This Common Core Critic Is Still Charged Up

On April 14, American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess and Mike McShane charged me in a blog on National Review Online with not coming up with “next steps” to “repeal and replace” for states that want to restore academic integrity to their K-12 curriculum in English language arts and mathematics. I’m almost but not quite exhausted from all the next steps I’ve taken, especially in Indiana.

Two years ago I crafted an updated set of English language arts standards based on the set I helped develop in Massachusetts in 1997. This set of standards, copyright-free and cost-free, has been available for districts and states to use in place of Common Core’s standards since May 2013. The document is on the website of the Association for Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers.

(http://alscw.org/news/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2013_ELA_Curriculum_Framework.pdf).

Here’s how they are described in an introduction to the document by John Briggs, an English professor at the University of California, Riverside and current ALSCW president: “The role of literature and the literary imagination in K-12 education is of particular concern to the ALSCW. The … carefully articulated and detailed set of English Language Arts standards prepared by Sandra Stotsky… will contribute to the national conversation by emphasizing the importance of literary study in the education of the young.”

Far from being so obscure that few know about this document, it was listed in the recently released Indiana standards document as one of the resources the standards-drafting committee referred to. Nothing in my document was used, of course, but not for the reason Hess and McShane cook up. That the standards-drafting and evaluation committees came up with an imitation of Common Core is not because Common Core was the “default” position for educators under a “tight timeline.” It was because a warmed-over version of Common Core was the goal set for the committees established by Governor Mike Pence’s education policy director, Claire Fiddian-Green, and the Indiana Department of Education staffer co-directing the project with her, Molly Chamberlin.

Fiddian-Green came to her position from being director of the Indiana Charter School Board, with a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University and undergraduate majors in political science and Russian studies at Brown University. Sterling academic credentials, but no teaching experience in K-12, it seems, and apparently little if any knowledge of English language arts and mathematics.

What makes it clear that an imitation of Common Core was the goal of this project is the content of the drafts, starting with the public comment draft (Draft #1) released in February. It was so like Common Core that it evoked a storm of public criticism for its resemblance. I declined Governor Pence’s request to review that document, making it clear that there was no point in my reviewing Common Core yet another time. Fiddian-Green promised me that the next draft would be significantly different and, in response to another request from Gov. Pence, I agreed to review Draft #2 if it was not warmed-over Common Core.

On March 14, I was sent Draft #2. It was almost identical to Draft #1 in grades 6-12. I wrote back immediately asking Fiddian-Green and Chamberlin if I had been sent the wrong file. No, I hadn’t. On March 17, Fiddian-Green sent me the fruits of their week-end analysis: 93% of the standards in ELA in grades 6-12 were Common Core’s, most verbatim. I wrote to Gov. Pence that day saying I wouldn’t review that cut-and-paste job, either, but would send him a report from two workshops on Draft #2 that I would hold at a conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, serendipitously to take place in Bloomington, Indiana, on April 4 and 5.

My purpose was to give the governor, Fiddian-Green, and Chamberlin whatever suggestions came out of workshops attended by literary scholars and local high school English teachers. I invited Fiddian-Green, Chamberlin, and indeed the entire staff of the Indiana Department of Education to participate in the workshops. None came. But four local English teachers did, as did over 20 literary scholars at the conference.

I sent the report containing their many suggestions for revising grades 6-12 in Draft #2  (readers must remember this draft was mainly Common Core, which they all thought was pretty awful) to Gov. Pence, Fiddian-Green, and others on April 8. Not one suggestion made its way into the final draft released on April 14 (Draft #3). In retrospect, it is clear that Draft #3 had to look like Common Core to satisfy Jeb Bush, the Gates Foundation, and the USDE, but it also had to look somewhat different to justify all the thousands of hours Fiddian-Green claimed the committees had spent on this job. How much this game of pretense cost Indiana taxpayers we may never know.

Remember that Gov. Pence had publicly asked for “uncommonly high standards, written by Hoosiers for Hoosiers.” The major problem in getting even a decent imitation of Common Core to come out of such an ill-conceived and poorly-executed plan was that the committees selected by Fiddian-Green and Chamberlin weren’t capable of doing anything other than making the standards even weaker and more incoherent than Common Core’s. “Not making mathematical sense (NMMS),” as most of the mathematics standards were described by Hung-Hsi Wu, one of the reviewing mathematicians, and from the University of California, Berkeley.

I had already asked for expanded committees to include qualified high school English teachers and recognized literary scholars from Indiana after I had looked at the original list of committee members. But I had been told by Fiddian-Green that she and Chamberlin had complete confidence in the committees they had selected.  I am sure there are many qualified high school English teachers in the state and many recognized literary scholars at Indiana universities; they just weren’t on these committees.

Bottom Line: Indiana citizens now have uncommonly incoherent standards, written less incoherently four years ago in Washington DC by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, but botched up by Hoosiers for Hoosiers.