Lead Writer Responds to Common Common Core English Gripes

Q and A with Susan Pimentel, lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy

Before taking on her role as lead writer of the Common Core State Standards, Susan Pimentel – who has a bachelors degree in early childhood education from Cornell University – was chief architect of the American Diploma Project Benchmarks (ADP), which some consider a precursor to the Common Core. Like the Common Core, ADP sought to close the gap between high school and the expectations of college and the workplace.

After completing the Common Core writing process, Pimentel founded the non-profit Student Achievement Partners with David Coleman and Jason Zimba, lead writers of the Common Core math standards.

Q: As you were crafting the standards, what were the biggest issues in English and Language Arts education?

A: Our charge was to use evidence from college faculty and employers to find the gap between students graduating from high school and students who were ready for college and the workplace on day one. We found there was about a four-year gap between the level of students graduating from high school and the requirements of college and the workplace. In college and on the job, you are asked a question and you are expected to support your answer with evidence. But we found that in order to answer about 30 to 70 percent of questions in high school textbooks students didn’t have to read the text. Many state assessments have questions like “Who is your hero?”, “Tell us about your summer,” or “What is your favorite place to go?” There is nothing wrong with those questions, but in those situations we ask students to do something we would never want them to do on the job – answer questions without having read anything.

We also saw how important vocabulary is, so we made sure that there was a sufficient, systematic approach to vocabulary. We wanted students to be able to figure out the meaning of a word in context.

Finally, a key principle was not to make a long list of endless standards. We weren’t simply going to look at all the 50 states and put everything in the pot. The evidence governed us, not the desire to create a long laundry list. We wanted to create flexibility so teachers could make their own decisions about how to make the standards work for their kids and themselves.

Q: There was originally a lot of controversy around the focus on non-fiction texts. What was the issue?

A: There was a misunderstanding. The standards are English Language Arts and Literacy standards, so they also speak to reading in social studies, science, and technical subjects. The standards go from 50 percent literature and 50 percent non-fiction in elementary grades to 70 percent and 30 percent in high school. It’s really important that in science and history classes, students have access to important primary texts and that they be able to figure out what the speaker is trying to say. In English, there should also be great literary non-fiction, so students can uncover the meaning and understand the author’s perspective. But it’s right there in a footnote on page three of the standards that this is not calling for 70 percent non-fiction in English language arts classes. The percentages refer to all the student’s readings in school. Perhaps we could have been clearer about that, but I’m happy to say it was just a misread of the standards.

Related: Worried Common Core is pushing fiction out?

Q: How do you respond to criticism that the standards are developmentally inappropriate in the earlier grades?

A: I do think, as with any set of standards, there can be occasions when people who implement the standards require them in a way that the standards don’t say. There will be some growing pains. When we were writing the standards, one of the big concerns from the early childhood community was that you were going to inappropriately push [tougher content] down [to earlier grades], since we weren’t starting from the bottom-up. We did go top-down, starting with what do they need to be able to do in college and career. We thought a lot about if the standards would preclude early childhood educators from teaching the way they have always taught, so we actually ended up putting in a very specific nod to them. The standards say right on page four, “For instance, the use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document.”

Q: There has been a lot of talk about the standards calling for students, starting around third grade, to read complex texts above their current reading level. What was the thinking here?

A: As I mentioned earlier, there is this four-year gap when students are graduating and get into college and the workplace. What you are able to read in terms of the complexity of the texts is hugely important when you are taking remedial classes. Dismal percentages of students who end up in remedial classes finish college. We are talking 30 to 40 percent. That’s why we have Standard 10, which is about text complexity. It starts with second grade. The bottom line is, if students only get a steady amount of reading at their level, they aren’t going to be able to learn the concepts or vocabulary they need. That’s what we’ve been doing for two decades. Students should have regular opportunities to confront texts above their grade level, but they need a lot of support from their teachers. We are hearing these stories around the country, teachers thought their students couldn’t do it, but even struggling students rose [to the challenge]. Students also need to read robustly at their own level, and read books of their choice.

Related: Who was behind the Common Core math standards, and will they survive?

Q: Do you think the new tests are capable of assessing all of the English standards’ content or rigor, or are other types of assessments also needed?

A: We can’t think one assessment, as good as it may be, could capture everything a teacher would want to know about their students. We shouldn’t fool ourselves. But there are some big shifts in the standards that show up in the tests. They are paying close attention to the text complexity. They are not just asking what do you think the main point is but also how do you know and what does this word mean in this context. What’s wonderful and a real strength is that students must show their evidence. Even multiple choice questions are getting upgraded, not only are the students getting it right but they also let us know how they are thinking. The tests are focusing on reading but on writing too. The tests ask students to respond to a passage or a couple of passages and to make a claim and then support it with evidence. There is also a much greater emphasis on vocabulary. Speaking and listening is an area I think we can do more on and get better at as we move forward. The tests’ emphasis on evidence, vocabulary and writing really gets to the standards. This shift is both novel and important.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World. He received a bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.