Thursday, July 23, 2009

Core knowledge and common core

The first draft (subject to considerable revision) of the common core mathematics and language arts standards were posted yesterday by the Core Knowledge blog, as part of a quite negative evaluation (here).

It's important to remember the Core Knowledge folks' distinctive view of literacy and language arts more generally. They argue that mature literacy depends on background knowledge. A reader has to understand key ideas from history, science, and literature in order to make sense of new text: he or she has to fit new material into the context of existing knowledge to make sense or "construct meaning" from the words. They argue, with evidence, that once students master phonics and basic reading strategies, they don't need more reading instruction nearly as much as they need more content learning to build their vocabulary, concepts, and "cultural literacy."

From their starting point, the draft of the common core language arts standards naturally raises concerns. The draft lists no specific poems or books students should read, no historical events they should study, no science they should engage. The draft doesn't provide a central part of what the Core Knowledge advocates think students need to read proficiently, study successfully, and participate effectively in adult economic and civic life.

I agree with the main Core Knowledge argument about how reading works, and have blogged it heavily (here, for example).

Still, I think they've chosen the wrong battle. Most people believe they can teach reading in isolation, and most state testing policies reflect that belief. Kentucky has built its assessments to include science, social studies, and the arts, but that's unusual. As a result, there's political will to build common standards in reading and math, but not for other subjects--at least not yet.

I think it makes more sense to argue for the rest of the content independently. Argue for it on its own merits, and argue for it as a method for meeting the reading standards. Don't call language arts standards a failure just because they don't list the full knowledge and cultural background students need to be well prepared for reading and writing success.

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