The Common Core–4 Critical Questions


Strict or Loose Interpretation?

The interpretation of the United States Constitution often falls into two camps; strict or loose construction. According to the following definitions apply:

  • Strict: “…Constitution means exactly what it says, and thus, is not open to interpretation or inference.”
  • Loose: “…Constitution must thus be interpreted in light of historic and societal change.”

Using the debate on the interpretation of our Constitution as an analogy for the possible issues surrounding the implementation of the Common Core is apt. There are those who will want to read the CC standards in a literal sense, and there will be others who will argue that the words of the document are open to interpretation and inference.  Every educator in Maine must do a close reading of the Common Core Document including the appendices and supporting documents such as the Criteria for Publishers in order to be well informed for the forthcoming, inevitable debates on implementation.

To help put the CC in context, here is a video of David Coleman, one of the chief architects of the Common Core, explaining the four principles that informed the authors’ work.

 Critical Questions (Literacy Standards)

1. What is the teacher’s role in implementing the Common Core?

In a recent AMLE listserve posting a colleague wondered if teachers are doomed to become “scripted corporate trainers” using materials mass produced by powerful publishers. In Maine that seems impossible; however in other states, teachers are required to use scripted curriculum — they literally recite from a script designed to illicit very specific responses from the students. Most corporate trainers also work from a script to insure common delivery of the  message.  Will Maine teachers still be empowered to create and use engaging curriculum materials and units even as publishers are receiving criteria for creating teacher-proof materials for the Common Core?

2. Is time really a variable?

Both Commissioner Stephen Bowen and State Superintendent for Instruction Don Siviski maintain that schools must change their view of time.  In their scenario, the outcomes remain the same for each student and the time to meet the standards becomes a variable; traditional grade levels fade away. Yet the Common Core states, “Students advancing through the grades are expected to meet each year’s grade-specific standards and retain or further develop skills and understandings mastered in preceding grades.” A strict interpretation of the CC suggests that grade-level expectations are absolute. Does Maine face a conundrum when customized learning meets the CC?

3. What exactly is text?

Word cloud from the Key Ideas and Details section of the Common Core--Text is the biggest word meaning it was used most often.

Word Cloud from Key Ideas and Details Section of CC

This word cloud certainly demonstrates that the word “text” plays a prominent role in the standards for reading. Additionally, Appendix A states, “ In particular, if students cannot read complex expository text to gain information, they will likely turn to text-free or text-light sources, such as video, podcasts, and tweets. These sources, while not without value, cannot capture the nuance, subtlety, depth, or breadth of ideas developed through complex text.”

Obviously a strict interpretation of the Standards is that the printed word is how the word text should be understood.  I would never argue that students shouldn’t know how to read and mine printed text for evidence to support an argument.  However, ideas are disseminated in the 21st century through a variety of means–text, images, audio, and any combination of the three.  Despite the statement to the contrary in Appendix A, I think complex ideas can be transmitted through media.  How will students learn to analyze and evaluate such sources if they are not practicing “close viewing and listening” of multiple examples?  And… do text-to-speech apps and audio books fall under the category of text? I wonder if perhaps text requires a loose interpretation for the 21st century student?

4. Why does argument seem to take such precedence over persuasion and narrative when I read commentary or listen to presentations on the writing standards?

Once again, I would never argue that students should not master the art of writing a logical argument piece.  However story telling is an ancient and honored method of passing on a sense of culture, making a point, and convincing people to take action. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago are just a few examples of narratives that have moved readers to protest and make changes. What’s interesting is that the Criteria for Publishers states that in middle school 35% of writing should be argument, 35% of writing should be to inform or explain, and 30% should be narrative. When those percentages are spread across the curriculum (because the literacy standards also apply to content areas besides Language Arts), they seem pretty reasonable.  Perhaps this is an instance when strict interpretation of the Standards is preferable and experts’ advice should be taken with a grain of salt!

It is incumbent upon all us–teacher, administrator, citizen–to probe and clarify the implications of the Common Core for our students’ education.  Ask questions, push back when things don’t make sense, compare recommendations by the experts to research on effective practices, and interpret wisely.



12 Responses to “The Common Core–4 Critical Questions”

  1. Mary Callan Says:

    Thank you, Jill, for a very thoughtful posting about such a relevant part of educators’ lives. As we know, time is also an issue for busy educators and I wonder if there are other resources “out there” that might help them make the comparisons of expert recommendations that you mention? Perhaps this blog might serve as a place for others to submit such sources?

  2. Chris Toy Says:

    Great metaphor using the ongoing debate! I hope the broad constructionists prevail!

  3. Catherine Ring Says:

    Perhaps the word to consider is “literacy”, not “text”. Students need to be literate in many ways – of multiple forms of media, including print. What is important is their ability to make meaning of what they are reading, seeing, hearing, and experiencing. It’s the message, not the medium. Sounds like “literacy” and “critical thinking” go hand in hand.

  4. Chris Toy Says:

    Regarding the metaphor of the CCSS providing, or being a staircase for successfully preparing students for college or career, I wonder…do all students need to ascend that staircase at the same pace and even step by step. I ask this because I heard in the video a reference to meeting standards “year by year”. I get that that there needs to be some kind of timeline towards a goal. I do hope that students, teachers, and schools are NOT labeled, judged, and found wanting as a result of a very narrow interpretation of this timeline.

  5. Jill Spencer Says:

    Thank you for your comments!
    Mary–Great idea about resources on effective practices–I was especially thinking about Coleman’s recent talks where he suggests that accessing prior knowledge is undesirable when doing close reading of text–students should get all meaning from the text. I wonder how that squares with information I have read from Marzano in Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools and Bransford’s (ed.) How People Learn (this book is online.)

  6. Jill Spencer Says:


    Thank you for taking time to comment. I do wish the CC had a broader definition of what it is to think deeply about ideas. One CC author I read suggested that text is the only way to transmit complex ideas. That seems to be a very constricted way of thinking about the world and/or ideas. For example, Picasso’s Guernica certainly engenders deep thinking. I also think the failure to expand the definition of literacy to include deep analysis of media is a chance missed to make curriculum more relevant to current times.

  7. Laura Says:

    “As they create and test hypotheses, explore variations on initial problems, and reflect on the consequences of answers as well as the processes of an purposes for their study, students engage in authentic historical work, building on prior knowledge to produce rather than reproduce knowledge.” It is so obvious that taking a purely objectivist stance here and not considering the constructivist component, is so very limited. Saying that students should get all meaning from text is just not right. How do we construct meaning? Certainly not in a void…I thought BF Skinner’s theory was long ago combined with Piaget and Dewey to make common sense. Just my 2 cents.

  8. Is the Common Core a Good Thing? | Multiple Pathways Says:

    […] conversation spurred a bunch of great responses (including Jill Spencer’s post on the Bright Futures blog). Below is what I submitted about Maine’s Customized Learning work and how it may fit with […]

  9. Mike Muir Says:

    Jill, what a great way to frame some of the discussion around Common Core.

    Here is some more of the Common Core conversation that happened on the AMLE listserve:


  10. Jill Spencer Says:

    Mary suggested using the comment box to list research–I urge everyone to get a hold of the March 2012 Ed Leadership–its theme is Reading–The Core Skill. Great articles to read in conjunction with the Common Core Standards on Reading and Writing.

  11. Common Core R.CCR.1 Explained » Teaching the Core | Teaching the Core Says:

    […] The Common Core – 4 Critical Questions ( […]

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