story killersI had heard Dr. Terrence Moore speak at a Common Core conference back in September. He is a professor of history  at Hillsdale College, well spoken and with an opinion of Common Core that mirrored my own. He mentioned he had a book coming out soon that critiqued the infamous Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards which provides exemplars for, particularly, the language arts standards. In his speech he gave us a brief preview of what would be in his book. It was a delicious appetizer that provided a shredded Prentice Hall (Pearson) British Literature textbook lesson on Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, served with a scathing hot sauce of critique of the mindless pandering of the lesson. That lesson is included in chapter seven of “The Story Killers: A Common Sense Case Against Common Core” which came out in paperback at the end of last month.

The preface of the book describes a fictional modern parent’s foray into Common Core, from personal research to discussions with teachers, school administrators and legislators. Moore’s description accurately mirrored my own experience and drew me in further. By the end I was like Sally Albright in the diner with Harry Burns, screaming, “Yes. Yes! Yes!!!” That’s exactly how it is happening. First everyone tells you things are fine. Common Core is great. But when you bring up the reviews and comments of those who don’t see it that way, you find yourself being more and more marginalized. At some point you wonder, “Am I the one who is crazy?” The rest of the book lets you know the answer to that question is  decidedly “No.”

For those like myself who have been following common core for a while, author Moore conveniently lets you know that you can skip ahead to chapter 5 to save time, but at some point you really should read chapters 1-4. Chapter five dealt with the bias in the selection of texts offered as suggested reading for common core and the fallacy that any supposed bias shouldn’t worry parents or teachers. They have “discretion” at the local level to choose what they want to teach. Unfortunately there’s that pesky problem with the all-important standardized test that comes at the end of the year that will probably cover most of those suggested texts in Appendix B, so unless you also cover them, your students are not likely to score well on that assessment and then all heck breaks loose.

Chapter six was most cathartic for me, but is likely to be hotly debated by academicians. This chapter deals with the modern deconstructional manner in which children are taught to approach literature. It called up my own recent memories of trying  to help my children with their middle and high school papers on books that I myself had read in school, and getting stuck trying to come up with coherent thoughts that fit into the rigid framework they were required to work in. Moore relates how this framework is dictated by the Common Core Standards by giving examples from Appendix B, like the performance task which says, “Summarize the development of the morality of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel of the same name and analyze its connection to themes of accountability and authenticity by noting how it is conveyed through characters, settings, and plot.” Talk about killing the love of reading a good story by micro-analyzing individual elements!

I often could not make sense of the prompt my children were given to elicit an answer because it was so full of jargon like this. I always hoped it made more sense to them because of all the class discussions I assumed they had, and would look expectantly into their eyes for some glimmer of direction. Most often they were at as great a loss as I was. Their solution? Just string together a bunch of flowery sounding  words, taking care to include words given in the prompt like “authenticity” and “morality,” being sure to complete the formula provided of  TS, CD, CM and CS (look up Jane Schaffer writing strategy if you don’t recognize that alphabet soup.) It didn’t matter if their essay made sense. It didn’t matter that they didn’t really understand what they were writing. No one seemed to care if they understood or enjoyed the book. And who would ever read a classic on their own if they thought they had to be looking for these elements every time their read a book?

Under common core, children will rarely be required  (or have time) to read an entire piece of literature. They won’t need to in order to answer the questions about these specific elements. We will be teaching our children to focus on theme or setting or plot, not understand the entire story.

Why do this to good literature? Why not cover the books with students the way they should be covered, the way the author wrote them? Because you can’t standardize that into a test question. You can’t have a computer grade that and you can’t have hundreds of different human scorers across the country grade those answers consistently enough to be statistically useful.  We are changing education for the ease and benefit of the test developers.

Dr. Moore shows the impact on his own classroom that is a result of this practice which he admits has been around for a while in varying degrees at different k-12 schools across the country.  Students are not prepared to read and fully understand an entire novel. They do not know the main story  or many of the details, “Whenever I ask my college freshmen, who come from around the nation, what they have learned or remember about some other great works of literature, I find that they know very little. Though smart, they are not well-educated. They can vaguely recall that Hester Prynne “had to, like, wear a red letter or whatever.” They certainly know that To Kill A Mockingbird has something to do with racism though they know precious little else about the story.” He asks quite rightly, how is this preparing kids to be college ready?

The last chapter Dr. Moore uses to provide his own vision of what a common core of literary study should look like. I am very much in support of opposing common core by providing a better vision, rather than just pointing out the deficiencies within common core. Many alternative visions are likely to appear and should be widely debated. That was a key element that was skipped in the development of Common Core. There was no national debate as to what our common understanding should be. To be frank, that was because such a debate would take a long time and the education reformers and industry stakeholders were in a hurry to get something in place that they could begin marketing to.

They focused on the plot elements of, “How do we get the point where we can start making money on this,” rather than the entire story, “How do we pass on culture from one generation to the next in a country of, and one that celebrates, great diversity?”

In my own view, the local community should be the deciding voice on which vision should be followed. That is the only way to maintain the diversity we have and provide fairness. Why should one community be forced to pass on the belief system of another community at their own expense and at the expense of their own culture? Such diversity is a great safety net for our country. If we have one monolithic educational structure that gets it wrong, that mistake is repeated in every single school district across the country and ruins an entire generation of students.

While competition is good for industry, apparently it is not good for schools or standards. The structure being set up by Common Core will destroy the development of competing standards in the future. They have placed the collar around our necks and are just working to get the buckle fastened.

I give this book 3 1/2 stars out of 4.  I hold out that last half star because I would like to see other deeply committed academics provide competing visions so that I have more than just two choices. I look forward to the debate.

MooreTerrence Moore’s book is available in Kindle and paperback versions through Amazon.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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