Friday, May 18, 2012

David Coleman and Reading

This week the College Board named its new President: David Coleman, who is best known for being the architect and the public face of the Common Core Standards.

The choice of Coleman makes sense, since the SATs and AP tests, like the Common Core Standards, are basically measuring two things, aside from innate ability: 1) the cultural capital students have gotten from their parents; 2) the amount of reading students have done.  The announcement made me look closer at Coleman and his standards, and I was disturbed, if not surprised, by what I saw.

I glanced at the Common Core Standards themselves, and found them to be the usual bland description of what students should be able to do (read increasingly complex texts, understand them, and write interpretively about them), with slight variations according to grade level.  I wasn't making much headway with the Standards themselves.  So I did what my students do: I went to the video.

To see what Coleman himself was like, and how he sees the standards as differing from current practice, I watched a video of one of his talks.  Given many millions of dollars by Bill Gates to promote and publicize the common core standards (which Gates paid to have written in the first place), Coleman has been traveling the country giving presentations, teaching sample lessons, and making films of many of his appearances. The 2 hour presentation I watched was the one Coleman made to the NY State Department of Education in April of 2011.

That speech is notorious among Common Core foes for a line Coleman tossed off as part of his argument against having students do personal writing in the older grades.  According to Coleman, "As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think."  Coleman went on to explain that in the business world no one was going to say, "Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood."

That Coleman could say this to a group of educators is shocking, and it deserved all the opprobrium it got.  Our children's liberal arts education should not be defined and limited by what might be required of them in some future career in corporate marketing.

For the purposes of this blog and post I want to concentrate on another aspect of his speech: how Coleman's proposals would affect students' reading.   What I was really worried about, as usual, was reading volume, so I was interested in Coleman's response to audience members who raised exactly that issue.  One of the first questions was about how to, in the questioner's words, "allow the kids at their own levels to be able to grow as learners and readers."  Coleman's response was disturbing:  first he acknowledged that of course students should be doing a lot of independent recreational reading (though he didn't acknowledge that his own standards say nothing about this practice or how to encourage it); then he uttered the following words:

"I must tell you an alarming thing for those who overly bank on that independent recreational reading. We talked to the leading provider of such tools for children. Do you know what grade level student choice of text levels out at? Overwhelmingly, 90% of the selections stop at this level--5th grade. So while we must encourage that work, we must not overly rely on it..."

This is circular reasoning at its most simplistic and blind: kids choose low-level books to read, so reading books they choose will not help them get better at reading.  What Coleman ignores is the possibility that kids are essentially unable to read books above that level.  (Also striking is that nauseating phrase: "the leading provider of such tools for children."  What "tools" is he talking about?  Those things that most of us call "books"?  And could a "provider of such tools for children" be that entity that most of us would call a "children's book publisher"?  I am not sure which would be worse, that Coleman refers to Scholastic, Inc. in such a way, or that Coleman is referring to some other "tools" that some corporation has developed for use in "independent recreational reading."  Either way, I am sure that anyone who is capable of saying, "the leading provider of such tools for children," should not be in charge of directing our country's literacy education.)

Coleman is the kind of guy who talks tough about where we "must" get to, but has no idea how to get there, the kind of guy who fifty years ago would have been cheerleading us into war in Vietnam. Coleman, who has never been a teacher himself, is a classic armchair warrior, like the chicken hawks in the Bush administration; he has never been on the front lines himself, but wants to tell the rest of us where we are supposed to go.

I also want to look at the standards themselves: what do they mean for teaching English in America?

According to Coleman himself, the common core standards make six important shifts away from current practice.  Since my basic position is that the most important thing for kids' academic success is for them to read more, I think it's useful to evaluate any ELA program or proposal in terms of what effect it would likely have on reading volume.  I'd like to consider each of the Common Core's "shifts" in the light of my own preoccupation with how much kids are reading. 

1) The Common Core Standards would reduce the amount of fiction that students read and increase the amount of "informational text."  This is supposed to increase kids' knowledge about the world, thereby increasing their ability to learn other stuff and their ability to read more complex texts.  The problem with this shift is that most students don't, won't, and often can't read the kinds of more complex "informational text" that Coleman wishes they would.  My seven-year-old daughter loves so many books, and none of them are non-fiction.  She is and will be a great reader, no thanks to David Coleman.

2) The second shift Coleman highlights is the increased emphasis on literacy in the non-ELA subjects: essentially, Reading Across the Curriculum.  Here he seems again to have little idea of how to get there; he just thinks kids should be able to read a complex science textbook.  Great; I think so too.  But I don't think you get there by just wishing for it.

3) The Common Core Standards call for schools to use more complex texts.  Based on my experience with Leafstrewn students, this is just more wishful thinking, and will decrease the amount of text that students are actually reading.  Many of our students can't handle the complexity of the textbooks we are giving them now, and giving them more complexity is going to make it even less likely that they will actually read the texts.  Coleman attributes the need for remediation in college to the low-level texts used in high school, while it seems to me that the remediation is needed for the same reason the low-level texts are needed--because students aren't very good readers.  Poor readers will get better by reading more, and giving poor readers difficult textbooks is hardly going to get them to read more.

4) The Common Core Standards call for more text-dependent questions.  This is perhaps the only shift that I actually agree with.  Yes, we should be making our kids pay close attention to the text.  Okay!

5) The fifth shift is away from personal writing and toward writing that focuses on making an argument with evidence.  This strikes me as something that has already happened at Leafstrewn, and I am very skeptical that we need even as much of it as we already have.  I increasingly want to go back to the era I grew up in, when people were championing things like "writing as discovery".  In any case, I am against any curriculum shift that is defended by saying that in ten years our students will be called upon to write market analyses, and I think our students give a shit how they feel, so their teachers should care, too.

6) The sixth shift the Coleman says the Common Core Standards make is toward more explicit vocabulary instruction.  I have spent some time trying to discern the value of explicit vocabulary instruction, and I'm going to devote a long post to it one of these weeks, but I am sure that spending a lot of class time on vocabulary will do nothing to increase the volume of our students' actual reading.  If anything, explicit vocabulary instruction takes time in class when kids could be reading.

This is a longer post than I had intended.  The long and short of it is: thumbs down to Coleman and the Common Core.  For Leafstrewn, probably nothing will change, but for the country as a whole, this man's ascendance is just another depressing aspect of the corporatization of public education.


  1. Sometimes I think it works this way: the ignorance of the bureaucrat is directly proportional to the square of the distance between this person and the classroom teacher. Has any top-down reform plan EVER worked? What iteration of the CC standards are we on at this point? Can any classroom teacher keep up? Who will pay for the professional development to introduce this new core? who will pay for the necessary resources? what will happen when teachers discover that it doesn't work in their classrooms?

    You say that "For Leafstrewn, probably nothing will change," but haven't the L-strewn elementary schools recently decided to pay a truckload of money to a "leading provider for children" to purchase "readers"? (How ironic that "reader" comes to refer to the text that many kids will not find interesting to read; the "readers" will sit on the shelves while the human readers will sit on their hands.)

    Thanks for the depth of this post. I've ignored Coleman up to this point, and I appreciate how you've synthesized his views. Remember when we all thought that slashing the department of education was a BAD idea? If Obama is not bringing change to this part of the government, who will?

  2. "You say that "For Leafstrewn, probably nothing will change," but haven't the L-strewn elementary schools recently decided to pay a truckload of money to a "leading provider for children" to purchase "readers"? (How ironic that "reader" comes to refer to the text that many kids will not find interesting to read; the "readers" will sit on the shelves while the human readers will sit on their hands.) "

    "Reader" is a funny term; I don't think I've ever noticed that before. But... Wow, really? I think I managed to tune out our purchase... Do you mean those things that the elementary curriculum coordinator said looked just like books? I guess I thought they were more books... I took her whole presentation we saw on revamping the elementary school curriculum as being more about getting the right levels of books into kids hands--which I approve of, in general. But maybe I wasn't listening skeptically enough!

  3. > Many of our students can't handle the complexity of the textbooks > we are giving them now, and giving them more complexity is going > to make it even less likely that they will actually read the
    > texts.

    Does anyone read textbooks anymore?

    1. As far as I can tell, the most common homework in Social Studies classes at Leafstrewn is to read and take notes on a chapter or so of the textbook. Science and Math classes also have textbooks that students are supposed to read. True, I didn't have a textbook (I don't think) when I was a high school student, but times have changed.

  4. hey, EC,

    Good post! It's my feeling that reading and writing are essential efforts in a life in which we claim "awareness." But I'd take it further. All I'd do is read and write and talk and read and write and talk and jump and run and walk and talk and read and sing and read and beat on drums and dance and sing and read and talk and dance.

    But this kind of education would make us very useless corporate citizens.