The Biloxi, Mississippi Board of Education voted to remove To Kill A Mockingbird from their school district curriculum. The vice chair of the Biloxi Board of Education said they made that decision because reading the book made people uncomfortable and other books can give students the same message of empathy as To Kill A Mockingbird does.


 Teaching literature is not about making students comfortable.

The wonder of great literature is that it often does make us uncomfortable, and, from that uncomfortableness, we learn and grow. Great literature is not a pacifier but rather a stimulus for thinking and rethinking and rethinking.

Let’s hope that taking the book out of the curriculum will motivate the students to read it on their own. There’s nothing like banning a book to make it popular.

It is unfortunate, though, that those 8th graders will not have the benefit of discussing the intriguing ideas and questions that the book suggests with others in their class who have also read it. And those who banned To Kill A Mockingbird had better start checking out Shakespeare because there is a more in his plays than in To Kill A Mockingbird to make people uncomfortable, such as teenagers deceiving their parents, all kinds of sexual misconduct, cheating, lying, murdering family members, committing suicide, plotting treason, and being a racial bigot.  


Teaching literature is not about preaching messages of good behavior.

Students have homes and churches and synagogues and mosques where they can receive lessons about how to live their lives. Reading literature is not for the purpose of giving students moral lessons.

Instead, we teach literature because reading literature gives students strategies for critical and creative thinking that no other kind of reading offers them, because literature brings up the pivotal questions of the human experience, and because literature shows students the power and beauty of language. Reading literature is not like reading for information; the intention of the writer doesn’t matter. Literature is not about giving easy answers but about raising provocative questions for readers to explore. As they read literature, students learn to interpret actions and to evaluate ideas from a broad range of perspectives. Students create their own meaning as they interact with a literary text. They also recognize the precision of a word and the magnificence of a sentence as they meet the minds of the writers.

       What then about this book banning? 

I once read that The American Library Association surveyed high school graduates about the book they found the most meaningful in their high school years. The winner: To Kill A Mockingbird. As a teacher and English curriculum leader of many years, I believe it.

So it is sad that the students of Biloxi, Mississippi will not be allowed to read To Kill a Mockingbird. What is even sadder is that their education is in the hands of people who have no clue as to why we read literature. Shame on the Board of Education for making the decision.  Shame on the school administration if they don’t fight the decision. Shame on the community if it doesn’t rise up and demand better for its children.


Teachers’ Opposition To Common Core Increases

It takes a lot to oppose the Common Core State Standards when they are said to offer:

  • reform!
  • rigor!
  • high academic standards approved by states and consistent with other nations!
  • a guarantee to close the achievement gap!
  • college and career readiness!

What red-blooded American could say NO to this promise? You might think none.

But 60% of American teachers and 51% of the American public do say no. This opposition has increased in the past two years. In 2013, just 24% of American teachers were opposed to the Common Core, and 35% of American citizens were opposed.  The increase in opposition is remarkable, given the tremendous amount  of money that has been spent to promote the Common Core. The increase of 36% in teacher opposition is particularly noteworthy because teachers  have come to know Common Core the best.

In the past two years, teachers have become familiar with the Common Core standards and implemented them in their classrooms. After almost 30 years of working with urban and suburban teachers, beginning and veteran teachers, brilliant stars of teachers and struggling teachers, I know for sure the one thing that teachers have in common is that if something helps kids to learn and to achieve, teachers are for it.  Teachers will learn new skills, change their ways, look at things differently IF their students learn better and achieve more.  Common Core has not offered that incentive  to teachers.

Plus teachers and parents probably have found out that reform!, rigor!, national and international acclaim!, closing the achievement gap!, and college and career readiness! are empty words. They are focus group tested words, chosen to “sell” the Common Core.

The promise of reform is an empty one. For example, 500 professionals in the field of early childhood education, including the most respected experts in the country, have written a public statement, claiming that the Common Core Standards are harmful to young children and should not be taught.  Changes that cause harm are not reform.

The most highlighted “new” Common Core practice for the teaching of English, labeled one of the six major “shifts”  of Common Core is using text evidence as students read and as they write. The problem with labeling it a “shift” and heralding it as brand new is that it has been the fundamental practice in English classes since I was in school and has been the daily practice in the many hundreds of English classes I have observed since 1985. Introducing something as new and different when it is already accepted practice by everyone in the field is not reform.

In addition, at the 2015 annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, there were 642 presentations. Of those 642 presentations, only 19 of them were about implementing the Common Core, and even those were largely about how to circumvent or add better teaching to that mandated implementation. The remaining 623 presentations were about authentic teaching and learning that scholarly research and/or teaching experience show is best practice. Advocating something not respected by experts in the academic discipline is not reform; it is just a plan of action recommended by people without the requisite knowledge. It was employees of testing companies, individuals without knowledge of teaching and learning, who wrote the Common Core; no English educators and no early childhood professionals were involved in writing those standards. Because people who are not educators call what they put together an educational reform does not make it so.

The standards are not rigorous. The tests to assess the attainment of those standards are “gotcha” enterprises with plenty of students receiving low scores, but that is because the tests are designed to fail 60-70% of the students who take them. Anyone who has taught knows that it’s easy to create a test to fail most students. Those failures don’t mean that the test challenges the students to reason clearly, to raise pivotal questions, to collaborate in order to problem solve or create new thinking, or to communicate effectively orally or in writing. That would be rigor. But that would require a totally different pedagogy than the pedagogy the Common Core mandates.

The states never approved of what we now call the Common Core Standards; appointed state officials simply agreed to the abstract concept of standards. In 2009, states signed on to that concept before any standards were written in order to avoid financial sanctions from the federal government for not having the 100% proficiency specified by NCLB. No state officials ever reviewed the actual standards and decided they were good learning. Similarly, the Common Core Standards are not aligned with international standards. The writers of Common Core reviewed standards of other nations but did not match Common Core to them. For example, other nations have standards for the vital 21st century skill of collaboration, but Common Core does not.

No standards can close the achievement gap, especially when that gap is measured by scores on standardized tests. All standardized test scores are correlated with family income, not with how much or how little the standards are taught. For example, the school districts that adhere most assiduously to the teaching of the Common Core Standards are the impoverished, urban districts, and the schools in those districts have the lowest standardized test scores. Also, if standards could positively affect achievement, then all students who were taught them- those now proficient and those now failing- would improve, and the gap would remain the same.

Lastly, the Common Core Standards are untested for college and career readiness. No one has any idea if a high score on the tests aligned to the Common Core is a predictor of success in college or careers. It’s anybody’s guess. Even the Executive Director of SBAC has said that the Common Core aligned tests have a “huge validity problem” because they were never field-tested. It is unconscionable that we as a state mandate that all children and adolescents learn in prescribed ways that we don’t have any evidence are good for them. What we do know is that key skills for the future (questioning, collaboration, oral communication, and creativity) are not tested on the Common Core aligned tests so it is unlikely that the standards and the tests that measure them do make our students”college and career ready”.

Teachers, who are under pressure of job security to teach to the Common Core, often find it prudent to be compliant, yet they, in increasing numbers, are expressing their opposition to the Common Core. They seem to be looking closely at what reform, rigor, nationally agreed-upon standards, and international benchmarking, closing the achievement gap, and college and career readiness really mean. That critique is good news for the future of education. It is good news for the future of the country.

If those voices of opposition continue to increase, what will we do? What can move education forward in effective and healthy ways?  In 2009, maybe it seemed efficient to turn education over to non-educators who had money and political clout. But, as H.L. Mencken said:  ” For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, ………….    and wrong.

The right way to improve education is to ask educators to design standards and to make the decisions about how to teach students to learn. We will get it right.  We know when reform is needed and when it is not. We know what reform really looks like. We know what rigor is and how to motivate and engage our students in learning that is truly rigorous. We know how to address and minimize the achievement gap. We know how to prepare students for their future. Give us a chance and watch what happens.

Brain Surgery and the Common Core

What if the manual with step-by-step procedures for performing brain surgery that is mandated medical practice in all hospitals in the United States was not written by any brain surgeons? Instead,  all of the individuals writing the manual were employees of companies who made post-surgical supplies.

What if the manual was written in secret with no records of the meetings, and no doctor was allowed to know who was at the meetings and who wrote the manual?

What if there was no field-testing of the procedures to see if following them accomplished successful brain surgery?

What if the people who wrote the step-by-step procedures were people who would profit from their post-surgical materials being used?

What if those people knew nothing about brain surgery but only about how their post-surgical products were used?

What if the leader of the manual-writing group was not only not a brain surgeon but also was someone who had his own heartfelt feelings about how he thought brain surgery should go and was able to impose his own heartfelt, but uninformed, feelings on others so that the procedures for brain surgery were based just on his feelings?

What if regardless of how the surgeries turned out or how much the brain surgeons said the procedures were ineffective, there was no way that the step-by-step procedures could be changed, no way to revise or modify the procedures?

Wouldn’t you object?

I would.

For the same reasons, I object to the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. They came to be in exactly the same way.

Not one elementary school reading or language arts teacher was involved in writing the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. . Not one middle or high school English teacher was involved. Not one college professor of literature, composition, or rhetoric was involved. The people who wrote the standards were employees of standardized testing companies.

The meetings were held in secret with no minutes kept. For a long time, they would not release the names of those who were writing the standards, but eventually pressure from journalists caused the release of the names.

There has been absolutely no field testing of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts. There was no study conducted to see if meeting the standards in grades k-12 led to good grades in college and future employment. It is anybody’s guess if doing well and meeting the 42 K-12 Common Core English Language Arts Standards will make for success in college or lead to a job.

Since the writers of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards were standardized test makers, the standards consist only of what can be measured by standardized tests. That is a very limited definition of learning and falls way short of the competencies students need for their future.

And, needless to say, testing companies are the big winners in this misbegotten approach to education. They are making huge profits from the manufacture of the national standardized tests and from the publishing of test prep materials that schools are compelled to buy.

The person called the “chief architect” of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards is David Coleman who has zero teaching experience, however, has very strong feelings about how reading and writing should be taught. He successfully imposed those feelings on the group of writers.

David Coleman likes non-fiction better than literature so the amount of literature to be read in K-12 schools throughout the country is restricted. David Coleman likes an approach to teaching literature that was popular in the 1940’s and then discredited so that is the approach mandated by  the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. The approach called New Criticism has been discredited because it does not allow discussion of the historical or cultural context in which a text was written and prohibits individual reader interpretations of a text. David Coleman is famous for saying that students have to learn that “no one gives a **** what they think and feel” so all Common Core essays must be formal arguments devoid of personal connections and written in an anonymous, impersonal voice. Major research in the field of English since the 1970’s contradicts all of David Coleman’s heartfelt feelings, but those heartfelt feelings govern the Common Core English Language Arts Standards.

Finally, the group who wrote the Common Core English Language Arts Standards has disbanded. There is no agency or person who has authority over the content of the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. There is no way to revise them. There is no way to see how they work with students and then make changes. The Common Core English Language Arts Standards are engraved in stone.

Let’s leave the brain surgery to the brain surgeons and the teaching of English language arts to the educators.

Reject the Common Core. Those standards will not teach students to be thoughtful readers, effective writers, or critical and deep thinkers.

The writers of the Common Core for English Language Arts simply didn’t know any better.

We educators, we teachers of English language arts, can definitely do better.

Speaking Truth to Power

I contributed to the Connecticut conversation about standardized testing by speaking before the Education Committee of the General Assembly on March 19, 2015 because I think that legislators, like many citizens, believe the media spin about the Common Core and SBAC testing.

For example, they could believe that the Common Core standards are rigorous since that is how the standards have been marketed and believe that the SBAC tests are also rigorous since so many students fail them. In reality, the low pass rate is a pre-determined decision, and the standards are mundane.  Many of us, if we wanted to, could create tests in such a way that very few of our students could pass. But why would we want to?   Why does Connecticut want to?  The SBAC tests are not intellectually challenging; they are just very effective “gotcha’s”.

The truth is that SBAC tests measure the wrong things because they are based on the wrong standards.  They do not promote student learning and do not equip students for their future.

I tried to explain the harm in SBAC tests to the legislators by summarizing my opposition to SBAC (explained more fully in my prior post) and recommending a call to action.  I waited more than three hours for my turn to speak and spoke for the allotted three minutes.  And what did it change?  Exactly nothing – at least not at that time in that place.

However, I wholeheartedly believe that educators should keep speaking out, and someday we will make a difference. Tuesday’s rally in Hartford against SBAC testing was a hopeful sign. It would be great if the teachers unions become champions of real learning and authentic, curriculum-based assessments and keep their focus on speaking out against the damaging SBAC tests and the inadequate standards to which they are aligned.

Connecticut educators have the experience and the expertise to know the truth about what real learning is and what good assessments are. Educators must keep telling that truth to those in power.

Here are my remarks to the Education Committee::

Testimony of Ann Policelli Cronin

Before the Education Committee of The Connecticut General Assembly

Re: S.B. 1095 An Act Concerning Students Assessments 

Good afternoon Chairman Fleischmann and Chairwoman Slossberg and Members of the Education Committee. My name is Ann Policelli Cronin. I have been a designer of nationally award–winning English curricula and a supervisor of English teachers in Connecticut for 22 years.

I am here to tell you that that the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and the SBAC test for high school English lack rigor and will not make students “college and career ready”. If Connecticut continues with SBAC testing, all of Connecticut’s high school students will be harmed, and it will be impossible to solve Connecticut’s greatest educational problem: closing the achievement gap.

All students are harmed because the SBAC English test doesn’t measure what it means to read thoughtfully and write effectively. Not one English teacher, not one college English professor, and not one professional with expertise in adolescent cognitive development worked on the committee that wrote the standards on which the SBAC test is based. Instead the standards were written by test makers who decided what was good for students to learn was only what they could measure on a standardized test. That is not literacy.

The SBAC test hasn’t been field-tested and even the executive director of SBAC, Joseph Willholt, has said that, without field-testing, the test lacks validity. No one knows if a good score means a student will succeed in college, and no one knows if a poor score means a student will struggle in college. SBAC also doesn’t assess any of the key skills for the global workplace: questioning, collaborating, effective communication, and metacognitive (learning-to-learn) skills.

Students in schools with histories of low test scores will be hurt the most because, in an effort to raise test scores, much instructional time is spent on test prep. So the very students who need experiences of reading, writing, and collaborating the most will be denied them. The gap between these students and their more affluent peers in schools with traditionally high test scores and, therefore, less test prep time will widen. The rich will get richer as readers and writers, and the poor will get poorer without those literacy skills.

Also with the passing rate set at 40%, many labeled as failing will be students from poverty because scores of standardized tests always correlate with family income. How long will a student be motivated to learn and how long will that student stay in school if he or she fails the test each year? Not only are impoverished students receiving an inferior education, but also their dropout rate will increase.

So what is the solution?

I have three recommendations:

  1. Don’t spend money on SBAC. If we want to assess how we are doing as a state with standardized measures, use, without cost, NAEP, the most respected of standardized tests.
  1. Truly “level the playing field” not by testing and punishing students but by addressing the learning needs of those disadvantaged by poverty and racism.
  1. Empower Connecticut educators to design assessments to measure what students need both for their future in the global workplace and for developing their potential as learners and thinkers.

What we need to standardize in Connecticut is what we as educators, citizens, and legislators do to create opportunities for real learning for ALL Connecticut’s students. The first step is to stop inadequate and damaging SBAC testing.

Say No to SBAC

Connecticut currently mandates the testing of public school students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 11 with standardized tests produced by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC). I am opposed to SBAC testing for English language arts because those tests neither measure authentic achievement nor foster students’ growth as readers, writers, and thinkers. Here are 10 reasons to STOP the harmful SBAC testing.

  1. SBAC tests are not rigorous.

The tests do not demand complex thinking. The tests are aligned to the Common Core standards, and the content of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts is inferior content which does not serve to develop students as motivated, engaged readers and effective writers.

  1. SBAC tests are not field-tested for college and career readiness.

No one knows if a good score indicates that a student will be successful in college or careers or if a poor score indicates that a student will struggle in college or careers. According to Joseph Willholt, executive director of SBAC, there is a “large validity question “ about the tests in regard to college readiness.

The SBAC tests do not measure the skills students will need for the global workforce. Those needed skills are: to pose and shape critical questions, to collaborate with others of different cultures and points of view, to communicate effectively orally and in writing, and to use meta-cognitive skills (learning how to learn skills) when facing new problems. Other countries with which we compare ourselves measure those skills because they have standards for them, but we have neither the standards to teach those skills nor the SBAC tests to measure them.

  1. SBAC tests are not developmentally appropriate.

The Common Core English Language Arts Common Standards were not written by educators or those with knowledge of child and adolescent development. They were written by employees of testing companies. The content of the standards and of the SBAC tests is simply what test makers determined could be measured on standardized tests, not what is appropriate for students to learn or what fosters student growth as readers, writers, and thinkers. The National Council of Teachers of English did not endorse the Common Core because of the content of those standards,  the content SBAC tests measure.

  1. SBAC tests are capriciously graded.

The passing grade on the tests is arbitrarily set. On the high school SBAC tests, the passing grade is set such that 70% of students will be labeled as failing the math portion and 60% labeled as failing the English portion. The passing grade on SBAC has been set at what the highly respected National Assessment of Educational Progress considers a B+/ A- performance. SBAC labels all those who score a B or lower as failures.

  1. SBAC tests serve to widen the achievement gap.

The more time students spend preparing for SBAC tests, the less education they will have in authentic literacy learning. Time spent in test prep for SBAC robs students of reading, writing, and collaborating experiences which develop literacy skills. Schools with a history of low test scores spend concentrated time on test prep; schools with traditionally high test scores do not spend time on test prep. Therefore, the gap between those graduates with genuine skills in reading, writing, and collaborating will widen with students of privilege receiving a notably better education than students in schools with historically low test scores.

  1. SBAC tests discriminate against Connecticut’s neediest students.

Since all standardized test scores correlate with family income, many children of poverty will fail. How long will students be motivated to learn and how long will they stay in school if they fail tests in 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade? Not only are impoverished students receiving a poor education with Common Core but their dropout rate will also increase.

  1. SBAC tests narrow the curriculum.

Preparing students for  SBAC tests requires a high school English curriculum that strictly adheres  to the Common Core. That adherence severely limits  what students read, what thinking skills they learn as readers, what students write, and what kind of thinking skills they learn as writers.

Common Core limits the amount of literature read and totally eliminates teaching students the skills of questioning, making text connections to themselves and their world, and analyzing multiple and divergent interpretations  that reading literature offers. None of those skills are assessed on the SBAC test so are not part of the test prep curriculum many schools have adopted.

Similarly, that test prep curriculum  does not develop students as writers and thinkers. High school students are tested only on how they write formulaic arguments, graded either by computers or hourly employees hired through Craig’s List  and not required to have knowledge about the craft of writing.   Therefore, students do not have a curriculum rich in writing experiences  which develop their inductive, explorative,  and narrative thinking – all keys to success in higher education and the workplace.

  1. SBAC tests encourage poor pedagogy.

Because of the high stakes of the SBAC tests, English teachers, especially in schools with a history of low standardized test scores,, prepare students for the test by adhering to the pedagogy prescribed by the Common Core. It, however, is a flawed and discredited pedagogy prevalent in the 1940’s and 50’s and does nor prepare students to think complexly. Not only does that pedagogy severely restrict students’ development as readers and writers, it discourages many of them from even wanting to become readers and writers.

  1. SBAC tests will not “level the playing field”.

Connecticut is already doing well with literacy education.

Connecticut ranks higher than 62 nations in the reading performance of 15 year olds (according to the 2012 PISA- Program of International Student Assessment) and ranks highest in the country in reading performance of high school seniors (according to NAEP, the nation’s most authoritative measure of academic performance in reading and math). If standardized tests are thought to give us useful information, we already have that information.

We know that affluent areas of Connecticut provide an unparalleled education for their students, and we know that where students are impacted by poverty and racism, those students suffer. To level the playing filed, we need to provide for impoverished students what their more privileged peers have been given and standardize opportunities for learning for all students.

  1. SBAC tests teach the wrong values.

The tests teach children that competition, beating out other schools and other students, is what matters instead of the student’s own learning, the student’s own passion for ideas, the student’s own growth as a thinker, a reader, and a writer.

Connecticut educators can design assessments which measure the achievements students really need for their future. I have done considerable work with teachers in both affluent and impoverished districts to design assessments that measure critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, and oral and written communication for students of all abilities. Student achievement always exceeds original expectations when teachers are invited to do this work.

We CAN improve achievement in Connecticut for ALL of our students but not with SBAC tests.

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.