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Common Core @ Home: ELA - Why does it seem like English Language Arts teachers are so upset about the Common Core?

Part One of a continuing series

Kiersten Greene, PhD, is an assistant professor of literacy education at SUNY New Paltz. She was born in the Hudson Valley, and recently returned to the region after living in New York City for 15 years, where she taught 5th grade. When she’s not reading, writing, or teaching, you can find her knitting.

Do you have a homework question for Kiersten? Submit your question here.

Dear Kiersten, Why does it seem like English Language Arts teachers are so upset about the Common Core? Don’t the new standards make teaching reading and writing easier?

Despite what you may have heard, the Common Core (CC) is not an English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum: it is a set of benchmarks meant to guide the learning of students in grades K-12. 

The CC clearly states: “the Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.” And yet, the CC has taken hold as this ironclad, grade-by-grade plan from which there may be no deviation. 

Pre-packaged curricula like the ELA “modules” adopted by many schools throughout New York State only reinforce the confusion about where teachers’ instructional input begins and ends. 

To be honest, there are some great ideas in the modules; but they ultimately obscure the fact that the CC is not a curriculum. Further, they are produced by a company, not by teachers, and leave little room for creativity, expertise, or flexibility — three of the most important attributes of any successful teacher.   

ELA teachers aren’t upset about the CC so much as they are about its origin and implementation. ELA teachers feel frustrated that the CC is a one-size-fits-all solution to raising achievement in reading and writing in our country — not because they believe we should have lower standards, but because the CC raises the bar without leveling the playing field. 

As I heard someone comment at a recent local meeting on school reform, “if a child can’t reach the shelf, making the shelf higher won’t help.”   

Most ELA teachers agree that having clear guidelines for instruction at any level is necessary. In theory, the CC isn’t a bad idea: who can argue with knowing what our kids should be working toward in literacy? 

What the CC neglects to acknowledge in practice is that no two learners are exactly alike. The CC washes its hands of students who speak diverse languages or have varied learning abilities, claiming it is “beyond the scope of the Standards to define the full range of supports appropriate for English language learners and for students with special needs.” 

The CC has no problem declaring what ELA skills our students should master, but won’t assume the responsibility for educating all children. 

So no, it doesn’t really make teaching reading and writing any easier.

Since the implementation of the CC, schools have been subjected to increased standardized testing, decreased teacher input, and compulsory curriculum adoption — all of which cost tax payers more and line the pockets of corporations that maintain the corner market on curriculum development. 

By focusing on what teachers should and shouldn’t teach, the CC blurs the real obstacle to higher literacy achievement in schools while transforming public education into a business: if we focused more on eradicating poverty and just let teachers do their jobs, we might have a better chance at higher student achievement in ELA.   

The problem is not that the CC exists, but rather, that it’s dictating how and what teachers should teach. Since teachers are the true experts on their students, shouldn’t they determine the curriculum?