Robert Shepherd, teacher, author, curriculum developer, assessment expert, etc., left the following comment on the blog about the deadening effects of the Common Core on teachers and students:

The biggest tragedy that has occurred in the last few decades in our schools is that they have been to an enormous extent turned into test prep organizations under the standards and testing regime. This is true in both public and charter schools. “Reformers” successfully rebranded the national standards by simply changing their name. So, for example, in Florida, the Common Core State Standards–unchanged–are now called the Mathematics Florida Standards and the Language Arts Florida Standards, but make no mistake about it, these are the CCSS.

The public largely believes that the standards and testing have been a good thing, and that’s because simple arguments can be made for them: who doesn’t want “high standards”? Who doesn’t want “accountability”? These phrases are easily promulgated sound bites. But go into K-12 classrooms, and what you find is that where in the past students were writing essays and reading novels and nonfiction books and short stories and plays, they are now doing exercise sets based on the questions on the standardized tests.

An English department chairperson recently told me that this is ALL she does until the kids take the test in April or May–test prep exercises, every day, for almost the entire school year. This teacher’s approach is now the norm.

Traditional materials for teaching English language arts have been largely replaced by ones that emphasize exercise sets in which each exercise is narrowly focused on practicing one skill described by one standard. What particular readings are involved has become largely irrelevant under this regime–any reading will do as long as it is accompanied by an exercise for practicing standard x or y. The content of these readings is often completely random–a piece about Harriet Tubman here, one about invasive plant species there–and so there is no sustained work in a particular context–that of a novel or a unit on some nonfiction topic–even though brains are connection machines, learning happens when it is connected to previous learning, and comprehension is largely contextual.

Where in the past, a teacher would announce that he or she was starting a unit on Robert Frost or the literature of the Civil War (Crane, Bierce, etc.), now it’s, “OK, class. We’re going to work on our recognizing the main idea skills.” But there’s a problem: There is no such thing as a generalized recognizing the main idea skill. Such a thing is entirely mythical, like the fairies that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in. Meaning is contextual, and arriving at the main idea or main ideas (for often, there are several) depends upon particular knowledge of the text’s aims and context.

The CCSS for ELA give lip service to substantive reading and content knowledge, but the truth is that on the ground, where it matters, the national standards and testing regime has replaced traditional instruction in English with test prep exercises, and this has been a calamity of enormous proportions. It’s meant the end of the profession of English teaching as I knew it. I know many, many English teachers who have quit or changed fields because of this. They are sick of being pressured by administrators to do all test prep all the time. But the administrators are simply doing what they are incentivized to do. They are evaluated primarily on the test scores that they deliver, for who doesn’t want to be principal of an A school?

With this going on, worrying about other matters is like spending one’s time polishing the bright work on a sailboat when there is a hole in the hull.

Except in isolated classrooms where brave teachers are continuing to teach despite the standards and testing regime, the teaching of English in K-12 is dead.