California is like the rest of the country…only sooner


A few weeks ago, a post about an exemplar lesson from Common Core led to my writing a series of posts on the standards. This led to a whole series of posts about how the exemplars suck, with the only variation being on whether this was endemic to the standards, or that it was just a poor example–but the standards themselves are still A-OK.  Tom Hoffman at Tuttle-SVC blog has the play-by-play, and still remains an outstanding source for Common Core hilarity. He has a nice statement at the end:

I wouldn’t go that far, but yes, the example sucks, and Common Core advocates are going to have to consider whether David Coleman is doing their movement more harm than good, and if defending his slipshod work is worth their time.

The question at the end of the day is can these standards work? One of the things that has been noted about the standards is that they are about skills, and not content. The problem is that they purport to be standards for “English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects” so they are covering subject matter areas, but they do not include facts to be covered (students will know and recognize all 50 states), or even the “big ideas” we want students to understand (the Declaration and Constitution are built on the idea of inalienable rights). This will all be covered, presumably, in the content area standards, but it reminded me of some of what I’ve already dealt with in working with a language arts curriculum that has tried to cover Social Studies and Science content areas. It points to the pitfalls that could come up with Common Core implementation.

Tom Hoffman’s comment on my previous post, noted that when he did initial comparisons, California ELA standards were the most similar he found to Common Core. The standards are skills oriented on reading, focusing on comprehension, main idea, and working up to inference, etc. The standards have been around since before I started teaching (over a decade). We’ve also had scripted curriculum (one of the complaints about the exemplar that started all this writing was that it was “too scripted”), so I think there are some lessons that we can learn from how this has “worked”, hence the title of my post.

The scripted curriculum that I work with, Open Court 2002, leaves little time for other subjects if you follow the original pacing guides we were given. It does include a lot of expository (informational) text, since that’s been a focus for upper grade reading in California since well before Common Core. It was, and is, not uncommon for teachers to skip teaching social studies and/or science altogether.  This meant that the only science and social studies students learned was via the “unit themes” (e.g., for 5th grade they have a unit on Astronomy, Making a New Nation, and Going West). I began to realize this would not work, because the ELA text is not concerned with them getting the big, sweeping ideas, but are instead focused on developing specific reading skills (Main Idea, Inference, etc.). The readings are in chronological order, but really, it’s piecemeal, like painting a room by polka dots. You might get there eventually, but if you can only hit it with 7 dots (selections/stories), chances are there will be lot of uncovered areas.

This really became apparent when I started using Understanding by Design (UbD) to do my unit planning. You can get a whiff of it with this plan I did for an Astronomy Unit. Look up at the top where I have the goals — those are the standards covered. I have a couple content standards, and an ELA one on Main Idea, but the main idea of what? If I did not have the content standards, then all I have left is skills lessons. Without content, it’s just a bunch of  unconnected main ideas and inferences, but leading to what? Until I started teaching social studies (even with a pretty lousy text) and science, there were no “big ideas”, just a lot of random mushiness. In the unit I’m showing there, students would have one selection on Galileo’s observation of Jovian moons and how this led to his writing about a heliocentric solar system to learn one of the big science standards. It kills teaching the big ideas of science and social studies, and reduces them to h’ors d’oevres to be chewed up for tidbits of ideas rather than bigger thinking.

Let’s go back to the exemplar lesson on Gettysburg.  It goes along with this eighth grade content standard for Social Science in California:

8.10 Students analyze the multiple causes, key events, and complex consequences of the Civil War.

4. Discuss Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and his significant writings and speeches and
their relationship to the Declaration of Independence, such as his “House Divided”
speech (1858), Gettysburg Address (1863), Emancipation Proclamation (1863), and
inaugural addresses (1861 and 1865).

I’m not going to go through point by point, because others have talked about the lesson’s focus on factoids from the text, lack of connection to other documents, and complete divorce from the historical context. Students are expected to read a number of different texts and make a number of connections to meet this standard. In the exemplar, there are no connections, just the text. It’s like a lesson written by a fundamentalist who fears the student will get off-track if they think about what those words mean too much.

What lessons can be learned, what dangers lurk, what should be avoided?

  • Material covering content subjects that is thrown in to meet ELA standards, but does a poor job of covering content standards, especially the higher order thinking and big ideas;
  • Curriculum that is ONLY aligned to the assessment and core standards, as they will be too narrow, and not cover the content;
  • Folks giving very prescriptive directives about instructional methods that go beyond the standards themselves;
  • Curriculum and lessons that are scripted or heavily outlined;
  • “Curriculum” and lessons that we are told to create on our own — tomorrow–and no resources are provided (like text, books, etc.);
  • Curriculum that we are told not to adjust, change, or modify to fit the needs of your class, content standards, etc.

Now is the time to speak (although I missed the first meeting in my area), as there will be meetings held statewide on the new statewide pupil assessment system. Here is what came to my in-box:

Members of the public have the opportunity to provide input regarding the reauthorization of California’s statewide pupil assessment system. Meetings are scheduled around the state in six different locations during the months of April and May 2012. Members of the public are welcome to provide comments during the meeting. Information gathered by members of the public, at each meeting, will be considered to inform the reauthorization of the statewide assessment system project.

Public meetings are planned for the following dates and locations:

2 Comments to

“California is like the rest of the country…only sooner”

  1. April 5th, 2012 at 8:41 am      Reply Joe Says:


    As someone who worls in a district that is fairly happy with CCSS, i always appreciate your differing perspective. However, I’m curious. what would you pose as solutions? Keep in mind, we’re using CCSS as an opportunity to rethink our work.


  2. April 5th, 2012 at 2:07 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

    I think they need to require that both a content standard, AND the ELA Literacy/Reading standards are addressed in a unit/lesson if it’s a lesson using informational text. There is no sense in having them read these primary documents if they are just pulling out facts and main ideas, they need to see how they fit into the historical context. etc. otherwise they are worse than our current standards.

    Joe, it’s not that I think CCSS is awful, I’m worried that it’ll end up being the same old, well you know. I’m saying these are the mistakes we are currently making with content area instruction in ELA, and we need to not replicate it with CCSS. All those warnings about what to look out for could apply to current curriculum.

    But, as Stephen Lazear says,
    “Finally, comparing these standards to your current ones and deciding they are better doesn’t say much at all. These are supposed to be world-class standards, and they aren’t. They aren’t close. It is ok to compare ourselves to the best here. We’re paying enough for this crap to get it right, for real, but somehow that possibility is not even on the table anymore.”


  1. Five Questions for Common Core | InService Blog

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