The MLA and the Common Core State Standards Initiative: Continuing the Conversation

Originally published in the Summer 2014 MLA Newsletter

The ongoing implementation of the educational-reform plan known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is having a mixed reception. This gives MLA members an opportunity to join a conversation that has already begun in our association about what the initiative is and what it might mean for college teachers who have a serious interest in literacy instruction. Postsecondary educators in mathematics had a considerably greater influence on the CCSSI’s grade-by-grade guidelines for math instruction than did postsecondary educators in the several fields that contribute to literacy studies. It seems clear that college teachers of language, writing studies, literature, and new media studies need to communicate across our internal field boundaries—as well as across the problematic boundaries that separate college teachers of reading, writing, and speaking from their colleagues in secondary and primary schools—if we are to have a say in how the new standards are interpreted in the future. We’re now in an interlude between the release of the standards as a copyrighted Web site in 2010 and the rollout of the new standardized tests scheduled to be “fully operational” during the 2014–15 school year.

Of the forty-five states that quickly adopted the standards after they were released in 2010—encouraged to do so by deadlines for grants from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Fund—two have withdrawn from the initiative, several have “paused” the implementation process, and others have pending legislation to opt out. Some commentators continue to take issue with the process by which the standards were developed: through a partnership between the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, in collaboration with Achieve, a bipartisan group of governors and corporate leaders—and with minimal input from teachers.1 Others have complained about the content of the CCSSI, especially about the English Language Arts (ELA) segment, which you can read at There have also been complaints about the influence that corporate interests have had on the standards and their accompanying standardized tests and about the uncommon speed with which the process moved forward, leaving little time for review or consultation with teachers in secondary and postsecondary education and no time at all for field-testing.2 Explicitly motivated by a post-Sputnik-like concern about American competitiveness in the global market, the CCSSI equates college and workplace readiness as measurable by the same metrics. Since “college readiness” is a major goal of the new standards, their implicit theories of education should matter to MLA members—and not just to those who teach anglophone curricula: the existing standards of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages have recently been aligned with those of the CCSSI, though what that might mean is not yet clear.3 More alignment projects are on the horizon: the Lumina Foundation envisions an educational reform that would align the CCSSI standards and outcomes measurements with those of two- and four-year colleges (“Starting”).

Last fall’s meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), which I attended, included numerous panels that focused on the CCSSI; some criticized the initiative’s emphasis on argumentative writing based on textual evidence as a conservative return to New Criticism; others welcomed the detailed pedagogical guidelines as a significant improvement over the No Child Left Behind Act, which required that all US students be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 but left it up to each state to decide how to measure proficiency and what to teach in order to reach that admirable but, in the event, chimerical goal. Many sessions explored ways in which the new standards might be implemented. From reading the program, going to sessions, and talking with Kent Williamson, the executive director of the NCTE, I surmise that supporters and opponents of the CCSSI are nearly equally divided (with some members probably on the fence or indifferent). The NCTE, appropriately, is taking no official position. As chair of a new MLA Executive Council subcommittee on K–16 education, I have learned much from those teachers who, for the sake of their students, are trying to make the best of the new standards while in many cases continuing to resist the emphasis on high-stakes testing and its influence on classroom practices. Many worry that the tests measuring both teacher and student performances are coming too soon for teachers to be adequately trained to succeed, and help students succeed, in reaching the democratic goal that the CCSSI articulates: a clear and accessible path to “college and career readiness for all students” (Common Core). Is that compatible with the other goal of the CCSSI: increasing the nation’s competitiveness in a global marketplace by improving US students’ currently mediocre reading, math, and science scores on tests developed by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)?

Here are two problems as I see them. First, CCSSI backers have discounted the relation between class size and students’ success as readers and writers, but other countries are certainly returning to this debated issue. Some have already refigured class size as a core element of their reforms, while also raising teachers’ salaries and building in work time for teachers to prepare lessons and comment on student writing.4 Second, although the CCSSI framers are concerned with “international benchmarks,” the initiative does not refer to the international body of research focusing on socioeconomic influences on what happens in a given classroom. While the CCSSI claims that when students, parents, and teachers work together with the new standards, “we can ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college, career, and life,” a volume by the OECD argues that countries that have improved their children’s educational outcomes have worked to improve the children’s opportunities for education by mitigating inequities of “social background” among students’ families and by allocating extra resources to “socio-economically disadvantaged” schools (PISA 2009 Results).

Teachers of language and literature at all levels have expressed concern about the ELA standards’ distinction between “informational” and “literary” texts and about their conception of “text complexity.” These are the terms that are open to interpretation by school boards and teachers, and they are already being discussed in articles and lesson plans produced by NCTE members and disseminated on Web sites and panels. MLA members could fruitfully join this conversation, and MLA Commons already has a CCSSI discussion group ( Local partnerships between colleges and high schools, of which we need more, are one way of bringing attention to this conversation. Could MLA members initiate or join partnerships between teachers of high schools and colleges in their home environments? David Laurence, director of research at the MLA, and Paula Krebs, dean of humanities and social sciences at Bridgewater State University and a member of the Executive Council’s K–16 education subcommittee, organized a panel at last year’s NCTE convention that brought secondary school and college teachers together to discuss opportunities for and obstacles to creating such partnerships. Organizers of two MLA-sponsored sessions at next year’s convention in Vancouver are following the collaborative model to bring college and high school teachers’ perspectives to bear on the knotty CCSSI topics of “text complexity” and “college readiness.”5 In addition, the MLA’s Committee on Community Colleges is planning a session on an issue central to the Common Core: remediation. I hope that future collaborative work across institutional boundaries can focus on clarifying, for various audiences, some key terms in the initiative that have already become sites of critical inquiry for NCTE authors: literary nonfiction, for example, and lexile (a unit devised by the Metametrics company to measure both the complexity of a text and the individual student’s reading competence).

One of the troubling components of the CCSSI is the stipulation that, once adopted, the wording of the standards cannot be amended, although states are allowed to add 15% more text. Major revision seems not to be envisioned by the framers of the document. In 2010, the MLA and the NCTE were invited to comment on a draft of the literacy standards as these were formulated both for specific grades and for students graduating from high school. A joint committee urged that revisions give more attention to the aesthetic dimensions of literature, the rhetorical aspects of writing, the advantages of knowing more than one language, and the ways in which new media shape literacy practices in the twenty-first century. The authors of the standards failed to incorporate most of the committee’s suggestions. But the CCSSI, as teachers and students now encounter it on the Web, is a complex and generically hybrid text, open to interpretation and translation. Members of the MLA have been interpreting the CCSSI document since its initial rollout and have arrived at strikingly different conclusions, which were evident at the sessions on the Common Core at the 2012 and 2013 conventions.6 I hope that we can continue thinking about the Common Core State Standards; by doing so, college teachers with a commitment to literacy studies may discover new ways of communicating with—and learning from—teachers who encounter the CCSSI as a required rather than a recommended text.


  1. See Ravitch, as well as Cody (“I Was among Those”), who provides a list of the members of the original drafting group. The CCSSI Web page refutes (as a “myth”) the charge that there were few teachers involved with the drafting of the standards.
  2. See Ravitch on the issue of corporate influence. The CCSSI tests are being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Both won federal grants to develop their tests. They are reviewed at
  3. For ACTFL’s alignment of its standards (also called the Five Cs: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, communities) with the Common Core ELA standards, see
  4. See Cody, “Why”; Chua.
  5. David Steiner, dean of the School of Education at Hunter College, City University of New York, will also participate in the panel on text complexity; he has done valuable work on K–16 education.
  6. See the articles by Ravitch, Stimpson, and Graff, drawn from papers they presented at the 2014 MLA Annual Convention.

Works Cited

Chua, Paul. “Centralized-Decentralization Emerging in Singapore.” International Education News. Intl. Educ. News, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Cody, Anthony. “I Was among Those Who Reviewed the Common Core in 2009.” Education Week Teacher. Education Week Teacher, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

———. “Why Bill Gates Is Wrong on Class Size.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 5 Mar. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2012. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Graff, Gerald. “Clarifying College Readiness.” Profession (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background—Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes (Volume II). Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD, 2010. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Ravitch, Diane. “Common Core Standards: Past, Present, Future.” Profession (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

“Starting the Alignment Conversation.” Lumina Foundation, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

Steiner, David. “Our Dogmatic Slumbers.” Profession (2007): 141–49. Print.

Stimpson, Catharine R. “Beware, Be Wary.” Profession (2014): n. pag. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.