Joanne Yatvin, who served for many years as a teacher and principal in Oregon, is a literacy expert. She here expresses her view of the Common Core English Language Arts standards.
What the Dickens is Education All About?
Did you know that Charles Dickens denounced the Common Core Standards more than 150 years ago and didn’t think much of the value of higher education either? In his 1854 novel, Hard Times, Dickens devotes the first two chapters to satirizing education in the grade schools of his era, and it looks a lot like teaching in our schools today.
Right away, Dickens introduces Thomas Gradgrind, owner of a small school in an English industrial town, who makes clear what he thinks education should be: “Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. “
Next, Gradgrind, an unnamed visitor, and the schoolmaster, Mr. M’Choakumchild enter a classroom and lessons begin with Gradgrind in charge. He looks around the room and points to a young girl: “Girl number twenty” he calls out. She stands up and gives her name: “Sissy Jupe, sir.” “Sissy is not a name,” charges Gradgrind. “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecelia.”
After learning that Sissy’s father performs with horses at the local circus, Gradgrind demands, “Give me your definition of a horse.” When she doesn’t answer, he turns to a boy named Bitzer and repeats the order. Bitzer says, “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eyeteeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” “Now, girl number twenty,” gloats Gradgrind, “You know what a horse is.”
Later, while lecturing the class on the foolishness of using representations of horses and flowers in home decorations, Gradgrind calls on Sissy again, asking her why she would have such pictures on carpets where people would step on them. Sissy, no longer tongue-tied, replies, “It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy….” “ But you mustn’t fancy,” cries Gradgrind. “That’s it! You are never to fancy.”
Having humiliated Sissy once again, Gradgrind turns the lesson over to M’Choakumchild, who, Dickens tells us, has been thoroughly trained for his job: “Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the end of his ten chilled fingers ……He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and-thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more.”
Dickens then ends the chapter with a metaphorical musing that compares M’Choakumchild’s teaching to Morgiana’s actions in the story, “Alibaba and the Forty Thieves”:
“Say, good M’choakumchild. When from thy boiling store,
thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim and distort him.”
While these excerpts from Hard Times are fresh in our minds, let’s consider their connection to today’s Common Core English Language Arts Standards. Below is a key statement from the official CCSS guide for teaching reading.
.The Common Core emphasizes using evidence from texts to present careful analyses, well-defended claims, and clear information. Rather than asking students questions they can answer solely from their prior knowledge and experience, the standards call for students to answer questions that depend on their having read the texts with care.
Although this statement does not include the word “facts,” it argues for the type of education that Gradgrind championed. Incidentally, neither “imagination” nor “creativity” is mentioned anywhere in the Standards documents.
To further emphasize the place of factual information in standards-based education, David Coleman, the primary architect of the Standards and now President of the College Board, has repeatedly asserted his view that students’ experiences, beliefs, and feelings should not be part of their educational journey. Below, is his explanation of how Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address should be taught:
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 Gettysburg Address.
Since I had not seen any lessons that fit Coleman’s criteria in my visits to classrooms, I turned to a website called “America Achieves” and viewed the only video there that portrayed the Common Core concept of proper teaching of a complex text.
That video shows a 9th grade teacher teaching a lesson on Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” that depicts a yearly event in a small rural village in which every family must participate. In this “lottery” the person who draws the one paper with a black dot on it is stoned to death by the crowd. Clues throughout the story let mature readers know about the lottery’s ancient origins and its initial purpose to persuade the gods to provide a good food harvest for the community, information that the story’s characters are never aware of.
At the video’s beginning the teacher describes her class to the audience as low-level readers with several English Language learners among them. She explains her choice of “The Lottery” as a complex text, yet within the range of suitability for ninth graders. The classroom scenes that follow show her asking students to locate specific bits of information and explain their literal meanings. She never asks why the story’s characters speak or act as they do. Also included in the video are short breaks where the teacher addresses viewers directly explaining her teaching further.
My response to the video was strongly negative. I felt that the teacher’s approach was mechanical and shallow. Without background information the students missed the author’s clues and failed to see the significance in the characters’ comments and behaviors. For them this was just a fairy tale without rhyme or reason. As a seasoned educator I could not accept the teacher’s choice of a text for this class or her failure to give them sufficient information beforehand and guidance during reading
It’s probably not fair for me to pass judgment on the Standards teaching methods after seeing just one video. But, if this new approach to K-12 education is so powerful why aren’t there more videos on this site—or elsewhere–showing teachers practicing more sophisticated teaching? Without research, field-testing, or evidence of student improvement, the case for the Standards right now is weak at best. Yet, most of our states’ governors, policy makers, pundits, and school officials have fallen for it. What we need is a reincarnation of Dickens to give us a picture of a modern classroom with a gifted teacher and a new Bitzer and Sissy to show us the difference between spouting “facts” and demonstrating genuine learning.