Common Core of MLA

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

At the 2013 Modern Language Association meeting of English professors in Boston, nary a word was spoken against the president. Yet and still, one of his policies came in for some surprising criticism.

For his part, Mark McBeth of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice expressed skepticism about the Obama Administration’s Common Core educational standards.  He noted, somewhat archly, that “post-secondary professors were not consulted even though the major theme [of Common Core] is college readiness.”

He and other speakers argued that the Common Core framework for composition writing emphasized formulaic and managerial written communications. On the MLA panel on the Common Core writing standards, McBeth noted that the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writers Project have developed their own guidelines for teaching composition writing. That framework is mostly conceptual, and involves developing “good habits for students” such as “curiosity, openness, and responsibility,” McBeth points out.

Peter Khost of Stony Brook University claimed that there are “abundant examples” of success in composition courses.  For example, he says, he and his students worked on “active listening, making eye contact and monitoring breathing.” It turns out that the man who is developing the Common Core English standards—David Coleman—wants students to work a bit harder than that. Coleman is a one-time Rhodes scholar, McKinsey consultant and was named head of the College Board last year.

“On a hot June morning in suburban Delaware, in the chintzy, windowless ballroom of a hotel casino, David Coleman stood at a podium reciting poetry,” Dana Goldstein wrote in a profile of Coleman which appeared in the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic. “After reading Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,’ a classic example of the villanelle form, Coleman wanted to know why green is the only color mentioned in the poem, why Thomas uses the grammatically incorrect go gentle instead of go gently, and how the poet’s expression of grief is different from Elizabeth Bishop’s in her own villanelle, ‘One Art.’

“‘Kids don’t wonder about these things,’ Coleman told his audience, a collection of 300 public-school English teachers and administrators. ‘It is you as teachers who have this obligation’ to ask students ‘to read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.’

“The educators shifted in their ballroom chairs, sipping coffee and gossiping amongst themselves. They showed minimal interest in a pre-lunch discussion about modernist poetry. Teachers are used to these sorts of events—summer conferences to bring them up to date on the latest dictates from their state’s Department of Education. That day’s iteration was a training session on how to implement the new Common Core curriculum standards, which 48 states and territories are rolling out in classrooms over the next two years.”

The rap on Coleman among such folk is that, despite his accomplishments, he was never a classroom teacher. But perhaps then, never having been part of the problem, he can be part of the solution to ever growing illiteracy and high school and college dropout rates.


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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