Monday, November 11, 2013

The One Where I Rant About Common Core

On Sunday night, I rounded out a great lazy weekend by snuggling up on the couch and reading an advanced copy of a book that's being released this next week. This particular book is fiction, and based during WWI, and I've been continuously amazed how readily I've been completely transported all over the world--from the French Battlefield to small towns in America and back again. When I'm reading, it's like I've been granted the ability not only to travel to places I've never been, but also to climb inside the mind of someone else, and get to know them.


Guys, are you familiar with Common Core? It's a new curriculum that's been adopted by almost all 50 states. It's in schools right now. The "mission" if you will, is to make sure that all students across the US receive the same education, and to ensure that they're better prepared for college. Sounds really good, right?

Unfortunately, as with most of the U.S. education reform in the last decade (like the Accelerated Reader Program, which I wrote about here), though it may sound good, it has a lot of problems. A LOT. The problems with the Common Core math curriculum are so absurd they're almost comical, but today I'm focusing on the English component.

One of the problems is that Common Core utilizes the Lexile Complexity Score in order to "match" students with books that are at their reading level. The problem is that the Lexile Complexity Score uses an algorithm of sentence length, word use, and syntax, but does not factor in content at all, which is how Twilight came to be rated as more "complex" than any book by Hemmingway (I believe Twilight is considered to be about 5th grade level, for the record.). No, I'm not kidding.

Here's a fun little quiz that you can take--pick which book has the higher complexity score

The other problem with Common Core is that it greatly stresses nonfiction over fiction. Under Common Core standards, by the time a student is in 12th grade, they should be reading about 70% nonfiction in schools. The list of suggested reading material for high school students? Wackadoodle. You can read many of the selections here, but I've pulled just a sampling for you guys:
  • Invasive Plant Inventory by the California Invasive Plant Council. This is just a list of invasive plants in the state of California, and how they were classified as high, moderate, or limited.
  • The EPA's Recommended Levels of Insulation. This is a chart that shows how much insulation is needed for buildings built of various materials.
  • Executive Order 13423- Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management. I found it interesting that the selection included some of the provisions of the order, but not others. For example, Section 6(a) which reads, "This order shall be implemented in accordance with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations,"was omitted. This is important because it speaks to the government's responsibility to do this if appropriations (i.e. funding via congress ) are available, not universal authority, as the snippet included in Common Core implies.
  • “FedViews,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. This report from 2009 states that financial markets are improving, the federal stimulus stabilized the economy, 
  • "The Cost Conundrum: Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas". Here's a snippet: “'The greatest threat to America’s fiscal health is not Social Security,' President Barack Obama said in a March speech at the White House. 'It’s not the investments that we’ve made to rescue our economy during this crisis. By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation’s balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care. It’s not even close.'"
Guys, I just can't even. I have no words. Regardless of your political affiliation (I do have to admit, I was totally surprised by how many of the snippets provided for Common Core tended to align with current political agendas or issues), can we please agree that reading lists of noxious weeds is NOT HOW WE CULTIVATE READERS.



Recently, we read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe aloud to Lizzy before bed. The Lexile level for the book is 940L. It took about an hour of searching to figure out that "940L" translates, roughly, to a sixth grade level. I think. Maybe. I remember reading that book in second or third grade. I remember my 4th grade teacher reading it aloud to the class. I read it again in seventh grade, and again in high school. Now, we're working our way through the series again with Lizzy.

Did I understand every allegory or all the imagery in second grade? Nope. Neither does Lizzy when we read it now. I understood it on a different level in sixth grade than I did in fourth, and I understood it differently when I read it this year than I did when I read it in high school. Every single stinking time I've let myself disappear into Narnia, I've gotten something out of it.

But by the Lexile and Common Core standards, it's a book to be read in sixth grade, only. It's "above level" for elementary students, so they shouldn't read it. It's "below level" for high school students, which means it isn't challenging enough, so they shouldn't read it.

With Common Core, we're not cultivating people who love to read. We're cultivating people who can read technical materials in order to do well on a test so that the US appears to be "competitive" with other countries.


To bring this back full circle, I learned about WWI and WWII in school. I could recite rote facts about how many people died and which countries were involved when. I had the sterile knowledge. But it was reading A Farewell to Arms, Sarah's Key, Night, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Book Thief, and now Stella Bain where I learned about empathy. About the people behind the numbers, fictional or not. I want that for our kids too, and it makes me sad that Common Core simply doesn't do it.


  1. Great post- this is something I didn't know about!! I cannot believe that. Non fiction is good but fiction is so important- ugh. I can't believe Twilight is even in there as a book, let alone something more complex than a classic. Good theory, horrible implementation. Makes me want to home school!!

  2. Ugh, I feel like there has always been some new fangled "curriculum" that's going to solve all the world's problems, and it never works. I'm not very well versed in Common Core, but I'm off to read more...I do understand more and more with every teacher I talk to and news article I read why many parents with the availability and capability to do it choose to home school (not calling it the only solution, and one that we would likely not consider unless our children had a specific need not met by the school districts, but still, I understand).

  3. "...we're not cultivating people who love to read. We're cultivating people who can read technical materials in order to do well on a test so that the US appears to be "competitive" with other countries."

    Testing is ruining education. We're trying to get ahead, but instead our children are missing out.

  4. Okay, I'm going to disagree with some of your points as a teacher, especially your point that kids will only be allowed to read books at their lexile level in class. That's just not true in my high school. Our biggest proponent of Common Core used a book with a fifth grade reading level specifically for its deeper themes that could engage his sophomores. When a variety of texts are used to dig deeper into themes and ideas there's little complaint about the text used.

    I am an avid fiction reader and it took joining a book club to discover all the meaningful non fiction texts I had never known existed but now love. And prior to Common Core English Departments were force feeding some pretty awful novels because they're the sacred cows of a particular tenured English teacher. Your non fiction examples do sound pretty dull and painful to read, but certainly not The only non fiction genres kids will learn about.

    Common Core is Not a full Solution. Hello! My poor high school refugee students can hardly keep up and learn something as it is! It was created largely by people with no teaching experience! The tests will take even longer as it is and they're not multiple choice only. Kids will Now have to write paragraphs with justifications and citations and we'll all be out of class even more.

    But compared to what it is now, and really working with it every day to implement for ALL my students, I think Common Core has potential and is worth a try.

    1. Sara, you're right that kids won't only read at their Lexile level in class. I'm guessing, but not sure, that this is especially true in high school.

      But three times in the last month, I've been in the public library when a parent has pulled their kid over to the librarian and said, "Where are the 5th grade books? He needs one that's an 800L worth 7 points," (I don't know what the points mean).

      I feel like similar to AR, something is getting lost along the way many times, and sometimes schools, teachers, and/or parents can get so focused on the numbers that they sometimes can't see the forest through the trees :(

      I know you're doing a great job with your kiddos Sara!

  5. So sad. I have always loved, LOVED to read. Since having Zoe, I've had a little less time for my favorites. But I can already see her love of books growing eve at just 12 months. She constantly goes to her shelf and pick a book or three and runs back and sits on my lap for stories. I love it. And I hope she doesn't loose that enthusiasm. I hope her imagination grows and grows and that she doesn't let the testing that our schools have become so consumed with hold her back.

  6. This just makes my head spin. Like, I can't get a grip on it AT ALL.

  7. Because I can't let it go...:)

    Here is a link to a teacher explaining on how we are asked to analyze text complexity, combining qualitative and quantitative information with professional judgement, that I have been advised to use too, provided by and found in the Common Core English standards.

    And in speaking with our school's instructional coach I found out that our English Language Arts teachers have been told to change very little in the fiction texts they already use, rather change the activities to be deeper thinking and more writing-intensive. To Kill a Mockingbird is here to stay.

    But Science and Math are being told they will have to pick up the slack and introduce more non-fiction reading and literacy skills into their classes to ensure a 70% non-fiction shift by 12th grade. Elementary is supposed to be 70% fiction, 30% non-fiction and we are to slowly shift the proportions through 13 years of education.

    In talking with elementary friends, AR is a more slippery slope, and I admittedly am not as familiar with it because my district stops using at after junior high, but they say it's both useful and problematic in helping kids feel empowered to read because they understand the text, but frustrated by their "numbers." So I feel you have a good point there.


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