The Common Core emphasizes the importance of “close reading,” that is, understanding the meaning of a text without reference to context or background knowledge, which presumably might privilege some students over others.

In this post, Valerie Strauss explains how the writers of the Common Core conceptualize the teaching of the Gettysburg Address. It was delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, nearly five months after the Battle of Gettysburg, where Union forces defeated the Confederate army.

Strauss writes:

The unit — “A Close Reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address“ — is designed for students to do a “close reading” of the address “with text-dependent questions” — but without historical context. Teachers are given a detailed 29-page script of how to teach the unit, with the following explanation:

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 address.

The Gettysburg Address unit can be found on the Web site of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization founded by three people described as “lead authorsof the Common Core State Standards.” They are David Coleman,  now president of the College Board who worked on the English Language Arts standards; Jason Zimba, who worked on the math standards; and Susan Pimental, who worked on the ELA standards. The organization’s Linked In biography also describes the three as the “lead writers of the Common Core State Standards.”

Strauss added a letter from a teacher who complained about the insufficiency of “close reading” when considering a text so fraught with meaning as the Gettysburg address. How is a student to understand the text while knowing nothing about where or why it was delivered?

In this post, Paul Horton–who teaches history at the University Lab School in Chicago–reacts to Valerie Strauss’s column on the Common Core “close reading” of the Gettysburg Address.

Horton writes:

The reading of the Gettysburg Address for the authors of the Common Core Standards is an exercise in the acquisition of literacy. The document is cut away from any context that would allow students to understand its historical significance.

This idea, after all, is the whole point of the postwar evolution of the “New Criticism”: literary value is determined by a work’s internal complexity: the tensions between elements or particulars and symbols, as leading “new critic” John Crowe Ransom who was the founding editor of the Kenyon Review might say.

Students who read the Address will be assessed on developing a short essay discussion of three main ideas discussed. The short essay will be graded according to a rubric that looks for key words, organization, and the repetition of key ideas.

He notes that this vitally important speech is shorn of any historical meaning when it is subjected to “close reading.”

Why the “close reading,” absent context?

It makes student answers easier to grade by machine.

Horton writes:

When the test makers designed the standards and the curriculum, they were not concerned with what the kids are learning or with anything that could possibly resemble knowledge. They created tests that could be graded easily and cheaply, either by teams that had been validated on an airtight rubric, or by computer algorithms.

And he adds:

If you were to write about the unbearable sadness of feeling the weight of hundreds of thousands of deaths and families torn asunder, you would fail your Pearson test. The state Superintendent’s “cut” might feel like an amputation.

Context? Don’t they do that in history class? From what I have seen, the Common Core snippet patrol can pare “Big History” down to a couple of milliseconds of not so cosmic time. History is lucky to get a “New York minute” these days. Schools are letting go of all of the old farts and marms who teach in depth research and who care about “significance.”

If you don’t know that the winter of 1863 was a tough time because of all of those details that the retired and fired teachers took with them when they cleared their desks, you would be a great candidate for teaching the “Gettysburg Address” and History with the script handed you by our genius test makers.

How is it possible for any student to understand the meaning of the Gettysburg Address without knowing the historical context in which it was delivered?