Recently David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, the authors of the Common Core ELA Standards, issued what they titled Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy. As they note, the intent is to “guide publishers and curriculum developers to ensure alignment” of any proposed materials and the Standards.

Their warning is firm and consistent with the Standards: “At the heart of these criteria are instructions for shifting the focus of literacy instruction to center on careful examination of the text itself…. The Standards focus intently on students reading closely.”

As a former English teacher, I found much to like in their warning and advice. The demand for far more non-fiction is not only common-sense advice, but I think it will make the curriculum a bit more male-friendly at the middle and high school levels where we need help (as our extensive student survey results reveal). And it is imperative that students learn to read more effectively and deeply without being given too many opportunities to quickly deviate from the text to more superficial conversations about their own feelings and experiences:

The Common Core State Standards call for students to demonstrate a careful understanding of what they read before engaging their opinions, appraisals, or interpretations. Aligned materials should therefore require students to demonstrate that they have followed the details and logic of an author’s argument before they are asked to evaluate the thesis or compare the thesis to others. When engaging in critique, materials should require students to return to the text to check the quality and accuracy of their evaluations and interpretations. Students can and should make connections between texts, but this activity must not supersede the close examination of each specific text. Often, curricula surrounding texts leap too quickly into broad and wideopen questions of interpretation before cultivating command of the details and specific ideas in the text. Productive connections and comparisons should bring students back to careful reading of specific texts.

But I find some of their advice about the use of questions a bit odd and potentially stultifying. They certainly want to emphasize the importance of good questions:

Instructional design cultivates student interest and engagement in reading rich text carefully. A core challenge in developing instructional materials is to construct questions and tasks that motivate students to read inquisitively and carefully. Questions should focus on illuminating specifics of the text that “pay off” in a deeper understanding, rewarding careful reading. Questions should not be random but should build toward deeper understanding. 

Here, though, is where I get uneasy, afraid that the authors merely want to reinvent dreary college-level English teaching – when they discuss what makes a good question:

Questions also should not be overly general or schematic they should show attention to the specifics of the work and cultivate student appreciation for what is beautiful, insightful, or special in a piece of writing that makes it worth reading carefully.

Huh? Does that mean that every good Essential Question is now considered to be inappropriate for working with Common Core Standards? Since the authors fail to give examples of the kinds of questions they are praising or panning it is hard to know. But the phrase “attention to the specifics of the work” makes me worry greatly. My experience as a graduate of St. John’s College, a teacher of English and Philosophy, and a curriculum reformer through Understanding by Design tells me that their advice is myopic and too English-teacherly. Why else would we require all those years of reading if not to help students see meaning that derives from it?

It is not Either-Or. The best Essential Questions enable a text to reveal itself while also calling meaningful attention to the relation between text and living. I’ll give one example from my own teaching. The texts: Oedipus the King, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and H. C Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The Essential Question for the unit, known in advance (and also the final essay question): Who sees and who is blind?  I shudder to think that such a question will run afoul of the authors’ warning about the use of “thematic” questions:

Practices such as framing a big question or theme in advance of reading or previewing a text may in fact rob students of the rich discoveries and intellectual joy of encountering the way an author sets the agenda and unfolds ideas as well as details.

The devil is in the detail of the phrase may rob of course.  But this seems like very disingenuous advice if it is meant to be as sweeping as I fear they intend it. Have the authors forgotten the power relationship and the feeling of cluelessness in so many HS and college classes? The teacher who brings a specific purpose to the teaching (and, hopefully, a reason for teaching the text beyond its “unique” aspects) can have a slant in mind, but the students must figure out why the book is assigned and what to pay attention to completely on their own? Or, it smacks of a myopia in which the naive teacher works enthusiastically to help students “appreciate” the text in and of itself. At the very least, the authors have an obligation to clarify the difference between good and bad questions ASAP.

This all reminds me of Rousseau’s brilliant critique of teachers who think that showing students worthy things is sufficient to cause learning:

Full of the enthusiasm he feels, the master wants to communicate it to the child. He believes he moves the child by making him attentive to the sensations by which, he, the master, is himself moved. Pure stupidity!…The child perceives the objects, but he cannot perceive the relations linking them…. For that is needed experience he has not acquired.

Here are a few salient student comments from our survey on the subject of why students hate English (over 1200 students out of 7000 dislike English the most of all subjects):

  • because the books that we read don’t interest to me
  • I don’t like this class because it is very subjective. I could interpret one thing but my teacher my see it another way, therefore making me wrong.
  • Boring, useless, unappliable skills
  • English classes have never appealed to me because I generally find the material covered in the courses to be boring or uninteresting.
  • Not directly applicable to my life
  • i really dont like this class beacuse all we basically do is read books i  guess if the teachers made it more fun to teach every body will actually like having this kind of classes and not following asleep in them.
  • The stories we read are terrible
  • We read books written by dead guys from 200 or more years ago, stuff that’s not even remotely relevant to me.  If we at least read half way interesting books instead of The Scarlet Letter, which is just absolutely brutal.
  • It’s not the least bit interesting and you can’t relate it to anything. It’s just analyzing words and sentences. Not fun.
  • i dont think it will help me in my further life to have read/annotated Lord of The Flies..
  • English/Language Arts is not my favorite class because it is boring, it isn’t really that important because all we do is read books we don’t want to.
  • It is just the constant study of poems and stories. I loved reading before I started my English I course in highschool and now I barely read because we have to analyze every little detail and it isn’t fun anymore.
  • Because the books do not interest me and I feel like we never learn anything applicable to the real world
  • I do not like to read the books given
  • Because i do not like to read the books they give us, if we got to pick our own books then i would be okay but since they provide boring books that i dont like, i dont read them and that loses alot grade points for me.
  • I like to read but books that I know will interest me, not books that teachers make me read.
  • its basically reading books and annotateing which has no point in it.
  • Because i do not [like] reading the books they assign us. Im not motivated to read each chapter and the life lessons from these books suck!
  • I think we should be able to choose our own books and research so its more interesting to us.
  • I think that english is extremely boring and that the books are unrelatable and uninteresting. The things that High School students learn in english throughout their four years is unrelatable to the real world and unless they are going to become a lit major completely useless.
  • Mainly because if we have to read a book, it does not appeal to my interests. I prefer books about the government taking control of everything and there is somebody that doesn’t agree with that ideology
  • I feel that every book we read is not interesting. its hard to follow most of the books because they have “deeper meanings”
  • I see no point in reading books and analysising them. It is a waste of my time and everyone elses.  All english is is reapteating things over and over and over and over and over and over again.
  • I am very analytical and it’s hard for me to find a deeper meaning within a quote from a book than what’s on the page.  I don’t know why we need to know why some leaf in a book is symbolic.  I don’t see why we need to know more than how to talk right and write using the alphabet.  I am much better at research papers rather than essays arguing that there is, for example, imagery in book.  I don’t find it applicable to my life.
  • I don’t enjoy overanalyzing literature. I really don’t care what things are a symbol for.
  • The novels I sometimes find are simply stories that authors wrote. Then the department want the students to analyze every bit of it and think that it means something. A good amount of the novels are just bad reads as well.
  • because we always have to read stupid books and annotate them and all of the grades are depended on if you annotate

In short, I fear that these well-intentioned authors may unwittingly cause a new round of bad teaching and disaffected students.

In fact, the more I see their constant refrain about the text itself as what matters, i want to say: nonsense. No text, in and of itself, matters. What matters is whether education makes you want to read more, think more, learn more, accomplish more. Their cramped advice may well lead to the opposite outcome – where students get fed up with texts unmoored from life, thus ensuring that only English majors have happy experiences in school (even if their job prospects dim even further).