VIVA Teacher Speaks Out on Chicago Teachers Union’s Common Core Vote

Freeda Pirillis, a first grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools, was a member of the very first VIVA Idea Exchange, Voices from the Classroom. For the last three years, she has been working with the Chicago Teachers Union to develop Common Core curricula.

As she describes in this story on Chicago Public Radio, she was stunned to learn union delegates had voted to oppose the standards.

Chicago Teachers Union votes to oppose Common Core (by Linda Lutton, WBEZ 91.5, May 8, 2014)

Freeda said she understands the frustrations her colleagues have with how Common Core is being implemented. (Read her blog post, Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Too Little Too Soon, from last spring.). She is personally concerned about how the standards can and will be applied to students who have special needs or are English Language Learners. And, of course, she wonders what will become of the considerable amount of work she has done with the union the past few years.

Autonomous Teamwork and the Common Core

By Wade Sutton

“We live in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent and transparent….the most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional structures to be more flexible, more collaborative and nurturing.” – John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine at TedxWomen Talk 2013.

Imagine your child’s day at school: In History they read and examine forms of government, the next period he or she plays soccer after reading and discussing an article on the qualities of leadership and teamwork, in Environmental Science the class examines the needs of a balanced ecosystem and reads an essay on current issues and later continues to build a terrarium in shop. At the same time in English your son or daughter is reading The Lord of the Flies and discussing Democracy and Fascism. It all fits together and reinforces itself. In this imaginary school, each teacher is autonomous and expert yet nurtures the learning experienced by the students throughout their day. Imagine autonomous teamwork.

Traveling to MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall and Common Core Teaching Institute in New York last October gave me the opportunity to revise a lot of what I thought I knew about Minnesota’s transition to the Common Core Literacy Standards. I like these standards, however, the basic truth remains that educational improvements (including the Common Core) must come from within a school where staff, students and parents work together. Mutual trust and teamwork is essential.

Of course we at Indus can always improve, and trust is built over time. But autonomous teamwork among teachers is what makes good education become great. In the 21st century, schools must be “flexible” and “collaborative.” Good leadership nurtures and encourages this, and, if it is the common practice, your school is serving you. Your son or daughter will benefit. When students, parents, educators, and administration commonly rely on each other’s strengths we become the real core of education.

Autonomous collaboration makes education work. Literacy standards begin at home and great student achievement is the result of school staff and parents working together. This has struck me consistently in my conversations with educators whom I respect from across the country working in schools I admire. As an educator at Indus School who values an extended team, I am not alone in feeling the desire for more parental involvement. This is not a criticism; it is a request that parents accept our respect for what they do. Parenting is difficult and a good school seeks involvement in the learning community. Parents are the foundation for successful literacy. I trust parents more than the Common Core because that trust is key to a successful education.

The Common Core itself will not raise standards of education, but excellent educators, trusted and trained, will. As Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, said at MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall last October, “Teachers need training; teachers need respect; teachers need autonomy.” As an educator, every day I consider how I am working in unity with my peers. The responsibility that comes with professional trust within a school can drive me toward high standards far more than any directive could. Over the years I have experienced how a professional team of autonomous educators can leverage basic education and transform it together to meet literacy needs throughout the day. While literacy begins at home, the Common Core at least recognizes that reading is not isolated in English class but is taught “in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.” A hallmark of a school implementing Common Core literacy well is a team that works together. Classes are not islands and teachers are not overwhelmed with classroom sizes so unmanageable that they are not able to be flexible according to the needs of your son or daughter.

As a parent can we evaluate whether teaching is done as a community? I believe yes. You can judge your child’s school by how well they listen to you and by how much time is created for educators to educate themselves, improve and work together. One of the exemplar educators at the MSNBC Common Core Workshop confided in me that her school does not provide time to work together. It is a major failure in her district while at the same time it is necessary to meet the literacy standards. At your next parent/teacher meeting ask your teacher what the atmosphere is like for them: Is there an atmosphere of professional trust? How do they collaborate with other subjects? How is administration nurturing and valuing time to collaborate among professionals? If your child’s school organization provides time for educators to meet, plan and teach together then they are on the right track and ready to work for you, the parent. If it does not, then speak to its leaders to encourage them.

Find out how often teachers meet to match the reading and exploration in their class with another: At Indus we keep learning. Our science teacher and FACS teacher collaborate on the topics of food safety and sanitation and scientific principles related to biology and chemistry. Best of all, they work together on the school garden project. We have created a working timeline in our hallway where students from all grades post responses to informational texts and topics in their classrooms. Our history teacher has recruited me to grade the essays on her World and American History tests according to what students learn in English and I organize my subject matter according to her timeline to streamline the literacy and student learning. In science students practice similar methods for reading and understanding texts as in other classrooms to meet Common Core Literacy standards. Our art teacher critiqued the rough drafts of the World Literature projects for visual communication and I use art to teach text interpretation. She is also having the seventh and eighth grade illustrate their own short stories for publication. And the ninth grade class at Indus is mentoring the 5th grade in composition which helps both grades. As a parent I like what I see. As a teacher I have learned that this works and hope to keep improving together.

Because autonomous education within a school team should be commonplace.

wadeWade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.


View the original postings on Wade’s blog, ProspectiveEducation, and The Journal 

The Next Generation of Cheating: Improving Academic Integrity in the Age of the Common Core

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

Another day, another cheating scandal. Students at Stuyvesant and Harvard, teachers in Atlanta and Philadelphia, adults on K Street and Wall Street. Dishonesty is rampant in American society.  The ultimate consequences are significant: the IRS estimates the tax gap to be around $300 billion in any given year; the National Retail Federation reports their members lose approximately $30 billion to shoplifters each year.

An Unabated Concern for Schools

Cheating starts young, and academic dishonesty is pervasive.  A 2012 survey by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics reported that about three-quarters of American high school students admitted to copying another student’s work and around one-half had cheated on a test in the past year. The picture does not improve much at the college level. Surveys of tens of thousands of university students elicited admission of cheating on tests, exams, and written assignments. Since the student respondents were self-reporting, the data around faculty perception of cheating versus students who actually admitted cheating are quite stark: Faculty reports of cheating behavior were generally 20-30 percent higher than student admission of the behavior.

Putting the prospect of graduating the next Bernie Madoff or Lance Armstrong aside, educational institutions need to address academic integrity directly for two reasons. First, cheating eats away at their central mission: student learning. Second, integrity itself is a learned behavior. It needs to be modeled, practiced, and discussed to become habitual. School is one important place for that learning to occur.

Cultivate Community with an Honor Code

Since 1919, Wellesley College has asked students “to act with integrity, honesty, and respect” in their academic and personal conduct. David Haines, a Chemistry professor there, notes that Wellesley’s honor code allows him to assign open-ended, challenging work with the assumption that collaboration allows each student to develop her own best ideas. He says,“when the honor code is working, it’s because the community has bought into it,” but that can only happen when “the code is externally defined.” Research backs up his experience. Cheating is reduced significantly when a school has a clearly articulated and accepted academic integrity policy, when students perceive that infractions will be reported and penalized, and when students perceive their peers are honest. All schools will benefit from putting resources into cultivating their communities’ relationships with integrity.

Make Common Core Curricula and Assessments Fair and Meaningful

David Haines also notes that underclasswomen at Wellesley often experience “a difficult transition [to the Honor Code environment], because high school is so focused on grades and credentials, rather than authentic learning.” His perception is borne out by numbers. Students who view their education as a “means to an end” are almost 40 percent more likely to be academically dishonest than those who view education as a path to “personal development.”

The Common Core places strong emphasis on performance-based assessment. In theory, this type of test should promote integrity. However, it can’t be fostered unless the new curricula and tests truly promote critical thinking and relevant application. This requires an iterative and time-consuming development process. Unfortunately, the rollout of Common Core has been rushed, resulting in myriad problems and complaints. The authentic problems in new math curricula are often just rebranded word problems, while complexity in ELA is mostly manifested in confusing wording. In the realm of testing, a recent Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education report asserts, “the progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purpose.”

States and districts need to invest in more thoughtful curriculum development and truly authentic assessment if we want the scores to reflect what was learned and not how much someone can cheat. As the Wellesley honor code points out: if you cannot trust someone, respect is even more difficult to give. Poorly designed curricula and weak assessments are already losing teachers’ trust. If teachers don’t trust the standards and curriculum, we can’t expect them to respect the test.

Taking a Journey Away from Walmart

In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch warns that Common Core represents the “Walmart-ization” of American education. Walmart is most certainly a means to an end, not a destination for personal development. If the ultimate goal of K-12 education is for Americans to be college, career, and citizenship ready, they need opportunities to learn and practice integrity every day of their K-12 experience.

KMoroskyKatie Morosky teaches high school science in Wilton, Conn. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.




How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Common Core

By James Kobialka

In a recent VIVA Teachers blog, Design Lessons for Students, Not Standards, Adam Heenan wrote about his distaste for the Common Core standards. He described a lesson he uses to teach his high school social studies students financial literacy, and said, “No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators.  In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.”

I disagree with Adam’s dismissal of the Common Core – I think it is a valuable tool. My perspective on this has developed very slowly, beginning with a rabid mistrust of the standards and moving to a moderate admiration. I’ll try to break it down my thoughts, but if you desire a concise opinion, this entire post can be summarized thusly: Excellent, student-centered teachers don’t need the Common Core, but everyone else does.

Adam is clearly a wonderful teacher. The lesson he talks about does, in his own words, prioritize “relevant and valuable ideas shared by students in the room.” This is the main purpose of education: to help youth uncover their truths, share their ideas, and build skills relevant to their lives.

Unfortunately, many – especially new teachers with no experience beyond textbooks – do not agree with this. These are the “drill and kill” teachers who place the holy grail of content above all other goals, and who are egged on by administrators who seek high scores instead of competent students.

The Common Core is a set of standards for good teaching. Good, effective, thoughtful teachers already hit dozens of standards in their everyday lessons. They integrate reading, writing, thinking, questioning, and numeracy into their classes, just as the Common Core suggests.

However, many growing teachers do not. For them, the Common Core – combined with reflection and pedagogical evolution – provide a road map to success. Hitting those standards means that they must teach questioning, analyzing, modeling, presenting, evaluating, thinking about perspective, and more skills that an intellectual agent for change would need.

The standards are not the issue here. The implementation is.

Just as many people the world over grab hold of the New Testament’s message of charity and forgiveness, so too can educators grab on to critical thinking and writing to learn. On the other hand, just as many zealots choose to focus on the text’s mentions of death to sinners and perpetuating slavery, so too can administrators, bureaucrats and companies focus on “meeting standards.”

I am reminded of the following exchange from the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch:

Tommy: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?”
Hedwig: “No, but I love his work.”

In this case, the Common Core is Jesus. (How’s that for a soundbite?)

Or, in other words: Adam’s blog post let readers into his classroom, a place where fantastic lessons unfold… lessons designed for youth, not for tests. And, as it happens, it is also a Common Core ready lesson. Based on just a quick skim of the standards, it covers at least the following 14 (and probably more, if you’re inclined to look):

HSN-Q.A.1-3 (Reason quantitatively and use units to solve problems
Standard Set: Modeling (An aggregate standard about creating and using models)
All ES and MS standards dealing with basic functions and data analysis
RI.11-12.7 (Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information)
RI.11-12.4/5/6 (Analyze the intent of authors and determine their validity)
SL 11-12.1/2/3 (Discussion and response, using diverse info, using diverse media)
SL.11-12/4/5/6  (Present information, make use of digital media, adapt speech to tasks)

The phrase I once heard and held onto (at, full disclosure, a Gates Foundation conference last year) was: common is not the same, and standards are not curricula.

The standards are not a checklist, and districts that use them as such are flat-out wrong.

In my mind, adopting the Common Core should mean doing away with standardized tests. Instead of whatever the PARCC is, students should be rated on these standards with a portfolio and performance assessment. Have they written critical papers (W.11-12.112)? Developed ideas influenced by historical thinkers (RH.11-12.6)? Solved real life math problems like Adam’s, or crafted their own scientific investigations? Are they ready to move out of the protective walls of our schools and into the more rigorous halls of academia? Or onto the even harsher world where the only thing between them and homelessness is their wit and ability to survive our biased capitalist economy?

These questions should be thriving under the new standards, caring administrators, and talented teachers. They should not be displaced by some sort of artificial checklist tied to our professional lives as educators.

These standards are no panacea. We have known what will “fix” education for years – more support for students, more community involvement, more funding, professional communities and benefits for teachers, a robust public education system instead of corporate charters – and this is not that. But in a political climate where real reform is an uphill struggle at best, these standards are a step in the right direction.

Using the Common Core as direction, combined with the right sorts of development, induction and training for teachers, has the potential to change classrooms from drill and kill hellholes into oases of discovery. Inspired teachers – like Adam, our colleagues, and that one high school teacher who really got you all those years ago – can create transformative spaces under this model. We can still help our students become agents of change, fires burning for the fuel of knowledge.

Teachers, students, bureaucrats, and community members need to cooperate to let education flourish; I think the Common Core has the potential, more than any other standards, to let that happen.

I do worry that the Common Core will be used to enforce narrow-minded agendas instead of fighting them. This is true of almost anything: the best intentions, when systemized and standardized, suddenly become the worst ideas. Those who support testing and hierarchical education could use these standards to remove ingenuity and agency from the classroom. I am already hearing stories of that happening – I only hope that these stories are flukes, not dominant narratives.

The Common Core should provide direction, not punishment, to those who use it.

So, to Adam and all of my colleagues who might read this – take these standards in the spirit meant by the teachers who sat on the advisory panels, not the profit-hungry test-makers.

We will dismantle this testing culture. Piece by piece, student by student, day by day, with or without the Common Core. A good teacher – reflective, positive, endlessly dedicated, masterful – is a good teacher. You do the same thing regardless of the bureaucracy: take what you want, sneak in the rest, stay subversive, stay strong, and always stay true to yourself and your youth.

Not that you needed reminding.

jkobialka2013James Kobialka teaches science and English in Worcester, Mass. He was a member of the VIVA MTA Writing Collaborative.


Design Lessons for Students, not Standards

By Adam Heenan

I consider most conflicts to be problems of design.  As a teacher, my first task is always to design lessons that are engaging.  Some teachers do this very easily with humor, or great storytelling.  I do this by prioritizing relevant and valuable ideas shared by the students in the room, and I excel at that…  or so my students and their parents tell me.  If my designs are off, my lessons will not be engaging and my students will not learn.  And, believe me, students are quite effective at letting me know when my lessons are not engaging.

In general, learning standards are implemented as a design solution for a problem that never was.  In my nine years of teaching social studies and Spanish, I have had to learn and prioritize the Illinois Learning Standards – of which there are six different sets for the social studies ‑ along with socio-emotional standards, the ACT-aligned College Readiness Standards, and now the Common Core State Standards for literacy.  (There are no social studies standards for this newest set, so by default, I am directed to use the non-fiction reading and writing standards.)  As part of my evaluation, all of these standards are to be accounted for in my lesson plans, as if they add value that wasn’t already there in the lessons I’ve been teaching.   Please consider the value and relevance of the following lesson currently happening in my classroom.

I teach Financial Literacy as a semester-long social studies course for high school juniors in a Chicago public school.  The first quarter, which just finished on October 31st, focused on professional skills; the second quarter revolves around money management.  This week my students – who have just completed their mock interview for a future career – must go through the steps of determining a place to live on a fixed salary, and then present their decision to their peers in the form of a brief PowerPoint presentation.

To complete this project, the students must first determine their biweekly net pay and cost of living expenses (determined by scale based upon their grade from last semester, e.g. students who received an “A” earn $42,000, and performance in the mock interview), and then they must find a place to live.  To do this, students scour the Internet for classified ads on webservers like Craigslist. They quickly realize that the students who did really well in the mock interview have an easier time finding a desirable living arrangement, while the ones who didn’t do so well might have to find a classmate willing to be a roommate.  Some even have to explain in their presentations why they are living at home in their parents’ attic!

Year after year, this is one of the most popular lessons I do with my students because they consider it both relevant and valuable to their real lives.  Students will (hopefully) be moving out of their parents’ homes in a few years, and this lesson is usually the first opportunity they have had to navigate their possibilities for determining their living options.  This is an assignment that requires some adult support, but relies on students’ autonomy and ingenuity.  They love being able to compare who got the “better deal” on the “coolest” apartment.

They apply mathematical skill-sets of adding, subtracting, multiplying and proportioning for the paychecks; techno-literacy, geo-spatial mapping, and economic decision-making to determine a place to live; and communication skills both in the presentation of their PowerPoint and in the negotiations of “what’s fair” between roommates for who get different sized rooms.  Some of the students argue that since their partners/roommates are contributing unequal amounts money, than perhaps that person’s bedroom will be the size of a walk-in closet.  We all get a good laugh, and then move on to budgeting in the real world the following week.

If I have explained the purpose of this activity clearly, the reader probably wasn’t judging this lesson based upon their determining what standard I was trying to teach.  That’s because I’m not trying to teach a standard, I am teaching a valuable lesson to young people: how to find a place to live when you are on your own, something that most people have to do sometime in their young adult lives.

This lesson has changed very little over the years I have taught it.  Neither the Common Core nor the College Readiness Standards, and not even the Illinois Learning Standards have any bearing on the value of this lesson.  The standards are inconsequential.  The activities are not derived from or determined by standards; the lesson comes from the students’ needs to master content that is relevant and valuable to their lives.

Most of the lessons I design prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to students and our community.  But this is changing in my classroom, as it is across the profession, with the pressure either to align our current curricula to the standards, or to design different activities that justify the assessments (read: standardized tests). What then happens to valuable lessons like the one I’ve describes?   They get relegated to “extra credit” instead of being the subject matter of everyday learning, and teachers have to tailor classroom learning to the assessments that teachers most likely did not design.

This is not an appeal for more help in learning how to implement the standards better in my teaching.  If I wanted support for applying the Common Core in my classroom, I could get it.  I could ask my administration or my union, and both would be responsive.  I could attend any number of professional development sessions, or sign on for some webinars in my pajamas any night of the week.  Google turns up unlimited implementation ideas I could put in place immediately, and Education Week is forever advertising a new solution system for my administration to buy.  Yes, the Common Core has designed an entire market of solutions for a problem that didn’t exist five years ago.  What if all that money went directly into classrooms instead?

No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators.  In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.

AHeenanAdam Heenan teaches social science at Curie Metropolitan High School. He participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange and is a member of the VIVA Leadership Center.


International Falls Journal: Uncovering Common Core


VIVA Teachers at Education Nation 2013 (from left to right): Glenn Morehouse Olson, Wade Sutton, Mark Anderson, Katie Morosky, and Freeda Pirillis

Wade Sutton (VIVA Minnesota I) was one of five VIVA Teachers to attend Education Nation 2013 in New York City in October. He is writing a series of commentaries for his local paper, International Falls Journal. The first one is called Uncovering Common Core (published Nov. 9, 2013), and looks at how Wade’s opinion about Common Core has changed.

He writes:

Attending the 2013 MSNBC’s Education Nation in New York shifted me from “unconvinced” to partial supporter of the Common Core. It is an honor to be one of the few rural educators to have sat with the architects of educational policy, and parents are usually left out of the conversation completely. As an educator at Indus School, I do not think this is right; after all, this is not only my ninth year serving parents by teaching their children, but I also am invested as a parent. The difference is that I have been given the opportunity to have a voice. When you speak directly to the minds behind the national standards there is a lot to respect.

Go to the Journal website to read the full article.

Wade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.

Implementing Common Core Standards for Literacy

By Mark Anderson

A few months ago on this blog, I advised ELA teachers to be willing to fight misinterpretations of the Common Core standards and stand up for literature. That led to the Core Knowledge Blog posting a series of articles continuing my examination of the obstacles facing the effective implementation of the Common Core.

In the series, I examine three major pitfalls we face:

•    Allowing skills-based teaching to remain predominant.
•    Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.
•    Infantilizing teachers.

Finally, I’ve made a video summarizing some of these points and outlining what we can do to actualize the transformative intent of the Common Core.

How are the Common Core standards being implementing in your state, district, and school? What is your advice to policymakers?

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

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.

Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Too Little, Too Soon

By Freeda Pirillis

As a nation, we have made a shift from varying state standards to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a national benchmark for all students. These standards have aimed to level the playing field for students across the U.S., regardless of school district, socio-economic status, or demographic background, and to equip students with the skills to be college and career ready. Unlike the state standards of the past, which often resembled a random set of skills students would learn at each grade level, the CCSS expect that students develop a deeper conceptual understanding of subject matter, with more discussion and collaboration among students, and less paper-pencil tasks that require students’ memorization. Parents and teachers agree moving towards a common set of goals for students and eliminating the disparity between state standards is a step in the right direction.

As of the fall of 2012, 46 states had adopted the CCSS. Parents of school-age children in those states can now be confident that regardless of what district, school, or teacher is educating their child, the CCSS have determined the same learning criteria for all students, and therefore, teachers are fully prepared to teach to these standards. That is the assumption, anyway.

The reality is teachers may not understand the instructional shifts required to teach to the CCSS, have had little chance to read or digest the standards, and are in school districts that are providing little in the way of curriculum, materials, resources, or professional development to successfully implement the CCSS. Yet, teachers are being asked to design daily instruction around the CCSS and, further, are being evaluated by the progress their students make towards them. No one would ever allow their surgeon to operate if he or she had not had rigorous training to safely and successfully perform a procedure, and certainly wouldn’t trust a physician who was equipped with only a handful of tools to treat them. However, teachers are often expected to perform miracles with far less than basic classroom materials. As a nation, the disparity continues to exist between those who have and those who have not. Surprisingly, the have nots continue to be students and teachers.

As a Chicago Public School teacher, I received my copy of the CCSS last school year and was told to read them. That was the beginning and end of the support I received from my school district to understand or use the standards. Teachers across the district have been given weekly deadlines by their principals and network administrators to submit instructional units in every curricular area aligned to the CCSS. Many of them have been left scrambling to read, digest, analyze, review, and develop curriculum all in one to two week cycles. I, on the other hand, was hired by my teacher’s union to participate in writing collaborative to develop one instructional interdisciplinary unit that will exemplify the CCSS. This five-week unit will be piloted in CPS schools next fall, and placed in several national databases to assist teachers in understanding the instructional shifts of the CCSS.

My team of five National Board Certified teachers spent one year writing the unit and this entire year on revisions. We have been given the opportunity to delve deeper into the standards, study the progressions, craft and structure  the ELA standards, and engage in numerous discussions on the intent of standards. The difference between my experience of working with the standards over the course of two years and that of the other 26,000 CPS teachers is polarizing. Parents of students in CPS can be assured that depending on what school their child attends and in which network their school lies, teachers are being bullied into churning out units that do not represent the true vision of the CCSS and teaching has not shifted to prepare students better for the college and career readiness standards.

CPS has provided little in the way of support, but continues to hold teachers and students accountable to meeting the CCSS. One small effort was a conference last summer that was a joint venture between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. Collaborate Chicago, hosted by Teach Plus, brought together 1,600 CPS teachers to learn more about the CCSS though teacher-led presentations. I was fortunate to present at the conference, and hoped CPS would continue to fund large professional development opportunities for teachers. Although this April’s Collaborate Chicago 2.0, which accommodated another 300 teachers, was another step in the right direction, it continues to feel like it’s not enough. There is so little support being given to teachers who want to ensure their students meet the new college and career standards, they are truly unsure how their teaching needs to change in order to get them there.

Freeda Pirillis teaches 1st Grade for Chicago Public Schools. She was a member of the team that wrote the first VIVA report, Voices from the Classroom.

A Call to Reform Testing and Define Success

By Lesley Hagelgans

The new Common Core State Standards and related assessments such as Smarter Balance have been commended for the depth of critical thinking required to show mastery. That level of achievement is a great goal for students with an IQ in the normal range, but it sets others up for failure. Asking a person with an IQ between 70-79 to answer an abstract question about literature or algebra on a test would be like asking a blind person to read a book that is not written in Braille. So why are the new state standards and the related assessments asking 7-14 percent of our students to perform this way?

Just because a person has a lower than average IQ doesn’t mean they can’t succeed in our world. Instead, we need to reconsider our definition of success. The Common Core State Standards, presented by The Governor’s Council, redefined academic standards. The implication is that if a student can master these Common Core State Standards, they will be christened as being successful. By default, a student who cannot master these standards is a failure. A significant portion of the population will not be able to master the Common Core State Standards due to limitations beyond anyone’s control, therefore a large segment of people will feel, “You are not good enough.” Why is it that only measures set by the Common Core State Standards determine whether or not individual students are successful?

Every educator can remember the informational charts from their child development classes. Physiologically, some people won’t develop the brain synapses necessary for critical thinking until their 20s. Other people won’t develop them at all. Yet, that cognitive ability is essential for demonstrating success according to the Common Core. When those students fail, they will feel like they are not good enough.  Their parents and teachers will feel like they did not do enough.

The answer is not a lowering of our standards and expectations. The answer lies in the process of testing itself. The field of education can learn a lot about learning from the field of neuropsychology. A person with a borderline functional intelligence may never grasp that y=mx+b, but if they were placed into a curriculum that supplied them with concrete real world experience, they could thrive. The key word here is concrete, because these kids are concrete thinkers.

Students in this category are often those same students who try desperately to succeed.  They may not become the next Warren Buffet or Steven Hawkings, but they can contribute in many positive ways to their community through trades-based professions – the backbone of the United States – given the right support. These students have to work two or three times harder than their peers and often demonstrate half the ability due to limitations nobody can control.

Issues like this often don’t show up until sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. Why?  That’s when the curriculum really starts to demand students to think abstractly. Once these adolescents consistently get the message they are not good enough, they shut down, disengage, or drop out completely.

What is the solution? That’s the challenge in education. We have to redefine success. Are we going to continue to tell these hard working kids they are not good enough because they cannot meet the demands of a rigorous curriculum? There are multiple measures that would identify the talents and limitations of students at an earlier age if cognitive diagnostic assessments were given to everyone. In a society that has become so data driven, we might be missing the most important data of all.

Rich data from cognitive diagnostic assessments would help educators to truly reach a child where they are and set them upon a path for lifelong success in various ways – gainfully employed, in any way, as a contributing, productive member of society.

Lesley Hagelgans teaches Language Arts at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Mich. She was a member of the National VIVA Task Force.