Twice MarcTucker wrote blog posts saying that I was wrong about the Common Core. In his second post, he challenged my assertion that parts often standards were developmentally inappropriate, and he cited experts (but not teachers) who agreed with him.

Here, Susan Ohanian responds to Tucker:


Arguing about the content of the Common Core State (sic) Standards is a dangerous diversion, steering us away from the important question of Who decides?

I don’t accept the premise of the very existence of these standards, but leaving that point aside, I do have a question for the “leading scholars” of the Validation Committee of the Common Core State (sic) Standards. Looking at their very impressive credentials, I don’t see any mention of elementary school teaching experience.

I’d ask when was the last time any of them was shut up in a room with twenty-five eight-year-olds–or twelve-year-olds. A teacher offers books to students based on the actual classroom reality of that minute. Case in point: I taught third grade in a school that rigorously classified students into high readers, middle readers, and low readers. My first year there, I taught, at my request, the “low readers.” A few months into the school year, an Amelia Bedelia title offered a phenomenal breakthrough reading experience for more than half the class, and so the next year, I started out the year with Amelia Bedelia. For that group, also classified as “low readers,” but significantly more able, Amelia was ho-hum history, something they’d enjoyed in second grade. They immediately showed me they needed something with more meat. So we jumped into Beatrix Potter and Beverly Cleary. Different kids need different books at different times. And you can’t decree this ahead of time.

Ten years teaching seventh and eighth graders showed me this same truth again and again. After he claimed he’d read every book in our classroom, including two sets of encyclopedia, I shoved Dr. Seuss’ Hop on Pop at fifteen-year-old Keith and commanded, “Read this!” Keith, a boy usually on the move–never still–sat motionless for the entire period–at first because he recognized my ‘she who must be obeyed’ mode but then because he got hooked into the book. When Keith finally closed the last page, his expression was one of puzzlement. “I did it. I read this book. Seriously, Miz O. I read it. For real. You wanna hear me?” Throughout the rest of year, whenever things weren’t going well for Keith, he’d say, “How would you like to hear that Hop on Pop book?” and he’d pull up a chair and calm himself by reading a few pages out loud. And he asked those magic words, “Did that Dr. Seuss write any more books?” He ended the year having read more than one book.

In a video produced by the Council of Great City Schools ($8,496,854 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), self-proclaimed Common Core architect David Coleman orates that all students need rigorous texts and he offers advice to the student, like Keith, who is several years behind: “You’re going to practice it again and again and again and again. . . so there’s a chance you can finally do that level of work.”

Those words show Coleman’s chilling disregard for the individual needs of individual students and this is the thread that runs throughout the Common Core imperatives–approved by the august committee referred to by Marc Tucker.

As any teacher worth her salt can do, I offer individual, idiosyncratic stories about individual idiosyncratic kids’ special connections with books. I was lucky enough early in my career to be hired as reading teacher in a program funded by the New York State department of education in the name of innovation. My boss there was himself a reader, and we decided to take the state at their word and be innovative. He let me use the book budget for voucher chips redeemable at a local bookstore. Every month I gave every student a chip good for the purchase of one paperback book. I took kids on a tour of the store the first time. After that, they were on their own. Their choices were remarkably smart. From time to time I was able to dip into the voucher chest and buy multiple copies of high interest titles such as Soul Brothers and Sister Lou and J. T., for group reading. When state inspectors came to see what caused standardized test scores to soar, they asked, “What program do you use?” I replied, “We read a lot of Shel Silverstein”–because my boss had told me we must never let the very conservative school board know how we were spending the book budget. I kept the secret for the fifteen years I worked in the district. Now I tell it as tribute to an administrator who believed in the power of books.

I saw this same ability to make good choices when I taught the “low readers” of third grade. In the Spring we won a Scholastic contest in which the prize was 100 free books. I handed out catalogues and told the kids they each got three choices–two to keep for themselves and one for the classroom library. No standards committee could have chosen as well as those kids did. No teacher savvy about reading could have done any better.

The issue here is not which “informational text” (what a pompous, ignorant term, as though fiction and poetry didn’t provide critical information) is assigned or which grade gets drilled on apostrophe use. The issue is Who decides? The decision should be local and never allowed to fossilize. The truth of the matter is that universal standards can’t apply in a single classroom, never mind across the country. The issue is trusting teachers, trusting kids, and trusting them to find the books they need. The Common Core trusts nothing but computerized programs that train teachers and kids to do what they’re told.