these matters would conclude that

a) this CC$$ ELA bullet list is the best we could come up with or that

b) one list is appropriate for all students and for all purposes or that

c) these matters should be set in stone instead of being continually rethought and revisited in light of the discoveries and innovations made by the millions of classroom practitioners, scholars, researchers, and curriculum developers working in the domains that the “standards” cover.


Of course, it’s typical of a certain kind of philistine to divide the world neatly up into the objective (informative works) and the subjective (literary works) and so to think that  simple-minded categorizations like the ones to be found in the Common [sic] Core [sic] make sense. The same sort of person thinks that one can reduce learning to a bullet list in a stack of Powerpoint slides.

And, it’s typical of such people to have a rage for order and an inclination toward authoritarianism. Such people admire standardization and regimentation and expect others–all those teachers, and curriculum coordinators and curriculum developers out there–simply to obey. In his Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines arrayed as “drawn up and given an orderly disposition, as a rioter hanged from a lamppost.” I suspect that the people behind these “standards”–the folks who claim that standardization, centralization, and regimentation will lead to innovation, as Bill Gates just did in a speech to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards–would approve of Bierce’s definition. And they would probably like to see folks like me so arrayed.

Update: It seems that the CC$$ have been quietly updated to take out the repeated instances where we were told that this “standard” doesn’t apply to literature. LMAO.

NB: Gray’s original title for “Stanzas Written in a Country Churchyard” used the word Wrote, a purposeful grammatical error, or solecism, of the kind that might be spoken by one of the subjects of his poem.

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/

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
This entry was posted in Ed Reform, Poetry, Teaching Literature and Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to What Happens When Amateurs Write “Standards”

  1. Pingback: What Happens When Amateurs Write “Standards” | Educational Policy Information

  2. CTee says:

    If I understand your critique of CCSS, it boils down to:

    1) They are really poorly designed standards.
    2) Any top-down imposition of a set of invariant standards imposed upon states/districts, regardless of how well-designed they are, is a bad idea.

    How much better do you think things would be if #1 was fixed but not #2? So how big of a problem would it be if every state adopted (quasi-freely with varying degrees of federal coercion) the hypothetical “SISS” (Shepherd Ideal State Standards) as opposed to the CCSS?


    • Bob Shepherd says:

      I would absolutely refuse. I would sue to prevent my name from so being abused. Innovation comes about when free people think freely. I am partial to my ideas. I will try to convince you to think as I do. But I will not force you to think as I do.

      CC$$ was not “quasi-freely” adopted. Not by a long shot.


      • CTee says:

        Sorry, I don’t think I was doing a good job of articulating my question. Let me try another way: How much of the badness of CCSS is due to the fact that they are terribly designed, and how much of their badness is due to the fact that they are imposed, invariant, top-down standards?

        I ask because while I’m not competent to comment on how well designed they are (but I’ve read plausible arguments from you and others that they are very poorly designed), I do see very clearly the problem with invariant top-down standards irrespective of their quality.

        I’d be interested to see you flesh out in a little more detail how standards would be adopted in your ideal system, maybe in a new blog post. Would they be adopted at the teacher, school, district, or state level? What if any restrictions would be placed on them? What would be done about districts (or schools or whatever) that adopted really bad standards? For instance, I could easily imagine some district in the rural deep south adopting ridiculous bible-based “science” standards.

        Here the school system is a victim of some NGOs who have convinced the ministry of education to attempt to ape the US system and thus have sunk a silly amount of money into developing some really terrible standards. Thankfully, the place is mismanaged enough that nobody cares whether anyone actually adopts the standards or not, so other than the money wasted on their development the standards have had little to no impact on anything.


      • Bob Shepherd says:

        Thank you, CTee, for your interest.

        The worst of these sins, I think, is making them invariant and mandating them. It’s extremely important that we have the freedom to experiment with curricula and pedagogical approaches and learning progressions. We have millions of teachers, curriculum designers, and education scholars and researchers in this country, and from these come many extraordinarily good ideas. In the day when local schools had to autonomy to choose their own models and materials, including their own standards and curricula and assessments and pedagogical approaches, there was a lot of innovation in our schools. It’s very important, for example, that developers of curricula compete with one another BASED ON THE VALUE OF THEIR IDEAS. Do we really want to count out any and all future educational ideas that are incompatible with Coleman’s bullet list? That seems, to me, insane.

        That these standards are so poorly conceived just compounds that problem. We are both forced to implement these lousy standards AND prevented from promulgating better ones.

        Instead of a bullet list of standards, I favor issuing very general, voluntary guidelines that provide the degrees of freedom within which real innovation can occur.


      • Bob Shepherd says:

        And their invariance is an enormous problem. Kids differ. The bullet list doesn’t. The whole criterion-referenced approach, if based on invariant criteria, is just crazy. An incredibly complex, diverse, pluralistic society in which people play vastly differing roles and employ vastly differing skill sets should not seek to have its students identically milled. And, that notion runs counter to human nature, to our need for autonomy, to our predispositions to be intrinsically motivated. The ed deformers in this country do not understand motivation AT ALL.


  3. Bob, my opinion is that the hidden agenda of Common Core is the greatest concern.
    Implementing Common Core has allowed the corruption of government and corporate leaders full access to indoctrinate children as well as their parents, and therefore, our American society in general. Forcing young children to function in the Common Core Environment (CCE) should be considered “psychological rape”. It is an authoritarian punitive environment that does not allow children freedom to develop their own identity or individual sense of self. It is an environment of chronic traumatic stress that is considered “invalidating” by mental health professionals and educational specialists. In preWWII Germany it was called Schwarze Pädagogik. It is an environment that breaks the free will of a child.

    The psychologist Alice Miller used the concept of Schwarze Pädagogik in her famous book “Drama of the Gifted Child” to describe child-management approaches that damage a child’s emotional development. Miller claims that this alleged emotional damage promotes adult behavior harmful to individuals.


    The Common Core Environment is a violation of children’s human rights and should be treated as such. The superficial concerns of standards and inappropriateness of Common Core are just a smoke screen to create chaos in order to hide the real tyranny underneath.
    Organizations against Common Core, such as the BATS, NPE, National Opt Out, and others should collaborate to file a charge of “Violation of Children’s Human Rights” against Obama, Duncan, and Gates and present it to the UN. This is Tyranny.

    It will take international media coverage to expose our self absorbed and callous leaders who are in denial about the psychological damage of Common Core. Do you agree?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      I do. Generally. I have met a few teachers and administrators who are taking it in stride and ignoring the bullet list and concentrating on critical reflection on their own practice in terms of some general principles that they cherish taken from the materials ancillary to the Common Core–approaching substantive texts with close reading. And some of those people are doing some good stuff. But for the most part, the CC$$ in ELA have been a train wreck with a lot of kids and teachers aboard.


    • Bob Shepherd says:

      And the copyrighting of the “standards” and the recent call by the Brookings Institution to have the CCSSO act as a censor librorum for curricula are both VERY disturbing–giant strides on the road toward the creation of a Common Core Curriculum Commissariat and Ministry of Truth. Add to that the emphasis on training of gritful future workers and Big Data and . . . well, it’s all very Orwellian.


  4. Alan says:

    I just found your blog, so I hope you don’t mind me responding to an older post.

    My high school juniors and I are currently translating selections from Ovid’s Amores and Metamorphoses in Latin 3. Having been formally trained as a rhetorician in his youth, Ovid constructs much of his poetry in the form of a persuasive argument. I’m so disappointed to learn that my students’ adroit analysis of his rhetorical techniques has been such a waste of time in terms of the CCSS.

    The blithe dismissal of literature from the standards of evaluating arguments certainly does reveal the amateurish arrogance of the edu-vandals who have invaded education, as well as their true priorities.

    Liked by 1 person

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