So without bemoaning in the fact that I haven’t been able to find any time of late to get to this space to do some reading and thinking and synthesizing and extended writing and that I feel like a truly important part of my life is being slowly and painfully left behind and that there is a post that I really need to write about that at some point sooner rather than later…

Tom Hoffman has been bugging many of us to blog about the English Language Arts Standards that are being written by Core Standards group as an attempt to provide some national standardization for ELA (and Mathematics skills), standards which are open for comment for another five days or so, and ones that it appears will ultimately lead to the creation of a national assessment. Forty-eight states are participating in this effort, and Tom created a  must-read FAQ on the initiative and has been doing some really thoughtful analysis in the past few weeks about what all of it means. I’m sorry to say that the whole process has been flying under my radar of late (as have many of the important conversations going on out there.) I’ll admit to a certain sense of “whatever” about these standards; there’s little doubt at this point they will be adopted pretty much as is, and they reflect even more a continuing, frustrating retrenchment of traditional thinking about education that seems to be permeating the conversation right now. When we hear that our kids’ performance on the Math NAEP is essentially flat, and the Secretary of Education’s response is that the results “underscore the need for “reforms that will accelerate student achievement,” and that those “reforms” include “opening more charter schools and linking teacher pay to performance,” you know that the way we assess kids isn’t going to change any time soon. At the end of the day, it still feels like the battle for sanity when it comes to the future of education won’t be won until there are enough people who understand that many of the traditional standards and assessments that “worked” for us won’t work for our kids. In other words, no time soon.

The Common Core ELA standards narrow the definition of what kids should know, and they do nothing to take into account the changing nature of reading and writing that this moment brings us. While the National Council Teachers of English espouses all sorts of new definitions for literate readers and writers in the 21st Century, very little of that shows up in any clear way in the proposed national standards. One look at the reading standards and you can’t help but be left with the impression that the authors have never “read” anything much beyond words on paper and that the idea of “remix” and even links are outside of their experience. There is nothing here about how reading and writing in online and digital spaces changes the interaction, nothing about the social interactions that readers and writers will have around texts that are changing rapidly and substantially. (Yet, it appears that NCTE hasn’t made much of a push against the initiative.) To that point, a really interesting “debate” in the New York Times appeared a couple of days ago “Does the Brain Look Like E-Books?” including this observation by Alan Liu, the chairman of English at U. C. Santa Barbara on how all of this is shifting:

My group thinks that Web 2.0 offers a different kind of metaphor: not a containing structure but a social experience. Reading environments should not be books or libraries. They should be like the historical coffeehouses, taverns and pubs where one shifts flexibly between focused and collective reading — much like opening a newspaper and debating it in a more socially networked version of the current New York Times Room for Debate. The future of peripheral attention is social networking, and the trick is to harness such attention — some call it distraction — well.

The debate is a lively one, and the comments are worth reading through as well, but regardless of how you view the current landscape from a reading and writing literacy standpoint, it’s hard to see how the core standards being proposed come even close to capturing the complexity of the moment and, more importantly, reflect the flexibility needed to understand the moment. I doubt there was any of that much discussed.

Even more importantly, Chris Lehmann captures the reason why we should all feel unsettled by this, regardless of how we think about reading and writing:

This Core Standards movement should scare everyone who believes that meaning and learning is still most powerfully made in the spaces that students and teachers share. More than teachers, students, state administrators, the group that stands most to gain from national standards and a national test is the education-industrial complex.

In all of this, the thing that most frustrates me both in the talk about national standards and national assessments and the whole “Race to the Top” bunk that is coming out of the administration is just a total lack of vision, this sense that nothing has fundamentally changed, that this is the same old classroom with the same old expectations and the same old ways of proving them that we’ve had forever. I’m not saying we don’t need assessments, but there’s a lot of required learning right now that few if any standards are addressing.