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Coverage of standards debate lacked examples

Posted by Mark Leccese  July 22, 2010 09:45 AM

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Depending on who’s giving an opinion, replacing the state’s K-12 academic standards with national standards – as the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to do yesterday – is either an important step forward or a huge mistake.

If you’ve been following this story, you know who was in favor of the change and who was against it; you know Massachusetts stands to gain more federal money for K-12 education if it adopts the federal standards; you know that Massachusetts is the 28th state to adopt the federal guidelines, with more likely to follow; and you know the jargon: the federal guidelines are known as the Common Core Standards.

What you don’t know is how adoption of the federal standards will change what is taught – and what is tested – in Massachusetts public school classrooms.

How much detail and explanation do you want from the media on complex issues of public policy? Would you read it if it were supplied?

The local media, as media do, focused on conflict in covering the story: No conflict, no story. And since reporters have little space to tell the story, they have to summarize. An Associated Press story yesterday broadly outlined the two sides.

Advocates for the change argue the national guidelines are stronger in some areas than the state’s.

Opponents contend the state's standards are responsible for a series of first-place finishes by Massachusetts students in national assessment testing. They say adopting national standards will inevitably weaken the state curriculum, as well as trigger abandonment of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, known colloquially as the MCAS.

A Boston.com report posted yesterday summarized what the Common Core Standards mandate.

The national standards, which Massachusetts officials helped to develop, specify what material should be taught in English and math at every grade level.

But what, precisely, will change in the classroom? A July 20 Globe story by James Vaznis, in the 13th and 14th paragraphs, summed up some differences between the state standards and the federal standards.

One of the biggest ideological battlegrounds has emerged in the English standards: The state standards place a much stronger emphasis on literature and creative writing, while the national standards devote more attention to informational texts and expository writing.

Another debate has centered on the difference in sequencing and pacing of learning various math concepts in the lower grades raising questions about which set of standards better prepares students to take algebra in the eighth grade.

A Globe editorial the same day cited a specific advantage of the differences.

The federal standard, for example, puts less emphasis on poetry, drama, and literary studies in the lower grades. But it does put more emphasis on nonfiction, with the expectation that students will be better prepared by high school to read and interpret complicated texts in science and history. In math, the Massachusetts and Common Core standards are already closely aligned.

In today's Globe, Vaznis provides a concise summary, in his story's fifth paragraph, of some key differences between the two sets of standards.

The new national standards emphasize mastering computation and numeric operations at a younger age. They also stress, among other things, nonfiction reading and expository writing, in contrast to the current Massachusetts standards, which favor literature and creative writing.

That’s about all I could find in new stories this week about on specifics of how K-12 curricula will be changed with the adoption of the federal guidelines. Then I turned to reports by two non-government organization and got more information about the differences than I could possibly process, or even understand.

The Pioneer Institute, a think tank here in Boston, opposed the adoption of federal standards in a 28-page report titled “National Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade.” I read through it, looking for specific examples of how what is taught in the classroom will change. Here’s a sample paragraph from the report.

Common Core does require students to analyze U.S. documents of historical and literary significance for how they address related themes and concepts in grades 9-10, and to analyze U.S. documents of historical and literary significance in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features in grades 11 and 12. But Massachusetts 2010 lays out more coherent progressions of standards (and throughout the grades). It expects seminal U.S. documents in the 19th and 20th centuries to be studied in grade 10 and follows up with such standards in grade 11 as: “Synthesize information from texts written in the 18th or 19th century or before to address ideas in foundational texts written in the 18th or 19th century (e.g., read selections from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, and Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention) and trace the history of the ideas presented in the Constitution of the United States.” And in grade 12, students are to analyze texts that have worldwide historical and literary significance with respect to their purposes, central arguments, and social, political, and cultural contexts.

OK, I get that, although reading the “Rock the Schoolhouse” blog of my colleague Jim Stergeos, the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, presents the differences in a writing that’s easier to grasp (although tinged by the Institute’s opposition to the federal standards).

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education issued a 152-page report on Monday supporting the switch to federal standards with the rather less catchy title “Analysis of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Standards and the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics.”

There are a ton of statistical tables in this report, but if you root around in it for long enough you can find some specifics of what is going on, and what will go on, in the state’s classrooms.

Many of the Massachusetts standards that are not aligned to any Common Core Standards reflect the Massachusetts emphasis on certain genres (such as poetry and mythology) or on foreign words and phrases.

Examples:

-- Identify common characteristics of folktales and/or fairy tales, such as animals who speak, magic, a setting that is “anytime/anyplace.”
-- Identify words from other languages that have been adopted into English (e.g., ballet, pizza, sushi, algebra).
-- Explain how poets use sound effects in humorous poems.
Identify conventions in epic tales (e.g., extended simile, the quest, the hero’s task, special weapons or clothing, or helpers).
-- Identify the origin and explain the meaning of grade-appropriate foreign words or phrases used frequently in written English (e.g., per se, passé, au courant, du jour).
-- Analyze how authors create multiple layers of meaning and/or deliberate ambiguity in a poem.

The Massachusetts standards have separate strands for genres of literature (Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Myth, Legend, Traditional Narrative, and Classical Literature) whereas the Common Core Standards subdivide the literature standards into skill- and concept-related strands (Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas, and Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity), intended to apply to all genres of literature.

None of that would fit comfortably in a news story, and the Globe's James Vaznis did the most thorough stories of any reporter covering the issue. Still, as a reader, I would have liked at least a specific example or two on how what is taught in the state’s classrooms will change with under the federal guidelines.

The changes will be complex, yes, and mind-bogglingly detailed, but an example or two would have illustrated what exactly was at stake in this public policy debate. Perhaps a sidebar story or a two-column chart could have shown readers what changes are coming in what our children are taught.

Or am I asking to too much? Let me again pose the questions I asked at the top of this blog post: How much detail do you want from reporters on complex issues of public policy? If you got that detail, would you actually read it -- or would it make your eyes glaze over?

Follow Mark Leccese on Twitter at @mleccese.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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