Concerns About Common Core

Jan 01, 2013 | Posted by Genevieve Preist

by Genevieve Priest

Over the past few weeks, many homeschooling families and bloggers have been expressing concerns about homeschool curricula changing to align with the Common Core standards. We would like to clarify for the homeschooling community that our curriculum has not been changed in response to the Common Core Initiative. While we agree that homeschoolers should be wary of shifts in content by their favorite curriculum companies to meet certain benchmarks, it may be that some materials, like ours, already met or exceeded those standards long before the standards themselves were even written.

In order to allow full-time schools continued access to our materials, we are able to demonstrate that the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) approach meets or exceeds the Common Core State Standards: It is important to note, however, that we have not had to make any changes to our program or materials to do so, since our methods are based on more than thirty years of success in both homes and schools across the United States and Canada.

This recent Facebook post by Andrew Pudewa provides further clarification:

If anyone takes the time to actually read the Common Core standards for writing, they will realize that most of it is vague, lacking concrete tasks and competencies that will actually help develop basic skills.

Truly, a first grade writing standard should be something like this: "Student can copy short paragraphs of 3–5 sentences from poetry, scripture, or literature with accurate punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and formatting, with legible penmanship."

That might actually be a beneficial goal for 6-year-olds. But what do we find? Non-specific jargon like this:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.1.1 Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.1.2 Write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.1.3 Write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.

Whoever wrote this has spent very little time nose-to-nose with first graders, but the strange thing is that the Grade 1 standards don't really sound much different from the Grade 4 standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.1a Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer’s purpose.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.1b Provide reasons that are supported by facts and details.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.1c Link opinion and reasons using words and phrases (e.g., for instance, in order to, in addition).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.1d Provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.

Fortunately, we know that those who study composition through IEW's Structure and Style® method for a few years (whenever they start) come out qualitatively and quantitatively ahead of their peers at any grade level.

We are not playing the game that schools are forced to play: "teach to the test." However, we do have a writing method that works, and if we explain what we do in terms of the fuzzy vernacular of the Common Core initiative, homeschooling parents shouldn't for one second think that it means that we have changed what we are actually doing. We are just helping these desperate schools realize that our approach will indeed help them achieve their basic goals for competency in composition. We are trying to help the seemingly blind to see a slight bit of light.

So homeschoolers, IEW isn't either for or against the Common Core.

We are for helping all students learn to write and speak the English language more eloquently, and if we are to serve the hardworking schoolteachers in their efforts to nurture basic skills in their students, we may have to describe our approach in terms of the verbiage that the schools are required to adopt. But it doesn't change anything about who we are and what we do.


In further response to several comments on the original post, Andrew Pudewa wrote the following:

Why standards—whoever creates them—will never work in today’s schools (with one exception):

Once upon a time, being in Fifth Grade meant something. It meant that you had acquired the knowledge and skills to be learned in Fourth Grade. If you didn’t “pass” Fourth Grade you would continue to study and practice until you did. That was a "standard"—something which must be attained; common sense dictated that it wouldn’t be wise to go on to Fifth Grade without achieving the Fourth Grade standard.

Then, with the demise of the one-room schoolhouse and the expansion of the central school and grade-segregated classrooms, the end of real standards began. Thus, to not pass Fourth Grade meant to be “held back,” separated from your peer group, stigmatized, and thought stupid. And the psychologists who ruled modern education quickly deemed that it would be better for students to go on to the next grade—without the knowledge and skills that would enable them to succeed—than to suffer the psychological trauma of being held back. With this thinking, students would be moved up in grade whether or not they had met the standard of the previous grade. Thus, the standard became meaningless.

As this practice became entrenched in the schools, the whole concept of “grade level” gradually came to mean nothing but “approximate age.” Students advanced to the next grade level not by mastering specific knowledge and skills but merely by merit of being a year older. This, of course, caused a decline in competency and ultimately resulted in functionally illiterate high school graduates with diplomas—something that never would have been possible under the previously honest system of grades and standards. (By the way, if you’ve never seen an Eighth Grade exam from a hundred years ago, you must! Could you pass this test?

Predictably, this decline in competency resulted in a clamor for … guess what? Revised standards! Schools, districts, and states formed committees of experts to decide what all fourth grade students should be able to do in reading and writing and arithmetic, and commanded the teachers to see to it that no child would fail to meet these universal standards. But the “grade is determined by age and not ability” system precluded success. No person, committee, or government can dictate that every ten-year-old child be able to read or write or calculate at a certain level any more than they can dictate that every ten-year-old be a certain height, have a specific eye color, or enjoy eating carrots. Children are different and learn at different speeds just like they grow at different speeds.

Consequently, the schools failed to ensure that all students met the standards, and so the standards had to be rewritten (a bit lower). Again the schools failed, and the standards were lowered. Then, after a couple decades, some brilliant observers noted that student abilities had declined—probably because of low standards. Ha! So the standards were revised again (a bit higher), but the inevitable continued. Some—or many—students will not meet the standards, but what can be done if grade is still determined by age and not ability? It’s a deeply dysfunctional system and will continue to be a self-perpetuating downward spiral because it is based on a fundamentally flawed idea—that age and ability must be connected.

There is really only one way to significantly improve institutional education, and that would be to eliminate grade levels, which could probably only happen with a return to mixed-age classrooms and standards that really mean something. Very few people would be willing to try this, but there is one team of innovative educators in Alaska who have done just that—in a public school district! They have actually eliminated grade levels and restored standards—ten achievement levels in each of nine content areas. Students only progress to the next level when they demonstrate proficiency at their current level. This is not only good common sense, the Chugach School District is getting superb results and is beginning to teach other schools and districts how to implement a real standards-based assessment model. Details about their system can be found here:

No amount of verbiage, government pressure, teacher training, extra funding, or good intentions will make the new Common Core standards any more effective than any other “standards” effort. While there may be many well-intentioned people working on this idea, it’s fundamentally flawed. Again, the only hope for improved student learning is to eliminate the idea of grade levels as we know it, acknowledge that students learn at different speeds, decentralize schools, encourage mixed-age classrooms—even “cottage” or neighborhood schools—and put some teeth in the meaning of the word “standards.”


IEW's approach has always focused on helping each child achieve personal excellence, rather than trying to make children fit into categories along with others of similar age. Even when used within a single-grade classroom, this personalized approach is at the heart of IEW's success. So while we will continue to assist schoolteachers who wish to make use of our materials in their classrooms, we have not altered our method to meet Common Core or other standards. As educational fads come and go, a time-tested approach based on careful modeling, incremental growth, and personalized learning will continue to nurture students' minds. We plan to continue our efforts to encourage excellence in writing and inspire our students to think, so that, perhaps, they will change the world.


© 2013, Institute for Excellence in Writing, L.L.C.
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