Between the Letter of the Law and the Interpretation

By Mark Anderson

I’ve been a supporter of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) from the beginning. I see them as a powerful response to our nation’s lack of curricular coherency and, moreover, an opportunity to increase teacher scholarship.

Aside from the inevitable gnashing of teeth over the “common” nature of the standards, critics of Common Core have pointed to its focus on informational texts as evidence that the standards are seeking to dethrone literature in English language arts classrooms.

In an article on Valerie Strauss’ The Answer Sheet, former National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) President Carol Jago presented a calm rebuttal to such fears:

“What seems to be causing confusion are the comparative recommended percentages for informational and literary text cited in Common Core’s introduction. These percentages reflect the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework (download). I served on that framework committee and can assure you that when we determined that 70% of what students would be asked to read for the 12th grade NAEP reading assessment would be informational, we did not mean that 70% of what students read in senior English should be informational text.”

Jago further acknowledged, “It may be the case that in some schools high school English teachers are being told to cut back on the poetry and teach more informational text. I’m hoping this mistaken directive can soon be reversed. English teachers need to teach more poetry, more fiction, more drama, and more literary nonfiction.”

I’m hoping such mistaken directives can be reversed, too, but I am no longer so sanguine.

The fact is that many of Common Core’s critics have a point. If we take the standards and adhere to them as the letter of the law, rather than simply as guideposts and goals, there is not much substantively contained within them that would point to a focus on foundational works and authors of literature. Supporters have pointed to the following 11-12th grade reading standard, for example:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9 Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

How does one “demonstrate knowledge” of foundational works? I can assume that such knowledge can only be derived from actually reading those works. However, the question is whether teachers will feel compelled (or impelled) to teach foundational authors and works with the dedicated time and attention they would require. And what about earlier grade levels? Should they wait until high school to be exposed to foundational works?

The unfortunate reality is district and school leaders tend to read guidance from above quite literally. This is the inevitable result of pressure to prepare students for exams that have high stakes. Thus, if there are more informational text on the exams, there will be more informational texts in the curriculum.

Back in November, I participated on a panel on the Common Core standards hosted by GothamSchools with Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita of the University of Arkansas Dept. of Education Reform; and Shael Polakow-Suransky, chief academic officer for the New York City Dept. of Education (NYCDOE). In her critique of Common Core, Ms. Stotsky presented a history of English curriculum. Essentially, she argued there is a lack of explicit guidance on literature, and in order to be taught effectively, students should study foundational authors and works, with an appreciation of their “literary-historical” contexts. She points to the Massachusetts ELA standards–which she helped to draft–as the model for this.

At the time, I agreed with many of her points, but I argued that Common Core avoids specific mention of authors or works due to political pragmatism. The standards would not have been so widely adopted if they attempted to prescribe more specificity in what should be taught. I also argued that the drive toward informational texts was an attempt to instill literacy across content areas, and some of the literary-historical context of great works could be derived from greater interdisciplinary connections with social studies units.

As time has passed, I still hold to those rebuttals. However, Ms. Stotsky’s critique makes more and more sense to me. Let me give you a specific example from my classroom to demonstrate why.

I have been developing much of my own curriculum this year in an attempt to address Common Core. I am not someone who reads standards as directives; I consider the overall shifts of the standards and decide for myself what it is required to meet those shifts and end goals. For example, I knew poetry would be a great way to develop the skills of close reading using complex texts, which is a primary focus of Common Core. A poem requires multiple rereadings to peel away its layers and analyze its structure and language: the very definition of close reading.

As I considered my poetry unit, I returned to the standards for guidance on what specific aspects of poetry students would be expected to know at the seventh grade level. But there is little mention of poetry in the standards. If we look to the seventh grade ELA standards, here is the most we can find:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.5 Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.

Somewhat useful, but vague. So I decided to go to the Massachusetts standards instead. In those standards, guidance on poetry is more explicit:

Standard 14: Students will identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the themes, structure, and elements of poetry and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding.

14.4 Respond to and analyze the effects of sound, form, figurative language, and graphics in order to uncover meaning in poetry:

  • sound (alliteration, onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, rhyme scheme);
  • figurative language (personification, metaphor, simile, hyperbole);
  • graphics (capital letters, line length, word position).

For example, students explore ways in which poets use sound effects (as accompaniment) in humorous poems by authors such as Laura Richards, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, or Shel Silverstein; or (as reinforcement of meaning) in serious poems by such writers as Robert Louis Stevenson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, or Alfred Noyes. They incorporate these effects in their own poems.

19.20 Write poems using poetic techniques (alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme scheme), figurative language (simile, metaphor, personification), and graphic elements (capital letters, line length, word position).

No one could argue the Common Core standards don’t point to some of what is more explicitly outlined in the Massachusetts standards. However, if we are reading the CCSS literally, as many schools are, and using them as directives, we will end up not going very deep into poetry. Nor will students end up writing any poetry, because there is no poetry mentioned in the CCSS writing standards.

My colleague Will Johnson penned a critique of Common Core on GothamSchools, in which he argues a similar point. He notes that English as a content area has its own domain specific knowledge and vocabulary, which are deemphasized in Common Core.

Within them, the standards contain seeds that can be used to argue for the qualities that Will, Stotsky and I want to see, which is why I was originally a full-throated proponent. But I have come to realize something that disturbs me: literature is present and alive in Common Core if–and only if—we fight for it.

This year, I have worked as a Common Core Fellow for the NYCDOE. We use a rubric that takes Common Core quite literally to analyze tasks and units submitted by teachers to determine if they align to the standards. The process is exacting and it has given me a fine-grained perspective on the specifications of Common Core, such as the qualitative and quantitative factors of texts outlined in Appendix A (download).

This qualitative and quantitative analysis is an educative and important task to undertake when selecting texts for curriculum. But there is more to literature than merely a Lexile level and its given complexity, as determined by levels of meaning, structure, or knowledge demand. There is also the consideration of its significance in the context of literary history.

I understand why Common Core would avoid such a discussion: its approach ensures the standards are not ensnared in political and cultural debates about the relevancy of any given author, work, or literary epoch. But avoiding such a discussion subtly displaces literature as a viable domain of study, and it is this very subtle displacement that is the issue.

In the appendix of a paper by Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein, they note, “the intent of part of Common Core is to foster a rich literary-historical syllabus, but it won’t be realized unless teachers share that intent. If teachers do not share it, Common Core poses little resistance.”

Last month, I attended an NYCDOE event with my principal to see what curriculum the city had deemed to be truly “Common Core aligned.” Come next September, all schools are expected to have a curriculum in place that is fully aligned. I can’t speak to the ELA curricula offered for elementary grades, but for middle school, there were two options, neither of which had been much developed beyond drafts of a first unit.

My ELA department and I spent the next few weeks looking deeply at these curricula to determine which, if any, we were to invest in as a school. One of the curricula looked appealing on the surface, but the deeper we dug into whatever we had available, the more I found myself conflicted. Here was a curriculum that met the letter of the law of CCSS (I know this because the Common Core Fellows senior team had used their rubric to vet it), but contained little in the way of the study of literature. In fact, it seemed more akin to Social Studies than to ELA.

I will leave aside for now the tantalizing debate that perhaps ELA should move into teaching more “content (ala science, arts, and history)” rather than literature (fodder for my next post).

Let me end this by stating if we believe English language arts is a viable content area that entails reading and studying literature, then Common Core provides a vehicle that can be used to promote such a curriculum. However, if we are not so strident in our commitment to the study of literature, then Common Core also provides a vehicle for a curriculum focused on informational texts and whatever topics and content one happens to deem worthy of study.

I don’t know yet if this openness to interpretation is such a bad thing. My advice to fellow educators is this: be willing to fight for your interpretation of the standards based on your knowledge and expertise of pedagogy and literature. If we allow ourselves to be ruled by Common Core as the letter of the law, we may find ourselves teaching a curriculum that will leave our students even more at sea than they were before.

Mark Anderson is a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in the Bronx, NY.


  1. Melissa Ross says:

    I was unsettled when I read that a Common Core reading standard wanted 11th and 12th grade students to focus on AMERICAN 18th, 19th, and early-twentieth-century literature versus British literature, where all the great romantic poets are studied. This was a change, because 12th grade literature’s focus was generally world literature. So, even though I am curious why it has changed to solely American literature, I am still going to incorporate the study of Byron and Browning because I think it would be (for lack of a better term) silly to omit such iconic authors from the canon of study. The same goes for Shakespeare. Aren’t Hamlet and Macbeth studied at the junior level? And there is no mention of their seminal era in the new standards.

    • Melissa Ross says:

      Correction: Shakespeare is mentioned in one of the reading standards for 11-12 students. Given the article by Anderson, though, teachers should not limit themselves by not teaching an author simply because they do not adhere specifically to a “numbered” standard. Thanks.

      • Thanks for your comment, Melissa. It is precisely this confusion that I believe we must stand firm against as educators–we know that classic literature that has withstood the test of time lies at the heart of effective implementation of the Common Core.

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