Letter to the Editor: Response to “Getting to the Core”

The Sword & Shield prides itself as forum for open discourse in its Opinion section, especially regarding school and student issues. In November, the Sword & Shield printed an article, “Getting to the Core”, briefly outlining the new Common Core State Standards and presenting the perspective of two UHS teachers. Ms. Jeanne Jelnick (English Department) has submitted a letter to the editor in which she provides additional insights on the standards and responds to some of the concerns addressed in the article.
Letter to Brianna Kaufman, Editor-in-Chief of the Sword & Shield
I am writing in response to the article titled “Getting to the Core” by Biyonka Liang published last month in the Sword & Shield, which highlights faculty perspectives on the new Common Core Standards.  Some of the comments in the article, particularly those regarding the English Language Arts standards, raise concerns that I believe warrant further explanation.
Ms. Sorey expresses in her interview doubt about the state’s readiness for on-line standardized testing, as well as legitimate worry about the possible mis-use of student performance data.  In terms of our ability to test hundreds of students simultaneously online, I, like Ms. Sorey, am skeptical about the preparedness of our digital infrastructure.  I share, as well, Ms. Sorey’s concerns about how student and teacher performance data might be used in a manner that is misleading and/or damaging for educators and learners.  However, what the article does not make clear is that the 2010 California Standards Commission adopted the standards long before any agency (federal or state) began to negotiate with consortiums about assessment; the standards themselves do not address the manner in which student ability might be assessed. The standards identify what workplace and post-secondary academic experts agree are essential 21st Century college and career-readiness skills.  The Common Core Standards are in no way responsible for proposed local or national testing practices.  The standards do not address when or how performance data will be generated, nor do they dictate what local agencies can or should do with such data.  Ms. Sorey’s concerns about assessment should not be misunderstood to be concerns about the standards themselves.
The second concern expressed has to do with a feature of the Common Core that some professionals have worried might result in a reduction of student exposure to “literature” or fiction.  The California Curriculum Framework Criteria Committee will soon be publishing the state framework for English language arts curriculum, instruction, and assessment, a text which guides instruction relative to the new standards.  My own initial apprehension about the impact of the Common Core shift to non-fiction and informational text has, as a result of my experience as a member of this committee, been thoroughly eliminated.  The addition of a set of standards titled “Reading Informational Text” speaks directly to our students’ need to develop critical and discrete skills that meet college and workplace literacy demands. This new set of standards followsand does not replace the set of standards titled “Reading Literature” which focuses on prose narrative, drama, and poetry.  Neither the California Department of Education nor our own IUSD curricular leaders endorse the “cutting” of literary fiction as is suggested in the article.   The non-fiction text emphasized in the framework for ELA instruction is, in fact, almost exclusively literary non-fiction,  (an example of which would be The New York Times article cited in the interview) as opposed to informational text, and the language of the standards and of the soon-to-be published framework is in no way “vague”:  35% of the text students encounter over the course of their academic day should be literary fiction, not 35% of the text encountered in the ELA classroom, but 35% of the text read across all disciplines.  Nobody could agree with Ms. Sorey more than I that literary fiction is essential to a proper and complete education in the humanities; no student of mine 30 years ago or today would believe that I would endorse a curriculum that includes “Only essays and articles.  No plays, no stories.  All non-fiction.”   My colleague is clearly concerned that a dangerous number of professionals may misinterpret the standards and exclude literary fiction from their curriculum; she is entitled to her concern, of course, but to characterize the Common Core Standards themselves as threatening in this regard is inaccurate.
If “Getting to the Core” of the new standards was the original intention of the article, a great deal of information was unfortunately left unaddressed: a new emphasis on interdisciplinary instruction, for example, an increase in project-based and collaborative learning, and a critical focus on student speaking and listening in real world contexts are all important features of the Common Core that are notably under-served by current standards.  There is much to celebrate about the changes on our curricular horizon, and student readers of the Sword and Shield need to understand clearly the benefits those changes afford them.