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It’s the argument, stupid, not the text



One of the big points of contention over the Common Core involves how much fiction vs. nonfiction high school students should be reading. This waswritten by Gerald Graff,  professor of English and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America in 2008, and  is the author, with Cathy Birkenstein, of  “ ‘They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing’.

(This is the second of three pieces I am posting this morning on Common Core.)


By Gerald Graff

big quarrel continues to rage over the kind of reading material that’s been mandated for language arts instruction by the new Common Core State Standards, but from my point of view as an English teacher it badly misses the point.  The quarrel was touched off when the standards, which are scheduled to go into effect in K-12 schools in 2014, proposed a shift of emphasis in school reading assessment from works of fictional literature to “informational” texts.  As The Washington Post recently reported, many educators are reacting with outrage to the proposed shift, charging that, as Sheridan Blau, a professor quoted in the Post story puts it, “The effect of the new standards is to drive literature out of the English classroom.”

First of all, not true.  As past president Carol Jago of the National Council of Teachers of English pointed out in a piece on The Answer Sheet, the new standards do urge increased emphasis on “informational” texts as opposed to literary fiction, but literature remains very much at the center of the school curriculum.

Even more important, though, the standards’ new emphasis on “informational” texts can only benefit the study of literature, since it is “informational” writing, after all, that we ask students to produce when they write classroom essays about literature, and how to write such essays—literary analysis—has always profoundly confused students.

After all, students who study Homer’s “Iliad” are not asked to write another epic poem about the work, but rather an “informational” essay in which they are supposed to analyze the epic and make some kind of argument about it.  If you haven’t learned to write that kind of argumentative essay and you aren’t sure even what it looks like—and most American students are in that position—then it won’t matter much whether the text you write your bad essay about is fictional or factual.

In short, this debate about what books students should study is a distraction, since the problem for the vast majority of American students has always been not any particulartype of book, but books and book discussion as such, regardless who gets to draw up the book list.  Most of my college students, for example, will write an equally weak paper for me whether it’s on Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” or George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.”  If you haven’t learned how to articulate an argument and you don’t have a model of such argument in front of you, you’ll write lousy argumentative papers (and speak poorly in class) about both the fictional and the “informational” text.

Here The Common Core State Standards, far from being a threat to the study of literature, actually figure to help that enterprise since what they highlight is the need to teach students to write (and orally communicate) arguments about literature as well as other subjects.  Admittedly, I’m biased on this point, since the standards quote me in asserting that students need to learn “to write sound arguments on substantive topics and issues, as this ability is critical to college and career readiness.”

In shifting our attention from what students should read to how they talk and write about what they read, the Common Core Standards are letting some overdue clarity into an educational debate that’s otherwise deeply confused.






Trickle-Down Obfuscation

Our trouble with schools may start much higher up_in an ivory tower.

By Gerald Graff
Our trouble with schools may start much higher up—in an ivory tower.

According to a recent report by some researchers at Stanford University, high school students with college aspirations “often lack crucial information on applying to college and on succeeding academically once they get there.”

Well, duh.

That the intellectual world of colleges and universities is incomprehensible to those who are not already at home in it has long been a common joke. It shouldn’t take a Stanford research team to tell us that when it comes to “succeeding academically,” many students don’t have a clue.

But then, why should we expect them to, since universities do so little to clarify the secrets of academic success to high school teachers, much less high school students. Most diagnoses of the nation’s educational problems are superficial because they fail to note how the university’s intellectual obfuscation trickles down to the schools. A symptom of this trickle-down obfuscation is our reliance on standardized tests, which fill the vacuum left by the university’s failure to clarify what real intellectual prowess is all about.

Unfortunately, college professors tend to confuse clarification with dumbing down, a fact that explains why we do such a poor job of explaining ourselves. It’s not just what we say that’s often opaque, but why we say it at all, why we pose the problems we do and insist—as my students grumble—on “overanalyzing” everything we touch.

And it’s true that college professors analyze obsessively, taking things that don’t seem to be problems on the surface—the nature of love, what happened in history, what texts mean—and turning them into problems that are endlessly analyzed and debated. Turning things into problems is what we academics are good at, and when we are at our best the problems turn out to be more real and important than they seemed at first.

Instead of explaining all this in simple terms, however, we chop this problematizing culture up into disconnected masses of courses and subjects, leaving it to students to make sense of it on their own and then blaming them if they don’t. Consider the confusingly mixed messages to which college students are exposed as they go from course to course and subject to subject. Some teachers and disciplines just want the facts—no interpretations or value judgments, please, we’re scientists—while others penalize you for not voicing your own ideas. (A University of Chicago student who had cracked the code put it well: “In humanities, I B.S.; in social science, I regurgitate.”)

In some courses knowledge is presented as objectively “out there” to be copied down from lectures, whereas in others it is “socially constructed” and produced by class discussion and small-group work. For some instructors, the passive voice is a no-no, while for others it’s obligatory. For someone like me, a word like “problematize” is useful, but for certain colleagues down the hall it’s contemptible jargon, and so on. No wonder students are bewildered and apathetic when the assumptions that were dismissed in one’s morning class turn up alive and well after lunch. And no wonder the high-achieving minority prospers while the majority concludes that the life of the mind is a secret society for which only geeks and geniuses qualify—or would want to qualify.

What is the big secret that is hidden beneath the cognitive overload of the college curriculum? It is that all successful academics, whether they are scientists, mathematicians, or humanists, objectivists or social constructionists, play a version of the same basic game: Listen closely to other people, summarize them in a recognizable way, then make your own relevant claim. This Arguespeak is the common language that connects the diverse academic disciplines not only with each other, but with nonacademic journalists, policy wonks, media pundits, sports-talk radio debaters, op-ed columnists, and other public writers and opinion-shapers.

It is the argument game that underlies all the analyzing and problematizing and gives higher education its relevance to work and citizenship.

It is the argument game that underlies all the analyzing and problematizing and gives higher education its relevance to work and citizenship. Argument has been at the center of education since Socrates put it there two millennia ago, but it has become even more central to democratic citizenship in the age of the Internet, talk- back media, multicultural diversity, and post-9/11 terror, where peace may depend on our learning to argue better—to disagree strongly without rancor or hatred, to put ourselves in the shoes of our opponents, and to change our minds rather than lock automatically into dogmas.

The pity is that adolescents already have a lively culture of argument centered on such topics as the media, clothes, cars, looks, and popularity that could serve as fertile ground for educators to draw on. But it’s symptomatic that high school students get the impression that in order to excel academically, they have to check their everyday argumentative skills at the classroom door.

It’s true that there’s more to being educated than learning to argue: There are emotional and moral training, aesthetic sensitivity, storytelling skill, visual and computer literacy. These skills are indeed important, but they will all be incomplete unless students can translate them into persuasive arguments. After all, to make a case for visual or emotional training, you have to make arguments, not just wave pictures, do a dance, or give hugs.

It’s notorious that the academic intellectual world is opaque, and it’s notorious that our schools are failing, yet we have yet to see the connection between these two facts. Neither school nor college education is likely to get better until we do.

Gerald Graff is a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This essay draws on arguments raised in his book Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, published last month by Yale University Press.




Great Teachers Can’t Save America’s Schools


In last year’s State of the Union address, the president placed too much importance on individual educators. This year, he should talk about a far deeper problem.  











Everybody loves a great teacher. When a student crosses paths with one, the influence can reverberate well beyond the last day of school. In last year’s State of the Union address, President Obama informed us that a “good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” a claim supported by a widely reported study by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities.

But by focusing too heavily on the teachers themselves, Obama may have missed an opportunity to bring out a far deeper problem. In this year’s address, he should focus on the disconnected and muddled curriculum that does more damage to our schools and colleges than bad teachers do.

Getting better teachers in the classrooms may be the mantra of the moment, but no matter how wonderful some teachers may be, their work will be consistently undermined if they aren’t teaching out of the same playbook. When they are not, students receive confusingly mixed messages about the do’s and don’ts of academic practices. This leaves them profoundly confused about the intellectual work they are expected to do.

These mixed messages include everything from whether it’s all right to use “I” in academic essays to whether summarizing and quoting other authors is standard practice or a sign of insufficient creativity. While some teachers are sticklers for grammar, others tell their students that grammatical correctness is far less important than expressing genuine feelings or having a strong thesis. In some courses, strong opinions are welcomed; in others they are shot down as symptoms of adolescent overconfidence. One class is all about coming up with the right answer, while the rule in the one next door is that there are no right answers, only endless questions. Some teachers design their classes as job-training workshops while others design theirs as antidotes to the dreary world of the bottom line.

Even when different teachers’ lessons are actually compatible, students often fail to recognize the convergence because the same things are said in different ways, and the teachers are too oblivious to spot and address the confusion. In her recent book, The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another, Rebecca Cox documents the damage such mixed messages inflict on community college students. One student Cox interviewed put her finger on the problem with unusual poignancy:

What is really right for a good paper? Everybody has their standards. So if Mr. Dobbs is teaching me, and he thinks this is a good paper, then what if I do what he told me to do, and I take it to another professor and maybe that’s not his standards? And if my teacher says, “Well, it’s not a good paper,” what am I supposed to do?

So what is right? So that’s very vague; there’s no curriculum–I mean, is that what all the teachers think is a good paper? Or is that just his opinion?

Cox notes how difficult it is for a student to determine whether something a teacher says is “what all the teachers think” or just one teacher’s opinion. This confusion often erodes students’ “initial optimism” about education. They become cynical and disillusioned, and in many cases, even drop out.

Such curricular dissonance also does much to widen the achievement gap. The high achievers manage to synthesize the mixed messages on their own and thereby deepen their learning from course to course, but the rest do not. For them, education is not a cumulative process, but a bizarre obstacle course in which students must virtually start from scratch every time they enter a new course. Who can blame them if they come away believing that education is just a cynical business of learning enough to get past one teacher and then setting aside those lessons to meet the unrelated or conflicting demands of the next one?

Great teaching can’t fix this problem as long as students are distracted by the discrepancies and contradictions between classes. In a New Yorker article some years back, Malcolm Gladwell unwittingly illustrated this point when he compared talented instructors to NFL quarterbacks. “There are certain jobs,” he wrote, “where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that?”

Yet as any sports fan knows, teams that have great individual athletes still lose when their stars work at cross purposes. Like losing sports teams, American schools and colleges depend too much on brilliant individual teaching performances instead of coordinating their teachers’ lessons enough to give students a clear and consistent picture of how academic work is done. And journalists, politicians, and Hollywood studios support this misguided reliance on individual performance when they glorify individual difference makers like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society or Ms. Gruwell in Freedom Writers.

In contrast, when teachers are all working out of the same playbook, the pressure lessens for each of them to be a brilliant solo performer. Harvard education professor Richard F. Elmore, who has researched the factors that cause schools to succeed, finds that in failing schools everything depends on the individual talents of the teachers “with little guidance or support from the organizations that surround them.” Again the point is not that good teaching doesn’t matter; it is that a coordinated curriculum makes teachers better.

But getting teachers to use the same playbook is just the first step. Unless the curriculum itself is simplified and made transparent, students will still experience their lessons as a clutter of diverse subjects and skills. To clear up this confusion, teachers need to agree on the skills that will enable their students to graduate, to go to college, to do well there, and to eventually become articulate citizens and workers. In other words, the playbook needs not only to be a common one, but a good one.

At first glance, it may seem hard to imagine teachers ever reaching this kind of consensus. In fact, it’s closer than it may appear. For years now, there has been nearly universal acceptance among educators, business and government leaders, policy makers, and parents that schools need to focus less on imparting facts and more on teaching “higher order critical thinking skills” that will enable students to make use of information.

To be sure, “critical thinking skills” has often seemed a nebulous concept. But the new Common Core State Standards–which amount to the first set of national standards for American K-12 schools–have provided helpful definition by making argument the centerpiece of the curriculum. Though many have focused on the Core Standards’ call for students to read more non-fiction and informational texts, we believe that it is more significant that they emphasize how important argument is.

One of the greatest strengths of the Common Core Standards is that they go on to specify the argument skills that should be developed from pre-kindergarten to the high school years. In pre-kindergarten, for instance, students should learn to form an opinion about an experience or a text. By first grade, they should be able to give reasons that explain their opinions. From third grade to sixth grade, they should learn to structure their arguments in an essay. And as they move through junior high and high school, students should learn to map their ideas onto a larger intellectual landscape and make the crucial move of acknowledging and engaging opposing arguments.

Throughout it all, students learn that arguing is not synonymous with fighting — its primary goal is not to destroy contradicting viewpoints, but to engage them in a way that reveals hidden dimensions of a problem. As the authors of the Standards explain in an appendix, argument requires students to employ “substantive claims, sound reasoning, and relevant evidence.” And:

[w]hen teachers ask students to consider two or more perspectives on a topic or issue, something far beyond surface knowledge is required: students must think critically and deeply, assess the validity of their own thinking, and anticipate counterclaims in opposition to their own assertions.

(Admittedly, we’re somewhat biased, because the authors of the Standards also cite Gerald’s 2003 book Clueless in Academe, quoting his observations that “‘argument literacy’ is fundamental to being educated” and that “the university is fundamentally an ‘argument culture.'”)

In this digital age, when vast amounts of data are as close as the nearest touchscreen, it is all the more crucial that schools focus on helping students make articulate arguments out of the information they can so easily access. Now more than ever before, schools need to help students do more than acquire data. They must learn how to explain that data, apply it, promote their interpretations of it, and modify those interpretations through respectful debate and discussion.

This emphasis on argument also provides a common playbook for teachers, without depriving those teachers of autonomy. Different teachers can still promote and encourage dramatically conflicting beliefs about their subjects. And it’s so much the better for students if they see their teachers engaging one another in thoughtful debates about meaningful questions. Such substantive conflicts will give students a model of how it’s done, as long as teachers can show them that the art of making arguments remains the same even though opinions themselves may clash.

The Common Core Standards give us a picture of what American education might look like if talented teachers — like celebrity athletes and movie stars — could exercise their genius even as they even as they contributed to common team goals. If we can rebuild our schools around such standards, perhaps we can finally put aside the seductive but ultimately disabling belief that only great solo teachers can save American education.

“Get better teachers in the classroom” is a mantra that is easy to sell. But we think our schools and colleges will be better served by another mantra: “Make argument the center of the curriculum.”


Reaction to Ravitch: A different view of Common Core




published the text of a speech that education historian and activist Diane Ravitch gave this month about the past, present and future of the Common Core State Standards to the Modern Language Association. (You can read it here.) Here’s a response from Professor Gerald Graff, a former president of the Modern Language Association who teaches English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and who heard Ravitch give her speech.

By Gerald Graff

“Public education is not broken,” says Diane Ravitch in her new book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”  The “diagnosis” of the corporate reformers “is wrong,” Ravitch writes, and their solutions are also wrong.  “Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.  But public education as such is not ‘broken,’” and “the solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised.”

Ravitch’s argument — that the real problem is not public education but its would-be reformers — has become a familiar one for opponents of current attempts to reform the American educational system.  Like most such opponents, Ravitch concedes that the system is far from perfect, but she argues that the causes lie in social conditions outside education, in “concentrated poverty and racial segregation,” as she puts it, and in the false story of a broken system that reformers disseminate in order to justify privatizing education and enriching themselves.  So goes this argument.

I don’t buy it.

Ravitch is right, I think, that the solutions proposed by today’s reformers — more charters, more standardized tests and fetishized test data, all of it used punitively, more privatization — are not working to improve schools and students.  But nothing in her critique of the reform movement required Ravitch to minimize the failures of public education, which I think we educators should own up to.

I also agree with Ravitch that poverty and segregation account for some of the failures of schools and students, but hardly all.  Few of the college students I teach are poor and many are white, middle class, and relatively privileged, yet their command of basic skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking falls far short of their potential.  This problem has been documented by a number of studies, including Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” Derek Bok’s  “Our Underachieving Colleges,” the National Study of Student Engagement, and the High School Survey of Student Engagement.

To be sure, about 10-15 percent of our college students do beautifully.  The American educational system has always been good at educating the small minority of students who are already relatively well educated when they start.  But it has done little to help the great majority of students who are essentially confused about how to do academic work, about how to analyze a text and summarize its argument, or about how to make an argument of one’s own.

This is why I like the new Common Core State Standards, which focus on precisely these “college readiness” skills that my students not only struggle with but don’t seem to have been told are important.  Ravitch largely dismisses the Common Core Standards as a byproduct of the false sense of crisis stirred up by corporate reformers, and consequently she doesn’t address the intellectual merits of the Standards, which are far superior to the standards applied under the No Child Left Behind law.  As Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman point out in a recent book, “Pathways to the Common Core,” the Common Core Standards “emphasize much higher comprehension skills than previous standards” and thus represent “an urgently needed wake-up-call” to American education.  E. D. Hirsch has said the same thing.

Here are a few of the skills the Common Core Standards say students should be learning by the eighth grade:

*Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient.

*Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence…

*…acknowledge and distinguish [one’s own] claims from alternate or opposing claims

What is easy to overlook is that standards like these aren’t just another set of hurdles for students to jump over. They actually serve an important teaching function by defining and clarifying mysteries about college level work that colleges themselves leave students to figure out on their own.  It shouldn’t have taken a document from the K-12 sector to disclose secrets of college readiness that we in higher education should have spelled out long ago.  I sometimes think the only places where “college readiness” isn’t being discussed these days are colleges.

In a backhanded way, Ravitch does acknowledge the intellectual merits of the Common Core Standards when she predicts that their “enhanced rigor” may “cause test scores to plummet by as much as 30 per cent, even in successful districts.”  If this drop occurs, she says, the reformers will take it as further proof of “our nation’s ‘broken’ educational system” and another excuse “to create a burgeoning market for new products and technologies.” True, but what follows from this argument? That we shouldn’t set reasonable proficiency standards because too many students won’t meet them?

At times Ravitch seems to suggest a much better argument: if we are going to raise standards, then we need to do a much better job of helping all students measure up to them, especially the economically deprived, which would mean using the Common Core Standards productively rather than punitively.  I could not agree more, but in order to help students meet these higher standards schools and colleges will have to improve a lot more than Ravitch thinks necessary.

Let’s face it. It is the failures of public education that have opened the doors that advocates of privatization have rushed through, and I think it’s reasonable to give them a chance to show what they can do.  But here, I think, Ravitch makes her strongest argument against privatization: that its corporate-backed charter schools are doing no better than traditional public schools.  This lack of success seems more likely to stop privatization than unconvincing claims that public education isn’t all that bad.

When defenders of public education deny or minimize its failures, we—I count myself one—only vindicate the charge of neo-liberals and conservatives that we are so complacent that we will never clean up our own educational house.  The fact that the current fix isn’t working doesn’t mean we don’t have a whole lot to fix.