January 3, 2013

Common Core's Damaging Writing Standards

The Common Core has many flaws, but its writing standards stand out as an intellectual impossibility for average middle grade students. Their architects didn't link them to appropriate reading benchmarks.

Last November I saw the results of NYC teachers' attempts to address these writing standards.  Their students had clearly tried to figure out how to make a "claim" and show "evidence" for it.  But the students' problems were not a reflection of their teachers' skills; rather, their problems could be traced to the standards themselves.

Take, for example, Common Core's first writing standard for grades 6, 7, and 8: "Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence." Adults have a much better idea of what "claims" are, what "relevant evidence" is, and even what an academic "argument" is.  But most children have a limited understanding of this meta-language for the structure of a composition.

So I explored Common Core's standards for reading informational texts in grades 3-8 and found NOTHING on identifying arguments or claims, or on distinguishing relevant from irrelevant evidence.  No wonder NYC teachers are spending an enormous amount of time creating or using worksheets to structure students' writing, and NYC students are spending an enormous amount of time filling these worksheets in.

These teachers apparently knew nothing about the value of prose models, once a well-known concept in writing. One teacher admitted spending a lot of time trying to help her students come up first with a topic sentence (not mentioned in Common Core's reading or writing standards).  But even a topic sentence doesn't come easy to middle school students who've never identified one in their reading.  

Two other teachers had first assigned some short stories before asking their students to come up with a "thesis" or a "claim" and produce "evidence" for it.  Needless to say, their writing didn't show a "claim."  Not surprising.  The only prose models the kids had been given were short stories. 

Another teacher acknowledged the lack of visible "claims" in her students' writing.  She was pleased they were learning to cite page numbers for the location of their "evidence," even though their "thesis" or "claim" had to be "inferred."

Years ago, it was common practice for English teachers to introduce students to the art of the essay in grade 9.  Now students in grade 6 are to attempt an essay with a thesis or a claim.  One teacher saw this as a healthy "challenge" for her weak students. Others might see this challenge as a utopian expectation, with teachers the ultimate scapegoat. 

It's time for the standards that the National Governors Association and the Council for Chief School State Officers have copyrighted to be drastically revised. The problem here is: Who will make the revisions?    

Comments (1)


aye...this article gives me a headache. What exactly is the support for the claim that middle school kids can't learn essay structure? I did when I was at that level. I read a lot of ridiculous conjecture, ie: "Adults have a much better idea of what "claims" are, what "relevant evidence" is, and even what an academic "argument" is. But most children have a limited understanding of this meta-language for the structure of a composition." Oh yeah? Says who? Is the article author a developmental psychologist or speech langauge pathologist? Where is the developmnetal language evidence for this claim? I knew what evidence and argument was in early middle school.

Kids should be in full stride with essay writing in ninth grade. It's ludicrous to suggest that teaching essay strucutre in ninth grade is appropriate. If the article author's contention is that kids can't find a topic sentences in middle school, then I would offer that is their third or fourth grade teachers failure for not teaching such reading comprehension skills when they were supposed to be taught.

This article is, ironiclaly, baseless and amounts to a suggestion to dumb down the curriculum. This is not the direction in which we should be heading. Furthermore, the author's conclusion that it is the curriculum to blame is premature, when it should be considered at all, and failed teaching methodology in earlier years should first be addressed if middle school students can't pick out a topic sentence. Unbelievable.

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