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An expert's view of Common Core's focus on nonfiction texts

Posted by Jim Stergios August 30, 2012 02:35 PM

Will Fitzhugh.jpg

(Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times)

The Common Core national standards are increasingly controversial, with Utah, Indiana and a number of states that had adopted them now reconsidering. A recent New York Times education blog notes the following:

Forty-four states and United States territories have adopted the Common Core Standards and, according to this recent Times article, one major change teachers can expect to see is more emphasis on reading “informational,” or nonfiction, texts across subject areas:

While English classes will still include healthy amounts of fiction, the standards say that students should be reading more nonfiction texts as they get older, to prepare them for the kinds of material they will read in college and careers. In the fourth grade, students should be reading about the same amount from “literary” and “informational” texts, according to the standards; in the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70.

And seeing itself as a potential vendor, the Times chirps cheerfully:

Well, The New York Times and The Learning Network are here to help.

There’s been a lot written on the loss of literature in curricula around the country. And there is good reason for that. As I noted in testimony to the Utah Education Interim Committee:

Massachusetts’ remarkable rise on national assessments is not because we aligned our reading standards to the NAEP. Rather, it is because, unlike Common Core, our reading standards emphasized high-quality literature. Reading literature requires the acquisition in a compressed timeframe of a richer and broader vocabulary than non-fiction texts. Vocabulary acquisition is all-important in the timely development of higher-level reading skills.

But even if you agree with the idea of refocusing our classrooms on nonfiction texts, what is the quality of the offerings suggested by Common Core, a set of standards copyrighted by two Washington-based entities (the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association)?

I can think of no one whose opinion might be better informed on the topic than Massachusetts’ own Will Fitzhugh, who founded The Concord Review in 1987 and has received numerous prizes and appointments as a result of his work there. For those who aren’t familiar with The Concord Review, it is a quarterly journal that

has now published 1,033 exemplary history research papers (average 6,000 words), on a huge variety of topics, by high school students from 46 states and 38 other countries. The journal accepts about 6% of the papers submitted.

In a January 2011 piece highlighting his work, then-education reporter Sam Dillon of The New York Times noted that Fitzhugh

showcases high school research papers, sits at his computer in a cluttered office above a secondhand shop here, deploring the nation’s declining academic standards…

…His mood brightens, however, when talk turns to the occasionally brilliant work of the students whose heavily footnoted history papers appear in his quarterly, The Concord Review. Over 23 years, the review has printed 924 essays by teenagers from 44 states and 39 nations…

Fitzhugh is deeply concerned by the fact that the majority of students pack up their duffelbags and computers, and head off to college without ever having completed a genuine research paper on history. The Concord Review has been a labor of love that seeks to change that sad state of affairs. In a piece entitled “Skip the Knowledge!” published in at the start of August 2012, Fitzhugh articulated his view on the value of Common Core in getting students to be truly college-ready in reading and writing non-fiction texts:

It is not clear whether the knowledge-free curricula of the graduate schools of education, or the Core experiences at Harvard College, in any way guided the authors of our new Common Core in their achievement of the understanding that it is not knowledge of anything that our students require, but Thinking Skills. They took advantage of the perspective and arguments of a famous cognitive psychologist at Stanford in designing the history portion of the Core. Just think how much time they saved by not involving one of those actual historians, who might have bogged down the whole enterprise in claiming that students should have some knowledge of history itself, and that such knowledge might actually be required before any useful Thinking Skills could be either acquired or employed. If we had followed that path, we might actually be asking high school students to read real history books—shades of the James Madison era!!


Keep Poor James Madison, back in the day, spending endless hours reading scores upon scores of books on the history of governments, as he prepared to become the resident historian and intellectual “father” of the United States Constitution in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia! If he had only known what we know now thanks to the new Common Core, he could have saved the great bulk of that time and effort if he had only acquired some Thinking Skills instead!

In a piece entitled “Turnabout,” which came out Tuesday, Fitzhugh goes further.

The New Common Core Standards call for a 50% reduction in “literary” [aka fictional non-informational texts] readings for students, and an increase in nonfiction informational texts, so that students may be better prepared for the nonfiction they will encounter in college and at work.

In addition to memos, technical manuals, and menus (and bus schedules?), the nonfiction informational texts suggested include The Gettysburg Address, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and perhaps one of the Federalist Papers.

History books, such as those by David Hackett Fischer, James McPherson, David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Paul Johnson, Martin Gilbert, etc. are not among the nonfiction informational texts recommended, perhaps to keep students from having to read any complete books while they are still in high school.

In the spirit of Turnabout, let us consider saving students more time from their fictional non-informational text readings (previously known as literature) by cutting back on the complete novels, plays and poems formerly offered in our high schools. For instance, instead of Pride and Prejudice (the whole novel), students could be asked to read Chapter Three. Instead of the complete Romeo and Juliet, they could read Act Two, Scene Two, and in poetry, instead of a whole sonnet, perhaps just alternate stanzas could be assigned. In this way, they could get the “gist” of great works of literature, enough to be, as it were, “grist” for their deeper analytic cognitive thinking skill mills.

As the goal is to develop deeply critical analytic cognitive thinking skills, surely there is no need to read a whole book either in English or in History classes. This will not be a loss in Social Studies classes, since they don’t assign complete books anyway, but it may be a wrench for English teachers who probably still think that there is some value in reading a whole novel, or a whole play, or even a complete poem.

But change is change is change, as Gertrude Stein might have written, and if our teachers are to develop themselves professionally to offer the new deeper cognitive analytic thinking skills required by the Common Core Standards, they will just have to learn to wean themselves from the old notions of knowledge and understanding they have tried to develop from readings for students in the past.

As Caleb Nelson wrote in 1990 in The Atlantic Monthly, speaking about an older Common Core at Harvard College:

The philosophy behind the [Harvard College] Core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever happen to encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so….

The New Common Core Standards are meant to prepare our students to think deeply on subjects they know practically nothing about, because instead of reading a lot about anything, they will have been exercising their critical cognitive analytical faculties on little excerpts amputated from their context. So they can think “deeply,” for example, about Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, while knowing nothing about the nation’s Founding, or Slavery, or the new Republican Party, or, of course, the American Civil War.

Students’ new Common academic work with texts about which they will be asked to Think & Learn Deeply, may encourage them to believe that ignorance is no barrier to useful thinking, in the same way that those who have written the Common Core Standards believe that they can think deeply about and make policy for our many state education systems, without having spent much, if any time, as teachers themselves, or even in meeting with teachers who have the experience they lack.

It may very well turn out that ignorance and incompetence transfer from one domain to another much better than deeper thinking skills do, and that the current mad flight from knowledge and understanding, while clearly very well funded, has lead to Standards which will mean that our high school students [those that do not drop out] will need even more massive amounts of remediation when they go on to college and the workplace than are presently on offer.

"Turnabout" may mean many things, including fair play, a reversal of direction or even what we might call a turncoat. (My own favorite reference is to Hal Roach’s screwball, gender-bender comedy of the 1940s.) But the more serious people look at it, the more Common Core is looking like an attempt to revive that merry-go-round of ed fads that have never worked in American education--and are best abandoned.


Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

Sunset the Lawrence district school monopoly

Posted by Jim Stergios August 21, 2012 08:26 AM

cfiles21577-Lawrence sunset.jpg

One of two kids in the Lawrence Public School system do not cross the 12th grade finish line. Even that is beyond what the "soft bigotry of low expectations" crowd can explain away on the basis of factors like poverty and family situation. Sadly, that dropout reality holds true in a couple of other urban districts around the state. But no other district is in school receivership... in a city that is in state fiscal receivership. And no other district can boast of the on-the-record, court-documented corruption within the school district office that we've seen in Lawrence.

As noted in several previous blogs (such as this one), in Lawrence, just over 1,000 students of the 13,000 in the district will be affected by the new school receiver's plan to introduce charter operators to help out and even run district schools. So, the question becomes, if charters are working well in Lawrence, why are we keeping the charter caps in place in in a city where the state effectively picks up 100% of the cost of the public schools?

Well, just how well are the charter public schools doing compared to their district peers?

Click here for comparison of performance for the charter schools currently in existence, Lawrence Community Day Charter Public School (LCDCPS) Upper and Lower School and Lawrence Family Development Charter School, and the city's district middle school counterparts. In 2009, LCDCPS had the top rated 8th grade class in the state, notwithstanding poverty and all the other usual factors.

So, then, why such a limited charter effort? Is it due to lack of interest on the part of parents?

Not at all. There is clear evidence of great parental demand for charter school options in Lawrence at the charter public schools currently in existence. And thanks to the 2010 law that partially lifted the cap on charter schools in districts with failing schools, the LCDCPS school network is opening two new charters this September: the Gateway and Webster schools (the latter named after the education philanthropist Kingman Webster, who has long been committed to improving the Lawrence schools). The Lawrence charter school waiting list is by some reckonings in the thousands, perhaps encompassing as much as 30% of the overall district's student population.

Another indication of demand comes with a June MassINC Polling Group survey of 400-plus adults in households with Lawrence public students, whether they were in charter public or district public schools. Notwithstanding the fact that the group surveyed was only 48% familiar with charter schools (26% and 25% of respondents were either not too or not at all familiar with charter schools) and only a majority aware (51%) of the state’s strict limits on charter schools, a majority of respondents wanted to see the caps removed. Once the respondents were informed of the length of the waiting list, the percentage of respondents opining that the caps should be removed leapt to 71%.

The language in the survey informing respondents about the waiting list was hardly leading: “Currently, there are about 4,100 students on the waiting list to get into the charter schools in Lawrence, who are unable to attend the city’s charter schools because of the limit on the number of students who are allowed to attend.”

So why are we limiting charter public school options, when charters are working so well in Lawrence and the rest of the state? Why can charter public schools provide options to no more than 18% of the district population, even in a case where the need is so obviously extreme? And why are we keeping the caps on charter schools in Lawrence when any number of charter operators that I have spoken to, charters with excellent records in Massachusetts, who meet the state's new bar of being so-called “proven providers,” would step up and expand in Lawrence in a heartbeat?

Chalk the lack of legislative leadership on this issue up to the adult protection racket that controls Beacon Hill. It's time for special legislation expanding charters in Lawrence. Anything less than that is simply kicking the can down the road. And when each high school dropout ends up costing fellow citizens hundreds of thousands of dollars in entitlement support, public services and more, that's a mighty expensive can to kick.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

The right reform path in Lawrence?

Posted by Jim Stergios August 6, 2012 07:01 PM


There are two issues that matter in K-12 education – what you might call the twin achievement gaps, those between the inner city poor (often including English language learners) and the rest of the state, and the international achievement gap whereby the percentage of students who are advanced in core subjects in the top-performing countries far outstrips the percentage among Massachusetts students.

The second achievement gap is urgent; the first is an emergency and has to be treated as such. Ground zero for the emergency achievement gap is the city of Lawrence, where the public schools have been in free fall, where the previous superintendent has been convicted, where dropout rates are approaching 50 percent (not a typo), and where the state’s department of education has stepped in by putting the city’s schools into receivership.

I’ve blogged multiple times on the challenges before Lawrence and the power of New Orleans' school reform model (1, 2, 3). But last week was an opportunity to have a public conversation about the Lawrence schools. The acting superintendent, Jeff Riley, addressed a forum on the school receivership effort, relaying a message that was focused on his personal commitment to righting the public schools, calling it, as Mark Vogler noted in the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune:

"unacceptable" that half of the students who attend Lawrence High School "actually wind up walking across the stage" to receive their diplomas.

Most interestingly, Riley underscored that his approach to district reform will provide a framework for school reform but to give school principals and teachers plenty of flexibility to reach the district goals. Promoting school-level flexibility and, conversely, limiting the district office to more of a goal-setting and accountability function were key elements of the 1993 Education Reform Act (and sadly elements that have not been implemented in school districts outside of Barnstable). Riley’s drive for greater flexibility for schools led him to seek out new partnerships including inviting the operators of successful charter school models to come in and run district schools. Riley’s plan would differ

from more traditional methods that had been proposed, like reorganizations with a "top-down strategy." "We're making the unit of change the individual schools where teachers and the principal, the majority of whom spend next year planning to change what the school day looks like, what the school year looks like, what the school looks like," Riley said.

"We're looking to build a system which is decentralized" where the central office that previously ran the school system "is changed to a more nimble structure that only goal is to support the schools, principals and the teachers," he said.

One of Riley’s slides provided a sense of the comprehensive approach he is taking, covering dropouts and at-risk students, teacher quality, parental involvement, good governance and physical plant.

  • Summer school: 90+ students will be eligible to graduate after summer school; 10 formerly dropped out of the LPS system
  • Re-engagement: Recruiting in order to re-enroll 230+ students who dropped out during the 2011-12 school year
  • Recruiting: Extensive recruitment efforts underway, including a job fair, over 225 interviews for teachers and administrators, Globe ads, other listings
  • Training: Planning PD that will focus on implementation of the new educator evaluation regulations and quality instruction
  • Outreach: Developing a parent outreach plan, particularly for Level 4 schools; looking for location for Family Welcome Center
  • School Committee: PD has begun in collaboration with MASC; will continue in September
  • School supports: Developing Office of School Improvement, including autonomy and accountability system
  • Resources: Awarded four new (and one renewal) School Redesign Grants
  • Facilities: Continuing repairs to prepare for beginning of school year

A panel followed consisting of education scholar Charlie Glenn, Tom Gosnell (head of the American Federation of Teachers’ Massachusetts chapter, which is the local teachers union in Lawrence), Beth Anderson (head of the Phoenix Charter Academy, which is reconstituting and running a district school under the auspices of the Lawrence school receivership), and Jose Afonso of SABIS Education Systems (which runs two highly successful schools in Springfield and Holyoke and will soon open a third in Lowell in September 2013). And the panel talked extensively about the evidence that school-based, rather than district office-centered, approaches are the most effective way to achieve success in urban districts.

As the Eagle-Tribune’s Vogler also noted, the forum highlighted very aggressive strategies to fix the schools in New Orleans

in the years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged that Louisiana city in August 2005. In the rebuilding of New Orleans, the increase in charter schools has been credited with improving an educational system once considered among the nation's worst.

"Lawrence is our Katrina moment," Stergios said, referring to the potential opportunities that can be achieved by using charter schools to help turn around the school system.

It’s no hyperbole to say that Lawrence is our Katrina moment. Students in Lawrence at the start of 2012 had every issue besetting the City of New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina, the point at which, suddenly, the country woke up and recognized the city’s structural poverty and failing schools.

We can pretend no such ignorance about Lawrence. The state Board of Education intervened even as far back as the late 1990s. And the greater emphasis on data collection has made the picture in Lawrence very clear indeed for quite some time.

With nearly 100% and over 40% of their schools now charters, New Orleans and Washington D.C., respectively, have chosen robust school choice through charter schools as the way forward. (In Lawrence, the percentage is over 10%.) There are many merits to the New Orleans and D.C. approach:

  • Charters are the most decentralized, school-based approach within the public school framework.
  • Expanding charter schools has the merit of avoiding failures seen in other districts when a “Superman” is brought in to fix the schools. Riley acknowledged that stating that he knows of no situation where a superintendent has turned around a district.
  • It has the strong backing of parents (see this poll and this one, too, which is focused on the views of parents in Lawrence).
  • More importantly, charters have worked very well in Massachusetts because of the extraordinary talent in the Bay State, an authorization process that has long focused on objective evaluations and business planning, and no fear in closing down (or putting on probation) those charters that do not live up to their promises. Imagine if the state lined up schools like MATCH, Roxbury Prep, Boston Prep, Lawrence Community Day, KIPP, SABIS and others with strong records of success in Massachusetts, inviting them to submit charter applications for the city of Lawrence. There is no doubt that the needle would move significantly and that students would have far better outcomes within five years.

Unfortunately, that is not the path the state has chosen. I am all for Jeff Riley providing flexibility within district schools. And I hope 100% for his success—and the success of all those now committed to making the education of Lawrence’s young a radically better experience.

I hope it not simply for the kids and families in Lawrence—though that has to be the number one goal. But also because this “Katrina moment” is an opportunity to inspire other cities to change.

After all, anyone familiar with education debates in the late 80s will recognize that the landmark 1993 education reform was in important ways inspired by another attempt at radical transformation of a district, wherein Boston University took over the Chelsea Public Schools with the support of key legislators. Such crises are moments when we test our mettle and we inspire a new generation of reforms and reformers.

History in Chelsea also teaches us that there are limits to full district reform. There have been real successes, but it is still a long way from where we need it to be.

One recommendation to help us all in this process is for the state to disseminate an annual report on the Lawrence effort. This is something that is required of charter schools. Charters have to submit annual reports based on goals they set. Charters often include in their reports evaluations of their fidelity to the charter (mission and operating plan), academic program success, organizational viability and financial oversight. Such reports set out clear accountability plans and missions, performance metrics in English, math, writing, science, college preparation, SAT scores, and college success. They include metrics on instruction and methods for program evaluation, goals for school culture, metrics on attrition, the school environment, and more.

So far the receivership has set goals compared to other older industrialized cities and some additional measures. But let’s state clearly what we are after. The receiver has started down this path. But here are some perhaps more general goals any well-intentioned person would agree with, followed by basic ways to measure change:

Are the children in the city of Lawrence far better served (not just a little better served)?

  • What percentage of the students (and in what grades) will be advanced, proficient, needing improvement or failing on the MCAS?

  • What improvement in attendance will we see?

  • What percentage increase in the number of graduating seniors admitted to 2- and 4-year colleges?

  • How much will the dropout rate go down? (I have a strong feeling this will be improved given that Phoenix Charter Academy is helping on this issue.)

How supportive will the school environment be to great teachers and newer teachers
  • What percentage of the teachers will be using curricula aligned with the state’s frameworks?

  • How many teacher observations will principals make?

How will the school environment and school culture improve? (On this issue, the LPS could learn a lot from its new partner, the MATCH Schools, which focus strongly on positive behavior.)

  • Why not track behavior metrics such as the number of fights per year?

  • How many weapons or drugs violations will there be after three years?

  • Will there be annual reductions in incidents of vandalism?

  • How about reaching for lower daily absenteeism – something well below the Boston Public Schools double-digit rate?

Lawrence is a reform effort to be watched. Let’s do the kids justice and give them and their families clear goals. The fact is that already within three years we will be able to see trend lines – and numbers will allow us to adjust the plan if it is not achieving the kind of success we all want.

We chose not to take the path New Orleans did after Katrina. They have a record – and we will too. Would we have been better off recruiting our best charter operators for this challenge? Would student outcomes have differed significantly?

Time will tell. I simply hope we have the courage to look at the data squarely and make good judgements. Families and kids in Lawrence are investing a lot in this effort: 3 years is a quarter of a kid’s public school life.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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