Academic journal article Language Arts

Literacy Reform and Common Core State Standards: Recycling the Autonomous Model

Academic journal article Language Arts

Literacy Reform and Common Core State Standards: Recycling the Autonomous Model

Article excerpt

In 1861, the US Naval Observatory put out one of the first calls for applied research from a US government agency. Their problem was concrete and the need clear: they needed to build a compass that would still work even aboard new ships made of iron. The solution came in the form of a liquid compass (Ritchie Navigation, 2012). This revolutionary invention was an elegant solution to a mechanical challenge. Today, US government agencies funding education are also seeking elegant solutions to "crises" under the assumption that the problems are simple and mechanical (Williams, 2007). Current reforms are characterized by implementation of the Common Core State Standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010; this will be referred to as CCSS throughout). In literacy education, this standardized, formulaic approach to solving complex and highly diverse social problems has been based on an extremely limited range of scientific research. Its resulting foundations on extremely narrow views of reading, writing, speaking/listening, and language make it essential that professional English teachers go beyond the Standards in order to ensure that all students are supported to succeed.

Standards are not in and of themselves bad, but they should be mitigated by concerns of context and delivery. Standards are inflexible, which means they can become outdated or obsolete (perhaps via technological change) and so should allow for some leeway regarding interpretation as well as teaching approaches. Even though the Common Core State Standards authors warn that the Standards do not function as a curriculum, and even though it specifically states that its Standards cannot account for all that students should know in English language arts, the Standards proceed from a basic assumption that literacy and language arts development means teaching children a one-size- fits- all set of skills and behaviors-what Street (1984/1995) called an autonomous model of literacy. This assumption has set the stage for numerous implementation problems and practices that standardize curriculum and teaching; even the CCSS warn that standardization must be avoided and that teachers "establish individualized benchmarks" for their students (¶ 2).

Teaching requires attention to both ideological and autonomous aspects of literacy. And although no single lesson or unit can or should try to cover every component of the CCSS, our point is that we can meet the CCSS and students' needs in ways that satisfy both, as well as our obligations as teachers (Burns & Botzakis, 2012). One of the major drawbacks of only using an autonomous model is that literacy instruction becomes simplistic and overly focused on covering each Standard and not student learning. It also frequently leads to treating each Standard as if it were separate from all the others. The CCSS becomes the basis for academic checklists-objectives to address superficially in a mad dash toward standardized tests that have little to do with how people actually read, write, and think in real life (including college and careers).

Instead of being concerned primarily about student learning, educators working with autonomous models and standards become more concerned about "dips in test scores" (Collier, 2012, p. 22) that may result from variations in how different skills are taught in different classrooms. Schools teach to tests because the stakes are so high, and the impulse is to make sure all students learn the same things at the same times at the same rates. Failure or resistance can and does lead to teachers losing their jobs, schools losing funding, communities losing property value, and more (Hiebert & Mesmer, 2013).

A number of complications arise for teachers when they rely on isolated content standards. First, such reliance removes attention to important issues of diversity regarding how teaching and learning must be designed for optimal success with all students. …

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