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An Open Letter to NCTE Members about the Release of the September Public Draft of the Common Core State Standards

September 21, 2009

Dear NCTE Members:

Take Part in a Discussion about the Common Core State Standards

Respond to the following question, after reviewing the September public draft of the Common Core State Standards:

How will these standards help or inhibit my best work as a literacy educator?

Today, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) released a draft of the Common Core State Standards for public review.  I invite you to read and study this document and if you wish, to make comments to the CCSSO and the NGA Center about the document.  Later in this letter, you will read how you can participate in a membership-wide conversation on how these standards might affect your professional work. 

What I would like to do now, though, is to review for you the role NCTE played in the development of this document and then outline our next steps.

This past spring, the CCSSO and the NGA Center convened a group to draft a common core of state standards for math and English language arts.  These standards are meant to “define the knowledge and skills students should have to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing, academic college courses and in workforce training programs” and are meant to represent “fewer, clearer, and higher” standards.  To read more about the members of the workgroup that authored the ELA standards, visit the Common Core State Standards website.  NCTE was not invited to help author or provide feedback as standards were formulated; however, in July, NCTE was invited to provide a response to what, for clarity’s sake, we’ll call the July draft.  The July draft was not officially released for public review but was made available to selected professional organizations for review and comment.  NCTE was one of the groups invited to offer a critique. 

The Executive Committee accepted that invitation and formed a review team of NCTE members who had expertise in NCTE policies and positions, college readiness, high school standards, and all areas of English/language arts.  Members of this review team included Randy Bomer (chair), Bill Bass, MaryCarmen Cruz, Doug Hesse, Henry Kiernan, Jennifer Ochoa, and Diane Waff.  Kent Williamson (NCTE Executive Director) served as the staff liaison, and I served as an ex officio member of the team.  After much work in the ten-day period allotted, the review team authored a thorough and critical review of the document.  I extend to each member of the review team my sincere thanks for their diligent work.  It was a daunting task—to read the standards draft, consider it against NCTE policy and practices, and to write a thorough review.  They met the challenge well.

On August 10, Jennifer Ochoa, Kent Williamson, Barbara Cambridge (Director of the NCTE Washington, DC, Office), and I shared this report with representatives from the CCSSO, the NGA Center, and the project directors of the ELA and math workgroups.  As I reported to you in my August 17 letter, the report of the NCTE Review Team would be made available to you after the revision of the July draft was released; you can now find the "A Report of the NCTE Review Team on the July 2009 Draft of the Common Core English Language Arts State Standards" on the NCTE website.  I would remind you, this is a review of the July draft.  I encourage you to read the NCTE report and then the revised standards document, the one released on September 21.  As you read our report, you will see that it clearly outlines areas in which the July document falls short of NCTE policies and positions.  I encourage you to make your own determination about how well and to what extent our recommendations were followed in this current draft.

On September 14, NCTE was invited to a second meeting with the CCSSO and NGA Center regarding the version released on September 21.  Kent Williamson and I attended on behalf of NCTE via Web conferencing.  Other groups in attendance (either in person or through Web conferencing) included the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Council of Great City Schools, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National School Board Association, the National Association of School Board Educators, the National Coalition for Equality in Learning, the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Parent Teachers Association, and ACT.  The purpose of this meeting was to provide an overview of the changes that now appear in the Common Core State Standards.

On Friday, September 18, NCTE—and other organizations—received an embargoed copy of the revised standards.  Today, on September 21, this document is available for public review and comment.  I now invite you, after reading this version, to participate in a conversation on the NCTE Ning site by responding to this question:  How will these standards help or inhibit my best work as a literacy educator?  We will leave this question open on the Ning during this next month, the time for public response to the standards.

The Executive Committee, along with each of you, will study the standards document with a view toward its implications for assessment, professional development, and curriculum.  I am sure we will each find points where we nod our heads in agreement (who could find fault with expecting that students would be able to “ascertain the origin, credibility, and accuracy of print and online sources” for example?) and other areas where we are less willing to show support.  I hope you will use those points to guide your conversation on our Ning site.

Such a conversation, one that focuses on the consequences—positive or negative—is constructive and helpful as NCTE looks forward.  A conversation focusing on particular standards we like or do not like does not move us forward and does not ultimately best serve our nation’s children or teachers.  That said, no one should doubt that NCTE recognizes the limits of this standards document.  But this is not a document we were asked to write; it is not a document we proposed.  When asked to provide a critique, we responded; and when asked in the future for additional feedback, we stand ready to provide direction and critique.  Regardless of whether or not NCTE or any organization supports this document, it exists.  Therefore, it is not on the limits or the strengths of this one particular document that NCTE will focus its time, energies, or expertise; instead, we will focus on issues of what’s next.

By this I mean that no statement of standards changes things immediately and by itself.  What shapes education is the translating of those standards into practice as we ask the next questions:

  • How can assessments be improved so they genuinely measure and contribute to gains in student learning?
  • How can professional development for teachers be improved so that every student is guided by a teacher who understands the needs of individual students and responds appropriately to those individual needs?
  • What professional development experiences best support teachers in continuously improving their own literacy teaching practices?
  • How can curriculum break down the artificial walls that segment literacy learning from student growth in all content areas:  English, math, science, social studies, foreign language, music, and the arts?

Only after the process of asking and answering these questions will we begin to see where these standards have sustained and encouraged good teaching and learning and where we need to push beyond them to make certain that nothing is omitted, or lost, or undervalued.

The success of a democracy is based upon the ability of all its citizens to think and reason at the highest levels.  Our democracy in the 21st century—with all of its problems and possibilities, composed of an increasingly diverse citizenry, and beset by the complexities of a global economy—demands the best educational system we have ever had.  Achieving that standard will require the support of many—national and state policymakers, teacher-educators, classroom teachers, district- and building-level administrators and supervisors, parents, and students.  NCTE is working systematically on the kinds of changes needed in professional development, assessment, and curriculum to make it possible for all students to fulfill their potential as learners.  We encourage the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices to turn to NCTE for expert help in these areas. 

Kylene Beers
President, National Council of Teachers of English


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A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts