The Coring of U.S. K-12 ELA Curricula

My entire adult life has been spent sometimes as a writer and editor for various textbook companies and sometimes as a high-school teacher of English, Speech, Debate, Theatre, and Film. For much of my life, I ran a development company for textbook publishers or did independent, freelance writing of textbooks, mostly in English Language Arts (ELA). So, I’ve been in a superb position to see the consequences for ELA of the Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] (the CC$$). As a freelancer in the post CC$$ era, I saw the specifications for HUNDREDS of online and print ELA projects from all the major and many of the minor educational publishers.
     In the old days, producers of K-12 ELA courseware (print and online instructional materials) would sit down and plan a unit to teach, coherently, some set of descriptive and/or procedural knowledge. Perhaps it would be a unit on how short stories are constructed: What are their parts? How do these work together? How does a person plan and write one? Such a unit might start, for example, with the idea that every story is about the working out of a struggle, or conflict. You place a character in a situation, a circumstance, in which he or she is challenged. That idea leads naturally to teaching about setting and about character development and character types. And the fact that some characters change in response to their conflicts leads to lessons learned, to discussion of theme. And along the way, one would present stories, drawn from the canons of American, British, and world literature, to illustrate the concepts. Here’s a story with an external conflict. Here’s a story with an internal one. Here’s a story with one dynamic character and a bunch of static ones. And so on.
     But after the CC$$, all that changed. The CC$$, paid for by Bill Gates because he wanted one national bullet list to which to key lucrative depersonalized education software and Orwellian student databases, consisted, in ELA, of a long, long list of random, typically poorly articulated and vague skills. The bullet list became supremely important because it was what the kids would be tested on, and their teachers and administrators and schools would be evaluated based on those test scores. That was the BIG DEFORMER PLAN.
     So, a typical ELA “standard” would say something like, the student will be able to make inferences from text. Then, in the standardized test, there would be one, or perhaps two, multiple-choice questions in which the student was given a random snippet of text and asked which of the answers was an inference one could draw from that. Never mind that there are several very different types of inference (induction, deduction, abduction, and all the varieties of these) and whole sciences devoted to making proper inferences of various kinds. Obviously, one such multiple-choice question doesn’t allow one to make a VALID inference about a child’s ability to read texts and to make inferences from them IN GENERAL. But somehow, all this invalidity was supposed to add up to valid tests. It didn’t.
     And because the invalid tests were ALL IMPORTANT (teachers would be fired and schools closed because of them), and because the “standards” were now national, makers of courseware for ELA decided that every lesson or unit had to “cover” a bunch of the “standards.” So, instead of planning lessons or units to teach concepts in a coherent manner, they started issuing specifications for their projects that consisted of lists of standards from the Gates/Coleman bullet list to be “covered”–the more the merrier. The “standards” became the de facto curriculum. I worked on, literally, hundreds of projects during this period, from all the big educational publishers. Every one was the same. Educational materials in ELA became strung-together collections of random exercises on random snippets of text to “teach” and/or “test” random items from the CC$$. Curricular coherence was out the window. ELA curricula became a kind of Common [sic] Core [sic] slurry. The educational publishers even started creating databases of instructional and assessment items keyed to the puerile, unimaginative, regressive, nearly content-free Gates/Coleman bullet list. These items would be recycled in product after product and, especially, in depersonalized educational software. Across the country, many great writers and editors for the courseware publishing companies quit in disgust. They had reason to be disgusted.
     So, the CC$$ have led to a dramatic trivialization and devolution of ELA curricula in the U.S. We are now seeing products from the courseware providers that are nothing but random databases of CC$$ items–terrible depersonalized education software.
     But because Vichy collaboraters with the Deform Occupation–those who serve the oligarchs who fund Educational Deform–typically occupy much loftier positions than do mere classroom teachers and textbook writers and editors, they see NONE OF THIS. One has to be in the trenches to see the actual consequences of the Deforms. Instead, the collaborators keep telling themselves that these “higher standards” (They aren’t–they are mediocre and pedestrian and almost content-free) are driving real learning and accountability for a change. They don’t see that Gates, Coleman, et al., simply put on their big boots (the Core [sic], the tests, the VAM, the third-grade retention, the Cored version of the SAT, etc.) and went stomping through the garden of ELA curricula, leaving it in ruins. They are completely OBLIVIOUS TO the actual consequences for their “reforms.”

     And now, your treat for having read through all that, some INSIDE INFORMATION–a recipe for the Deformer Cocktail. Mix 2 parts Gates money, 1 part arrogance, and 1 part ignorance. Retreat to your echo chamber among your rich Deformer buddies and enjoy.


Copyright 2020 by Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This essay may be freely distributed if it is left whole and this copyright notice is retained.


For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the teaching of literature and writing, go here:

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on Education “Reform,” go here:

For short stories, and pieces about the short story form, by Bob Shepherd, go here:

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, Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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