Robert D. Shepherd has had a long career as an author, curriculum developer, and textbook editor. But more than that: he is a remarkably independent thinker. Here are some of his latest reflections on the Common Core:

“Ideas matter. In part, the faculties of education schools and state and local education administrators have brought the current education deform movement upon themselves by imagining that it’s a simple matter to derive and then apply, in the human sciences and humanities, generalizations of the kinds that are the goal of mathematics and of “hard” sciences like chemistry and physics.

The accountability movement is based upon the notion that one can promulgate standards, test kids on their achievement of these, and then evaluate teachers and schools based on them. Have a look at these standards, and what do you see? Well, the standards are abstractions, generalizations: The student will be able to recognize the main idea. The student will be able to draw inferences. The student will be able to determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text. In English language arts, the CONTENT of what is studied is treated in the new standards AS AN AFTERTHOUGHT. We are told that students should be reading substantive, grade-level appropriate works. Some examples of these are given in an appendix. But the standards themselves are simply a list of abstract skills and “strategies.” They don’t even include ANY descriptions of procedures that students might learn for carrying out tasks. So, they completely ignore both world knowledge (knowledge of what) and procedural knowledge (knowledge of how), though they occasionally make vague references to what would result if one had (miraculously, by what means they do not say) acquired the latter.

Back in 1984, Palinscar and Brown wrote a highly influential paper about something they called “reciprocal learning.” They suggested, in that paper, that teachers conducting reading circles encourage dialogue about texts by having students do prediction, ask questions, clarify the text, and summarize. Excellent advice. But this little paper had an enormously detrimental unintended effect on the professional education community. All groups are naturally protective of their own turf. The paper by Palinscar and Brown had handed the professional education community a definition of their turf: You see, we do, after all, have a unique, respectable, scientific field of our own that justifies our existence—we are the keepers of “strategies” for learning. The reading community, in particular, embraced this notion wholeheartedly. Reading comprehension instruction became MOSTLY about teaching reading strategies, and an industry for identifying reading strategies and teaching those emerged. The vast, complex field of reading comprehension was narrowed to a few precepts: teach kids to identify the main idea and supporting details; teach them to identify sequences and causes and effects; teach them to make inferences; teach them to use context clues; teach them to identify text elements. Throughout American K-12 education, we started seeing curriculum materials organized around teaching these “strategies.” Where before a student might do a lesson on reading Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he or she would now do a lesson on Making Predictions, and any text that contained some examples of predictions would be a worthy object of study.

Now, the problem with working at such a high level of abstraction—of having our lessons be about, say, “making inferences,” is that the abstraction reifies, it hypostasizes. It combines apples and shoelaces and football teams under a single term and creates a false belief that some particular thing—not an enormous range of disparate phenomena—is referred to by the abstraction. In the years after Palinscar and Brown’s paper, educational publishers produced hundreds of thousands of lessons on “Making Inferences,” and one can look through all of them, in vain, for any sign of awareness on the part of the lesson’s creators that inference is enormously varied and that “making proper inferences” involves an enormous amount of learning that is specific to inferences of different kinds. There are, in fact, whole sciences devoted to the different types of inference—deduction, induction, and abduction—and whole sciences devoted to specific problems within each.

The question of how to “make an inference” is extraordinarily complex, and a great deal human attention has been given to it over the centuries, and a quick glance at any of the hundreds of thousands of Making Inferences lessons in our textbooks and in papers about reading strategies by education professors will reveal that almost nothing of what is actually known about this question has found its way into our instruction. If professional educators were really interested in teaching their students how to “make inferences,” then they would, themselves, take the trouble to learn some propositional and predicate logic so that they would understand what deductive inference is about. They would have taken the trouble to learn some basic probability and techniques for hypothesis testing so that they would understand the tools of inductive and abductive inference. But they haven’t done this because it’s difficult, and so, when they write their papers and create their lessons about “making inferences,” they are doing this in blissful ignorance of what making inferences really means and, importantly, of the key concepts that would be useful for students to know about making inferences that are reasonable. This is but one example of how, over the past few decades, a façade, a veneer of scientific respectability has been erected in the field of “English language arts” that has precious little real value.

I bring up the issue of instruction in making inferences in order to make a more general point—the professional education establishment, and especially that part of it that concerns itself with English language arts and reading instruction, has retreated into dealing in poorly conceived generalization and abstraction. Reading comprehension instruction, in particular, has DEVOLVED into the teaching of reading strategies, and those strategies are not much more than puffery and vagueness. There is no there there. No kid walks away from his or her Making Inferences lesson with any substantive learning, with any world knowledge or concept or set of procedures that can actually be applied in order to determine what kind of inference a particular one is and whether that inference is reasonable. Why? Because one has to learn and teach a lot of complex material in order to do these things at all, and professional education folks have decided, oddly, that they can teach making inferences without, themselves, learning about what kinds of inferences there are and how one evaluates the various kinds.

The retreat into generalization by education professionals in reading and English language arts is one example of a more general phenomenon—the desire by social scientists and politicians and a few wealthy plutocrats to do social engineering based upon abstract principles—you get what you measure, for example. Beware of people and their abstractions because the social sciences are MUCH harder than the so-called hard sciences are. Valid, true abstractions in the social sciences almost always have to be hard won and to be highly qualified. A quick glance at Greenberg’s book on language universals is instructive in this regard. Almost every one is an abstraction followed by pages of exceptions. Ideologues love political, social, and economic abstractions. They love to think that there are simple answers to every problem and that these can be encapsulated in generalizations.

Amusingly, the new Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] are totally schizoid on this issue of abstraction and generalization in education and social engineering. On the one hand, the supporting materials around those standards [sic] call for a great RETURN TO THE TEXT—for having our students read substantive works with higher Lexile levels and having them do close reading of those texts. The supporting materials around the new standards also call for subordinating skills and strategies instruction, for making these incidental to emphasis on the text. Well and good. But the standards themselves are more of the same. They are lists of abstract, general skills and strategies, and they encourage the continuation of a kind of schooling that focuses on form rather than on content (knowledge of the world and knowledge of procedures). And so the new [sic] standards [sic] are, sadly, more of the same. However, lists of abstractions have appeal to those who think that they can confidently implement their social engineering based upon their own abstract principles like “you get what you measure,” so it’s not surprising that the social engineers would LOVE the new CCSS in ELA.

We need to return to reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—to focusing on this poem, this essay, this novel, and what it communicates, and we need to retreat from having our students read to practice their inferencing skills or their identifying the main idea or context clues skills. We read because we are interested in Hedda Gabler or Madame Bovery and the plights they are in, not because we wish to hone our understanding of the structure of the novel IN GENERAL. That will come, but it can come ONLY as a result of first READING the novels. In our rush to make ELA education scientific, in our emphasis on abstract form over content, we’ve forgotten why we read. We don’t read to hone our inferencing skills. We don’t read because we are fascinated by where, in this essay, the author has placed the main idea. Our purpose in reading is not to find out how the author organized her story in order to create suspense. We read because we are interested in what the text has to say, and the metacognitive abstraction about the text is incidental. It grows out of and relates to what this particular text does and takes meaning from that. The Common Core State Standards in ELA is just another set of blithering, poorly thought out abstractions. And starting from there, instead of starting with the text and its content, is a mistake.

Beware the social engineer and his or her abstractions.”

Shepherd added this additional thought:

“One could implement the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts perfectly and have students entirely miss what reading literature is about. They would not come away from their literature classes with the understanding that when they read a literary work well, they enter into an imaginative world and have an experience there, in all its concreteness and specificity, and it is then THAT experience that has significance, that matters, that has “meaning.”

You can’t skip the experience and go directly to the meaning, and that’s what students are encouraged to do if their lessons concentrate on abstract, formal notions from some list of standards rather than upon reading as experiencing. Now, when I say that reading literature is experiencing, I do not mean that all readings are therefore equally good. Literature makes use of conventions and inventions designed to give people particular imaginative experiences that will be common to readers, with, of course, some variation, experiences that will mean something, not mean anything at all that the reader takes away from it. Literature counts on the fact that when people have an experience like this, they will take away common learnings. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, a person tells a story because there is something that he or she wishes to communicate. The Vietnam vets used to say, “You wouldn’t know because you weren’t there, man.” Well, reading literature well is about going THERE. It’s about having that experience, carefully arranged so that you will come from it with certain learnings, often with wisdom.

Find THAT in the Common Core State Standards for literature.

Good luck.”