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An Interview with Sandra Stotsky: Curriculum Interests and Concerns

Apr 5, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Sandra, let’s start at the beginning. Tell our readers a bit about your work in curriculum.

I know a great deal about the K-12 curriculum from teaching, doing demonstration lessons for teachers, and developing K-12 standards, licensing regulations for K-12 teachers, and teacher licensure tests. I’ve taught in grade 3, also French and German at the high school level, and given demonstration lessons in writing for all grade levels and teachers in all subjects. I learned about the different ways in which subjects are related to each other from reading and writing research and from developing standards and teacher licensing regulations in all major subjects with the help of academic experts and teachers in those subjects.

2) Now- Common Core– the good the bad and the ugly- Call it as you see it.

Let’s start with the deeper problems: the Common Core standards are not internationally benchmarked, they are not research-based, and they are not rigorous or competitive. That is why their advocates consistently proclaim them as internationally benchmarked and rigorous. If they really were, their advocates would tell us what countries they were benchmarked to, and exactly what makes their standards rigorous.

The mathematics standards have been critiqued in detail elsewhere by mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. The college readiness level in mathematics is pitiful. Jason Zimba, one of the mathematics standards writers, told the MA Board of Education that the college readiness level in math means readiness for a non-selective community college. However, the Board chair thought that meant that Common Core had high expectations even though it’s common knowledge that engineering and other selective colleges in MA and elsewhere expect college freshmen to have had a strong pre-calculus or calculus course in their senior year of high school. The content level of Common Core’s math college readiness standards is algebra I plus, or algebra II lite, as judged by mathematicians.

The English language arts standards have many flaws. I’ve written about them extensively, in Pioneer Institute reports, especially the report I co-authored with Mark Bauerlein in September 2012. The central flaw is its division of reading instruction into 10 standards for “informational text” and 9 standards for “literature” at every grade level from K-12.

This arbitrary, idiosyncratic division of reading instruction reduces literary study in the high school, where it plays a major role in the development of critical thinking. There is no reading research to suggest that a huge dose of informational reading in the English class prepares students for college better than complex literary texts that require students to learn how to read between the lines. In addition, the reading and writing standards are not coordinated through the grades, and, worse yet, the chief author of ELA standards has told teachers that they should approach the teaching of historical documents with a “cold” reading, without offering any historical context for a speech such as the Gettysburg Address. He is under the delusion that doing so “levels the playing field.”

Their virtues: They enable Massachusetts educators to see exactly how Massachusetts students compare with those in Mississippi. Apparently, this was considered a big plus in adopting Common Core standards in the Bay State. All states can already see how they compare with other states by means of NAEP’s distribution of scores on its various tests. State departments of education in the states for reasons I don’t understand think that comparisons of their students across states will tell their teachers something they don’t already know.

3) Your reaction to the morass, and quagmire of cheating in Alabama—tip of the iceberg ?

I haven’t been following the details in Atlanta. But high-stakes testing that focuses accountability chiefly on teachers and schools can make them desperate. What is badly needed are ways to hold students and their parents as equally accountable as the students’ teachers and schools.

4) A HELL of a lot of tax dollars went into all that testing- any chance of any taxpayers getting any of it back?

Most of it is pork for test developers and the peddlers of high technology. All we need in this country are a few standardized tests, mainly at the end of each educational level-End of grade 6 ot 8, and end-of-course tests at the high school level to account for student choices in the subjects they take. To ask kids to submit to almost 10 hours of testing at each grade level is ridiculous and totally unnecessary. The money could be better spent on teacher salaries, and music, art, science, and library rooms in every elementary and middle school.

5) National Standards for Civics and Government—What is good about this possible alternative ?

CCSSI and Gates unfortunately chose two highly contentious subjects to begin the project of national standards. They could have begun with a set of civics and government standards that all points on the political spectrum liked when they came out in 1994, and which were supported by USDE and Pew Foundation money. Adoption of these standards, state by state, could have been encouraged legitimately by Congressional appropriations since these standards address the preservation and maintenance of local, state, and federal government and the basic concept of self-government, the animating force behind the Gettysburg Address that has been so distorted by the workshop given by the “chief architect” of Common Core’s ELA standards. Civics and government (and the philosophy and history behind our seminal documents) have been badly neglected for 40 years, and we could have been united as country around these standards rather than divided by the inferior ELA and mathematics standards that CCSSI came out with.

6) Where could a curriculum person find it and what would they find ?

It’s right on the Center for Civic Education’s website.

7) Now, the ELA Curriculum Framework- and where can one find that alternative?

It’s on my home page at the University of Arkansas. It’s a free set of first-class standards for this country. My gift.

8) Let’s keep this short and sweet- what else have I neglected to ask?

Teacher qualifications. No amount of money poured into testing and professional development will amount to anything until we make the fundamental reform required to improve public education in this country. We must raise the academic bar for who is admitted into a teacher preparation program. I’ve written several papers on the topic–on my home page–in the past year. The new accreditation agency (CAEP) is afraid to come right out and say education schools must admit only the top 20% of an academic cohort, especially for K-8.

Instead, it has come out with almost incomprehensible language to dance around the hot potato it does not want to address. All children deserve to be taught by academically competent teachers. And, in most other countries, that means the top 20% or so of its high school or college graduates.

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