For several years, my building has been identifying and aligning curriculum to standards--first state standards and now Common Core Standards--with part of this process being the identification of the Power Standards! each unit of instruction is to focus upon.
Simultaneously, we are gearing up for a new teacher evaluation system which figures heavily on a teacher's ability to define what his/her students' learning targets are and assess and document student progress toward those targets.
To an extent, both have been an uneasy fit for me as a high school English teacher. It is not so much in the philosophies underpinning these movements. It is that no one that I talk to seems to understand what I've started calling "The English Problem."
First, when we have talk of standards in building or district meetings, it is about how we as teachers can guide students toward mastery of the content presented in the standards. I'm on board...this makes sense. Until I compare my standards to standards in a different discipline. Here is just one example (please note I did not cherry pick specific standards to prove my point... click on the links to see the language yourself):
Common Core Standard (Reading Literature, Grade 9-10): Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
Common Core Standard (High School Algebra): Create equations and inequalities in one variable and use them to solve problems. Include equations arising from linear and quadratic functions, and simple rational and exponential functions.
When I break down these standards, I see a blend of content knowledge and application of skills: the ELA requires an understanding of the concept of "theme" and "summary"; the Algebra however, clearly relies upon knowledge of "equations," "inequalities," "variables," "linear functions," "quadratic functions," "simple rational functions," and "exponential functions." The Algebra standard clearly contains unique and specific content toward an objective task with one "right" solution, whereas the ELA relies more on interpretation and analysis which results in highly subjective results that may run the gamut of possible "right" answers. That, though, isn't what I necessarily see as the problem.
The English Problem? There is an assumption in each standard, based on my reading: Once this standard has been mastered by a student in a given unit, it is expectable that the student will be able to continue performing the skill and maintaining the content with a certain degree of mastery when in future situations. Once an Algebra student demonstrates mastery of solving single variable equations, it is a safe assumption that they will be able to build upon that skill in future applications: solving systems of equations on up.
The "theme" standard is a little different, and thus problematic. From grades nine through twelve, several dozen different works of literature are taught in common--from poems to plays to novels to short stories as well as film and performed interpretations of these works (we also do nonfiction, but the standard above is from the literature reading section of the standards). I use Orwell's Animal Farm and Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to introduce, teach, and reinforce the concept of theme to my 9th graders. By the end of the latter novel, they can demonstrate that they've achieved the standard above.
Then I roll out Romeo and Juliet, Homer's Odyssey, and Rand's Anthem. With each new text, it feels like I have to start over. There's no one to blame. "Theme" is complex and demands depth of text comprehension first. Further, it demands a worldliness and awareness of universal human conditions (prior schema) in order for a student to capture it. They do eventually demonstrate an understanding of theme, but not with the kind of independence with which they might resolve single-variable equations on their own months after their initial experience with that skill and content. Simply: our standards are not created equal.
Further evidence of the complexity of literary concepts: I was confronted a few years ago after one of my colleagues was observed, in his 12th grade English class, having to re-teach how to locate literary symbolism. His supervisor came to me concerned that we were not teaching symbolism until the 12th grade. I clarified: no, we teach symbolism at all grade levels. The kids should be able to at least define the word. The act of decoding and comprehending symbolism is so abstract and developmentally challenging that we start from near scratch not just each year but from text to text in our own classrooms: Symbolism is much easier to spot and interpret in some works than in others. If I teach symbolism in Macbeth, kids might then easily find it in Lord of the Flies. If we then read Into the Wild or Things Fall Apart...all bets are off.
Lucky for us, though, symbolism is not required content to be covered in our Common Core Reading (Literature) Standards.
The current standards-and-assessment movement is very much tailored for math, science, and even history, which all tend to have quasi-linear progressions of information which build consistently upward from one concept or skill to the next. English is recursive and contexualized by nature. Kids might be able to define the terms symbolism, theme, protagonist, or denouement--but from one work to the next, myriad factors are involved with a typical student's ability to use these terms in a meaningful way.
In a meeting recently, I kept hearing about how we in our PLCs must be checking to see whether our instruction is covering the required content delineated in our Power Standards! charts. I raised my hand to point out that my Power Standards! do not include content. Then I sighed and put my hand down. I've already been labeled a "negative influence" because of comments and questions like that.
Further complicating our English problem: English never gets used as an example.
Case in point: TPEP. I'm working to inform myself about the new evaluation system--and don't get me wrong, I'm very much in favor of it. Our district has adopted the Robert Marzano framework of teacher evaluation, delineated in his book The Art and Science of Teaching. I'm about 50 or 60 pages in, and Marzano has done a fantastic job talking about how learning targets and clear expectations are so important. He has given classroom examples and shown tables for how his philosophies of assessment can track and document student growth. He's offered examples from science classrooms, math classrooms, history classrooms, and even P.E. classrooms. The closest he has ventured to mentioning the language arts? Tracking vocabulary acquisition beyond sight words in an elementary classroom. Nothing about literature, nothing about composition. Perhaps it is because those are simply too difficult to make fit easily. Perhaps it is that in one task a writer may excel thanks to strong prior schema and deep personal connection to the topic, while in the next task she flops due to the absence of those very same factors. It has nothing to do with her skills, my teaching, or any standard ever carved in stone any place. It is more complicated than that.
I really think that people don't know how to make the English classroom fit into the modern movement of standards and evaluation. For me, it is the elephant in the room, because I'm in charge of feeding and caring for the elephant.
Years ago, as blanket PLC policies and procedures were being spread across my building, I asked for a little differentiation of approach. I argued that English is a unique beast. It does not always lend itself to quantification and distinct linear progressions. The acts of reading and writing are incredibly context-dependent--more so than the resolving of equations or the answering of questions about a chapter of the science book. I even argued then that the EALRs and GLEs did not clearly delineate content as much as they did essential skills that were not necessarily replicable in different contexts with texts of differing degrees of complexity. And since then, we've shifted from EALRs and GLEs to the Common Core standards which are even more open, vague, and skills-oriented rather than content-oriented.
A colleague of mine voiced these same concerns in a recent meeting with building and district administration. She was concerned that the presently advancing philosophies were appropriate for math or science but less applicable to English: English needed to take a different approach. She was then publicly dismissed as being "resistant." The entire group of English teachers was told that they needed to stop teaching "whatever they want" and start teaching the content of the standards. She just folded her hands in her lap and averted her eyes downward.
There it is again: The English Problem.