Teach It, Test It: Here We Go Again

 Are you wondering and worrying about the Common Core State Standards?  Me, too.  I want to ask you to consider a few things as you brace for the inevitable onslaught of CCSS testing and curriculum requirements:

             The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.  (CCSS 2010, p. 7)

These wise words are from the preface of the CCSS.  They remind us not to repeat the mistakes made during the 90s and 2000s when way too many teachers were told to teach to the test, not to the students.  Test scores declined anyway, and a lot of money went anywhere but helping teachers teach, not to mention the waste of precious time and energy.  We lost our way.  We learned from that dark time, too, so as we face this new generation of Standards, we must guard against thinking Standards and test scores are all that education offers our students.  They deserve so much more from us, the professionals.  The communities in which we live and work depend on us getting it right this time.

When I hear things like:  “That’s not Common Core,” I  take a deep breath and ask myself why we allowed — yet again — an outside group of people to define what is meaningful to teach.  Common Core does not have a monopoly on what’s important. There are holes a mile wide and deep in the CCSS.  Where is the Standard about enjoying and loving to read?  Being passionate about reading?  It’s not there.  

In writing, there are four standards:

1.  Text Types and Purposes

2.  Production and Distribution of Writing

3.  Research to Build and Present Knowledge

4.  Range of Writing

These Standards are appropriately vague, even though they are further described in accompanying documents.  A close inspection reveals they don’t address affective issues relating to writing, either.  Why not mention that a passion for writing can benefit students as they struggle to get the right words and phrases down with skill and grace?  What, not testable?  I am beginning to see a troubling pattern here.  What really matters can’t be boiled down to a single assessment, not matter how artfully crafted, so critical areas of literacy are left out of the Standards making it much simpler to design the tests.

What worries me a lot at this early stage of living with the CCSS is their literal interpretation.  I’ve had dozen of emails from teachers and administrators asking for clarification of opinion/argumentative writing.  In my work with the Traits, I’ve always referred to persuasive writing as exactly that.  Not opinion, not argumentative, but persuasive — writing that constructs an argument.  There is a heated discussion going on about the use of the term persuasive in Standard #1:  Text Types and Purposes.

CCSS assigns the standard of opinion writing to the lower grades and argumentative to the upper grades, in other words, they narrow the possibilities of how to construct an argument to two zones: one easier, one harder.  Traditionally, persuasive writing is developed by the writer’s ability to combine three approaches:  credibility, logic, and emotion.  There is lots of room among the three to teach the skills necessary for powerful persuasive writing.   I still stand firmly that the developmental appropriateness of persuasive writing is questionable for beginning writers.  What’s the big hurry?  Yes, they can be taught a cookie-cutter approach to stating an opinion and backing it up with an example using deadly boring and mindless sentence frames.  But, are they really ready for the deeper thinking required for this mode?

I believe primary writers are much better served by working in the narrative and expository modes and developing solid, foundational writing skills while being exposed to persuasive writing in texts and models, and asking and answering questions such as,  What would you do to this expository piece to establish a position and support it?  How would you take it up a notch?  After all, isn’t persuasive writing strong expository writing with an attitude?  Can we agree to the intent  and not quibble about wording?  

One last thought on this topic.  I have to wonder who is served by taking the persuasive mode a different direction with different language and force feeding it to the field?  CCSS didn’t seem to have a problem with the broader “narrative” and “expository” terms.  Why take on persuasive?  Its big brother, NAEP, seems perfectly happy with it, after all.  It’s created confusion–that’s never good.  And here’s a scary thought:  Will teachers only be allowed to buy (often out of their own pockets) and use teaching materials that have the magic words in them?  Well, that would be creating a monopoly on publishing, wouldn’t it?  And that wouldn’t be right, would it? (This is the very kind of thing you can say in a Blog but you can’t say in an academic essay for fear of offending people.  I think I like Blogs–a timely CCSS text type.)

The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.  (CCSS 2010, p. 7)

Bottom line:  we have to teach with methods that make a difference.  With what motivates students.  With what challenges and inspires them.   We must make instructional decisions so students can learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.  And with big amounts of joy and laughter along the way–even if it isn’t tested.  Are you really ready to surrender to the CCSS and commit to them without equivocation?   After all, the assessment will roll out in a couple of years and by then,  if you don’t know your argumentative from persuasive, you may find it’s too late to even have an opinion on CCSS.

Keep the Standards, add to them (she argues persuasively), and don’t let them define your teaching.  The Standards have worthy goals in mind for students, but they are not the Holy Grail.  There is something oddly off about having isolated Standards for reading and writing anyway.  Doesn’t the important learning happen along the way?  Why does it always seem to boil down to reaching someone’s idea of the destination?  


About Ruth Culham

RUTH CULHAM has written more than 40 books and best-selling resources illuminating both writing and the reading-writing connection for countless educators around the globe. Her groundbreaking work with the writing traits and writing from reading is the culmination of 40 years of research, practice, and passion. Ruth’s most recent books, The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing and Dream Wakers: Mentor Texts That Celebrate Latino Culture, are available from Stenhouse Publishers. She also conducts professional development for schools and districts and writes a regular column for The Reading Teacher.
This entry was posted in Author, Education, Teaching writing, The Trait Lady, Traits Writing, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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