10 Reasons You Should Care About The Common Core State Standards Initiative’s Draft English Language Arts Standards

Tom Hoffman, summarizing his gonzo fortnight of investigative blogging, concluding that Common Core’s E/LA standards, adopted by all but Alaska and Texas, are woefully inadequate while overreaching scandalously:

My take on the situation is that as long as all stakeholders, including the states and federal Department of Education can agree that these are not internationally benchmarked English Language Arts standards, but cross-disciplinary literacy standards, and that they should not be seen as supplanting the English Language Arts standards and curriculum, and the various relevant memos and regulations can be updated to reflect that fact, then everything will be ok. Either that or they need to start over and write actual English Language Arts standards. Or we’re just setting the stage for the next crisis in American educational standards, when people suddenly discover circa 2012 that our English Language Arts standards are scandalously lower than our global competitors’.

Essential reading.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Read through your comparative standards analysis blog posts, Tom– really excellent work. I’ll be writing more over there shortly.

    As for here, I’d like to chime in with three overarching observations about the Standards. (I just wrote a piece for the ASCD about them and went through them last weekend with my own fine-tooth comb. Fun? Hard to say. Certainly thought-provoking.)

    First, I think the angle of Tom’s summative criticism is misplaced. Literacy *is* cross-disciplinary. There’s no way to isolate it as a subject unless you restrict your focus to analyzing and replicating a typical aesthetic canon of “literature”. The CCSSO is clearly unwilling to do this– and neither is the NCTE, most of the countries Tom quotes, or I, for that matter. Global literacy standards are not the problem. What the Standards define *as* global literacy is the issue.

    Second– so what is global literacy? Let’s begin with the dominating rhetoric of the document: that the standards are geared specifically for “college and career readiness.” Sample sources for the Standards, listed in the back of the document, are purportedly aligned to this vision. Some interesting percentages out of those approximately 70 citations:

    Corporations or corporate-related partnerships: 18, or 26%
    College preparatory companies: 13, or 19%
    Peer-reviewed educational research: 4, or .06%

    I think this speaks for itself. Global literacy, in otherwords, is what post-college, hierarchical, for-profit business models and for-profit college preparatory companies say it is. Never mind that global literacy is also apparently morally questionable and not evidence-based.

    Lastly– my pet peeve as an educator dovetails with Tom’s observation that in comparision with other countries’ standards, ours read like white Wonder Bread. I firmly believe that this is at least due in part to the fact that the NCTE– that is to say, the educators who arguably know best how to write in this country– were not asked to help write the standards! I hope your readership is aware of this, Dan–it’s a travesty.

    And it also insured that there were run-ons, missing referents, punctuation errors, and omitted capitalization in the document that is to become the highest standard of language in the United States.

  2. The method of writing the standards was highly irregular; those participating was kept secret in the process. I presumed this was a “draft” copy so it likely is still possible to intervene (as long as people make enough of a fuss).

    However, I do want to advise caution on one thing, and that is presuming (as Tom’s post seems to imply) that more standards = better. While I don’t know the situation in language arts, in mathematics it has long been recognized that US curriculum is overburdened with topics and judicious cutting is necessary.

  3. Comment period ends on the NCSSO website on October 20th. Please, educators, make a fuss. I’m trying to.

    Good point about the “more is more” fallacy. In actuality this is the (one?) strength of the draft. There are at least 293 unique ELA state standards and benchmarks currently in existence; the CCSSO has knocked them down to somewhere around 70, and arranged them with some clarity and little overlap in content.

  4. Regarding the scope of “literacy,” the particular context is that there is confusion about whether or not these are literacy standards or English Language Arts standards. If the states ask for English Language Arts standards, which I believe they did, and they are given cross-disciplinary literacy standards, and they use them as a replacement for their English Language Arts standards, then we have a problem.

    Unless, I guess, you’d argue that “literacy” encompasses the entire scope of the K-12 ELA curriculum plus cross-curricular elements, but that’s clearly not what these standards do.

    The overall number of standards (in any given set) is less of an issue in ELA than math and science. A lot of the fundamentals in English you work on every year — even if you’re improving, you’re still working on writing good sentences, paragraphs, essays, etc.

    What’s scary about the Common Standards is that the short list isn’t even very tight. For example, the first reading standard in England’s list of 14 is “analyse and evaluate information, events and ideas from texts,” and then it moves onto other higher level skills. The Common Standards has, by my count, five standards that are just sub-elements of England’s first one. And we’ve got a couple standards in there that other countries don’t even think necessary to mention in late secondary standards like “determine what is meant by words and phrases in context.” So the range is even narrower than the length would suggest.

  5. I’m still working on more extensive commentary, but I want to point out a quote clarifying an aspect of the initiative:

    The College and Career Readiness Standards for Mathematics will anchor the next phase of the Common Core State Standards Initiative: development of K—12 Mathematics Standards. Those K—12 Standards are in turn expected to guide the development of a next generation of assessments, developed collaboratively by multiple states.

    In other words these are not the standards in terms we normally think, but are a guide for the more exact standards that haven’t been written yet.

  6. I think this is an optimistic interpretation, Jason. It’s not that the college and career readiness standards will be replaced by better or widely differing standards. It means the weak, incomplete readiness standards will be weakly and incompletely tweaked for grade level, which will be even worse.

  7. will be replaced by better or widely differing standards

    Well, no.

    I meant just to clarify for those like me who were baffled at how general the standards were. These are the general standards to make the specific standards.

    (By the way, although I still haven’t finished, I think the mathematics standards are quite good.)

  8. The problem is that we have no idea what the relationship between the “college and career readiness standards,” graduation standards, and K-12 standards/curriculum will be. They haven’t told us, and therefore any analysis of these standards is just a stab in the dark.

    The only rigorous position is to point that out and refrain from further comment. Politically, I doubt that’s the right approach though.

  9. Also, in terms of the actual performance standards in English, they are extremely specific. So specific that I think they’re best read as a detailed specification for a test, perhaps simply reverse engineered from a test.

  10. I’m nitpicking Jason for optimism and then find myself wanting to nitpick Tom for horrific suggestions such as reverse curriculum design from an exam… but find that I can’t. The movie of the “experts” writing these standards using “but we will be able to TEST these?” as a yardstick is far too believable. It’s running clear as Inglourious Basterds in my head, right now.


  11. The standards currently in place were originally designed to give teachers a guide as to what they should cover in the classroom. They were never intended to be tested. That all came well after and that’s where the trouble sets in, when you take a standard like “Demonstrate an understanding of the elements of discourse” and test that with a multiple choice item. Utterly ridiculous and not a good gauge of a student’s ability to demonstrate that understanding.

    When standards are created with any kind of eye toward how they will be tested, that’s a colossal mistake. The point of standards should be improving education, not improving “accountability” or anything else.

    I’m with you, Tom, on your concern over the distinction between E/LA and Literacy standards. Creating one and calling it both is an even larger problem than having the vague E/LA standards we currently have. I mean, c’mon, one of our current standards actually says “enhance subtlety of meaning.” Can we get “necessary aesthetic of the soul” into the new ones somehow? It’s just as good as any other BS phrase.