On August 12, 2013, Dr. Sandra Stotsky delivered a preliminary review of Alaska’s Standards in English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics. While the teleconference had been arranged a while ago to help legislators and the public evaluate the rigor and changes in Alaska’s standards, interest in Dr. Stotsky observations on Alaska’s standards intensified after the Governor Parnell’s email statement on August 8, 2013 regarding the “misinformation” on Alaska’s New Standards.
Dr. Stotsky is uniquely qualified to speak on the issue of educational standards. She was the only person with a background in English Language Arts on the Validation Committee for the Common Core, and is quite familiar with the standards. Due to the many flaws of the Common Core, she refused to lend her signature to the Common Core standards. As Lt. Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts, she lead the effort that resulted in the revitalization of education in that state and resulted in the highest student achievement scores in the world in subsequent years. Dr. Stotsky has had a distinguished career in the field of education and has recently testified in Michigan and Indiana on their standards.
After giving a brief overview of the basics of the Common Core Initiative and Standards, she compared the Alaska Standards to the Common Core English and Math. The audio of the first section can be found here.
Quoting Dr. Stotsky (at the 2:26 mark)
“… what Alaska has done is simply adopt Common Core but with a different name. It has changed the introductory matter in the document, the text that is there before the standards, but from my perusal of the actual English Language Arts Standards in what Alaska has adopted, it has adopted pretty much exactly what Common Core has. So it is not a different set of standards, there is nothing that is in it that suggests it is tailored to Alaska in any particular way; it is simply, for the most part, a set of skills, generic or abstract skills, and that is what common core consists of…. Alaska adopted the same appendices and supporting material that goes with Common Core’s ELA Standards.”
What does this mean for what Alaska’s teachers will be teaching and the assessments?
Dr. Stotsky suggested that there will probably be more writing than reading in every common core classroom because common core ELA standards stress writing more than reading at every grade level. This is not good because this is the reverse of what a century of research has indicated as the basis for developing reading and writing skills. The foundation for good writing is good reading. Good reading skills are needed in every subject of the curriculum. The implication is that far more time will be spent on writing than reading which is not, as I suggest, is primary for learning how to read well in every subject including English.
The Common Core Standards rarely have anything to suggest as an illustration what the level difficulty of the standard is and what might be an example lesson that could be done to address that standard.
Dr. Stotsky contends that what common core gives you is a skill and it gives it in an appendix, a set of titles that you have to get some idea of a level of complexity for from using readability formula. This is not easily done by a either a reading or an English teacher. It is hard to interpret what the standard means and the examples are not there. The level of complexity in the appendix has such a wide range to accommodate different levels, but by the time you get to the high school level it is unclear what level of difficulty is.
Unless you have examples, teachers have little to guide them.
What are the deficiencies in what Alaska adopted?
Dr. Stotsky states “Alaska has adopted the same limitations that are in the common core standards. I don’t see where they have done anything different. ”
The major issue is that the common core or the new Alaska Standards expect English Teachers to spend 50% of their reading instructional time on informational texts at every grade level. This is not something that English teachers are trained to teach. They are typically trained to teach the 4 major genres of literature: poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction. They are not trained to teach informational texts. There is no body of information that English teachers have ever been responsible for teaching.
There is then a reduction in literary study and increase in something called informational texts. It means that there will be a reduction in opportunities students have for developing critical thinking and college readiness.
If critical thinking or analytical thinking if it comes from anywhere it comes from learning to read between the lines of complex literary texts. So those opportunities are going to be reduced when English teachers have to have less than 50% literary study and more than 50% informational text.
Another deficiency in the new Alaska Standards is that there are many developmentally inappropriate writing standards, especially for average middle school students. They are not linked to appropriate reading standards or to prose models.
Most of common core’s college readiness and grade level standards in ELA are empty skills. They do not provide a list of recommended authors or works, just examples of complexity. They do not require British Literature besides Shakespeare. They require no authors from the ancient world, like the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid. Common Core requires no selected pieces from the Bible as literature, so that students can learn about the influence of the King James Version of the Bible and Shakespeare on English and American literature. Nor does Common Core require the study of the history of the English language, and without requirements in these areas, students are not prepared for college coursework.
The reliance on informational texts distorts the English curriculum.
As the sole member of the Validation Committee of the Common Core with an ELA background, Dr. Stotsky’s committee was charged with ensuring that the Common Core standards were internationally benchmarked and had a research base. Dr. Stotsky kept asking for the documents and evidence that supported the international benchmarking of the standards from the Common Core committee. There was no evidence and eventually the Common Core committee settled for the standards being “informed by” documents in other countries. But there was no research and no other countries named to suggest that our standards as a whole were comparable (which is what benchmarking means)to the best standards in other countries.
There is no body of research that supports the idea that 50% of what students read in the English Class should be informational texts. Of course they should be reading informational texts in other subjects, but there is nothing that suggests that this is a benefit in the English class. It distorts the English curriculum.
Part of the problem with Common Core can be traced to who were the chief writers of Common Core’s ELA standards. Any state group of legislators should want to know who chose them and what their credentials were. We can’t get any information officially from CCSSO and NGA the two groups that sponsored these standards supported by the Gates Foundation. Why can’t we get any information on the credentials and the rationale for the choice of who the standards writers? They are private organizations who have copyrighted Common Core standards. So that there can be no change in them.
Dr. Stotsky continued in her discussion on Alaska’s standards. “Alaska has adopted essentially the same, but it has said it hasn’t adopted Common Core, so I can see they have done an end game around the issue of copyright. As long as Alaska claims it has its own standards, then it can claim the copyright issue doesn’t matter. The question will be will they ever change if they want to stay aligned or the same as what Common Core Standards are, which have been copyrighted by these two private NGOs.”
Now who were the people chosen in ELA? Their names are well known, David Coleman, who is now the head of the College Board, and Susan Pimentel. I knew her well for many years professionally. Neither of them has ever taught in K-12 or in higher education, English or in anything else. Neither of them has ever written about curriculum and instruction, neither of them has any reputation in the area of reading or literary study, nobody knows officially why they were chosen to write the standards. But it was David Coleman’s idea that it should be 50-50 for informational texts and literary study. He insists to this day that students need to spend 50% of their time in an English class learning how to read informational texts. This means that literature teachers all over the country are doing things that they certainly never anticipated having to do. Instead of teaching a whole play, or a whole long Epic poem, they are teaching excerpts. This is the only way they can get in long novels or long plays. This is hardly the kind of literary study that one would want, particularly when literary study is happens to be important for students intellectually in developing critical thinking.
It seems to me that a state that is going to have standards that are called college readiness standards that are tied to college admission requirements … the people you want to consult about quality and rigor of those standards would be your higher education faculty who teach freshman courses in mathematics, science, reading, and English. (as opposed to the Education Department Faculty). No state legislature understands why the most relevant people to look at something called college readiness standards were not even asked as a group. The people who teach freshman college students were never asked to look at these college readiness standards.
Dr. Stotsky concluded her presentation with the following question: “One might want to ask why the math, science and engineering faculty were not asked. Why did you need some far away agencies tell you what those requirements should be?”
Dr. Stotsky then graciously fielded questions from the callers, including Alaska Department of Education staff. There was a very lively discussion on informational texts and literature and how that would enter accountability. She also provided insight on how legislators in other states have addressed the challenges posed by the Common Core. The question and answer section is in part 2 and can be listened to here.
Dr. Barbara Haney is an economist, political activist, and social media consultant in Alaska. She has previously served as a program director and faculty member at University of Alaska, Eastern Illinois University, University of Notre Dame, and other colleges and research institutions. In addition to her university experience, Dr. Haney has served as an ABE educator and a home school educator. She has served as a district chairman, national delegate, and campaign volunteer in various Republican campaigns. Dr. Haney receives mail at BarbaraHaney100@gmail.com