Robert Shepherd explains his negative view of the Common Core standards:

One topic that rarely gets discussed in the debate about the new standards [sic] is their poor quality. If these had been handed me by a graduate student as, say, a thesis project, I would have told her that they were not yet of acceptable quality for bringing before a committee.

These standards [sic] just weren’t thought through carefully. Let’s look at one standard [sic], which I have chosen completely at random:

RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
First, this standard [sic] flies in the face of a century of work in hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation, in its assumption (big assumption!) that an author’s choices are a proper object of study. This is an extremely controversial position, but it is taken for granted in the standard [sic]. E. D. Hirsch stood almost alone, throughout much of the past century, in his heroic defense of the author’s choices, or intentions, as proper objects of scholarly attention. During that time, many scholars and critics, perhaps most professional literary people, contended that the author’s choices, or intentions, were irrelevant or irrecoverable or both and that we must attend, instead,

  • to the text itself (Ransom, Tate, Empson, Brooks, Warren, Wimsatt, Beardsley, and others of the New Critical school; Propp, Jakobson, Stith Thompson, Levi-Strauss, and other Formalists and Structuralists);
  • to the reader’s construction of the text (in their various ways, Barthes, Fish, Rosenblatt, Derrida, and other Reader Response, Postmodernist, and Deconstructionist critics); or
  • to historically determined responses to the text and differences in these over time (Heidegger, Gademer, Foucault, Greenblatt, and other Historicist and new Historicist critics).

It’s fairly typical of these standards [sic] to be worded in complete obliviousness of the fact that people have thought pretty seriously about literature over the past hundred and fifty years and have, in the course of all that, learned a few things.

Second, why, at this level (Grades 11 and 12) are students being asked to concentrate, in particular, on the structures of specific parts of a text? Would it make more sense, instead, to address overall structure at these grade levels, building upon analyses of structures of specific parts of texts done at earlier grade levels? Was this possibility considered? Certainly, there is much that we know about structure in texts that is quite important to the interpretation of works of all kinds, literary and otherwise, that is never addressed anywhere in the standards [sic]. Unfortunately, the standards [sic] do not build in students, over time, familiarity with many extremely common structural patterns–episodic structure, cyclical structure, choral structure, the five-act play, the monomyth, the three unities–one could make a long list.

Shouldn’t this be the time, at the end of the K-12 program, to sum up what has been learned in earlier grades about specific literary structures, to draw some broad conclusions about common overall literary structures and their determinative influence on the making of literary works? Do we want to make sure, before they graduate, that students understand the basics of conventional plot structure? Shouldn’t we review that because it is so fundamental and because this is our last chance to do so before we ship kids off into their post-secondary colleges and careers? Again, were such questions considered? I doubt it.

Third, aren’t the relations of specific structure to a) overall structure, b) meaning, and c) aesthetic impact quite distinct topics of study? Why are they lumped together in this standard [sic]? Don’t these require quite a lot of unpacking? This is a common fault of the standards [sic]. They often combine apples and oranges and shoelaces and are ALL OVER THE PLACE with regard to their level of generality or specificity,. Often, there seems to be no rationale for why a given standard is extremely specific or extremely broad or, like this one, both, in parts.

Fourth, does it make sense, at all, to work in this direction, from general notions about literary works as expressed in a standard [sic] like this, rather than from specific case studies? Wouldn’t real standards be encouraging empirical, inductive thinking, beginning with specific works, with study of patterns of relationship in those works, and then and only then asking students to make generalizations or exposing them to generalizations made by knowledgeable scholars who have thought systematically about those patterns of relationship? Wouldn’t that be a LOT more effective pedagogically? Isn’t that what the Publishers’ Criteria say? Isn’t the overall apporach taken in these standards [sic] antithetical to the very “close reading” that they purport to encourage? Isn’t it true that by handing teachers and students nationwide a bunch of implicit generalizations like those in this standard [sic], the makers of the standards [sic] are encouraging uncritical acceptance of those generalizations about texts rather than an empirical approach that proceeds inductively, based on real analysis, to build understanding?

Fifth, what is meant by this word structure in the standard [sic]? The examples given (where the piece begins, comedic or tragic resolution) suggest that students are to analyze narrative structures, but there are many other kinds of structures in literary works. Are teachers to ignore those and concentrate on narrative structures? Was that among the “choices” that the authors of the standards made for the rest of us? What about rhetorical structures? metrical structures? logical structures? imitative or derivative structures based on forms in other media (e.g., John Dos Passos’s “Newsreels”)? Are teachers to ignore those? Is it unimportant for 11th- and 12th-grade students to learn about the reductio (Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan or Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King); the thesis, antithesis, synthesis structure, or dialectic (Rebecca Goldstein’s Mazel); choral structure (The Book of Job, Antigone); metrical structures like formulaic oral composition (the Sundiata, the Iliad) or terza rima? The standards [sic] are shot through with such glaring lacunae. One asks oneself, reading them, why are students studying this, in particular, and not that? Why at this grade level? Why is this and this and this and this left out?

That’s a quick analysis of just one standard [sic], which I really did choose at random by glancing at a list of these on my desktop. And it’s one of the better ones.
What standards [sic] like these do is impose a regimen from the top that everyone must follow. This is what we have decided is important. All the stuff we left out is not. In this way, the standards [sic] discourage creative development of competing approaches that are better thought through, that are more in line with what is now known about the domains covered and about pedagogy in those domains. Standards [sic] like these–ones that are, de facto, mandatory–hamstring textbook writers, curriculum developers, and teachers, forcing them to address topics at random that are not part of a more carefully conceived overall learning progression.