Historians Want to Put Events in Context. Common Core Doesn’t. That’s a Problem.

tags: education, Common Core

Sandra Stotsky is professor of education reform emerita at the University of Arkansas and holds the Twenty-First Century Chair in Teacher Quality. She served as editor of “Research in the Teaching of English” in the 1990s and has taught at the elementary, secondary, undergraduate, and graduate level. She is the author of The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

For an October 2017 conference sponsored by an affiliate of the California Association of Teachers of English, I was invited to give an informal talk on a chapter in my book, The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum. Chapter 8 centered on how English teachers could create coherent sequences of informational and literary texts to address civic literacy.

I presented initial remarks on Chapter 8 and then asked for questions. But instead of questions about Chapter 8, the concerns were mostly about the requirement in Common Core’s English language arts (ELA) standards for English teachers to teach Founding documents. In particular, one teacher expressed at length the problems she was facing in teaching “The Declaration of Independence.” She wanted to know why English teachers were compelled to teach historical documents. Her academic background was not in history, and she was not the only one in the audience upset about this requirement. But something had happened.

The dialogue now taking place was not about the literature curriculum but about English teachers being required to teach historical documents—and without context, if they followed guidelines from the standards writers on “close reading.” The dialogue also touched on the “literacy” standards that content teachers were to address in order to teach reading and writing in their classes.

Why were “literacy” standards for other subjects in Common Core’s ELA document and what had researchers found on English teachers teaching “informational” texts (required by Common Core’s ELA standards) and on content teachers teaching reading and writing (required by Common Core’s “literacy” standards)? I sympathized with both English teachers who didn’t feel comfortable teaching foundational historical documents and history teachers who had presumably studied the context for documents now being taught by their English colleagues. Common Core’s ELA document makes clear that the motivation for these standards and requirements was the standards writers’ concern about the low reading skills of many American students graduating from high school.

As a response to teachers’ concerns at this conference, this essay first clarifies how the K-12 study of history ever got tangled up in Common Core’s ELA standards. It then explains why reading in a history class is not like reading in a literature class.

The story begins with the rationale for the contents of a document titled, “Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.” The bulk of the 66-page document is on English language arts standards. But the last seven pages provide “literacy” standards for the other subjects in grades 6-12. The introduction to the whole document justifies Common Core’s literacy standards on the grounds that college readiness means being able to read, write, and speak in all subject areas. That is the basis for entangling the study of history in the final version of Common Core’s ELA document.

The attempt to make English teachers responsible for teaching high school students how to read history, science, and mathematics textbooks relaxed after critics made it clear that English teachers could not possibly teach students how to read textbooks in other disciplines. Their criticism was supported by the common sense argument that teachers can’t teach students to read texts on a subject they don’t understand themselves, as well as by the total lack of evidence that English teachers can effectively teach reading strategies appropriate to other disciplines and thereby improve students’ knowledge in that discipline.

The absence of studies strongly implies there may be no credible research suggesting that subject teachers can effectively teach reading skills in their own classes in ways that improve student writing or learning. Not only are subject teachers reluctant to teach reading in their own classes (as the research indicates), there’s no evidence that even if they do, student writing or learning will be enhanced.

So how do secondary students learn how to read their history books or their science and mathematics textbooks? We will return to this hugely important question after we consider some possible reasons for the failure of the movement called Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum (RAWAC)—in the 1970s and later.

Common Core’s literacy standards are general statements of different purposes for reading and writing in any subject such as “Evaluate an author's premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.” The expectation is that subject teachers are to use the content of their subject to teach students how to read, write, and talk in their subjects, not the other way around.

Secondary school learning was turned on its head in 2010 without any public murmur probably because most subject teachers did not know they were being required to teach reading and writing in a document ostensibly designated for English and reading teachers. The National Council for the Social Studies apparently knew what the ELA standards writers intended, according to this History News Network article, but it did not communicate any concerns to its members so far as is known.

While the effort to make subject teachers responsible for assigning more reading to their students and/or teaching them how to read whatever they assigned sounded justifiable, it didn’t succeed for several reasons. First, why assign more reading if there were reasons for not assigning much reading to begin with (e.g., no textbooks available, students couldn’t read whatever textbooks were available on the topic, students wouldn’t do much homework)?

Second, history teachers were also unlikely to think in terms of “main idea” or “supporting details” in discussing what students had read about a specific topic. Instead, they would ask students to apply these general skills in topic-related language (e.g., what “claim” they are to evaluate) to expand students’ conscious knowledge base. Subject teachers use the specific content of their discipline in ways that require students to apply their thinking skills and prior knowledge to what they have been assigned to read or do.

Third, if students claimed they couldn’t read the assignment, other issues needed to be explored. How much reading had students been doing on the topic? Did they have any prior knowledge? Were they familiar with the vocabulary related to the topic? Students can absorb some of the vocabulary for a discipline-based topic by re-reading the material (as in history) or by working carefully with material named by these words (as in a science lab) without constantly consulting a glossary. But how to get students to do more re-reading is not the purpose of a standard. Getting students to address questions about particular topics in a discipline with adequate and sufficient information (i.e., to develop their conscious understanding of the topics) is one purpose of a standard.

Fourth, content teachers continued to see English teachers as teachers of writing (and literature), and themselves as teachers of specific subjects like math, science, or history.

Common Core’s literacy standards suggest that their writers do not understand the high school curriculum. That problem is also suggested by the titles offered in Appendix B of Common Core’s ELA Standards document as examples of the quality and complexity of the informational reading that history and other subject teachers could use to boost the amount of reading their students do and to teach disciplinary reading and writing skills.

While grades 9-10 English teachers may be puzzled about the listing for them of Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention,” Margaret Chase Smith’s “Remarks to the Senate in Support of a Declaration of Conscience,” and George Washington’s “Farewell Address”—all non-literary, political speeches— grades 9/10 history teachers may be even more puzzled by the examples for them. Among a few appropriate examples (on the history of indigenous and African Americans), we find E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, 16th Edition; Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World; and Wendy Thompson’s The Illustrated Book of Great Composers. What history teacher would tackle excerpts from those books in the middle of a grade 9 or 10 history course?

The informational examples in Appendix B for grades 11/12 history teachers are even more bizarre. Along with a suitable text (Tocqueville’s Democracy in America), we find Julian Bell’s Mirror of the World: A New History of Art and FedViews, issued in 2009 by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. These two titles clearly don’t fit into a standard grade 11 U.S. history course or grade 12 U.S. government course. These examples are out of place not just in a typical high school history class but in a typical high school curriculum.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of Common Core’s approach to literary study is the advice given teachers by its chief writer David Coleman, now president of the College Board, on the supposed value of “cold” or “close” (non-contextualized) reading of historical documents like the “Gettysburg Address.” Coleman categorically declared: “This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students.” Aside from the fact that “close” reading was not developed or promoted by Yale English professors Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren as a reading technique for historical documents, no history or English teacher before the advent of Common Core would have approached the study of a seminal historical document by withholding initial information about its historical context and clear language archaisms.

As high school history teacher Craig Thurtell states: “This approach [close reading] also permits the allocation of historical texts to English teachers, most of whom are untrained in the study of history, and leads to history standards [Common Core’s literacy standards for history] that neglect the distinctiveness of the discipline.” Thurtell goes on to say that the “study of history requires the use of specific concepts and cognitive skills that characterize the discipline—concepts like evidence and causation and skills like contextualization, sourcing, and corroboration. These concepts and skills are largely distinct from those employed in literary analysis. Both disciplines engage in close readings of texts, for example, but with different purposes. The object of the literary critic is the text, or more broadly, the genre; for the historian it is, however limited or defined, a wider narrative of human history, which textual analysis serves.”

Not only did the writers of Common Core’s English language arts standards profoundly misunderstand how reading in a history class differs from reading in a literature class, they basically misunderstood the causes of the educational problem they sought to remedy through Common Core’s standards. They assumed that many high school graduates needed remedial coursework in reading and writing as college freshmen because English teachers gave them too heavy a diet of literary works and that teachers in other subjects deliberately or unwittingly did not teach them how to read complex texts in these other subjects. This assumption doesn’t hold up.

High school teachers will readily acknowledge that many students have not been assigned complex textbooks because, generally speaking, they can’t read them and, in fact, don’t read much of anything with academic content. Consequently, they have not acquired the content knowledge and the vocabulary needed for reading complex history textbooks. And this is despite (not because of) the steady decline in vocabulary difficulty in secondary school textbooks over the past half century. Higher levels of writing are increasingly dependent on higher levels of reading. Students unwilling to read a lot do not advance very far as writers.

The accumulation of a large and usable discipline-specific vocabulary depends on graduated reading in a coherent sequence of courses (known as a curriculum) in that discipline. The accumulation of a general academic vocabulary, however, depends on assigning a lot of increasingly complex literary works with strong plots and characters to entice poor readers to make efforts to read them (like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Otherwise, students will not acquire the general academic vocabulary needed for serious historical nonfiction, the texts that secondary history students should be reading.

Possible Approaches to Common Core’s Secondary ELA Standards

1. Schools can establish reading classes separate from the English and other subject classes. Students who cannot or won’t read high school-level textbooks can be given further reading instruction in the secondary grades by teachers with strong academic backgrounds who have learned how to teach reading skills appropriate to the academic subjects students are taking. While not easy to do, it is doable.

2. Schools can enable English and history teachers to provide professional development to each other in the same high school. The context and philosophical antecedents for our seminal political documents (e.g., Declaration of Independence, Preamble to the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) can be explained/taught to English teachers by their colleagues in the History Department, while an analysis of their language and other stylistic features can be explained/taught to history teachers by their colleagues in the English Department. 

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