The Common Core State Standards Initiative’s K-12 standards have far exceeded the expectations of those of us who want to return content to the center of our children’s education. Remarkably they have done this while still being skill-based standards. By which I mean they do not lay out what children need to know at each grade, but rather describe what they need to be able to do. They describe skill development, not knowledge mastery. That said, unlike most skill standards (and nearly all standards are skill standards these days), the CCSSI standards lay out skills in a manner that is not only friendly to content but actually requires the mastery of content.
Let me explain. In the reading standards for literature for grades 3-5 students are required to “compare and contrast thematically similar tales, myths, and accounts of events from various cultures” and “compare the treatment of similar ideas and themes (e.g., opposition of good and evil) as well as character types and patterns of events in myths and other traditional literature from different cultures.” This cannot be done without reading and deeply comprehending mythological stories.
In the same grade 3-5 reading standards there is this:
“Explain major differences between poems and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., stanza, verse, rhythm, meter) when writing or speaking about specific poems.”
“Explain major differences between drama and prose stories, and refer to the structural elements of drama (e.g. casts of characters, setting descriptions, dialogue, stage directions, acts, scenes) when writing or speaking about specific works of dramatic literature.”
Again, students must read texts closely in order to meet these standards. The standards do an excellent job covering the list of textual features one should become knowledgeable of—(e.g., poetic and dramatic structure). They are less effective at describing what students should do with these tools—use them to appreciate the beauty inherent in great works. And that is in part because these are skill standards, not content standards, and hence they avoid absolutely requiring students to contend with great works.
Though they certainly push schools, teachers, and students hard in the direction of reading the best of the best. And do actually require students to read some very important works in the “informational text” sections of the standards. Again, let me explain.
The standards are accompanied by a lengthy appendix listing dozens upon dozens of specific works that the CCSSI is putting forward as exemplars of texts of appropriate rigor at each grade. There are few selections here that cannot be described as excellent. And we hope that teachers will use these. But that will depend primarily on the quality of curricula schools adopt once these standards come in to use.
In the informational text section the standards-writers have all but removed any doubt that a few key works will be taught. In grades 9-10 they require students to “analyze documents of historical and literary significance including foundational U.S. documents (e.g., the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights) for their premises, purposes, and structure.” And in grades 11-12: “Analyze how various authors express different points of view on similar events or issues, assessing the authors’ assumptions, use of evidence, and reasoning, including analyzing seminal U.S. documents (e.g., The Federalist, landmark U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents).” In essence, these standards do provide a short required reading list of key American historical documents.
The CCSSI standards create a space for truly excellent curricula and teaching materials to be used, and for serious, content-rich teacher professional development to occur. We hope that organizations with the expertise to create those materials will seize this rare opportunity and do so.