The curriculum is changing, once again without public discussion

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The writing curriculum for K-12 students is changing in Massachusetts and elsewhere, but it isn’t at all clear that these changes will move more students towards a meaningful high school diploma.

What kind of writing should kids do at different educational levels? We know that writing is related to reading, but what does that mean for the K-12 curriculum? What are effective ways to develop a range of writing skills? What are the elements of a sound K-12 writing curriculum?

Since we have no research-based answers to any of these questions, we should be asking why the same writing program has been mandated for all students. But, unfortunately, this has not been the focus of pubic discussions–yet.

Credit for getting a discussion started goes to Education Week reporter Madeline Will. In a blog on June 20 she focused on Common Core’s writing standards and the change in emphasis as she described it from “personal” writing to “evidence-based” writing.

Why the changes? Because David Coleman, now president of the College Board, claimed that such changes would make students more college and career ready than whatever was in their previous English Language Arts curriculum. As chief “architect” of Common Core’s ELA standards, he was, apparently, the person who decided what the country’s writing (and reading) standards should be. It didn’t seem to matter whether K-12 teachers agreed, whether there was any evidence to support his ideas, or whether student writing might be improved by other changes to the school curriculum.

The problems with Common Core’s writing standards begin with their organization, not their implementation. Coleman chose to divide writing into the same three categories at all grades from 1-12: opinion (K-5)/argument (6-12); informative/explanatory; and narrative. As Mark McQuillan, former Deputy Commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (as well as teacher and researcher), has noted: “writing is taught as a unitary phenomenon from elementary school to high school, unrelated to reading skills and reading level.” After looking at PARCC sample test items for the 2015 tests in the Bay State, he observed that the only difference between the directions for literary analysis and argument is whether “the subject matter is fictional or factual.”

A unitary approach is very unlike the “student-centered” K-12 language-oriented approach outlined by James Moffett in the 70s in which reading and writing activities/genres vary across grade levels but are nevertheless coordinated. While there is no “evidence” for either a Moffett-inspired approach or a unitary approach, Common Core’s standards should have reflected some experience and thinking about children’s growth as readers or writers.

Moreover, while PARCC inappropriately begins literary analysis (and essay-writing) in grade 3, the greatest damage PARCC does is to argument. As McQuillan further commented: “Nearly all of its argumentative writing assignments are designed to elicit information from carefully selected texts,” hardly a pedagogical model. An authentic research assignment requires kids to figure out their research question after reading their potential sources, and, most important of all, to locate their own sources.

Why does this matter for the Bay State? Because, it seems, PARCC’s writing items are going to be used for the tests called MCAS 2.0 now being planned for 2017. MCAS 2.0 will be PARCC without the PARCC label.

More important, as writing researcher Arthur Applebee pointed out in a 2013 essay: the “form and content of these new assessments will have more impact on curriculum and instruction than the CCSS themselves; high stakes are attached to assessment results, not to the standards they are meant to reflect.”

In a similar observation, Tom Newkirk, English professor at the University of New Hampshire, described the standards as a “reform that gives extraordinary power to standardized tests. The Common Core State Standards are joined at the hip to standardized tests, not surprising because both the College Board and the ACT had such a big role in their creation.”

It is true that the time-consuming attention to writing and revising experience-based stories in elementary and middle school “writing workshops” from the 1970s on had never paid off in test results on NAEP or in the “real” world or college. Students may well have become more fluent writers but they were not better writers. For one account of the deficiencies in college freshman writing, see Gerald Graff’s 2003 Clueless in Academe. While college faculty and others have long been concerned about the stress on experience-based writing in K-8, to the detriment of the analytical writing needed in and beyond high school, there was no consensus among scholars or researchers that opinion-based writing in K-5 or argument in 6-12 was its replacement.

So who did Madeline Will quote in order to highlight teachers’ conflicting responses to the shift in writing pedagogy decreed by David Coleman? Coleman himself, a Rhodes Scholar with undergraduate and graduate degrees in classical philosophy but no K-16 teaching experience; Joel Zarrow, chief executive officer of the Children’s Literacy Initiative (which focuses on P-3); Robert Pondiscio, vice-president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; Joan Dabrowski, a literacy consultant, Tanya Baker, director of national programs at the National Writing Project since 2007; and Carol Jago, associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA, once president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and high school English teacher for many years. A strange mix of informants, none of whom have ever focused on the teaching of writing; none of whom ever spelled out ideas on a K-12 writing curriculum; none of whom now addresses Common Core’s writing standards in a K-12 classroom.

The major professional organization for ELA teachers are well aware of the resistance to Common Core’s standards by many teachers, many of whom are members. The March 2016 issue of the NCTE’s elementary school journal addresses the pros and cons of Common Core, with a conclusion to the long introduction by its editors implying that teachers need to learn how to live with these standards and the tests based on them—a peculiar stance given NCTE’s history of opposition to the idea of standards or recommended book/author lists.

For students to move from autobiographical writing to opinion-based arguments, based on “evidence” from pre-selected texts, is not the direction for developing critical thinking. It sounds as if it might be the direction, however. Instead, it serves to cover up the deeper problems in a K-12 ELA curriculum based on Common Core’s standards and tests: high school students are given a false understanding of what real research entails and do not reach a high school level in reading that would enable them to do real research. And the June 2016 “report” on changes in writing instruction, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is not designed to point out the right questions to ask about a K-12 writing and reading curriculum, but rather to help teachers “adjust” to the change Gates is promoting—for other people’s children.

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky, former Senior Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is Professor of Education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.