In Defense of Poetry: “Oh My Heart”

“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.”

Paul Proteus to his wife Anita in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano

“So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” is, essentially, a grammatical sentence in the English language. While the syntax is somewhat out of the norm, the diction is accessible to small children—the hardest word likely being “depends.” But “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is much more than a sentence; it is a poem:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

A relatively simple English language sentence shaped into purposeful lines and stanzas becomes poetry. And like Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” it sparks in me a profoundly important response each time I read these poems: [Expletive], I wish I had written that.

It is the same awe and wonder that I felt as a shy and deeply self-conscious teenager when I bought, collected, and read comic books, marveling at the artwork I wish I had drawn.

Will we soon wake one morning to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

That question, especially during National Poetry Month, now haunts me more every day, notably because of the double-impending doom augured by the Common Core: the rise of nonfiction (and the concurrent erasing of poetry and fiction) from the ELA curriculum and the mantra-of-the-moment, “close reading” (the sheep’s clothing for that familiar old wolf New Criticism):

It seems we have come to a moment in the history of the US when we no longer even pretend to care about that which is the result of the human heart: Art.

And poetry, I contend, is the most human of the arts because—although it is quite challenging often to distinguish humans from other mammals—we have two attributes that do set us apart: our too-big brains and our faculty for language.

Poetry is the very human effort to utter order out of chaos, meaning out of the meaningless: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”).

The course was Speech, taught by Mr. Brannon. I was a freshman at a junior college just 15-20 miles from my home, the college my parents had attended when they first fell in love and married secretly.

Despite the college’s close proximity to my home, my father insisted that I live on campus. But that class and those first two years of college were more than living on campus; they were the essential beginning of my life.

In one of the earliest classes, Mr. Brannon read aloud and gave us a copy of “[in Just-]“ by e. e. cummings. I imagine that moment was, for me, what many people describe as a religious experience.

That was more than thirty years ago, but I have two precious books still that followed from that day in class: cummings’s Complete Poems and Selected Poems:


Several years later, Emily Dickinson‘s Complete Poems would join my commitment to reading every poem by those poets who made me respond over and over: [Expletive], I wish I had written that.

But that introduction to cummings was more than a young and insecure man finding the poets he wanted to read; it was when I realized I am a poet.

Now, when the words “j was young&happy” come to me, I know there is work to do—I recognize the gift of poetry.

As a high school English teacher, I divided my academic year into quarters by genre/form: nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels/ plays. The poetry quarter, when announced to students, initially received moans and even direct complaints: “I hate poetry.”

To be honest, that always broke my heart, crushed my soul. Life and school had already taken something very precious from these young people:

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew (“[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

Gradually and then always, I taught poetry in conjunction with popular songs. Although my students in rural South Carolina were overwhelmingly country music fans, I focused my nine weeks of poetry on the songs of alternative group R.E.M.

For the record, that too elicited moans from students in those early days of exploring poetry (see that unit now on the blog “There’s time to teach”).

Concurrently, throughout my high school teaching career, students always gathered in my room during our long mid-morning break and lunch (much to the chagrin of administration). And almost always, we played music.

The epitome of that unspoken norm of my classroom was two students who, after I introduced them to The Violent Femmes, would close my door in order to dance and sing along with their songs.

Many of those students are in their 30s and 40s, but it is common for them to contact me—often on Facebook—and recall fondly R.E.M. and our poetry unit. Those days and years meant something to them that lingers, that matters in ways that cannot be measured.

I can still see and hear those two students dancing, singing, and laughing. It was an oasis of happiness in their days at school, an oasis of happiness in their lives.

e.e. cummings begins “since feeling is first,” and then adds:

my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter….

And each year when my students and I examined this poem, we would discuss that cummings—in Andrew Marvell fashion—offers an argument that is profoundly unlike what parents, teachers, preachers, and politicians claim.

So I often paired this poem with Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” focusing on:

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

Especially for teenagers, this question, this tension between heart and mind, mattered. Just as it recurs in the words of poets and musicians over decades, centuries.

Poetry, as with all art, is the expressed heart—that human quest to rise above our corporeal humanness:

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

I have loved a few people intensely. So deeply that my love, I believe, resides permanently in my bones. If you read my poetry, you will recognize that motif, I am sure.

One such love is my daughter, and she now carries the next human who will add to that ache of being fully human—loving another beyond words.

And that, I contend, is poetry.

Poetry is not identifying iambic pentameter on a poetry test or discussing the nuances of enjambment in an analysis of a Dickinson poem.

Poems are not fodder for close reading.

Poetry is the ineluctable “Oh my heart” that comes from living fully in the moment of being human, the moment that draws us to words as well as inspires us toward words.

We read a poem, we listen to a song, and our hearts rise out of our eyes as tears.

That is poetry.

And like the picture books of our childhood, poetry must be a part of our learning, essential to our school days—each poem an oasis of happiness that “machines will never be able to measure.”

Will we soon wake one morning to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

Maybe the doomsayers are wrong, and maybe, just maybe, poetry will not be erased from our classrooms.

School with less poetry is school with less heart. School with no poetry is school with no heart.

Both are tragic mistakes because if school needs anything, it is more heart. And poetry? Oh my heart.

NOTE: This post was drafted in the wake of driving to work while listening to Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head. Or to be perfectly honest, while singing loudly along with each song and occasionally crying. There. So keep that in mind.

David Coleman’s Latest Khan

Maybe we need a Khan Academy video series to help the public in the U.S. understand the term “free.”

When you are driving late at night, and you are in unfamiliar rural America in need of a hotel, you see a relatively rundown hotel with a sign announcing “FREE CABLE!”

Well, of course, if you stop and pay for the room, that cable is not “free” (the honest term would be “included”); the cost of that cable is included in the hotel’s operating expenses, which are covered by the rates charged customers.

You see, nothing is free in the consumer culture of the United States—even for those people who have been demonized as “freeloaders,” those receiving welfare or disability or some other access to funds that the U.S. public has deemed unfair (oddly, that doesn’t seem to apply to the uber-wealthy and their trust funds or inheritances, hmmm). If someone acquires anything in the good ol’ USA, somebody is paying for it (and somebody is profiting), and it is often the person who is told she/he is receiving it for “free.”

So we must be quite concerned about this: College Board Enlists Khan Academy to Provide Free Online SAT Prep.

Which is the Cool Whip on the dung pie being offered by the College Board—and led by David Coleman: New SAT To Bring Back 1600-Point Scale — With Optional Essay.

In short, don’t buy it, and especially important, don’t swallow it.

The 2016 SAT reboot is all nonsense, but as disturbing is the monstrosity that is forming as Common Core (another Coleman creation), the SAT and presumably other parts of the College Board (President and CEO Coleman), Pearson, and Sal Khan join forces like a really bad Hollywood production of Marvel’s The Avengers (wait, that has already happened).

Lest we forget, below are some reminders about Khan Academy, and I can recycle from my latest post on the SAT reboot: “No, it’s all nonsense, believe me.  I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.”

Part I: [From Schools Matter, March 12, 2012]

Ever wonder how you can become an educator, education expert, or education reformer?

Well, since 60 Minutes has bought into the most recent con-du-jour, the Khan Academy, let’s consider how people become educators.

How about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?

Peter Smagorinsky puts it best:

“Let’s trace his path to the presidential Cabinet. One of Duncan’s childhood friends, John Rogers, appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative in Chicago. Duncan’s directorship led to Ariel’s reincarnation as a charter school, following which Duncan was advanced in the Chicago Public School system from deputy chief of staff to chief executive officer. Note that he worked exclusively at the executive level, never stooping to teach classes or learn about schools except from an operational perspective.”

Or how about Bill Gates? This one is easy, to become an education expert or education reformer, amass billions of dollars.

And Michelle Rhee? Bypass the education establishment by not receiving any degrees in education, become a leader by entering the classroom through TFA, teach three years, and then attain your credibility by firing teachers and creating an education system built on fraudulent test data.

This brings us back to Sal Khan—whose wikipedia page identifies him as an “American educator.” 

Pretty impressive considering he, like Rhee, Duncan, and Gates, has no degrees in education, and like Duncan and Gates, has no experience teaching.

But he got tired of his day job, started tutoring his relatives, made some videos, and now is a full-fledged educator. And according to CBS, he may be the future of education.

I don’t see myself grabbing billions any time soon, or having the connections Duncan and Rhee have to get on the appointment train.

So like Khan, I think I’ll just announce what I am and go from there…

I am a nuclear physicist…

[waits patiently for CBS to call]

Reconsidering the Khan Academy

The Best Posts About The Khan Academy

This Khan Academy History Video Is Just Awful

Khan Academy: It’s Different This Time

Finally, More Criticism of the Khan Academy

The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy

Khan Academy: Improving school by changing nothing

Part II: Why All the Khan-troversy? [Schools Matter, July 26, 2012]

At The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss has spurred a debate over the definition of slope—not exactly the sort of detailed intellectual stuff we might expect in a newspaper.

The discussion of the finer points of mathematics is more akin to the nuanced conversations you may find in a university math department or a scholarly journal. But the source of this controversy is Sal Khan and his Khan Academy—which leads us to our need to pull back from the slope debate and address just why is there a controversy about Khan?

I don’t know Sal Khan, and I recognize the inherent danger in making claims about anyone’s intent. On the surface, Khan’s drive to make educational videos accessible to more people has some elements of equity and social justice that I share, but those stated goals are deeply marred by the fact that the equity gap embedded in all technology appears likely to wipe out any access advantage Khan claims his academy offers.

This leads to one very important point about the Khan Academy: The problems with the Khan Academy are primarily couched in the many distorted and corrosive messages and assumptions that the Khan Academy perpetuates as well as how political, popular, and media responses to the Khan Academy deform the education reform debate. Here are the reasons for the controversy:

• Sal Khan directly and indirectly (through media messages about him and his videos) perpetuates a popular and flawed assumption that effective teaching is a direct and singular extension of content expertise. Khan’s allure is in part built on the misguided view in the U.S. that anyone who can do, can also teach. Khan has neither the expertise nor experience as a teacher to justify the praise and claims made about him or his academy. Khan is a celebrity entrepreneur, not an educator. [If Khan had created a series of free videos showing people how to do surgery, I suspect the response would be different, although the essence of the venture is little different.]

• The videos themselves are nothing more than textbooks, static containers of fixed content. Learning, then, is reduced to the acquisition of static knowledge. The videos reinforce that content is value-neutral (it isn’t), and the videos allow teaching and learning to remain within a transmissional paradigm that is neither new nor what is best for the purposes of universal public education in a free society. Whether a video, a textbook, or a set of standards, fixed content removes the agency from the teacher and the learner about what content matters. While the videos are offered as substitutes for lectures, Khan and those who support the academy appear unaware that even lectures in classrooms are reinforced by discussions—content is presented and then negotiated among teachers and students.

• Inherent in the allure of the Khan Academy is the naive faith that technology is somehow offering teaching and learning something new, something revolutionary. The blunt truth, however, is that technology has been heralded for that quality for a century now, and it simply isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Khan’s videos are no more revolutionary than the radio, TV, VHS player, or the laser disc. Technology is often, as with the Khan Academy, a tragic waste of time and energy that misleads us away from the very human endeavors of teaching and learning. Technology at its worst is when it further isolates the learner and learning—already a central problem with traditional classroom practices.

• Sal Khan as a celebrity and self-proclaimed educator feeds into and perpetuates the cultural belief that education is somehow not a scholarly field and that education is a failure because of the entrenched nature of the “education establishment.” Khan as an outsider hasn’t thought of anything that hasn’t already been considered by the many and varied scholars and practitioners in education. Does any field benefit from ideas and practices outside that field? Yes, that is not the issue. But Khan is but one of many of the leading voices heralded as educational revolutionaries (think Gates ad Rhee) who have either no or very little experience or expertise in education. The ugly truth is that if education is failing, that failure is likely because the scholars and practitioners in education have never had the primary voice in how education should be implemented. The great irony is that education scholars and practitioners (notably critical ones) are the true outsiders of the “education establishment.” If you want to know something about math and how to teach it, talk with my high school math teacher first, and then you may be able to decide how valuable Khan’s work is.

• The Khan Academy reinforces the misguided faith we have in a silver-bullet answer to complex educational problems. Education in the U.S. is not suffering from a lack of packaged content (in fact, our commitment to textbooks is one of the major problems in public education); education is burdened by social and education inequities that are far more complex than substituting classroom lectures with videos anyone can access (if that person has internet access and the hardware to view the videos). It is easier and less painful to praise the essentially empty solution Khan is offering than to confront the serious failures of inequity remaining in U.S. society and public education.

Without the fanfare and hyperbole, Khan’s quest to make content accessible online may have some real value—if Khan is willing to bring into that plan the expertise of education scholars and practitioners. Khan’s plan would certainly benefit from a strong dose of humility; a first step to real learning is to acknowledge what one does not know.

But Khan and his academy are likely doomed because of the feeding frenzy around him. The public and media have an unquenchable thirst for rugged individualism, a thirst that is blind, deaf, and ultimately corrosive; and Khan appears to present a simplistic message about how to save a very important but complicated public institution.

The controversy about Khan isn’t about the definition of slope, but the slippery slope of believing the hype because that is easier to swallow than the truth.

Note: See the critique by Christopher Danielson and Michael Paul Goldenberg for a more detailed explanation of problems I have identified above.

Common Core Costs Too High, Failure Guaranteed

Teaching literacy has been my career and life for over thirty years now. Having grown up in the South with my own peculiar grasp of so-called standard English, I feel fortunate to have rich and lingering struggles with using the language in ways that conform to the ever-shifting conventions of “good English.”

As a teacher, I have watched the field of literacy flounder under this failure of logic: Expert reading and writers demonstrate X, Y, Z skills; thus, the way to move novice readers and writers to expert is to give them X, Y, Z skills.

Yes, that seems compelling and doable, but it is folly.

One of the main areas of that compulsion to teaching literacy in direct and isolated ways is vocabulary instruction, often anchored by the vocabulary book.

Many moons ago when I was a pup of a teacher, my English department was faced with choosing new vocabulary books. The decision came down to selecting the book that the company had cleverly placed in bold letters on the front, “Correlated with the SAT!”

Before the 2005 retooling of the SAT, isolated vocabulary knowledge was embedded in the infamous analogy section of the SAT (since 2005, the value of isolated vocabulary knowledge has been greatly reduced, but instruction has failed to follow suit).

Thus, in the weird and misleading world of the tests-justify-the-means of traditional schooling, isolated vocabulary instruction and vocabulary textbooks have remained robust parts of misguided literacy instruction across the U.S. (By the way, expert readers have extensive vocabularies because they read extensively—not because they learn words from vocabulary lists.)

This anecdote about testing, classroom instruction, and textbooks is offered as context for new research examined in Education WeekResearch Questions Common-Core Claims by Publishers:

Hoping to boost their share of a $9 billion annual market, many publishers now boast that their textbooks are “common-core aligned” and so can help spur the dramatic shifts in classroom instruction intended by the new standards for English/language arts and math.

But in a Feb. 21 presentation of his research at a seminar in Los Angeles hosted by theEducation Writers Association, William Schmidt, a professor of statistics and education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, dismissed most purveyors of such claims as “snake oil salesmen” who have done little more than slap shiny new stickers on the same books they’ve been selling for years.

People do not like math, but it is well past time to do the math on Common Core.

Put simply, Common Core is a guaranteed failure because it is a demonstrably failed reform strategy. As I have noted numerous times, the research base is clear that there is no correlation between the existence or quality of standards and student outcomes, and standards have not been shown to address equity (see Mathis, 2012).

Common Core and the related tests accomplish only one real positive outcome: The process creates an ever-revolving door of “new” standards and tests that feed the publishing and materials markets (the standards/testing accountability paradigm is a consumerism model).

While state and federal funds are being drained to re-train teachers, buy new textbooks, invest in new technology, and create and implement new tests (none of which will work and we’ll do this all again in 10 years or so), all of that effort and money could have (should have) been used to address the identifiable problems facing our schools—which have nothing to do with standards or tests (except that we need neither).

Common Core advocacy remains a mirage, a faith-based argument that is driven by commitments that have little to do with education, equity, democracy, or children.

If we have “new” standards and thus “new” tests, we need “new” textbooks, and if we need “new” materials, a few somebodies somewhere make $9 billion dollars.

The next time someone starts to endorse Common Core, superimpose in your mind’s eye “$9 billion taxpayers’ dollars” over her/his face because that is all that really matters.

Finally, the math:

Classroom time – isolated vocabulary instruction and texts = time for students to read

$$$ spent on Common Core – Common Core = $$$ better spent on real problems facing schools


Business Opportunities Seen in New Tests, Low Scores, Jason Tomassini

South Carolina and Common Core: A Next Step?

Oran P. Smith, a senior fellow at Palmetto Policy Forum, introduces in The State a new report on Common Core from the conservative think tank:

After the hearing, I concluded that John Hill of the Alabama Policy Institute had it right when he wrote: “Although both sides of the Common Core debate make arguments worth consideration, both the potential benefits and pitfalls related to Common Core have been the subject of exaggeration and error.”

This is why Palmetto Policy Forum recently released a paper we believe cuts through the Common Core fog, outlining an eight-point plan to return unquestioned control of education standards to S.C. parents.

Several points can be taken from the release of this report on CC.

First, the report fails as many ideological think tank reports do because it speaks uncritically to its ideological base (this report has glowing images and commentary on Ronald Reagan and Jeb Bush, for example).

Second, the report also fails by offering an incomplete consideration of the extensive research base on CC and the entire standards movement.

And third, despite these weaknesses, it seems only fair to highlight that the eight recommendations have much to applaud:

8 recs SC copy

[click to see full report; 8 recommendations on page 1]

These recommendations hold some promise but with caveats.

The report must be viewed through the lens of a detailed history of how CC developed as well as the entire standards movement begun under Reagan; see for example:

Whatever Happened to Scientifically Based Research in Education Policy?

Corporations Are Behind The Common Core State Standards — And That’s Why They’ll Never Work

The research base on CC must be examined, noting that CC is unlikely to create outcomes any different than the standards movements preceding the new standards (notably about three different waves in SC); see for example:

What We Know (and Ignore) about Standards, Achievement, and Equity

On Public Schools and Common Core: Graff’s Critique of Ravitch

Should SC Ditch Common Core?

Please note the research base:

  • Hout and Elliott (2011), Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education: Most recent decades of high-stakes accountability reform hasn’t work.
  • French, Guisbond, and Jehlen (2013), Twenty Years after Education Reform: High-stakes accountability in Massachusetts has not worked.
  • Loveless (2012), How Well Are American Students Learning?: “Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Core State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning” (p. 3).
  • Mathis (2012): Existence and/or quality of standards not positively correlated with NAEP or international benchmark test data; “Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ and narrowing of the curriculum” (2 of 5).
  • Whitehurst (2009), Don’t Forget Curriculum: “The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy and high hopes attached to it. There is a rational argument to be made for good content standards being a precondition for other desirable reforms, but it is currently just that – an argument.”
  • Kohn (2010), Debunking the Case for National Standards: CC nothing new, and has never worked before.
  • Victor Bandeira de Mello, Charles Blankenship, Don McLaughlin (2009), Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007: Why does research from the USDOE not show high-quality standards result in higher NAEP scores?
  • Horn (2013): “The 2012 NAEP Long-Term Trends are out, and there is a good deal that we may learn from forty years of choking children and teachers with more tests with higher stakes: IT DOESN’T WORK!”

Smith argues at the end of his Op-Ed, “This is not a time for mutual destruction,” and I agree.

I remain skeptical, but I wonder if this report suggests the possibility that SC is moving toward a reasonable reaction to CC.

I hope so because SC remains a high-poverty state stratified by wealth and poverty; no one in the state, especially the children in our schools, can afford more partisan political grandstanding over education policy.

I am willing to set aside the misleading nods to Reagan and Jeb Bush (both key causes of this problem) in order to enact the 8 recommendations above because at least then we will have a space within which to confront the issues left unaddressed—notably the inordinate cost of yet more commitments to new standards and tests that will, I guarantee, fail our children in SC.

State Impact: Core Questions: How Does Common Core Address Poverty?

Core Questions: How Does Common Core Address Poverty?

Speaking for the Education Trust, Sonja Brookins Santelises makes the following argument in support of Common Core:

And before Baltimore, she worked in Massachusetts – the state whose standards are a model for Common Core. The Bay State is now one of the top-ranked education systems in the country.

Common standards will allow districts across the U.S. to share tips, techniques and lessons that work best for low-income or minority students.

In Twenty Years After Education Reform: Choosing a Path Forward to Equity and Excellence for All, Dan French, Ed.D., Lisa Guisbond and Alain Jehlen, Ph.D., with Norma Shapiro, conclude, among other things, about the impact of Massachusetts’ standards:

Large gaps in educational equity, opportunity and outcomes persist:

• On the MCAS, significant gaps remain among student groups based on race, poverty, ethnicity, language and special needs, with some gaps stagnant and some increasing. The school districts with the highest scores on the 2012 10th grade MCAS English test  had low-income student populations ranging from two to nine percent, while the ten lowest scoring districts had percentages ranging from 50 to 87 percent.

• On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, though our average results place us at the top of all states, Massachusetts ranks in the bottom tier of states in progress toward closing the achievement gap for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Massachusetts has some of the widest gaps in the nation between White and Hispanic students, a sign that the English immersion policy created by the Unz initiative has failed.

• Massachusetts ranks 31st of 49 states for the gap between Black and White student graduation rates (with 1st meaning that the gap is the smallest) and 39th of 47 states for the size of the gap between Hispanic and White student graduation rates. For students with disabilities, Massachusetts’ four-year graduation rate is only 64.9 percent, which ranks the state at 28th out of the 45 states with available data in 2009. A significant reason for this low figure is the impact of the MCAS graduation requirement on this subgroup.

New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again

When the Common Core debates drift toward advocacy or critiques of the standards themselves, I have refused, mostly, to engage with that conversation because I believe debating the quality of CC concedes too much. I remain opposed to CC regardless of the quality of the standards because of the following reasons: (1) CC cannot and will not be decoupled from the caustic influence of high-stakes testing, (2) all bureaucratic and mandated standards de-professionalize teaching, (3) accountability/standards/testing as a reform paradigm has failed and nothing about the CC iteration offers a different approach, except that this is called “national,” and (4) there is absolutely nothing in the CC agenda that addresses social or educational inequities such as disproportionate discipline policies, course access, and teacher assignment.

So with due trepidation, I now wade into the few but needed challenges being offered about how CC encourages “close reading” of texts.

First, let me highlight that my primary field of teaching writing offers a powerful and disturbing parallel model of how the accountability/standards/testing movement supplanted and destroyed evidence-based pedagogy.

I have detailed that the rise of best practice in the teaching of writing in the 1970s and 1980s was squelched by the accountability era begun in the 1980s; see Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?

As well, Applebee and Langer offer a chilling refrain of best practice in writing wilting under the weight of standards and testing in their Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms.

Reading instruction and reading experiences for children, we must acknowledge, will suffer the same negative consequences under CC and the related high-stakes tests because there are no provisions for implementing CC that change how standards and tests are implemented (often each round of standards and tests are simply infused into the current practices) and, in reality, CC approaches to reading are new names for traditional (and flawed) reading practices.

Next, I strongly recommend the following pieces that essentially confront the central problem with CC’s focus on close reading (and as I’ll expand on below, how close reading continues the traditional view of text-based analysis grounded in New Criticism—and thus excluding critical literacy and the powerful contributions of marginalized writers and critics [1]):

Reading Without Understanding — Common Core Versus Abraham Lincoln, Alan Singer

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Common Core: A critical reading of “close reading,” Daniel E. Ferguson

I want here, then, to add just a few more thoughts on why committing to CC and close reading fails against the gains we have made in understanding the complexity of responding to texts in the context of the words on the page, the intent and biography of the writer, the biography of the reader, and the multiple historical contexts that intersect when anyone reads any text.

Let me start with an example.

I began my poetry unit always with “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

My instructional goals with starting here are many, but in part, this poem was ideal to make a key point about how we respond to text. I would read the poem aloud and then ask students to close their eyes and envision a wheelbarrow. Then I would ask several to describe what they saw.

The exercise highlighted that many students pictured wheelbarrows in various positions. I always shared with students that I always see any wheelbarrow turned up on its front edge, leaning against a tree because my father was adamant that a wheelbarrow must not sit with the body of the wheelbarrow turned so that it can gather water, which leads to rust forming.

This activity allowed us to discuss what readers can say about the text of a piece, distinguish that from their personal responses (the text says nothing of how the wheelbarrow is sitting, but dictates that it is red, for example), and tease out how writer intent, text, and reader affect create the possibility of dozens of credible, although different, interpretations.

From there we began to confront what counts as “right,” as well as who decides what is “right” as an interpretation.

I made certain my students understood how to conduct a New Criticism analysis and stressed that school, teachers, and many testing situations (notably Advanced Placement) honor only such approaches to text.

Next, however, we challenged that dynamic and began exploring how each student’s empowerment and autonomy rested on having a broad set of lens through which to engage with text, through which to unmask power dynamics embedded in authoritative interpretations of text. [2]

This, of course, is the province of critical literacy.

Ironically, if we use a critical reading of CC and calls for close reading, we discover that “close reading” (and the move by David Coleman from writing CC to leading College Board, where AP and SAT tests are spawned) is simply a repackaging of text-only approaches to text embraced by New Criticism (see the history of New Criticism in the ELA classroom in “A Richer, Not a Narrower, Aesthetic”: The Rise of New Criticism in English Journal (English Journal, 101(3), 52-57).

Like the mechanistic and reductive ways in which New Criticism has been implemented in formal schooling in order to control and measure objectively how students respond to text, CC and the focus on close reading are poised to serve efficiency models of high-stakes testing while also failing students who need and deserve the complex and challenging tools afforded with critical literacy.

CC and close reading—if we wade into debates about the quality of the standards—are nothing new, in fact. Advocates of CC are ironically proving why instead of close reading we need critical reading.

Context matters.

[1] See, for example, Literature: The Reader’s Role, Louise M. Rosenblatt (May, 1960), The English Journal, 49(5), 304-310, 315-316.

[2] See how I use a children’s book, Click, Clack, Moo, to introduce students to Marxist and Feminist critical lenses for texts as a contract to text-based analyses: “Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the One Percent Always Wins.

What We Know (and Ignore) about Standards, Achievement, and Equity

Calling for, establishing, and implementing high (or higher) standards has been a part of U.S. public education at least since the 1890s when the Committee of Ten called for higher standards for high schools to prepare students for college.

The more recent accountability era built on standards (and multiple versions of revised standards) and high-stakes tests (and multiple versions of those tests) began in the 1980s.

Common Core as a reform initiative is a federalization, then, of that state-based accountability paradigm; there is noting in the Common Core initiative that distinguishes it from the state-based approach except for unsubstantiated and untested claims that the standards and tests are superior to the state versions.

Since we have had a standards-based accountability system for three decades, we have ample evidence of the relationship between the presence and quality of standards and their impact on achievement and equity.

In Research-based options for education policymaking, Mathis (2012) highlights what we know about standards, achievement, and equity.

First, Mathis notes the larger context of Common Core and their potential for reform:

The actual effect of the CCSS, however, will depend much less on the standards themselves than on how they are used. Two factors are particularly crucial. The first is whether states invest in the necessary curricular and instructional resources and supports, and the second concerns the nature and use of CCSS assessments developed by the two national testing consortia. (1 of 5)

Key here are several important points: (1) Common Core standards are not and cannot be separated from implementation or the related high-stakes tests, and (2) nothing in the Common Core initiate guarantees that implementation and testing will be any different than what has occurred over the previous thirty years of state-based accountability.

Currently, we already know some things about implementation and testing related to Common Core:

  • Every state adopting Common Core is also using high-stakes tests, committing to either of two companies charged with creating those tests. There is no mechanism in the Common Core initiative to insure that the standards will not become “what is tested is what is taught”—which is exactly what did happen to all standards at the state levels, which is what must happen when any set of standards are linked to high-stakes tests and punitive consequences for that data.
  • Despite calls for a need to have a common set of standards for the entire nation (a call that has never been verified by evidence), the Common Core is being implemented in a wide variety of ways across the states. If “common” is really our goal (and I suspect it isn’t a worthy goal), it is not happening—even with the tests since they come from two different companies.
  • Common Core implementation is costing states millions and even billions of dollars—with no evidence of their quality, no vetting by educators, no guarantee that this version of standards and tests will be any less a failure than the ones that have come before.

So what do we know about standards and achievement?:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. [4] Similarly, international test data show no pronounced tests core advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. [5] Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum. [6]

It bears emphasizing that there is no correlation between the presence or quality of standards and student achievement, and that high-stakes testing has created a dynamic in which we ask less of students not more.

At the very least, Common Core implementation should not move forward until clear mechanisms are in place to insure that this round of standards and testing does not replicate the history of standards and testing so far.

As of now, no such guarantees exist. None.

So what do we know about standards and equity?:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. [13]

As I have noted above about no safeguards that Common Core and the related tests will impact achievement any differently than all the other standards and tests before, there is absolutely nothing in the Common Core initiative that addresses equity—which remains the greatest problem facing education, school, and teacher impact on student achievement.

With Common Core, African American, Latino/a, and impoverished students will continue to be disproportionately funneled into test-prep courses with high student-teacher ratios and inexperienced as well as un-/under-certified teachers

With Common Core, African American and Latino boys will continue to be disproportionately suspended and expelled.

With Common Core, African American, Latino/a, and impoverished students will continue to be disproportionately blocked from advanced courses.

Standards-based reform has never and will never address equity. Common Core is no different.

Since Common Core as a reform initiative in no way offers solutions to identifiable problems with student achievement and equity, we must stop that train, get off, and try something new.

Some are calling for a pause button. I urge delete.

Notes (retaining original report numbering)

[4] Whitehurst, G, (2009, October 14). Don’t forget curriculum. Brown Center Letters on Education, #3, 6. Washington, DC: Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings Institution. Retrieved February 11, 2010, from

Bandeira de Mello, V. D., Blankenship, C., & McLaughlin D. (2009, October). Mapping state proficiencies onto NAEP scales: 2005-2007. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved March 20, 2010, from

[5] Kohn, A. (2010, January 14). Debunking the case for national standards: one size fits all mandates and their dangers. Retrieved January 13, 2010, from

McCluskey, N. (2010, February 17). Behind the curtain: Assessing the case for national curriculum standards, Policy analysis 66. Washington: CATO Institute. Retrieved February 18, 2010, from

[6] Robelen, E. (December 8, 2011) Most teachers see the curriculum narrowing, survey finds (blog post). EdWeekOnline. Retrieved October 2, 2012, from

Wisconsin Center for Educational Research. (1999, Fall). Are state-level standards and assessments aligned? WCER Highlights, 1–3. Madison, WI: Author.

Amrein, A. & Berliner, D. (2002). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(18). Retrieved October 4, 2012, from

Shepard, L. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, 29(7), 4–14.

Phillip Harris, Bruce M. Smith,B. M. & Harris, J. (2011) The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do. Rowman and Littlefield, 100-109.

[13] Whitehurst, 2009 (see note 4); McCluskey, 2010 (see note 5);

Mathis, W. J. (July, 2010). The “Common Core” Standards Initiative: An Effective Reform tool? Retrieved October 2, 2012, from

On Public Schools and Common Core: Graff’s Critique of Ravitch

Are U.S. public schools failing, and if so, will implementing Common Core and next-generation tests as part of school accountability correct those failures?

At Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet, Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has challenged Diane Ravitch’s stance on the both public schools and Common Core, which he characterizes as follows:

“Public education is not broken,” says Diane Ravitch in her new book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”  The “diagnosis” of the corporate reformers “is wrong,” Ravitch writes, and their solutions are also wrong.  “Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.  But public education as such is not ‘broken,’” and “the solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised.”

Ravitch’s argument — that the real problem is not public education but its would-be reformers — has become a familiar one for opponents of current attempts to reform the American educational system.  Like most such opponents, Ravitch concedes that the system is far from perfect, but she argues that the causes lie in social conditions outside education, in “concentrated poverty and racial segregation,” as she puts it, and in the false story of a broken system that reformers disseminate in order to justify privatizing education and enriching themselves.  So goes this argument.

Graff concludes: “I don’t buy it.”

While he concedes that Ravitch is correct about the negative impact of poverty and inequity on schools as well as the failure of many aspects of the reform movement (“more charters, more standardized tests and fetishized test data, all of it used punitively, more privatization”), Graff argues that, based on his experiences as a professor, public schools are failing and poverty cannot be the sole cause: “Few of the college students I teach are poor and many are white, middle class, and relatively privileged, yet their command of basic skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking falls far short of their potential.”

And thus, Graff aligns himself with the promise of Common Core standards, “which focus on precisely these ‘college readiness’ skills that my students not only struggle with but don’t seem to have been told are important” (See Mercedes Schneider’s response to Graff’s endorsing Common Core).

First, Graff’s characterization of Ravitch, I think, distorts how public school effectiveness should be described (and likely Ravitch’s position).

Public education is not failing the ways that reformers claim, typically based on raw test score comparisons (year-to-year in the U.S., international, state-to-state) and sweeping charges about “bad” teachers, public school monopolies (and lack of choices), and the negative influences of the status quo (often code for “unions”).

However, public schools are failing as they are overburdened by out-of-school influences (as long as we focus on standardized test scores, that influence remains the dominate problem facing education reform) and in the ways in which they perpetuate those social inequities (for example, tracking, inequitable discipline practices such as zero tolerance policies, rising segregation in public and charter schools, and inequitable teacher assignment including commitments to Teach for America for high-poverty minority students).

But the larger public school failure (the one I believe at the root of Ravitch’s “Public education is not broken”), however, is not that public education is failing the U.S., but that so far, we have failed public education. In other words, Ravitch’s argument is a call to reconsider our commitment to public education as part of the essential Commons and the need to reject market-based critiques and reform for that institution.

Here, Graff ignores that much of Ravitch’s Reign is, in fact, a call for reforms—which would be an odd thing to do if she in fact held as Graff claims that public schools are fine as they are.

Next, Graff’s reasons for endorsing the Common Core are ironically the reasons Common Core standards will never address the failures of public schools.

Since Graff and Ravitch highlight that public education struggles under the weight of poverty and inequity, we must acknowledge that there is nothing about Common Core (or any aspect of the accountability movement based on standards and testing) that addresses those inequities; in fact, a great deal of evidence suggests that high-stakes accountability simply labels inequity and often increases inequity—along with failing to achieve the goals often associated with accountability-based reform.

For example, there is nothing in Common Core that will change African American males being disproportionally suspended and expelled, nothing that will change African American and impoverished students attending majority-minority schools that are underfunded and staffed by inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers, nothing that will insure that minority and high-poverty students will have access to high-quality courses (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), and nothing that will end the disproportionate retention of minority and male students (in fact, a growing trend of the accountability movement is retaining third grade students based on high-stakes test scores).

Finally, and directly drawn from Graff’s concerns about college students not burdened by poverty, is the claim that those students are not well prepared by public education.

Setting aside that every generation has bemoaned the failure of the children coming after them (including Aristotle), we must ask why those students appear not prepared for the demands of college work.

The answer, for example, lies in Graff’s experience with students analyzing text and writing original essays.

Applebee and Langer have explored what students are asked to do as student writers in middle and high schools. Their research reveals a powerful, but damning dynamic: English teachers of middle and high school know more than ever about best practices in the teaching of writing, but students do little extended writing and much of that best practice is never implemented in U.S. classrooms.

Applebee and Langer’s research appears to expose why Graff finds his students ill prepared for college demands related to text analysis and writing, but the most important pattern found by Applebee and Langer is the reasons students are not be challenged are the inordinate high-stakes demands of the standards and testing era under which U.S. public schools function.

College-bound students, currently and over the past thirty years, have disproportionately spent their time in English classes learning to write to prompts for AP exams, high-stakes state tests, and, since 2005, the one-draft, 25-minute essay on the SAT.

As a writing teacher of freshman at a selective liberal arts university, I can attest that Graff’s characterization of students’ ability to write autonomously and with authority is lacking, but unlike Graff, I recognize that the problem is grounded in high-stakes accountability.

I also recognize that the historical record of standards and testing reveal that Common Core and next-generation tests will not change the entrenched failures of the accountability era, and Common Core has no mechanism to shift traditional failures of public schools (the inequities I have identified above).

In the end, Common Core is continuing to dig even after we have found ourselves in a pointless hole.

As Deborah Meier explains, even if Common Core standards do align better with college readiness (and that claim falls short), we are still asking too little of students with that goals.

And that is the problem, ultimately, with standards-based education and education reform.

If schools are failing to meet the needs of children living in a free society—and they are—that failure can be traced to the narrowing of teacher and student expectations—the one guaranteed consequence of standards-based education about which we have ample evidence.

In ten years, political leaders and the public will be decrying the failures of public education, professors such as Graff will still bemoan the inadequacies of their students, and we will again hear demands for yet another round of new standards and new tests—standards and tests that must be world-class and address college readiness. And Common Core will be placed on the shelf with all the other disappointing trophies to how we continue to fail universal public education.

Dream Deferred, MLK Day 2014: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves”

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asks Langston Hughes in “Harlem.”

As a poem of social consciousness, “Harlem” may often be reduced to literary analysis or an artifact of the Harlem Renaissance; as schools become more and more focused on the Common Core and raising scores on the related next-generation tests, the poem is likely to be (if at all) just one more text for close reading practice.

But on MLK Day in 2014, “Harlem” remains a powerful and necessary question—and a disturbing harbinger, as Hughes answers his opening question with more questions:

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In her “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich explores a personal and social wreck, confronting “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth.” She concludes with a recognition that echoes a recurring theme found in Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and countless artists aware of otherness, invisibility:

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

The history students have been and are currently taught remains a controlled, if not contrived, story; where once many “names [did] not appear”—names of African Americans, names of women, names of anyone from the “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”—now students are presented with a version of names that serves to keep Hughes’s question in “Harlem” relevant, not only as a dream deferred, but also as a dream ignored.

Students will certainly discuss King in these days around his birthday and holiday; and students will likely, as noted above, be lead through “I Have a Dream” as a text ripe for close reading, possibly also analyzing “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” for its technical precision but not its call for civil disobedience in the face of inequity.

Few students will be asked to look behind the official view of King as the passive radical, a masking narrative used to control whose name is allowed into the “book of myths” as well as how students are allowed to see those names—a pattern repeated in the life and death of Nelson Mandela:

Chris Harris captures the moment Nelson Mandela is released after serving 27 years in prison. Times photographer, Chris Harris

Education, in this era in which the dream is ignored, you see, is about rigor, “no excuses,” and (above all else) raising test scores—as our leaders chastise us about why the U.S. pales in comparison to the rest of the world: “We talk the talk, and they walk the walk.”

Education is not about raising fists:

If education were about raising fists—a social contract with a people’s children that every person matters, that every voice has equal volume, that equity of opportunity is the essential element of human dignity—MLK Day would include the King of The Triumph of Conscience, read for his messages and calls to action and not as a close reading activity.

If education were about raising fists, names would be added to the “book of myths,” no longer ignoring the echo of James Baldwin‘s power during the Civil Rights movement that tends to be reduced to repeatedly published images of King walking arm in arm with white men to his left and right:

But education in the U.S. is not about raising fists, and the great disturbing irony is that political leaders who are shaming the people of this country for talking the talk, but not walking the walk are themselves masters of only talking the talk.

On this MLK Day 2014, then, there remains much of King unexplored, and the days and weeks around his birthday and holiday are ideal for reading and listening to King with both reverence for his sacrifices and seeking ways in which to fulfill the dream.

But we must move beyond the ceremonial, and we must expand the “book of myths.”

And we must raise Hughes’s existential questions along with asking the truly hard questions about mass incarceration and in-school academic and discipline policies that are destroying the dreams of hundreds of thousands of young African American men week after week after week.

Where are the voices and where is the political will, we must ask, that will confront that white males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, but that African American males outnumber white males about 5 to 1 in our prison system—an incarceration machine that dwarfs prison systems in countries against which political leaders use to shame the U.S. public.

In 2004, Rich called for including Baldwin in the “book of myths,” highlighting his words from “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’”:

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are. I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberties, social equality, etc., where indeed strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking instead of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness….This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (p. 52; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

Let’s place before our students, then, King metaphorically arm in arm with Baldwin—the King of The Triumph of Conscience, decrying the tragedy of Vietnam and the failure of enormous wealth turning a blind eye to inexcusable poverty, and the confrontational Baldwin, like Hughes, offering words that remain relevant today:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (No Name in the Street; Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433)

“The truth is” what will set you free.

“The truth is,” we can’t handle the truth, and “[t]his rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us.”


Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Rich, A. (2009). A human eye: Essays on art in society 1997-2008. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.