Common Core State Standards: Our Literacy Problem

William H. Young

American public education since the 1960s has produced “our literacy problem”: the inability of most high school graduates to read adequately the nonfiction materials utilized in the workplace or the complex nonfiction and fiction required in a college education. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) focus on, and are a critical step towards, fixing that long-unsolved problem.

A 2012 ACT study demonstrated the extent of “our literacy problem.” The study analyzed the need in 18,000 jobs for “three essential skills: applied mathematics, locating information, and reading for information.” These skills were required for 98 percent of jobs “in occupations paying a wage sufficient to support a family.” But more than 40 percent of community college graduates and far more high school graduates lack those basic skills.[1]

The 2012 ACT college-entrance exam showed that 75 percent of students failed to meet college readiness standards. A majority of high school graduates must take remedial—euphemistically called “developmental”—English classes before enrolling in college-level courses. For the high school class of 2012, reading performance on the SAT fell to the lowest level in four decades.[2]

In 2010‒2011, the average reading level of the top 40 books read in grades 9‒12 was “a little above fifth grade,” notes education professor emerita Sandra Stotsky. Most such books are “contemporary young adult fantasies….This republic cannot flourish in the 21st century…if the bulk of our population is reading at or below the fifth-grade level.”[3]

Why do we have such a continuing literacy problem? Over the past fifty years, teaching for “social justice” has replaced teaching of knowledge in colleges of education and the public schools. This is the result of both progressivism and postmodern multiculturalism and continues unabated.

Education reform advocate E. D. Hirsch Jr. explains that progressive education discarded academic knowledge as the basis for skills and, finally by the 1960s, achieved the dumbing down of American schoolbooks with simplified language and smaller vocabularies.[4] Inspired by Rousseau’s treatise on education in fictional form, Emile (1762), progressive education also adopted the doctrine that children learn best “naturally” and made the teacher a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage.” This misguided belief is embodied in the pedagogy of “constructivism,” in which children construct their own knowledge rather than learning it from the teacher, explains public education historian Diane Ravitch in Left Back.[5]

Multicultural education also became “firmly established in universities, school curricula, and textbooks” during the 1970s, observes Ravitch.[6] In The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, Stotsky describes how educational goals became “no longer cognitive but attitudinal…Easier or mediocre multicultural texts replaced more demanding works in the curriculum on ever-changing political grounds.”[7] Stotsky adds, in Losing Our Language, that such texts are designed to imbue students with feelings about victimization rather than thinking and reasoning abilities and to exhibit politically correct “role models.”[8]

Reflecting postmodern multiculturalism, education schools introduced the pedagogy of “whole language” to replace the “oppressor’s” phonics. To “constructivism” was added “critical pedagogy” or teaching for social justice. These pedagogies, Stotsky notes, “inherently limit students’ intellectual growth.”[9] Such theories also exemplify the postmodern dogma that there are no objective facts, just personal interpretations of texts, which justified the personal narrative as empowerment.[10]

From the 1970s, the new middle school became the proving ground for teaching “social justice,” argues Cheri Pierson Yecke in The War Against Excellence. In a culture of disdain for academic achievement, “cooperative learning,” where “a few students do all the work and everyone shares the grade” prevails.[11] Stotsky shows that the middle school curriculum became “the culmination of an elementary school curriculum rather than the introduction to secondary subject matter learning.”[12] Ravitch has reported that when middle school students arrive at high schools, “nearly 70 percent are reading below grade level.”[13]

The just-released results of the latest long-term-trend tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) elucidate that while elementary- and middle-school students have made gains in reading since 1972, high-school students have made none. The average scores of 17-year-olds have remained stagnant “even though the education levels of those students’ parents have increased.”[14]

Let’s examine in more detail why our public school graduates cannot read. As a child during the 1940s, I first learned to read by phonics. But Stotsky reveals why “whole language” pedagogy replaced phonics:

Phonics instruction was one of the first areas of pedagogy to be politicized, and by the author of Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game (1967), Kenneth Goodman….In an attempt to ascribe the low-reading achievement of low-income children to language differences, not language deficits, Goodman claimed that phonics instruction imposed standard forms of speech on dialect-speaking children through the teaching of conventional sound-letter correspondences and led to the failure of those children to connect what they decoded with their native language and a lack of motivation to learn to read.

Phonics instruction, he also implied, was the preferred strategy of Christian fundamentalists, darkly hinting that it was favored by conservative parents because it fit in with attempts at controlled literal understandings of a text….Phonics instruction was a civil rights issue—beyond theory, research, and the scientific method. Moreover, the English language itself was now being portrayed as the language of imperialists—and even literacy was being dismissed as the tool of oppressors dating back thousands of years to the very inception of writing systems….

Goodman’s colleagues in education schools across the country took up this argument with eagerness and further support from Paulo Freire’s influential Pedagogy for the Oppressed, first published in 1970….A Brazilian educator and a Marxist, Freire, too, ridiculed phonics instruction as an oppressive strategy…advocating instead a whole language approach….[15]

New America fellow Dana Goldstein adds that “the identity politics pedagogical theories of the 1970s and 1980s, as articulated in works like…Freire’s…emphasized the ability of ‘personal narrative’ to empower students, particularly the economically and racially disadvantaged.”[16]

Stotsky concludes that the widespread adoption of pedagogical “constructivism” accounts for why high school graduates cannot read a text for information and apply it:

A reader response approach is the pedagogical counterpart of this learning theory for literary study—how to teach students to read a literary text. The teaching strategies…include peer-led small group work and student-selected reading and/or writing….In its radical form, strategies related to this approach encourage students to interpret what they read through the lens of personal or peer experience, even if their experience shapes an interpretation that may have little to do with what the author wrote. Any interpretation of a text can be considered valid….

Many state standards for the English language arts expressed a constructivist perspective. Could college freshmen argue about any one interpretation of a literary or non-literary text if they had been taught for twelve years to “respond to literary works on the basis of personal insights and respect for the different responses of others” (a K‒12 Montana standard) or “understand that a single text will elicit a wide variety of responses, each of which is valid from a personal, subjective perspective” (a K‒12 Delaware standard)?...

Students fail to learn how to…read carefully any kind of text. A stress on personal response or biographical materials does not replace the need to teach students how to read the text itself.[17]

Teachers’ questions amplify this result. The architect of the CCSS, David Coleman, reports that in a study of instruction in Vermont and Texas, “80% of the questions kids were asked when they are reading are answerable without direct reference to the text itself”:

Think about it….You’re reading a text and you talk about the background of the text, or what it reminds you of, or what you think about it, or what you criticize or perhaps how you feel or react to it, or all sorts of surrounding issues….So what’s happening in reading instruction…is an enormous amount of time is spent with questions that hover around the text but don’t require close consideration of it.

And in elementary school, Coleman adds, students read informational texts or nonfiction only 7 percent of the time.[18]

Stotsky cites another harmful influence imparted by schools of education:

“Critical pedagogy is a teaching approach that attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate. It is a theory and practice of helping students achieve ‘critical consciousness’—a state of understanding about the world that helps liberate them from oppression.”

The basic concepts of critical pedagogy were popularized by…Freire [who] denigrated traditional curriculum content as oppressive….Freire’s ideas…spread through the educational world like wildfire….To implement Freire’s ideas, teachers eagerly sought to develop their students’ political attitudes—group solidarity in students belonging to “non-dominant” social groups and hostility or resentment towards their “oppressors”…Motivating adoption of critical pedagogy in part was the belief that low academic achievement in these non-dominant groups could be traced to a lack of motivation for, or resistance to, the cultural content and pedagogy of a curriculum that was not designed for them—thereby an alien and oppressive curriculum….

Like the constructivists, advocates of critical pedagogy are not interested in the teaching of literary appreciation or analytical reading. Unlike the constructivists, they eschew student choice in what is read in favor of teacher choice of reading materials in order to contextualize the social or political issues they have linked to the chosen titles.[19]

Neither the type nor level of reading from elementary school on prepares students for the workplace, let alone college. From a diet of easy reading, students cannot digest complex nonfiction or fiction. From dumbed-down and politicized texts, they lack the knowledge, vocabulary, and cognitive competencies to comprehend and think in the real world. From constructivism, they know only solipsism.

This dismal result also stems from the vacuous standards of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which influenced state standards before the CCSS. Ravitch explains that the NCTE standards drafted in 1989 were “so lacking in content” that the federal government cut off their funding. Nonetheless, the NCTE published their standards for English Language Arts in 1996. Ravitch adds:

This document buzzed with fashionable pedagogical concepts but lacked any concrete reference to the importance of accurate language usage, correct spelling and grammar, great contemporary or classic literature, or what students at any grade level should actually know and be able to do. The document proposed that students should “develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects,” meaning that English teachers should not judge the ways in which students speak or write English….[20]

The CCSS address our systemic disaster by emphasizing the reading of challenging information texts and literary nonfiction as well as richer, more complex fiction. The writing standards focus on students’ abilities to marshal an argument and write to inform or explain. The shift in both reading and writing constitutes a significant change from the focus on narrative text or the narrative aspects of literary nonfiction (the characters and the story) toward more in-depth engagement with the informational and argumentative aspects of these texts.[21] The CCSS require that students become capable of close reading of nonfiction as well as fiction texts—to acquire greater knowledge, vocabulary, and comprehension—and of writing about what the texts say rather than seeing them only through the postmodern prism of their personal identity, experience, feelings, and opinions.

Hirsch comments that:

Transforming the elementary school “literacy block” into a rich, meaningful and sustained engagement with subject matter would be the single greatest transformation of instructional time in decades. If there is one Big Idea that can help arrest the decline of reading achievement in American schools, this is the one. To their credit, the authors of the Common Core standards have taken pains to get this right, and it is a master stroke.[22]

The next article will examine the companion to “our literacy problem”—“our mathematics problem.”


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: "Hunger Games" by Mike Mozart // CC BY-SA


[2] Stephanie Banchero, “SAT Scores Fall as More Students Take Exam,” The Wall Street Journal, 24 September 2012.

[3] Sandra Stotsky, “What Should Kids be Reading?” in What Kids Are Reading, Renaissance Learning, 2012.

[4] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “A Wealth of Words,” City Journal, Winter 2013.

[5] Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 441‒42.

[6] Ravitch, Left Back, 421.

[7] Sandra Stotsky, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012), 66.

[9] Stotsky, Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, 106‒110.

[10] Sandra Stotsky, The Negative Influence of Education Schools on the K‒12 Curriculum, National Association of Scholars, 30 June 2008.

[11] Cheri Pierson Yecke, The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2003), 13.

[13] Diane Ravitch, “Failing the Wrong Grades,” The New York Times, 15 March 2005.

[14] Eric W. Robelan, “Achievement Gap Narrows on Long-Term NAEP,” Education Week, 27 June 2013. Stephanie Banchero, “Primary, Middle Level Students Show Gains,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2013.

[15] Sandra Stotsky, “Read It and Weep,” Education Matters, Association of American Educators (March 2006)

[17] Stotsky, Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, 106‒108.

[18] David Coleman, “Bringing the Common Core to Life,” Remarks at Chancellors Hall, State Education Building, Albany, NY, 28 April 2011.

[20] Ravitch, Left Back, 437‒38.

[22] E. D. Hirsch Jr., “Common Core Standards could revolutionize reading instruction,” The Washington Post, 6 April 2010.

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