Garahan, Katie — The Common Core Initiative and Standardized Violence

Garahan, Katie.  The Common Core Initiative and Standardized Violence.

This year, in the second year of my M.A., I have become extremely interested in writing center research because at the heart of this research lie the critical questions of our discipline: questions about literacy, diversity, and identity. Writing centers aren’t just theoretical spaces; they are physical places in which tutors, students, and administrators must face the tough questions and practicalities about teaching writing. As a former high school English teacher and a current writing center tutor/ first year writing instructor, I am especially interested in how writing centers act as hubs that connect high school writing and college writing, especially in a time when the gap between the two is a hot topic of conversation. As a researcher and a tutor, I believe it is important for me to look at the big picture of academic writing and literacy and to ask, how have students experienced writing before they came to college?

I realized at the 2014 University of Maryland Conference on Academic and Professional Writing that high school writing was a topic of interest for writing instructors and professors, as well. Presenters seemed particularly interested in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which arose out of an educational crisis du jour: students were apparently going to college woefully unprepared. At least five presentations mentioned the CCSS at the conference. The standards are supposed to make students more college and career ready. Presenters and audience members questioned: but do they really? What does it even mean to be college-ready? The CCSS have been an interest of mine for some time. In my last two years teaching in North Carolina, I was learning and implementing these standards as well as preparing for a barrage of new state tests.

After my years of experience using the standards in the classroom, preparing students for the corresponding tests, engaging in discussions with other professionals, researching the standards’ implementation, and critically analyzing the English Language Arts (ELA) 9-10 standards and a corresponding North Carolina state test, I believe the standards not only fail to meet their intended goal, but are actually harmful to students’ diverse identities.

The CCSS were created in 2009 with David Coleman leading and Bill Gates funding the endeavor. A team of 25, 15 of which were representatives from test-making companies and zero of which were current classroom teachers, created the standards and released them after just two months of revisions suggested by educational representatives (Endacott and Goering). The creators of the CCSS argue that creating a national set of uniform standards will eliminate the aforementioned crisis of students’ unpreparedness. The standards were quickly adopted by 45 states plus the District of Columbia with the help from the federal government. Schools, most of which were in a constant fear of budget cuts inevitably resulting in teacher lay-offs, received Race for the Top money in exchange for adopting the CCSS. Essentially, according to Endacott and Goering, “[s]tates faced the forced choice of either adopting the CCSS or losing millions of federal dollars in grants during the worst economic recession in 80 years” (90).

According to the CCSS website, “the mastery of each standard is essential for success in college, career, and life in today’s global economy.” Specifically, the standards are “research and evidence based; clear, understandable, and consistent; [a]ligned with college and career expectations; [b]ased on rigorous content and the application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills; [b]uilt upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards; [i]nformed by other top-performing countries to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society” (“About the Standards”). These claims are all despite the fact that the standards were created, revised, and implemented without field testing and very little time for revision.

The standards, according to the CCSS website, “represent the next generation of K–12 standards designed to prepare all students for success in college, career, and life by the time they graduate from high school.” Furthermore, they “promote equity by ensuring all students are well prepared to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad” (“About the Standards”) The words “all students” are used frequently throughout the description of the standards to enforce the idea that these standards are equitable, value-neutral, and impartial. They claim give every student the same opportunity to succeed in college and in their careers.

The two major figureheads for the CCSS, Bill Gates and David Coleman, present the standards as if they are panacea to the aforementioned educational crisis. In his speech at the 2014 Teaching and Learning Conference, Bill Gates asserted that the standards “give teachers the freedom [they] need to be creative, the tools [they] need to be effective, [and] the feedback [they] need to keep improving—and the rigor that our students need to become great learners.” Positioning himself as the purveyor of educational knowledge, regardless of the fact that his audience members are actual classroom teachers, Gates contends that the CCSS provide teachers with educational necessities that they previously lacked. With these tools in hand, according to Gates, teachers can finally be effective, creative, and ever-improving. Most importantly, Gates asserts, the CCSS enable teachers to provide a rigorous learning environment in which all students can thrive. In his 2011 speech “Bringing the Common Core to Life,” Coleman also positions himself as an educational authority as he stands in front of a group of teachers and delivers an example ELA lesson, even though he himself, like Gates, has never actually taught in the classroom.

Despite their quick acceptance, the standards were met with opposition. Common critiques of the standards include lack of research and testing, absence of teacher contribution in their creation, the involvement of corporations and corporate ideals, and the assertion that the CCSS serve to reify the same ideals of previous standards. While well-founded, these critiques do not seem to get at the heart of the issue. While the creators and espousers of the standards claim these standards are impartial, objective, and value-neutral; they actually promote a one-size-fits-all set of literacy skills. These literacy skills do not, however, support actual, contextualized, linguistically-diverse literacy education. Thus, the standards and their corresponding tests are actually harmful to student’s ability to learn and develop to their full academic potential. Using Johan Galtung’s notion of violence, which claims “violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations” (168), we can see that the CCSS and the corresponding tests enact violence on students. In what follows, I will specifically explore the violence of the Grade 9-10 English Language Arts (ELA) Language Standards as well as the grade 9-10 2012-2013 released North Carolina state test.

Galtung further contends that “[s]tructural violence is silent, it does not show […] and may be seen as about as natural as the air around us” (173). This structural violence is the product of a notion upheld by the CCSS that universalized literacy standards, marked by Standard English, are impartial and unbiased. According to the CCSS website, “[t]he standards […] lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person who is prepared for success in the 21st century.” Because these standards purport to be impartial, they construct what it means to be a literate person, and the subsequent standardized tests—which are also supposed to be impartial—are tools that measure that particular literacy.

According to Iris Marion Young, however, “the ideal of impartiality serves ideological functions. It masks the ways in which the particular perspectives of dominant groups claim universality” (97). Young’s conception of impartiality can be applied to the CCSS, which assume that standard written English is impartial, objective, and value-neutral. The CCSS grade 9-10 language and literacy standards conflate language and Standard English, requiring students to “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English” grammatically, mechanically, and stylistically. These language standards assume that there is one correct way of understanding and using language and students must learn this specific, correct way in order to be literate. For example, students should “determine or clarify” precise meanings of words, “spell correctly,” and “identify and correctly use patterns of word changes” (“English Language Arts”). There is little room for play and imagination in these standards. For example, students should learn to “use a semicolon (and perhaps a conjunctive adverb) to link two or more closely related independent clauses” (“English Language Arts”). Here, punctuation is presented as static and devoid of nuance. The standard does not prompt students to discover why a writer would use a semicolon instead of a different punctuation or how a semicolon impacts the flow of a piece of writing. Thus, students begin to understand language as decontextualized and rule-bound. There is a set of static rules they must learn or they cannot write, and they are bad at English.

These language standards leave no room for the linguistic diversity of students from varying socioeconomic, cultural, and translingual backgrounds. In her book, The Violence of Literacy, Elspeth Stuckey contends that literacy research and education “begin in the ideas of the socially and economically dominant class and […] take the forms of socially acceptable subjects, stylistically permissible forms […]. Becoming literate signifies in large part the ability to conform or, at least, to appear conformist” (19). Language is perhaps the most prominent marker of race, class, and gender and embedded in these ostensibly impartial standards and standardized tests are assumptions about race, class, and gender. According to Diane Ravitch, “[i]n New York state, which gave the Common Core tests last spring, only 30% of students across the state passed, […] 3% of English language learners passed, […] 5% of students with disabilities passed and [f]ewer than 20% of African American and Hispanic students passed” (qtd. in Strauss). Thus, students who do not grow up immersed in the dominant linguistic code, Standard English, are at a clear disadvantage. Faced with the necessity to conform or fail, these students’ “actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations” (Galtung).

Therefore, espousing these standards and tests is doing what James Paul Gee said in his presentation at the University of Maryland Writing Conference—forcing students to play a game without teaching them how, without giving them appropriate tools, and without even telling them that there is a game to play. In this case, this game is essentially an accepted system of literacy which is marked by Standard English. Stuckey echoes Gee’s notion, saying that “standardized (literacy) tests are not natural disasters. They are a system” (126). As such, the CCSS present Standard English as the only correct way to be literate and the only way to success in college and a career. Stuckey asserts that “[s]tudents of nonstandard languages in the United States do not fail because of a language failure; they fail because they live in a society that lies about language” (122). The lie, here, is that literacy standards are impartial, objective, and value-neutral. In his previously mentioned speech, Coleman acknowledges that the literacy standards espouse the “language of power.” He does not, however, concede that they also espouse the language of the powerful, the group—namely the creators and funders of the CCSS—who decide exactly what it means to be literate and, thus, who is allowed to be considered literate.

Young’s argument can also be applied to standardized tests, which force students to demonstrate mastery over the aforementioned literacy standards. In his presentation at the UMD writing conference, Suresh Conagarajah maintained that the CCSS and their tests can be read and interpreted differently by non-native English speakers. Specifically, the standards seem to recognize Standard English as a fact, when it is actually an ideology. The standards give power to certain students and take it away from others. Thus, it is exemplary of structural violence, which Galtung contends “is silent, it does not show” (173). So, students who grow up submerged in the dominant linguistic code enter the classroom “prepared,” while the rest of the students are not. These students are marked as lacking necessary skills to survive in a competitive educational atmosphere, and they must be fixed, i.e. their difference, as Young says, must be “denied or repressed” (98).

For example, one question on the test reads: “What is the effect of the metaphors in the sentences below […] ‘Not all field geologists, however, refer to the Big Bend as a paradise. For some, this land of twisted, tortured rock is a nightmare’” (“North Carolina READY” 7). Yes, this figure of speech fits the definition of a metaphor all students memorize: it is a comparison not using like or as. However, these particular metaphors, paradise and nightmare, are used so often within the US cultural vernacular, they have become idiomatic. A native English speaker does not have to understand the metaphor to grasp the meaning of the figure of speech, and, thus, would have little trouble choosing the correct answer, “They emphasize the allure and repulsiveness of the landscape” (“North Carolina READY” 7). A non-native speaker is, however, at a disadvantage, potentially not knowing the idiomatic meaning of the words nightmare and paradise. Thus, they might choose the more direct answer: “They compare Big Bend to a contradictory dream world” (“North Carolina READY” 7). Even for native speakers, the distinction between these two answers is arbitrary at best.

Stuckey also sees violence in the “materiality of literacy,” which “is its hardware.” In the case of the CCSS, the materiality of literacy includes the state tests, which “suggest language divorced from content and from social and economic realities” (86). Thus, standardized tests represent decontextualized literacy. They are administered in a contrived setting where students and teachers are overwhelmed by the gravity of the task at hand. The tests determine the students’ grades and in some cases whether or not they pass at all. The timed tests are administered digitally, so, of course, students with less experience typing and reading online and/ or students who do not have computers in their homes, will be at a disadvantage. Can meaningful reading, writing, and learning actually happen in this scenario?

Stuckey contends that “to reduce text, the stuff of literacy, to mere stuff is not only insouciant but dangerous” (87). Similarly, Botzakis et al. assert that “[i]gnoring social, economic, and cultural aspects of literacy,” i.e. decontextualizing language and literacy, will “result in maintaining a system of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in our schools, and the move to a ‘common core’ will become just another seemingly groundbreaking policy that in actuality maintains the status quo” (223). According to Botzakis et al., this decontextualized literacy education does not promote student literacy development by “allowing them choice and voice in classroom activities, and helping them find relevance by connecting reading practices with the knowledge, experiences, and identities they bring to school” (228). Literacy is contextual, and treating it otherwise prevents students from realizing their full academic potential.

In the NC 2012-2013 common core state test, students are given little to no context about the selected passages and then are expected to choose correct answers to multiple choice questions. An excerpt from “The Castaway” by Rabindranath Tagore particularly sticks out to me. The passage is laden with interesting cultural notions about familial relationships, gender, and community, which are probably quite different than the majority of the students in the classroom. For example, the passage reads: “Kiran was a universal favorite with her family and neighbors, so that, when she fell seriously ill, they were all anxious. The village wiseacres thought it shameless for her husband to make so much fuss about a mere wife and even to suggest a change of air” (“North Carolina READY” 14). However, students are not given any context about the piece. Where is the author from? Where does the story take place? What is the time period? Despite this lack of context, the students must answer definitive questions, such as: “How do Sharat’s feelings about Nilkanta help develop the theme of the selection” and “What is the meaning of the simile in the sentence below from paragraph 5” (“North Carolina READY” 17). Furthermore, the questions are what Stuckey calls “vacuous, discrete, and random,” not to mention sometimes confusing. One question reads, “In the sentence below from the last paragraph, how does the connotation of the words reflect Sharat’s attitude toward the boy. ‘Moreover, he had got hold of a mongrel village dog which he petted so recklessly that it came indoors with muddy paws, and left tokens of its visit on Sharat’s spotless bed’” (“North Carolina READY” 18). There is a lot happening in this question. To fully answer, one would have to first determine the underlying connotation of the words as well as Sharat’s attitude toward the boy, and then explain how the connotation of the words reflects this attitude. The correct answer reads, “He is annoyed by the boy’s disregard for cleanliness” (“North Carolina READY” 18). This answer only addresses Sharat’s attitude and makes no reference to connotation at all. It is essentially a basic comprehension question.

This is just one example of the many “vacuous, discrete, random” and confusing questions from the test. In particular, questions which measure the previously described language standards always assume that there is a correct way to read the given texts. Thus, students must find the effect of the metaphors, the meaning of words and phrases, or the purpose of figurative language. Again, there is no room for imagination, choice, voice, or identity. Even questions where students have to write their answer are vacuous and confusing. One question reads: “How does the author use language to advance her point of view. Use evidence from the selection to support your answer” (“North Carolina READY” 24). The term point of view has two meanings. One is the literary point of view of a story, such as first and third person. The other is a person’s stance or perspective. We may clearly recognize that this question uses the latter definition. However, when this term appears on a standardized test, it almost always refers to the literary definition. This presents a stressful situation for students in a high-pressure testing situation. They have to quickly identify the term, decide on its contextual meaning, and write a response. It seems that these decontextualized literacy tools measure a student’s ability to decode and understand test questions more so than their ability to successfully utilize language within a variety of contexts. These passages and test questions reveal just how removed “the hierarchal decision making structures” actually are from classroom instruction and student learning (Young 97). This is not surprising, however, considering that the majority of them have absolutely no experience with classroom teaching. Thus, these decontextualized literacy assessment tools hinder valid learning.

The existence of standards in any educational institution—be it K-12, college, or even writing centers—is a reality. As Ravitch said, “It is good to have standards. I believe in standards” (qtd. in Strauss). However, accepting a set of standards as a value-neutral, objective panacea to a perceived educational crisis is more than problematic; it’s injurious to students’ academic, personal and linguistic identities. Stuckey contends that “an unwillingness to either relinquish or expand notions of literacy is riveted in American economic and educational structures” (33). The CCSS and their corresponding tests represent the status quo within literacy education: they tout Standard English as an unbiased norm, and they construct an exclusionary notion of what it means to be literate. As a writing center researcher and tutor, I believe it is important for me to understand the common core movement in order to understand student writers’ pre-college writing histories as well as to explore the underlying assumptions I—as well as the institution in which I work—hold about literacy.


Works Cited

“About the Standards.” Common Core State Standards Initiative. 2014. Web. 1 Nov 2014.

“English Language Arts Standards Language Grade 9-10.” Common Core State Standards Initiative. 2014. Web. 20 Sep 2014.

“North Carolina READY End-of-Course Assessment English II.” Public Schools of North Carolina. State Board of Education/ Department of Public Instruction. 2012. Web. 20 Sep 2014.

Botzakis, Stergios, Leslie David Burns, and Leigh A. Hall. “Literacy Reform and Common Core State Standards: Recycling the Autonomous Model.” Language Arts. 91.4 (2014). 223-235. JStor. Web. 10 Oct 2014.

Coleman, David. “Bringing the Common Core to Life.” New York State Education. 2011. Web. 20 Nov 2014.

Conagarajah, Suresh. “Beyond Native and Nonnative: Negotiating Language in Writing Pedagogy.” University of Maryland. College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, College Park, MD. 11 Oct 2014. Conference Presentation.

Endacott, Jason L. and Christian Z. Goering. “Speaking Truth to Power Reclaiming the Conversation on Education.” English Journal. 103.5 (2014). 89-92. JStor. Web. 10 Oct 2014.

Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research 6.3 (1969): 167-191.

Gates, Bill. “Teaching and Learning Conference 2014.” Press Room. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 2014. Web. 10 Sep 2014.

Gee, James Paul. “Identity, Discourse, and Paradox in Learning to Write.” University of Maryland. College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, College Park, MD. 10 Oct 2014. Conference Presentation.

Strauss, Valerie. “Everything you Need to Know about the Common Core—Ravitch” The Washington Post. 2014. Web. 20 Nov 2014.

Stuckey, Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook, 1991.

Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University, 1990. Print.

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