Friday, November 22, 2013

Students will little note, nor long remember what was taught here...

[Update: For more on Common Core and David Coleman check out this follow-up post, "The great pedagogical end run"]

It was just over one hundred and fifty years ago that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. That makes this story from Valerie Strauss particularly timely:

Common Core’s odd approach to teaching Gettysburg Address
Imagine learning about the Gettysburg Address without a mention of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, or why President Abraham Lincoln had traveled to Pennsylvania to make the speech. That’s the way a Common Core State Standards “exemplar for instruction” — from a company founded by three main Core authors — says it should be taught to ninth and 10th graders.

The unit — “A Close Reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address“ — is designed for students to do a “close reading” of the address “with text-dependent questions” — but without historical context. Teachers are given a detailed 29-page script of how to teach the unit, with the following explanation:

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.

The Gettysburg Address unit can be found on the Web site of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization founded by three people described as “lead authors of the Common Core State Standards.” They are David Coleman,  now president of the College Board who worked on the English Language Arts standards; Jason Zimba, who worked on the math standards; and Susan Pimental, who worked on the ELA standards. The organization’s Linked In biography also describes the three as the “lead writers of the Common Core State Standards.”
At the risk of deviating from the standards of close reading, this requires some context. The education reform movement, like all major movements, is an alliance between different groups with different agendas. One of the less recognized of these groups is well-intentioned educators who champion certain pedagogical theories that have proven to be hard sells. (David Coleman is, in many ways, the archetypal member of this group.) The reform movement's emphasis on standardization (note the 29-page script) has given them a chance to apply these theories on a massive scale without a lot of review and despite a lot of resistance.

This resistance is a major but largely unreported source of tension between movement reformers and teachers (particularly experienced and, ironically, effective teachers) who are reluctant to scrap proven approaches for ideas that can, frankly, sound a bit flaky. More on that later.

This post continues the Common Core thread that started here. It also relates to some of my earlier comments about rutabaga cults.


  1. From the Jewish Daily Forward, an insight into Mr. Coleman's obsession with "close reading:"

    How did Coleman wind up in the middle of the 21st century’s curriculum wars? His path started at his parents’ dinner table, and wended its way through selective New York public school Stuyvesant High, making an important pit stop at his bar mitzvah.
    Coleman gleaned many lessons from his bar mitzvah, said Jason Zimba, a Common Core co-writer and lifelong friend who taught mathematics at Bennington College, where Coleman’s mother Elizabeth served as president.
    “The idea that the child’s serious attention to this venerated, beautiful text is valued by the adults and even the rabbi is to David a beautiful thing,” Zimba said. “I’ve listened to him talk about that.” ...
    The experience of conducting a deep exegesis at age 13 framed Coleman’s thinking about education. “The idea that kids can do more than we think they can is one of Judaism’s most beautiful contributions,” he said. Asking 13-year-olds to give a prepared speech in front of people they love is a bold charge, not unlike encouraging disadvantaged kids who don’t see themselves as academically minded to take AP courses. “I wish kids could encounter more stretched opportunities like that in school — all kids,” he said.

  2. I'm failing to see what exactly, in this post or the linked-to follow up, your critique of the cited close reading example is. Your comments after the excerpt seem to be trying to discredit David Coleman, not addressing the curricular excerpt which you find problematic.

    Can you explain your thinking about why you see the cited exampled as problematic?

    1. Jason,
      There are various objections but the big one is the process. Coleman has gotten so many of his ideas into place not because they've proven themselves or because they have sound evidence behind them but because Coleman is good at winning the support of a handful of incredibly powerful people. He circumvented the quality control process and that sort of thing simply leads to bad policy. We're seeing something veery similar with his handling of the SAT.

      Though secondary, I also have concerns with this particular lesson. I don't necessarily object to including some close reading exercises, but those need to be with literary selections that are new to most students (so everybody starts on an equal footing) and where there is a minimum of contextual baggage. The Gettysburg Address would be a bad choice.

      Worse yet, the lesson is horribly micromanaged, dragging the class through 29 pages of scripted questions.

      There's a lot to dislike here.