More Non-Fiction, Simplified Elementary School Math: How the Common Core Could Change the American Curriculum

Knob-creek-bourbonOn Saturday I attended a fascinating presentation on the new Common Core curriculum standards in English and math, which 47 states and territories have agreed to implement by the 2014-2015 school year. The speakers were journalist Peg Tyre; testing expert Laura Solver, who works for a consortium of states developing assessments based on the Common Core; and David Coleman, a lead author of the actual standards.

Coleman has become the face of the Common Core on the edu-wonk speaking circuit, and let me tell you: He's a real showman. A former school reform entrepreneur with a master's degree in Greek philosophy, he opened the panel discussion for reporters, hosted at the Columbia Journalism School, by asking, "Do you know what the root of 'symposium' is in Greek?" My friend Greg Toppo of USA Today got the right answer: "drinking together." Coleman then pulled a handle of Kentucky bourbon and a stack of green plastic cups out of a paper bag, circulating them around the room of twittering (and tweeting) journalists.

Past attempts to develop national curriculum guidelines became mired in culture war controversy, but this latest effort–led by the states, not the federal government–has a real shot at influencing teaching and learning at the classroom level, and hopefully fostering a more rigorous academic culture in American public schools. If administrators and teachers implement the new standards faithfully, how will the curriculum evolve? Let's first look at math.

Currently, American students are taught just a little bit about a whole lot of mathematical topics each year; we have a curriculum with tons of breadth, but not much depth. Check out this chart Coleman showed us from education researcher Bill Schmidt. It demonstrates that while typical first-graders in high-achieving Western European and Asian countries learn just three concepts–quantity, measurement, and addition/subtraction of whole numbers–American first-graders must learn 14 topics, including polygons, circles, how to use a compass, and how to estimate. 

MathThe American curriculum may appear more rigorous, but our six-year olds are actually being denied the opportunity to master the foundational skills upon which the rest of their mathematical education will be based. The problem, according to Coleman, is that American curriculum standards have traditionally been written by committees whose members advocate for their pet pedagogical theories, such as traditional vs. reform math. "The only way to end a committee meeting is to let everyone get their stuff in," Coleman said. The result is that teachers feel rushed each year to move through an enormous list of standards. "Students and teachers bear all the weight of this," Coleman pointed out. "The standard writers are removed from this." The goal of the Common Core is, for the first time, to move American math standards in the simplified direction of our international peers. 

That said, states have agreed only to use the Common Core as the starting point of their own curricula in math and English; states do have the option of adding additional topics. So it's certainly possible that many will ignore best practices and heap more topics onto the rubric. 

In English, the potentially most controversial recommendation of the Common Core is to reduce the proportion of the curriculum focused on fiction. Currently, according to Coleman, American students are reading about 80 percent fiction and 20 percent "informational texts;" he would like to shift that balance to 50/50, in order to better approximate the kinds of reading and writing students will be expected to do in college and eventually in their careers.

I've written in the past about the problem of American teens not reading and writing serious non-fiction, and plan to write a longer piece about it soon. In short, our educational culture reflects our popular literary culture in its obsession with memoir. We are constantly asking kids to reflect on their personal experiences, but we aren't expecting them to engage seriously, in writing, with news, political arguments, or historical debates.  

Consider this typical elementary school writing prompt, for New Jersey 3rd-5th graders:

Most people have a special activity or hobby that they enjoy. Some people collect things while others like to read or play games. What activity do you like to do? Write a composition describing what you enjoy doing. Explain why that activity is special to you.

The Common Core Appendix B contains suggested reading lists and writing prompts for children of all ages. These are written for teachers, not for kids, but you can see how different a prompt resulting from this standard would be:

Students describe the reasons behind Joyce Milton’s statement that bats are nocturnal in her Bats: Creatures of the Night, and how she supports the points she is making in the text.

Here's a 12th grade writing prompt from the NAEP test, which is currently considered the gold-standard American exam:

Who are our heroes? The media attention given to celebrities suggests that these people are today's heroes. Yet ordinary people perform extraordinary acts of courage every day that go virtually unnoticed. Are these people the real heroes? Write an essay in which you define heroism and argue who you think our heroes really are–mass media stars, ordinary people, or maybe both. Be sure to use examples of specific celebrities, other people you have heard or read about, or people from your own community to support your position.

This assignment at least asks students to back up an argument with evidence, but the prompt is pulled out of the ether of pop culture, instead of referring to a specific text or even movie or TV show. The Common Core would hold high school seniors to a much higher standard:

  • Students delineate and evaluate the argument that Thomas Paine makes in Common Sense. They assess the reasoning present in his analysis, including the premises and purposes of his essay.
  • Students analyze Thomas Jefferson’s "Declaration of Independence," identifying its purpose and evaluating rhetorical features such as the listing of grievances. Students compare and contrast the themes and argument found there to those of other U.S. documents of historical and literary significance, such as the Olive Branch Petition.
  • Students provide an objective summary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden wherein they analyze how he articulates the central ideas of living simply and being self-reliant and how those ideas interact and build on one another (e.g., “According to Thoreau, how specifically does moving toward complexity in one’s life undermine self-reliance?”)

When it comes to fiction, the Common Core will expect students to engage directly with a text, instead of "talking around the text" by asking kids to reflect on a literary theme such as justice or personal growth. For third graders:

  • Students ask and answer questions regarding the plot of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, explicitly referring to the book to form the basis for their answers.
  • When discussing E. B. White’s book Charlotte’s Web, students distinguish their own point of view regarding Wilbur the Pig from that of Fern Arable as well as from that of the narrator.

For 12th graders:

  • Students analyze the first impressions given of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice based on the setting and how the characters are introduced. By comparing these first impressions with their later understanding based on how the action is ordered and the characters develop over the course of the novel, students understand the impact of Jane Austen’s choices in relating elements of a story.
  • Students compare and contrast how the protagonists of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter maintain their integrity when confronting authority, and they relate their analysis of that theme to other portrayals in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.

Before closing out, a few words on the nuts and bolts of the effort to implement the Common Core. The project is a partnership between a number of organizations, including the National Governor's Association; the Council of Chief State School Officers; Achieve, a non-profit testing group created by the governors; the ACT; the College Board; the State Higher Education Executive Officers; the American Association of School Administrators; and the Business Roundtable. The federal government is supporting the Common Core with about $350 million, most of which is dedicated to developing and implementing tests based on the new standards. Federal funds are also being used to create instructional materials and professional development sessions for teachers who will use the new curricula.

The other major supportor of the Common Core is the Gates Foundation, which expects to spend a total of $250 million "to develop next-generation instructional tools and assessments that will help states and school districts implement the standards."

If I'm skeptical of any part of this effort, it's probably the strong belief, voiced by advocates like Coleman and Solver, that high-quality assessments will drive states, schools, and teachers to faithfully implement these new standards. There's a long history in American education reform of believing that better tests will lead to better schools and deeper learning; as authors like Nick Lemann and Herbert Kliebard have demonstrated, that isn't usually the case. And there are some other looming issues around assessment: Common Core tests will be given on computers, and although Solver said real people will be grading essay questions when the program rolls out in 2014, it's clear that the partner organizations are intrigued by the possibility of developing computer technology to grade student writing. I mention that push in my recent piece on the testing industry for GOOD magazine, and hope to do more reporting on it soon.

In short, there is so much to follow-up on here, my head is spinning. The Common Core is one of the biggest stories in American education right now, and has been woefully undercovered in the press.

6 thoughts on “More Non-Fiction, Simplified Elementary School Math: How the Common Core Could Change the American Curriculum

  1. Robert Pondiscio

    I’m a supporter of CCSS and especially the move to dramatically increase the amount of nonfiction in children’s educational diet. Doing so, and increasing the amount of knowledge children possess about the world around them will have a beneficial impact on kids’ ability to read with comprehension at large (to understand why, see Dan Willingham’s video “Teaching Content is Teaching Reading” on YouTube: link to

    While I support the move away from personal responses and reflection toward writing about more substantial topics, here’s how you could get schools to do this overnight without CCSS: get colleges to stop asking for personal essays and start asking for two samples of analytical writing, graded by teachers, as part of their application process. Once it became clear to parents and teachers that their children’s college prospects were intertwined with their ability to produce original works of meaningful scholarship, built on close reading and careful analysis, the change in classroom practice would be far reaching and instantaneous.

  2. Tom Hoffman

    The issue is not so much “are the ELA tasks described above pretty good ones,” as “is answering the above questions a complete K-12 ELA curriculum?” OK, not just the eight odd questions outlined above, but I bet that covers more than half the threads outlined in the CCRS standards, and the rest are very similar.

    This is much, much more limited — to academic textual analysis — than what high performing countries do. Anyone ask Coleman about that?

  3. Dana Goldstein

    Very good point, Robert, about the power of college application essays in setting the curriculum agenda.

    Tom–I hear what you are saying. What practices do you think are most worth borrowing from other nations, when it comes to ELA?

  4. Mark

    Thanks for posting this information about the CCS. I believe curriculum should ALWAYS be the big focus in education, but is, as you just discovered with the CCS, widely ignored.

    If anyone wants to view more information on the CCS from David Coleman, there’s some items worth viewing on the instructional shifts it entails here: link to

    Also, here’s my post on the critical first step that the CCS represent in moving towards the building of a coherent curriculum: link to

  5. Tom Hoffman

    Hi Dana,

    It isn’t even like we have to borrow some new practices. The question is why are we dramatically narrowing the scope and purpose of the discipline of English to be limited to academic textual analysis?

    Why is genre excluded from the standards? Why is rhetoric? Why do the standards essentially allow any kind of “analysis” to be given equal value?

    Understand that the whole issue of non-fiction vs. fiction is a distractor. That question is outside the issue of the standards. It is an issue of curriculum. To the extent that we’re talking about that, we’re not thinking about the actual standards, which are the problem.

    The goal of these standards is fundamentally more narrow than that of high performing countries.

    The structure of each standard as a narrow, testable task is fundamentally different than that of high performing countries.

    The organization of these standards is fundamentally different from those of high performing countries.

    The scope of the standards is radically more narrow than those of high performing countries.


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