Don’t Believe Everything You Read

…or, Why Research Is Important

…or, How Common Core Became Confusing for a British Tabloid

To quote a fantastic ’90s rap song, “let me clear my throat.” Why? Because I need to take a deep breath so I can rant effectively about the Telegraph UK’s recent shoddy reporting job. This article has been generating concern, conversation, and questions among lots of folks. It’s making rounds on Facebook and Twitter. Is it true that we’re ditching The Catcher in the Rye in favor of an HVAC manual? Good grief. I hope not.

What really irks me about the claims this article has made is that they’re so sound-bite based. A quick primary source check (yes, anyone can go straight to the widely available CCSS materials) takes us to the famed Appendix B. Search it. Nowhere does it mention The Catcher in the Rye must be removed from your teaching (it does, in a related note, suggested using classic works such as The Grapes of Wrath, “The Gift of the Magi,” Things Fall Apart, and Fahrenheit 451). Nowhere does it lay down the instructional edict of “You shan’t read this; you must now read that.” Yes, it does mention the California Invasive Species piece (which is well written, by the way), but it certainly isn’t commanding a replacement of classic literature for government documents (and I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone that the Declaration of Independence is a government article…).

But let’s pause for a moment and consider why people might believe the assertions of this article. My estimations: 1. It’s findable via Google. 2. A “newspaper” published it. 3. Someone is quoted. 4. It names names in terms of a book and the Invasive Plants publications. 5. Neither the author nor any FB-forwarding reader took the time do exactly the type of research that Common Core is asking students to do and question the source.

Irony? Yes, please.

Here’s a direct quote from the CCSS Appendix B that sums up what I’m trying to say:

“Note on range and content of student reading:

Reading is critical to building knowledge in history/social studies as well as in science and technical subjects. College and career ready reading in these fields requires an appreciation of the norms and conventions of each discipline, such as the kinds of evidence used in history and science; an understanding of domain-specific words and phrases; an attention to precise details; and the capacity to evaluate intricate arguments, synthesize complex information, and follow detailed descriptions of events and concepts. In history/social studies, for example, students need to be able to analyze, evaluate, and differentiate primary and secondary sources. When reading scientific and technical texts, students need to be able to gain knowledge from challenging texts that often make extensive use of elaborate diagrams and data to convey information and illustrate concepts. Students must be able to read complex informational texts in these fields with independence and confidence because the vast majority of reading in college and workforce training programs will be sophisticated nonfiction. It is important to note that these reading standards are meant to complement the specific content demands of the disciplines, not replace them.”

The bold emphasis is my own. I call out this line because it debunks the Telegraph’s article altogether. I call out all of the earlier problems in our thinking because both the treasure and the danger of CCSS is that in uninformed hands, you get the opposite of what the standards are trying to accomplish. The reading list set forth is an example of quality texts of all sorts. It isn’t all-inclusive. The standards themselves are filled with disclaimers and notes pointing that out. But to know this, one must read the standards.

My astute colleague Sara Hoffmann describes this crux perfectly, as well as the opportunity educators have with the broad scope of CCSS: “The standards’ call for 12th grade reading to be 70% nonfiction does NOT mean that all that nonfiction reading must—or even should—happen in English class. That reading might also very well happen in science classes and math classes. In fact, I would argue that the oft-quoted ‘70% mandate’ actually gives more weight to the written word by encouraging science and math teachers to incorporate nonfiction reading into their classes as well. […] This is a really significant point, and one that stands a strong chance of making technical subjects significantly more appealing to students whose interests lie more in the humanities.”

The vulnerability with open-ended standards is that we can’t always control who is filling in the blanks. But to fill in all of the blanks and roll out tight plans crushes the creative mind’s ability to work freely. And for Common Core to work, instructors need freedom to think for themselves—a great way to set an example for students who need to learn how to do the same.

Let me know if you’d like a link to the CCSS files. That includes you, Telegraph folks.