A Little Heresy on the Way to Reality
Looking toward New Oklahoma Standards
I’m going to say something that may shock and offend those of my readers who have fought so hard to get Common Core State Standards removed from Oklahoma state law, but please hold on to the end before you make a judgment. Here goes:
The Common Core standards are not all bad. Yes, I know, I fought against them right along with the rest of you, and I did my best to help people understand what was so bad about the standards. But at the same time, I realized there were things buried deep in the standards that I actually agreed with. Let me provide a few examples.
The CCSS mandate an increasing emphasis on informational text. While I completely disagree with providing any kind of rigid formula in determining how much informational text students should read in a given grade, research is on the side of using more informational text, especially at lower grades, than we commonly find. Researchers point out that informational text carries a higher vocabulary load than does narrative text, and since vocabulary is one of the areas where struggling readers struggle, the appropriate use of informational text can support growth in that area. So, yea CCSS! for bringing that to our attention. Of course that does not mean that narrative text should be relegated to the trash heap, but it does mean that children need a healthy balance of both narrative and informational text to develop into well-rounded readers.
Another component of the CCSS for English Language Arts is something called “close reading.” Close reading is an important part of the skill of comprehension supported by research, and students absolutely need to be taught how to read closely because few learn to do it on their own. However, close reading as defined by the CCSS is problematic, as it attempts to prohibit students from using prior or background knowledge to comprehend a passage, which flies in the face of a mountain of reading research. What we need, of course—and again, is balance. Students should be encouraged to examine a specific passage for what it does and does not say (literal comprehension), but also for what it implies (inferential or higher-level comprehension), which must be determined using background knowledge. So properly defined, close reading is a good thing.
A third example is CCSS’s attempt to mandate the insertion of English Language Arts—reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and visually representing—within the disciplines of Social Studies and Science. Hallelujah! Many educators have been trying to encourage cross-curricular interactions for decades, using such ideas as inquiry units, thematic units, etc. What better way to demonstrate to students that the disciplines are connected and interwoven, not isolated. I am totally in favor of encouraging this, just not mandating it.
So, why am I risking my credibility with the anti-CCSS movement by writing this? Because, as Oklahoma moves toward writing its own “new” standards, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Yes, the law was written stating that Oklahoma’s new standards cannot look like the CCSS. The reason for putting this statement in the law was because Oklahoma legislators had been watching the sad case of Indiana. Indiana was the first state to declare itself free of Common Core, yet within weeks, its governor had managed to ramrod through a set of standards that were literally copied and pasted into the new ones. Oklahoma legislators did not want that to happen in Oklahoma and used the language to try to prevent it. Such an attempt had already been made by the state superintendent to rebrand Common Core as Oklahoma Academic Standards; nothing changed but the name. Just as we look to the Federalist Papers to help us understand and interpret the thinking of the Founders as to what the actual words in the Constitution mean, I think it’s important to keep the perspective of those Oklahoma legislators in mind as we move forward in the writing process they established.
To be honest, good standards in every state should look fairly similar. While there are differences from state to state, the overall goals for reading, writing, and math should resonate across the country. We are, after all, one country. Not only that, if standards are based on recognized research, that research does not change from state to state in any major way. Thus, our first goal in writing new standards should be to begin with the research.
One of the first things to decide is how much detail needs to be included in the standards. The CCSS were promoted as being the antithesis of the “inch deep-mile wide” syndrome supposedly found in many state standards. The 500+ page CCSS were found in many cases to be simply another iteration of that syndrome. So the biggest task the writers face in my estimation is to determine how much can be left up to local schools and local teachers to interpret.
So what happens if the research leads us to write some standards that look and sound very much like something in the Common Core? What I hope is that we will not experience a knee-jerk reaction: “Oh! That was in Common Core! We have to kick it out.” If a standard can be supported by the research and is determined to be a worthwhile overarching goal, it should be accepted even if it does have a Common Core ring to it. I feel confident that if the standards writing process is left primarily to educators who work in a transparent manner and without undue influence by outside forces, what will emerge will indeed be the best standards for Oklahoma students, firmly grounded in recognized research and fostering Oklahoma character.