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.

Teacher Evaluation Update: No Deal in New York City

by Mark Anderson

In my last post here, I expressed my loss of confidence in the leadership of both Mayor Bloomberg and UFT President Mulgrew. The failure of both sides to broker an agreement on teacher evaluations has only exacerbated my disapproval. But it is not simply that they have failed to reach an agreement that irks me; it is that both sides seem most concerned with exigencies of administration, rather than factors that will influence change in the place that needs it the most — the classroom.

As a VIVA teacher, I worked with other teachers across NY State to craft a set of recommendations on teacher evaluation in 2010. We spent some time considering what components of teacher evaluation will have the most impact on teacher growth, and thus, student learning. And we came the conclusion that the main factor was that no matter the ultimate measures and weighting, effective and meaningful feedback will only occur in the context of a professional learning community. Teachers — not simply the principal — must be empowered, as peer reviewers and facilitators of professional conversations oriented around growth and learning.

Yet all we hear from the NYC DOE has to do with principal autonomy.

We also recommended that student surveys be included as a measure of teacher effectiveness. After reviewing Ron Ferguson’s research and work with The Tripod Project and The MET Project, we were convinced that well-developed student surveys provided meaningful feedback
that would help a teacher to reflect and consider how to revise their instruction. The final findings from The MET Project have further strengthened the cause for inclusion of student surveys.

Yet the UFT will not consider inclusion of student surveys in teacher evaluations.

Both sides seem to be have gotten lost in the details and specifics of clauses, arbitration, and sunset dates without a clear vision of teacher professionalism in their minds.

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

NY State Teacher Debate: Professionals or Bureaucrats?

By Mark Anderson

The American people have rightly lost confidence in their elected leaders; ideology appears to trump fundamental necessities of governance.

Here in NYC, I have similarly lost confidence in both Mayor Bloomberg and UFT President Michael Mulgrew to represent my interests, nor those of my students.

A lot of money is currently in jeopardy due to the standoff between the UFT and the Mayor over teacher evaluations. As with recent skirmishing in our nation’s capitol in the face of the “fiscal cliff,” it bears questioning as to how such matters of consequence could be allowed to come down to the wire due to grandstanding and partisanship.

The Mayor’s attitude on a recent radio broadcast was cavalier:

“If we can’t come to an agreement, it’s going to be very painful,” Bloomberg told host John Gambling on his weekly Friday radio show. “But the city’s certainly not going to sign on to any agreement that isn’t a real evaluation agreement, and one that can be monitored by the public.”

What is a “real evaluation agreement,” according to Bloomberg? Apparently only one that releases a teacher’s ratings to the public.

Mayor Bloomberg seems more concerned with ostracizing teachers than with creating a system of evaluation that will promote growth oriented professional learning environments and student achievement.

On the other side, we have UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who penned an incensed letter to the Mayor:

The Department of Education’s demonstrated inability to manage the school system correctly has led us to have serious concerns about getting anything constructive done with you.

Who can blame Mulgrew for having “serious concerns” about getting anything accomplished with a Mayor who compares his union to the NRA? But Mulgrew’s righteous beginning is subverted by what follows:

Two and half years ago the state decided to change this year’s standardized tests to the Common Core standards and since then you have done nothing to create a curriculum based on the Common Core. You have now left teachers in a horrendous situation where they are scrambling to try to get material appropriate for these new tests to teach their children.

I don’t know about other teachers, but I shudder to think of what kind of curriculum the NYC DOE would “create.” That’s the last thing I want to see happen, when the opportunity is here for curriculum to be developed from the ground up by classroom teachers.

How should teachers be viewed? Are we professionals, scholars, and experts of our content areas and capable of growth through reflection and collegial feedback? Or are we mere public employees, clamoring for our administration to tell us how and what we are to teach?

I’d prefer to be viewed as a professional educator that is part of a vibrant, dedicated community of professional learners and scholars. Unfortunately, that perspective is not something that seems to be shared by either of the elected officials that would purport to represent me.

They seem more interested in winning out against their political opponents. It’s the rest of us who will lose.

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

Next time, listen to the teachers

Commentary by VIVA Teacher Leader Mark Anderson in the Albany Times-Union.
January 30, 2012

New York’s plans to implement its new teacher evaluation law have been met with outcries from principals, wariness from teachers and legal objections by the New York State United Teachers. All of that might have been averted if state leaders had more fully considered the perspective of educators before developing their implementation plans.

Last January, I was one of a group of teachers from across the state working with The VIVA Project to develop classroom-based solutions for effective teacher evaluation measures. We developed a set of policy recommendations and delivered them to Dr. John King Jr., New York’s senior deputy commissioner of education. Central to our proposal was the insight that the process of evaluating teachers must be tied directly and explicitly to the establishment of a professional learning community within each school and district.

A professional learning community is designed to engage teachers and administrators in continuous dialogue, feedback and support in order to improve teacher performance and, consequently, student learning. Without that, any evaluation process will inevitably devolve into checklists (no matter how advanced the instrument), ‘gotcha’ feedback, and more meaningless paperwork that has no impact on learning.

Our report also advocated for peer evaluations in addition to administrator observations. Teachers bring valuable understanding of the context of a given school, which is especially important in districts where students face daunting academic and life challenges. Working together, teachers can leverage the information from effective teacher evaluations to foster professional development, enhance instruction and nurture student growth and learning.

Without these classroom-based considerations, it is no surprise that New York is encountering this opposition. It has opted for shallow measures of teacher evaluation, such as allowing local districts to use state test scores to account for 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

All teachers know that one summative measure of a test score cannot tell you all the information you need to know about an individual student’s personal growth in your classroom. Rather, teacher evaluations must account for student growth based upon measurements that gauge more accurately how much a student has progressed over the course of a school year.

For students who face great academic challenges, such as those with exceptional learning needs or students undergoing acute stress in their home lives, this consideration is paramount.

Policymakers are far removed from the realities and challenges of the classroom. They understandably place great emphasis on measures that are easily definable and quantifiable. But teachers know that ground-level implementation of any policy measure must take into consideration the context of a school and community in order to be implemented with fidelity.

Otherwise, this so-called evaluation is nothing more than a ruse to allow policymakers and politicians to check mandates off their list so they can garner federal money and more easily blame districts and teachers when they fail to measure up on disconnected data points.

Changing the cultures of schools requires much more than simple directives on how to evaluate teachers. It requires an understanding of evaluation measures like those we recommended in our VIVA Project report.

Only then can we build the sort of professional learning community necessary for an authentic conversation geared toward professional growth and improved student learning.

Mark Anderson is a fifth-grade teacher in an elementary school in the Bronx.