Rigor Or Not

Bulletin: The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts are NOT rigorous!

How can that be? Everyone says they are.

The truth is that what is called rigor depends on who has the power to say what rigor is.

David Coleman, the chief author of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts who, however, has never taught English, has that power. He says that a chief reason that the Common Core has rigor is that narrative writing is cast aside in high school and not tested at all on Common Core–aligned tests for high school. He makes fun of narrative thinking and writing by saying that in the work environment no one is going to say to you, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but, before that, I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

David Coleman’s and, therefore, the Common Core’s, definition of narrative is that it is a story, either true or fictional, written to entertain. And entertainment is not consistent with being “college and career ready”. All of the emphasis, therefore, in the Common Core high school English curriculum is on writing arguments in which a thesis is supported with evidence and developed by linear, deductive reasoning. Arguments do not explore multiple ways to look at a question or explain the story of how the writer came to think about a topic or develop an idea.

The Common Core specifies that arguments must be written in an anonymous, impersonal voice devoid of any personal story. David Coleman repeatedly has said that high school students must realize before they get to college or the workplace that: “ No one gives a **** what you think and feel”.

The National Council of Teachers of English has a much broader definition of narrative. The theme of the NCTE annual conference in November 2014 was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing”. There were 642 presentations at the conference, and only 19 of them were about implementing the Common Core with its limited definition of narrative.

Presentations at the NCTE Conference were about narrative as a way of fostering student engagement and motivation, narrative as a way to understand other people’s cultures or environments, narrative as a way to create student voice, narrative as a spur to innovative thinking, narrative as a way to learn any academic discipline, narrative as a form of persuasion, narrative as a way to create personal meaning and new knowledge, narrative as an impetus for social change, narrative as a way to inspire creativity, narrative as the beginning of inquiry, narrative as an expression of imagination, narrative as a reflection on one’s own process of learning, and narrative as the basis of collaboration among those with multiple perspectives.

It is no wonder that NCTE did not endorse the Common Core. The Common Core’s treatment of narrative does not come close to the concept of narrative expressed in hundreds of presentations at the NCTE conference. Those presentations explained narrative as a way of thinking and a way of knowing. Now that is real rigor!

Not only is narrative as a way of thinking and a way of knowing rigorous for high school students, it is precisely the skill needed for our future as a democracy and an economy. In his recent book, Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner of Harvard University points out that our future as a nation depends on our capacity to teach students to have the curiosity and imagination to be innovators. Fostering curiosity and imagination begins with students knowing their own stories and being able to tell them, engaging with a diversity of perspectives offered by the stories of others, seeing the stories implicit in theories and concepts, and envisioning new stories and new possibilities. We can teach students to be innovators, but we can’t do it without narrative thinking.

Human beings are hard-wired for stories. It is how our brains work. We think in stories. We are moved by stories. We create new ideas through stories. We need to unleash that brainpower in our students so that they live empowered lives and contribute to their society in meaningful ways.

Let’s begin here in Connecticut demanding real rigor for our students and not allowing them to settle for the limited education offered by the Common Core.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts Do Not Meet Standards of Real Learning

Some public figures in Connecticut, both elected and appointed, say that the content of the Common Core is rigorous and just the implementation has been the problem. Others who served on the Governor’s Task Force on the Common Core have said that the content of the Common Core does need a little “tweaking” but is basically just fine. However, the highly respected National Council of Teachers of English does not agree with either point of view.

The National Council of Teachers of English was not consulted in the creation of the Common Core Standards although the organization has for more than 100 years been the standard-bearer for excellence in English language arts education in the nation’s elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. NCTE, however, was invited to respond to each draft of the Common Core Standards. In each of its review of the drafts of the Common Core Standards, NCTE took issue with the content of the standards, took issue with the very way that reading and writing is taught with the Common Core Standards. The NCTE review teams cited the reduction of the teaching of narrative thinking and writing in high school, the lack of teaching of metacognitive (learning-how-to-learn) skills, and the lack of collaboration as a way of creating individual meaning as students read and write as serious problems. The review teams pointed out that all the countries with which we compete have standards for those skills. NCTE also took issue with the Common Core Standards because they are not supported by any evidence that those standards will develop students as readers, writers, or thinkers.

The National Council of Teachers of English, after conducting their careful reviews of the Common Core Standards, decided to not endorse the Common Core Standards. You can read the NCTE reviews at http://www.ncte.org/ or contact me for copies. It is remarkable and unfortunate that standards in literacy are being mandated for all the children (kindergarten through grade 12) in the United States without the endorsement of the professional organization representing all the teachers of reading and writing in the country.

The voice of that highly regarded professional organization should be part of the conversation in Connecticut about the quality of the Common Core Standards. It is   reasonable that anyone in that conversation who passes judgment on the Common Core Standards for English language arts should have three qualifications:

1) They have read the 42 standards and fully understand the pedagogy for teaching the discrete and random skills students should know and be able to do in each grade (90 such skills in kindergarten and 190 such skills in 11th grade).

2) They have experience and expertise in teaching English language arts.

3) They have in-depth knowledge of child and adolescent development, including how children and adolescents learn.

The National Council of Teachers of English review teams meet those qualifications. Many others in Connecticut who comment in the public arena about the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts do not. I think it is time of us to bring professional educators, such as those who understand why NCTE did not endorse the Common Core Standards, into the conversation in Connecticut about education so that all of our children have opportunities for real learning as they progress through Connecticut schools.

Here are a few pivotal quotes from the NCTE reviews of the Common Core State Standards to begin that conversation:

1. The literacy environment is one that demands innovation, creativity, and adaptability within an accelerating rate of change. In our classrooms across the nation, the impact of these changes is already apparent. That impact, however, is not apparent in the draft of the Common Core State Standards, which, with a few exceptions, could apply as well to the schools of 1950 as to the schools of this decade and the realities the nation and the world face today. (NCTE Review, July 2009)

 2.  For affluent students whose lives are already privileged, objectives like the ones listed in the Common Core State Standards draft might be taken for granted in their schools. Students who come from more privileged families and communities will meet these goals quickly, and so their curriculum will move beyond the low-level objectives to more sophisticated and enriched learning. For students from marginalized groups, especially ethnic minorities and students from low-income households, however, we anticipate school experience sharply narrowing to focus on only the limited skills enumerated in the document, omitting the literacy practices that motivate, engage, and inspire, as well as those that represent real power in civic life, the workplace, and the academy.  (NCTE Review, July 2009)

3. The standards are articulated as individual, testable actions rather than as authentic performances in college classrooms or workplaces. (NCTE Review, July 2009)

 4.  As drafted, the standards leave out very important dimensions of literacy learning—and if one imagines a teacher adhering tightly to the currently proposed standards, one must imagine a teacher who is prevented from preparing students for the real world. (NCTE Review, July 2009)

 5.  We note that the document presently contains a claim that these standards are evidence-based, but we note that none of the evidence has been drawn from peer-reviewed research journals or similar sources. Rather, the evidence offered at present consists of surveys conducted by the testing companies that stand most immediately to gain from the testing of these standards. This seems to represent a conflict of interest in the development of the standards. (NCTE Review, July 2009)

6. Exclusion of metacognitive strategies is particularly contentious for us, as it is referenced in the introduction to the standards: “The Standards, with their emphasis on observable outcomes, do not enumerate various metacognitive strategies that students may need to use to monitor and direct their thinking and learning” (p. 4). First, the notion that only observable outcomes are worthy of being named in the standards seems spurious. Perhaps current standardized tests are not sensitive enough to measure such outcomes, but teachers have been, in fact, measuring “in-the-head processes” for decades. (NCTE Review, January 2010)

7.  Omission of strategy language represents a grave concern and jeopardizes the viability of these standards to be able to achieve their intended outcome. Additionally, metacognitive strategies such as making connections, seeing relationships between items, questioning and determining importance, as well as demonstrating an awareness of one’s thinking, are all needed for success in the 21st century. Furthermore, a review of the high school standards of the ten nations/regions identified by your organization as exemplars for international benchmarking shows that 70% of these standards (of other countries or regions) make direct reference to metacognitive strategies as being important. (NCTE Review, January 2010)

8.  Without negating the importance of and relative difficulty of other forms of writing, omitting narrative writing as a form for high school students does not represent the rigor that is possible and necessary within these documents.  Again, a search of the benchmark standards demonstrates that 90% of these nations/regions that outperform the United States in student achievement actually do emphasize narrative writing at the high school level…..Narrative writing has had tremendous power and will likely continue to lead to new thinking necessary for humanity to both thrive and survive in the 21st century. Omitting or reducing the role of narrative writing to a technique does not represent (the Common Core) stated goals of being more rigorous, or of being internationally benchmarked, or of trying to ensure that students are well prepared for the 21st century.  (NCTE Review, January 2010)

9. The danger with having so many grammar skills enumerated is that teachers or districts become overly focused on grammar instruction, a practice that research has widely shown to be unhelpful to developing quality writers. (NCTE Review, January 2010)







Real Learning vs. Not-Real Learning

All students deserve real learning. Real learning prepares students for their future. These checklists describe real learning and not-real learning in high school English classes.


Real learning is about students constructing their own knowledge and creating personal meaning by being actively engaged in the language acts of reading, collaborating, and writing.  They are taught to think critically, divergently, and innovatively, to broaden and deepen their individual thinking by being in dialogue with others, and, to express themselves effectively in writing as well as orally. As students develop as readers, writers, and thinkers, they also learn how to learn and are prepared when new situations and problems present themselves. 

 If you check all of the following boxes, the English class is preparing students for their  future.

Students pose and shape their own questions as they interpret literary texts and evaluate ideas the texts offer.

☐ Students create individual meaning and construct new knowledge as they read literary texts.

☐  Students read informational texts in order to analyze and evaluate author’s purpose and rhetorical effectiveness. 

☐ Students participate in and lead whole class discussions with one another and the teacher so they deepen and broaden their initial thinking.

☐ Students cite textual evidence as they read and and as they write.  

☐ Students  examine their personal and cultural assumptions as they read and write.

☐ Students make connections to their own lives and to the larger world as they read and write.

☐ Students create individual meaning and construct new knowledge as they write.

☐ Students write for two different purposes: 1) to form their thinking and 2) to express their thinking to others.

☐ Students write daily either in preparation for class, as part of the class, or in response to ideas discussed in class.

☐ Students write three kinds of essays: 1)arguments with deductive reasoning in which they defend a position, 2)essays with inductive thinking in which they explore a question of their own from multiple perspectives and 3) essays with narrative thinking in which they tell the story of their thinking.

☐ Students participate fully in the writing process, including deciding what to write about and revising their writing in order to express their thinking in increasingly clear ways.

☐ Students develop skills for writing in both a personal voice and an academic voice.

☐ Students write in a variety of genres: memoir, poetry, fiction, and essays.

 ☐ Students conduct research in order to “dialogue” with experts and bring the ideas of those experts into the classroom collaboration.



Not-real learning is based on the premise that there is information to be conveyed by teachers to students and if students acquire that information, they will have what they need to be successful. Students do not make personal meaning or create new knowledge as they read and write. Not-real learning doesn’t recognize that the communities in which students will live and work will be increasingly diverse and contain a multitude of perspectives so students need to learn how to think critically and creatively in the midst of competing ideas and a broad range of possibilities. Students do not explore their own questions or explain how their thinking is growing and changing.  Students do not develop learning how to learn skills needed for new and demanding situations  in our rapidly changing world and economy. The Common Core State Standards mandate not-real learning. 

If you check all of the following boxes, students in this English class need additional learning experiences in order to be prepared for their future.

☐ Students are taught that the meaning is within “the four corners of the pages” of literary texts, and they dig it out with the help of the teacher who is familiar with that meaning. 

 ☐  The teacher asks the students questions for which the teacher already knows the answers.

 ☐  Literature is studied in the same way as informational tests are studied instead of as a means for developing skills in individual interpretation and evaluation of ideas.

☐   Literature is studied for structure and style without regard for historical and cultural context of the text. 

☐ Literature is studied for structure and style without regard for the readers’ personal connections to the ideas in the texts.

 ☐  Students write only essays of argument with deductive reasoning, often on assigned topics.

☐  Students cite textual evidence for only their deductive reasoning as they read and and as they write.

☐  Students conduct research for the purpose of finding information and reporting that information.

☐   Students write all their essays in an impersonal voice.

☐  Students practice writing timed, single draft, unrevised essays.

 ☐ Class time is spent preparing students for standardized tests.


Real learning today to equip students for the future

Arthur Costa, Emeritus Professor of Education at California State University in Sacramento, author of many books and articles about the teaching of thinking, and cofounder of the Institute for Habits of Mind in Westport, CT offers a thoughtful definition of real learning in this four minute video.

He explains that real learning is not about transmitting information from teachers to students but rather about teachers engaging students in learning how to learn. Real learning is about students constructing their own knowledge and creating personal meaning.

With real learning, students can develop the capacity to grow into deep thinking individuals and effective participants in the communities in which they live and work.

This post contains a video. If you cannot see the video click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hu2Aqcyp3qo

Some questions to think about…

How do the current Common Core standards foster or impede students creating individual meaning for themselves?

Also, how does SBAC testing foster or impede students from assessing their own learning?

Share your thoughts below in the comment section.

An Invitation to Connecticut Educators

There is a lot of conversation about public education going on.

Politicians are talking about the Common Core in regard to federal vs. local control. Billionaires with no understanding of child or adolescent development are mandating what education should look like in every grade from kindergarten through high school graduation. Testing companies are dictating that what is taught is limited to what they know how to test. Entrepreneurs are saying that schools should be enterprises from which they make a profit. Journalists are writing about the worth of standards they have never read. State legislators require students to take tests which determine promotions and graduations although no one has any idea if those tests measure what it takes to be successful in higher education or the workplace. The chief writer of the English language arts standards tells teachers exactly how to teach although he has never taught himself and is shockingly unfamiliar with good pedagogy. Proponents of the standards claim that the standards are evidence-based and internationally benchmarked although they are neither.

All in all, the ongoing conversation is dominated by a combination of those who have not read the standards, those who have never taught, and those who have little or no knowledge of child development, including how children and teenagers learn.

The Common Core and the accompanying tests are not receiving the scrutiny they deserve so implementation marches on. As a result, students do not experience the passion for learning, the engagement with ideas, or the substantive content to which they have a right.

It’s time for public school educators to reclaim the conversation so that Connecticut’s students receive the education they need. In Connecticut, we have innumerable educators who are experts in their academic disciplines and practice effective pedagogy. We have many excellent teachers and administrators who mentor inexperienced teachers and administrators. We have renowned educators in both our public K-12 schools and at our universities who are experts in child and adolescent development and who know how to shape instruction that fits that development. We have many accomplished administrators who know how to create collaborative school environments in which both students and teachers grow and learn. We have an untold number of teachers in our public schools who know how to inspire students to be critical thinkers, pose pivotal questions, read thoughtfully, communicate effectively, construct individual meaning by interacting with other thinkers, and gain the skills of learning how to learn. We have educators in Connecticut who prepare our children for the future instead of equipping them for the past as Common Core does.

If we educators start talking about what we know, perhaps the public, the politicians, and the journalists will listen and give the Common Core and the accompanying testing the scrutiny they warrant. Our conversation, however, will not deter corporate “reformers” and test makers because their interest is in making a profit off our children, not in the quality of their education.

This blog provides a space for educators to talk to one another and to the public about what real learning is and how excellence can be provided for all Connecticut students. If we educators share with one another what we know from our teaching, from our research, and from what we have learned from our students, there will be no stopping us, no stopping what we can do for Connecticut’s students.

Let’s aim big. Let’s make real learning available to all Connecticut’s students. Let’s join with other educators across the nation as two University of Arkansas professors of education, Jason L. Endacott and Christian Z. Goering (read here), rally us together with this summons:

Let’s take back the story on education by any nonviolent means necessary… Just when it seems that all of the money and all the of the influence is stacked up against us, we can absolutely recapture our schools for the sake of our children. Stand together and say it: Our children aren’t products, aren’t numbers, and aren’t for sale.

Let’s start talking on this blog. Let’s explore key questions and highlight current issues. I invite you to offer your own posts – posts you write yourself or articles, photos, or videos you find provocative. I urge you to take the surveys and comment on the postings. I especially ask you to submit descriptions of a moment or activity or unit of study from your classroom that demonstrates real learning.

We will then do more than reclaim the conversation about education. We will shape that conversation. We will elevate that conversation. We will focus that conversation. At last, the conversation will be about what we know best and what students need most: real learning.

Here are some conversation starters for you:

What is real learning?
How can all of Connecticut’s students have real learning opportunities?
What is the content or the substance of the Common Core standards?
How are the Common Core standards related or not related to real learning?
What do we know from research and from our experience as teachers about the cognitive development of children and adolescents?
How do we engage students as learners and thinkers?
How can we, as the state with the largest achievement gap, close that gap?
How can we, as a state, promote equity?
Do the SBAC tests measure real learning?
How do we best prepare students for their future?
What do you think? Let the conversation begin…