Common Core as Tactical Advantage

Mark Bauerlein

Jane Robbins’s critique of Common Core is compelling but partial, for it overlooks certain elements of the English Language Arts (ELA) standards. Robbins refers to the report Sandra Stotsky and I wrote on Common Core, which highlights several deficiencies in the document, but our report also notes some of the literary-historical strengths of Common Core, and the recommendations at the end include the strategic use of Common Core to support the traditional English classroom.1 I’d like to emphasize those opportunities here. The elements of which I speak are few, to be sure, and they are overshadowed by what Robbins terms “utilitarian” elements in the document, many of which are handily steered toward leftist and multiculturalist ends. Furthermore, Robbins rightly objects that “other than a bit of Shakespeare, the standards completely dispense with British literature” (as a requirement).

But she goes too far in attesting that “the vague notion of critical thinking seems to replace the requirement that students accumulate real knowledge of the subject matter.” For, in two of the reading strands appear standards that do mandate literary-historical knowledge, and numerous other statements in Common Core contain language that reflects conservative, core approaches to our cultural inheritance.

In the “Reading: Literature” section for grades 9–10, two standards imply lengthy instruction in literary fields:

RL.9-10.6 Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).2

The first one doesn’t mention any titles, but it does require “wide reading of world literature.” To address this standard, an English teacher must do more than assign, for instance, a few contemporary novels by African authors. Other statements in Common Core about “text complexity” and college readiness make clear that “wide reading” signifies a deeper, more coherent treatment of a substantial body of literary works. The focus on “a particular point of view or cultural experience” and but one “work of literature” doesn’t discount other, related works. On the contrary, students determine what that experience is by reading several works that share the same historical context. This is the point of the tag line “drawing on…” According to this standard, every Common Core-aligned curriculum in ninth and tenth grade must have lengthy modules (five weeks or longer) that cluster numerous works with a common background. Those units should comprise a coherent topic and corpus, such as “The French Short Story (Maupassant, Hugo, Daudet, etc.), “The Iliad and The Odyssey,” “Magical Realism (Borges, Marquez…),” and the like.

The second standard, too, doesn’t mandate any specific works, but it does highlight Ovid, the Bible, and Shakespeare as exemplary assignments. (Ovid, Shakespeare, and other canonical authors also appear in a section titled “Texts Illustrating the Complexity, Quality, & Range of Student Reading 6–12,” though those texts are not required, only suggested.) The necessity of “source material” raises at least one element in the standard to “core” status. Only a work that has served as a source for other works qualifies, and teachers who eschew canonical literature will have to stretch the standard awfully far to make that source a contemporary or pop culture one.

As we move to grades 11–12, the mandate deepens. Two standards require Shakespeare:

RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)3

In the first one, the mention of “beautiful” itself reinforces traditional notions of literary study. When leftist and some Progressive educators first saw it, we may imagine, they wondered why a spurious mystification that merely disguises class distinctions should have ended up in an ELA standard. Its presence means that any lesson plan aimed at meeting this standard must contain readings that pass a beauty test. According to the parenthesis at the end, too, it must include Shakespeare, which raises the level of beauty necessary for inclusion.

The second standard likewise requires Shakespeare plus another American play. In asking students to study “multiple interpretations” of the “source text,” the standard ensures firm reading knowledge of the original. Yes, it emphasizes one act of critical thinking, the comparison of many versions of one thing, but as with the source standard above, it also thereby foregrounds the understanding of that one thing as well.

When we move two standards further in Common Core, we find the firmest and broadest literary-historical mandate in the entire document.

RL.11-12.9 Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.4

In requiring students to show knowledge of two centuries of American literature, Common Core retains the very literary patrimony that humanities educators have criticized and undermined for the last forty years. It strikes against the call for more contemporary and “relevant” readings, and, in regarding certain works as “foundational,” it flatly contradicts a cardinal premise of literary studies from the 1970s onward, namely, “anti-foundationalism” (most closely associated with Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish). Anti-foundationalism maintains the provisional historical character of all texts, asserting that one work stands as canonical, “great,” or foundational only because it has been constructed that way by professional and amateur readers at a particular time and for social or political reasons (they don’t offer this premise cynically, but as a matter of fact). As time goes by and readers change, so do the foundations, which is to say that they are not really foundations, but only temporary constructions.

With this standard, Common Core states otherwise. It doesn’t qualify the standard with hedges about how foundations shift and about how one teacher’s foundational works are another’s dusty throwbacks. Instead, it reiterates the foundationalist outlook again and again. A reading standard in the “Informational Text” strand for grades 9–10 asks students to “Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’).”5 Another one for grades 11–12 does the same: “Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address).”6

A section on Common Core’s ELA web page entitled “Myths vs. Facts” states, “The standards require certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare.”7 Another section entitled “Key Points in English Language Arts” echoes the point: “The standards mandate certain critical types of content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare.”8 A version of the ELA standards dated June 2, 2010, has a “Note on range and content of student reading” that insists that, along with “high-quality contemporary works,” reading assignments should “be chosen from among seminal U.S. documents, the classics of American literature, and the timeless dramas of Shakespeare.”9

The language of “classic,” “seminal,” “foundational,” and “timeless” runs against principles of post-structuralism, postmodernism, social constructionism, political criticism, and cultural studies that have licensed the breakdown of the traditional English curriculum. In even allowing those terms into the document—despite other assertions of diversity, critical thinking skills, “other cultures,” and so on—the architects of Common Core admitted a few critical conservative values into the all-important task of text selection. Even though they are outnumbered by different learning outcomes, their bare existence obliges teachers to respect them, for those other outcomes do not contravene them.

The RL.11-12.9 standard cited above (“Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-…”) is particularly rigorous. If we take it seriously, then a smattering of texts from long ago won’t suffice. A couple of Hawthorne short stories, a little Poe, a few Emily Dickinson poems—that’s not enough. To demonstrate knowledge of foundational works of American literature from 1750 to 1940, students need to read Edwards, Franklin, Jefferson, Wheatley, Irving, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, Thoreau, Dickinson, Howells, Twain, James, Wharton, Crane, Booker T. Washington, Frost, Du Bois, Eliot, Stevens, Millay, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and more. They need a full year of study in American literature, one unmixed with contemporary literature, media (visual culture, digital texts), and topical readings (i.e., op-eds on current events that relate somehow to themes in classic texts).

The standard doesn’t identify what those foundational texts are, but in withholding the titles, it actually forces upon teachers a broader survey of the sequence of great novels, stories, poems, essays, and memoirs from the colonial period to modernism. To “demonstrate knowledge” of them, students must move widely and flexibly across the decades, handle different genres, recount stories, characters, themes, and styles, know when realism ascended, recognize the influence of Leaves of Grass, mark the metrics of Frost’s sonnets and Stevens’s blank verse, and so on.

Some authors are necessitated by the standard, and there are enough of them to restrict the number of non-foundational works placed on the syllabus for other reasons such as the racial identity of the author and the demographic makeup of the student body. Indeed, the composition of foundational works from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century clearly mismatches the quota system that obtains in many English classrooms today. The troublesome historical fact is that white male authors dominate the tradition until the end of the nineteenth century, and much of the literature renders women, African Americans, and other non-white-male identities in “othered” terms. This is why, of course, we have watched over the last four decades politically correct versions of high school English downplay literary-historical criteria of selection, choosing contemporary works that fit multiculturalist and “role model” assumptions—the idea that minority and female students need to read authors whose demographic identity matches their own—over works that have endured through the ages.

This standard, then, along with the other statements listed above, resists the quota system that shapes English syllabi and tables of contents in popular anthologies. With them Common Core has provided traditionalists such as the National Association of Scholars a weapon against the multiculturalist imperative that has produced so much historical ignorance and dumbed-down literary exposure among high school graduates. To be sure, Common Core falls short of traditionalist expectations, but it gainsays politically correct axioms, too. It only partly meets conservative visions of English, but it disappoints Progressive visions as well. Given that Progressives have controlled English curricula for decades, we should appreciate the literary-historical content that made it into Common Core, and remember that the English establishment didn’t want any of it mandated.

The real problem lies in the application of these standards to assessments and curricula. As tests are developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness in College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and as states and districts adopt anthologies and determine content for each grade, will they observe these literary-historical standards or will they just ignore them? (Keep in mind that Common Core standards do not amount to a curriculum. They pose a set of knowledge and skills that yields college and career readiness.)

Common Core did not include machinery to ensure that those standards will be taught and tested, such as a recommended reading list—it has strong “exemplars” but their use isn’t requisite—or a stipulation that X percent of readings must possess “classic” status. Had it done so, it might have encouraged more states to refuse to accept them than the current five (Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia). In the absence of guarantees, then, the maintenance of literary history depends upon the “aligners” who craft exams and lesson plans that line up (or not) with Common Core. ETS and Pearson are creating test items for the reading exam—do the passages in the exam correspond to the standards we have discussed? The National Council of Teachers of English has developed manuals for teachers to use in altering their practice in the wake of Common Core’s adoption in their respective state—do they incorporate literary-historical standards as much as the skills standards?

Early signs indicate that they won’t. Recently, Pearson issued a proposal for developing test items on the reading exam, and the “item checklist” included these provisos:

  • The item avoids stereotyping as results of associating genders with certain professions or activities.

  • The item is free of content that might offend an ethnic subgroup.

  • The item does not rely on an assumed shared experience that is class oriented or native English speaking oriented.

  • The item is free from unnecessary cultural references.

  • The item is free from religious references.10

These stipulations sound ridiculous, but they are in fact customary elements of “bias and sensitivity review,” a process whereby experts examine test questions for their potential to discriminate against certain groups. A reading passage containing details of rural life will give rural students an unfair boost, while a stereotype of the African American basketball player may upset African American test-takers, etc. It will also expose the test developer to lawsuits. Obviously, the classics of American literature before 1900 are disproportionately white-male authored, and those works contain language and characterizations that are sometimes stigmatizing, Eurocentric, and politically incorrect. One cannot have students “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature” and survive “bias and sensitivity” rulings. Pearson and ETS know this, and have no choice but to act accordingly.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) project likewise fails to meet Common Core’s literary-historical standards, but not by invoking bias rules. Instead, it simply ignores them. One volume in the series, Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: English Language Arts, Grades 9–12, purports to show English teachers how to adopt their readings and pedagogies to Common Core.11 When I reviewed the volume for a report on Common Core for the Pioneer Institute with Sandra Stotsky (cited by Robbins), however, we found the very tendencies that Robbins deplores.12 Instead of highlighting literary-historical knowledge and foundational works, the authors speak enthusiastically about the value of blogs, videos, podcasts, and graphic novels to English instruction. They mention several classics, but when they pause over them it is usually to surround them with contemporary materials, for instance, attaching to The Odyssey a bit of Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, an NPR segment on veterans, and a Frontline show called “A Soldier’s Home.”13 The authors assert, too, that “the CCSS focus is on skills, strategies, and habits that will enable students to adapt to the rhetorical demands of their future learning and contributions,”14 and they relegate the mandated content in Common Core to teacher discretion, stating that the texts mentioned in the list of “exemplars” are

simply offered as examples of topics and genres that teachers might include, not as specific texts to be adopted in all classrooms. Teachers need to select texts appropriate for their own students and for the context in which they work.15

Needless to say, Common Core does not insert “appropriate for their own students” into the standards. While the architects maintain that they do not prescribe a curriculum, assuring that “Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards” (the NCTE authors cite the statement on page 9 of Supporting Students), when it comes to readings, the goals themselves set foundational status above teacher discretion and student appropriateness.

Indeed, the literary-historical standards in Common Core allow only so much flexibility to teachers. Shakespeare is required for high schools in Brooklyn and Albuquerque and Green Bay, and so are Hawthorne, Whitman, Twain et al. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, or region marks the student population. However much test developers and curriculum designers wish to omit Common Core’s literary-historical content, the content remains and states adopting Common Core must commit to it.

This fact the NCTE project manages to ignore, thereby indicating the real weakness of Common Core: giving educators enough wiggle room to neglect the content mandate, and containing so much other non-content material—writing and research skills, a “Speaking & Listening” strand, various and nonhistorical acts of reading comprehension, etc.—that classics and foundations may be disregarded. The literary-historical standards, however, provide traditionalists and conservatives an opening for resistance, specifically, a ready weapon in the ongoing contest with multiculturalists over English curricula. Common Core’s invocation of classics and foundations raises the bar of selection, admitting only time-tested and historically influential readings into the classroom (if the lesson plan addresses the standards we’ve discussed). If a curriculum in a school district does not include a year-long survey of great American works, at least two Shakespeare plays, and wide reading in classical myth and world literature, then the district has not fully aligned with Common Core. Conservative critics may cite Common Core against it, pressuring state and local educators to revise high school English along more traditional lines.

It remains to be seen what kind of pressure those critics may apply and in what direction. Does a state’s adoption of Common Core have any statutory or regulatory standing that watchdogs may use to assail an English track that minimizes traditional works and maximizes contemporary literature, mass media and pop culture, and politically correct learning outcomes? Are state officials such as those in the Council of Chief State School Officers, a cosponsor of Common Core, disposed to hear from groups willing to charge districts and schools with failing to meet the standards? Will newspapers and local news shows listen to people who insist upon a traditional humanities education and find it wanting in local schools?

Here lies the effective focus of criticism—and an avenue of response. Yes, Robbins correctly identifies drawbacks in Common Core, but Common Core also contains strengths that work to our advantage if we wield them wisely. All too many public officials and public school educators follow multiculturalist tenets, and conservatives and traditionalists have little authority to combat them. The literary-historical standards and statements in Common Core change that, supplying the latter with a blank and potent rejoinder to the former. “Your English syllabus in John Q. Public High School has no eighteenth-century American literature, and it assigns only a sample of nineteenth-century literature,” they may charge. “You are in violation of the standards your state has adopted. You must add to the syllabus this and this and this…”

I recommend that the National Association of Scholars investigate pathways of influence, beginning with the state of New York, which adopted Common Core in January 2011. The leadership of NAS should contact the Office of Standards in the Division of Academics, Department of Education. New York is fully engaged in implementing Common Core standards, and a meeting with public officials overseeing the process may reveal how closely the state will heed literary-historical content standards in the high school English classroom. It is one thing to object on principle to the dilution of traditional humanities education into political catechisms and utilitarian training. It is another thing to object on the grounds of the most authoritative education document in the land.

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