The late great comedian George Carlin mastered exposing the use of language to control society.
One of his best routines involved the evolution of the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He chronicled how early in the century, in the World War I era, this condition was simply known as “Shell Shock.” Later in the century it evolved into “Battle Fatigue”, with Carlin pointing out how the addition of syllables made the condition seem less frightening. Ultimately, he ends with PTSD, which makes a harrowing condition seem more and more antiseptic and banal.
In a similar way, the proposed New York State Standards, especially in reading, may control events through omitting a phrase. Ultimately, this omission can have disastrous consequences.
In September, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) released new draft New York State P-12 English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards for public comment. These new standards were the work of two committees of teachers and parents who spent two years reworking over half of the Common Core Learning Standards to better meet the needs of New York’s students.
Many praised the new standards, and with good reason. Much of the redundancy of standards, especially among reading informational and literary text, was streamlined to make the standards more flexible and manageable. In mathematics, the distinctions between certain courses, particularly Algebra I and II, were clarified to give teachers better direction. In all, this revision kept the spirit of the CCLS largely intact, which was a relief to many, including myself.
To really understand the changes, I decided to look at the ELA and Literacy (in Science/Social Studies) standards side by side, seeing them evolve grade by grade. The work done in the K-2 grades really hit the mark: It allowed rigor in language foundations while emphasizing hands-on activities and creative play. Most importantly, it emphasized, as in the past, the ability to read “grade-level text”, maintaining the need for a solid grounding in the basics of reading and writing.
After second grade, however, the phrase “grade-level text” disappears.
From third through twelfth grade, the the entire standard for text complexity is stricken altogether. In grades 3 through 5, the phrase “grade-level” was replaced with “a variety of” to describe text level comprehension that would meet the standard. For example, whereas RF.5.4a used to read:
“Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.”
Under the proposed changes it would now read:
“Read a variety of text levels with purpose and understanding.”
A similar change happens in RF.5.4b, which addresses fluency. It used to read:
“Read grade-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”
It would now read:
“Read a variety of prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”
(NOTE: The Literacy in Social Studies/Science Standards did not leave out text complexity for grades 6-12. I am not sure if that was intentional or an oversight of the committee.)
The committee’s rationale was “so that the teachers have the opportunity to choose texts that meet each students’ needs effectively in order for each child gain success.” When I looked to find where the old text complexity standard was, usually R.10, it stated that “Text complexity standard to be moved to supporting guidance.” I headed to the anchor standards to find said supporting guidance, where I found the following:
“The ELA Committee decided that this standard would be more appropriate as guidance for instruction instead of a student achievement expectation. The committee would like to see text complexity guidance included in an introduction.”
In that statement, the committee rendered all the reading standards utterly useless.
First of all, this omission of text complexity assumes that grade-level standards are entirely based on skills that scaffold as the child gets older. Thus, drawing a conclusion from Slaughterhouse Five is essentially the same as drawing one from The Cat in the Hat. Identifying a causal relationship in Ramona and Beezus is basically the same as from Hamlet. Nonsense. Since older children are expected to read more nuanced and complicated texts, then text complexity has to be scaled just as much as reading skills or strategies. Having only a partial standard in skills and none in text complexity is just as good as not having a standard at all.
Furthermore, the lack of standards in text complexity presents false levels of promotion and achievement for students. The student who achieves promotional criteria may not necessarily be reading at or even near their grade level. How fair is this for a child who ultimately reaches high school with a literacy rate so far behind that they can never master the texts needed for college and beyond.
This is particularly true for students with special needs. Much of the rationale of omitting text complexity must lie in the need to level the playing field for struggling students by allowing student choice in texts to demonstrate standards mastery. Unfortunately, as admirable as this may sound, it defrauds the student of an authentic assessment of their abilities. Also, those students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, that feature grade-dependent text and vocabulary in their annual goals would find their programs essentially obsolete, denying students needed support in the lofty pursuit of giving students choice.
Finally, let us return to George Carlin for a moment.
Carlin’s goal in his routine was to show how language was used to mollify the shock, pain and discomfort of everyday life. “Shell Shock” becomes the less painful “Battle Fatigue” and the even more harmless “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The problem, as Carlin hints at, is that making the term less painful does not make the pain go away. It simply gives the public enough piece of mind that it can be ignored or handled by someone else.
The lack of text complexity also has to do with such pain, and apologies if I begin to sound like a sadist. Learning, by design, is a change from the status quo, and any change to the human condition is inherently painful. Some changes, like death or war, are more painful than others. Some changes affect the mind or the emotions more than the body. Whatever the form, learning involves a level of pain, however light, that is necessary for student development into functioning adult citizens.
By allowing so much student choice, and placing no standard on text complexity, the committee has in essence alleviated much of the pain of learning. Yes, learning needs to be guided by the needs of students. Yes, learning can and should include elements of joy and fun. However, avoiding needed pain in order to make the experience more effective in the short term will cause that student unbearable agony in the long term:
- a hamster wheel of low expectations.
- The constant treadmill of never reaching the standards you should be reaching.
- A student body so ill-prepared for college and the workforce that any attempt at career or academic advancement is futile.
I humbly ask the Board of Regents, Commissioner Elia, and Governor Cuomo to reconsider removing text complexity. In pursuing the equitable education of today, do not consign our bright students to the agony of a dim future.
That “shell shock” helps more than you think.