A Unit of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—A Close Reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—provides an exemplar for instruction and is, ironically, the source of a contentious argument between those who oppose and those who support the CCSS. The controversy revolves about the following guidance within the Unit:
The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading—that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.
A high school English teacher in upstate New York, Jeremiah Chaffee, complains that this CCSS exemplar, which addresses “cold reading”
Mimics the conditions of a standardized test on which students are asked to read material they have never seen…Such pedagogy makes school wildly boring. Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science….
The exemplar, in fact, forbids teachers from asking students if they have ever been to a funeral because such questions rely “on individual experience and opinion,” and answering them “will not move students closer to understanding the Gettysburg Address.”
The Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3‒12 explains the purpose and direction of the CCSS:
The standards and these criteria sharpen the focus on the close connection between comprehension of text and acquisition of knowledge. While the link between comprehension and knowledge in reading science and history texts is clear, the same principle applies to all reading. The criteria make plain that developing students’ prowess at drawing knowledge from the text itself is the point of reading; reading well means gaining the maximum insight or knowledge possible from each source. Student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support a claim about the text. Hence evidence and knowledge link directly to the text….
The CCSS approach to close reading of a text is a direct response to the failed pedagogies of “constructivism” and “whole language,” or “reader response,” reading techniques that have left high school graduates incapable of gleaning correct information from texts that they must read in college and the marketplace. I discussed this previously in Our Literacy Problem, where education professor emerita Sandra Stotsky explained that “whole language” is a theory that views “contextual meaning” or “prior knowledge”—not what the author has written or intends— as determining word meanings. She pointed out that “reader response” encourages 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….
Stotsky also notes that extending “constructivism” and “peer-led group work” approaches to nonfiction domains such as science and mathematics is harmful because their terms have fixed meanings, uninfluenced by context, that differ from “prior knowledge” that students may possess.
The architect of the CCSS, David Coleman adds that studies in two states found that “80% of the questions kids were asked when they are reading are answerable without direct reference to the text itself.” Moreover, Cheri Pierson Yecke reported that, in middle school, “cooperative learning,” where “a few students do all the work and everyone shares the grade,” prevails.
Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior comments specifically regarding Chaffee’s remarks:
The Common Core’s “deep reading” approach to literacy and language arts is desperately needed…I know because I see these unprepared students in my college classroom….Years of their so-called “reading” is spent “making connections” between themselves and text or the world and the text, but the foundational step of actually reading the words on the page is neglected….Students become skilled at responding to leading questions that solicit merely their opinions or experiences….
Increasingly, I have to teach students to read, actually read, the words on the page in order to be able to answer simple questions about the text….I have to exhort them to use dictionaries to look up words they don’t know because the approach to “reading” they are so familiar with does not depend on knowing the meanings of words. Instead, they have been expected merely to offer “reader response” answers to questions that prompt readers to react superficially to the text rather than to comprehend it….
The Common Core standards in reading restore freedom, the freedom of students to be able to read and comprehend a text on their own upon leaving the classroom because they have gained the skills to do so without the mediation of a teacher-facilitator. The Common Core standards in reading are designed to empower students to read, and to read well, the very foundation of success for college, career, and life….
The Common Core might seem tough-minded and heavy-handed to some, but when the freight train is dangling precariously off the cliff, it takes ingenuity and muscle to begin to set it aright.
The CCSS appropriately restrain teachers from providing “background context and substantial instructional guidance” that in the past has led students to seek “contextual meaning” based on “prior knowledge” as “reader response.” Instead, the CCSS properly require that students first read Lincoln’s words and seek to comprehend what the text itself says and means. In that vein, Vivian Mihalakis makes the sensible suggestion that:
All the negativity around background knowledge has clouded an important distinction about it. Namely, there’s a difference between background knowledge that takes you away from the text, and background knowledge that takes you further into the text…”I would argue that the right background knowledge—accessed or provided at the right time and for the right purpose—is not only beneficial but also necessary….The “Gettysburg Address” doesn’t provide enough context to allow readers to fully comprehend it without some background knowledge.
Though students might be expected to be familiar with such context from instruction in American history, the CCSS words might be revised to comport with Mihalakis’s distinction, to at least refresh student memories.
However, the CCSS need to be strong enough to drive systemic reform. David Coleman has said:
If a kid can’t read past an 8th-grade level, they are doomed in terms of college and career readiness…They can’t read the textbooks in any discipline they encounter….There is no overstating the wall we have hit in 8th grade reading and how consequential it is to the kids we care about….We designed the standards to be a spear or battering ram to break down that wall….If we don’t have a shift, we are not going to change a wall that’s been standing for 40 years.
I invite readers to review, as I did, the Common Core Close Reading Sample Lesson for The Gettysburg Address prepared by Student Achievement Partners. I am no reading expert, but the guidance it provides teachers for extracting meaning and knowledge through multiple readings of Lincoln’s text is what I would hope my grandchildren’s teacher would utilize.
Stotsky criticizes the CCSS notion that “teachers should do ‘cold’ readings of historical documents like the Gettysburg Address and that doing so levels the playing field”:
Not only is there no research to suggest that in keeping the historical context for a historical document a secret, the teacher ensures equality in student effort to understand it, there is nothing to suggest that historical ignorance serves the cause of social justice.
And English professor Mary Grabar is also critical:
We get an indication of one of the real goals of Common Core when teachers are told that this assumption of no prior knowledge “levels the playing field.” Some students might be more privileged in their historical knowledge from reading or might come from homes where history is discussed. Students who might be taught at home are discouraged from bringing up that knowledge in class. In order to have a “level playing field,” all students must operate from an assumption of complete ignorance.
The above comments deal with whether the CCSS are aimed at the “achievement gap” between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Leveling the playing field by perpetuating ignorance seems unlikely to be the CCSS strategy, given its focus on increasing knowledge—especially of disadvantaged students. Rather, the CCSS’s seemingly politically correct admonition against “privileging background knowledge” again serves to focus readers on the text itself, not “prior knowledge,” and would deter cooperative group learning, where only a few knowledgeable students actually do the work while the rest never learn by actually reading the text. The broader question is whether the CCSS should have the overall purpose of closing the “achievement gap,” which I will address in a future article.
The stern prescriptions of the CCSS to force students to become capable of close reading of texts and to write based on the information they gain from a text are needed to overcome years of misguided progressive and politically correct instruction that has taught them to focus only on themselves and their unsubstantiated opinions. These reading and writing skills are urgently needed to ensure that graduates are career and college ready, the purpose of the CCSS that serves the national as well as students’ interests.
In The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, Stotsky provides a roadmap for the changes in teacher training and professional development required to support close reading. States and local school districts as well as those within the Blob should heed and take advantage of her counsel.
The next article will address the new CCSS for mathematics.
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).
 Valerie Strauss, “Teacher: One (Maddening) Day Working with the Common Core,” The Washington Post, 23 March 2012.
 Sandra Stotsky, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012), 106‒108.
 Cheri Pierson Yecke, The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2003), 13.
 “Common Core Close Reading Sample Lessons,” The Gettysburg Address.
 Sandra Stotsky, “Do ‘Cold’ Readings of Our Historical Documents ‘Level the Playing Field’?” 24 April 2013.