A Serious Flaw in Common Core

There is a serious flaw in the national Common Core English/Language Arts reading standards and it is the result of the ideological point of view about literacy and learning of those who developed it. I am not sure if it was done intentionally or if they are actually unaware of it. The flaw is uncertainty about how we know what a document really means.

Is deep meaning inherent in a text, as the national Common Core standards claim, or is meaning created through the interaction of the reader with the text because we can never really know exactly what an author from a different time period or who lived under different circumstances intended? Does the discovery of deeper meaning simply require close reading of the text or a broader understanding of the context from which the document emerged? Text or context?

What is amazing is that this debate goes back at least as far as Socrates and Plato in the ancient Greek world and is a major point of contention when the United States Supreme Court tries to interpret the Constitution. Yet the authors of the Common Core Standards seemed to have missed it.

At the core of Common Core is the idea that students must be engaged in close reading of texts. According to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts Reading standard number 1, students should "Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text." Reading standard number 2 calls on students to "Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas." Reading standard number 3 calls on students to "Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text." In each case meaning is exclusively embedded in the text, reading passage, or primary source document.

The claim is that "close reading," which "stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically" is the key to "college and career readiness." That is because "Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details." In addition, it supposedly "enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences" and "the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole."

David Coleman, one of the lead authors and promoters of the national Common Core standards, illustrated this approach to reading and understanding in a 15-minute video in which he modeled a middle school lesson based on a close reading of Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." At the start, Coleman systematically rejected teachers providing students with background information either orally or through a secondary source pre-reading assignment or providing guidance through questions because teaching students something before reading the complex text would not leave them college and career ready. Coleman argued that through a cold reading of the text without instruction that scaffolded on previous knowledge, individual students would be able to figure out what is important to know by themselves about King and Birmingham. He recommended spending six to eight days close reading just this one text, which would be exceedingly difficult in the social studies curriculum but might be possible in an English class.

This idea of a cold close reading of the text corresponds with the rationale for very conservative and restrictive Supreme Court decisions championed by Associate Justice Anton Scalia. In 1996, Scalia argued:

"I am first of all a textualist . . . If you are a textualist, you don't care about the intent, and I don't care if the framers of the Constitution had some secret meaning in mind when they adopted its words. I take the words as they were promulgated to the people of the United States, and what is the fairly understood meaning of those words."

While Scalia claims to apply no context, just an unbiased view of the text, his record tells a very different story and challenges the idea that we can interpret text divorced from context. Somehow Scalia consistently twists the text to support the most reactionary interpretations of the United States Constitution. In his time on the Supreme Court, its leading textualist has argued for restrictions on abortion rights, removing voting protections, against federal health care initiatives, in opposition to gun control, and that wealthy corporations are really "people" and are entitled to spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections because they have "freedom of speech."

But there are other ways to read the Constitution and other texts. In 1985, Associate Justice William Brennan argued for the importance of understanding historical context. Brennan wrote:

"We current Justices read the Constitution in the only way that we can: as Twentieth Century Americans. We look to the history of the time of framing and to the intervening history of interpretation. But the ultimate question must be, what do the words of the text mean in our time. For the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs. What the constitutional fundamentals meant to the wisdom of other times cannot be their measure to the vision of our time. Similarly, what those fundamentals mean for us, our descendants will learn, cannot be the measure to the vision of their time."

I agree with Brennan that "the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs." I also agree on how to interpret and reinterpret the Constitution of the United States, and how to interpret any significant document from the past or present. A cold close reading of text is never sufficient to discover meaning unless we also take into account the "context" or history of the document and its implications for the present and future. This is a major reason that Common Core is seriously flawed.

In the end, despite claims by advocates for Common Core, there is no universal timeless interpretation of a text. Meaning then and now is something that we debate, not uncover, while supporting our views with evidence from both the text and from the world. We can only interpret a text as 21st century human beings. Given our different experiences and social positions we may likely arrive at different answers about its deeper meaning.