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CONCORD, Mass. — Freshmen in David Nurenberg’s honors English course were spending their Monday morning analyzing the ending to “Oedipus the King.” For an hour, students theorized about why Oedipus would blind himself with his mother’s brooch and debated who, if anyone, was at fault in the famous Greek tragedy. One student dissected the play’s prophecy and another compared Oedipus to Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.”

It was the kind of discussion that some at Concord-Carlisle High School initially feared would become a rarity when Massachusetts adopted the Common Core State Standards, a nationally developed set of math and English language arts standards designed to prepare all students for college or the workforce.

The high school, in the affluent Boston suburb of Concord, already boasts impressive test scores and sends students off to the Ivies every year. Teachers say they’ve got a winning formula for getting the most out of their students and that a commitment to the classics is a hallmark of the school.

Common Core English language arts
After learning more about Common Core, Concord-Carlisle High School Principal Peter Badalament hopes that his high-performing school won’t have to make many changes to how they teach English language arts. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

So there was concern at first about Common Core’s call for 70 percent of a high school student’s reading each year to be nonfiction and the tests aligned to Common Core that will reflect that new emphasis. Critics have said that the guidelines are too formulaic and threaten the study of great literature. As the staff at Concord-Carlisle becomes more familiar with the standards, though, they’re finding they don’t have to trade in Sophocles for speeches. In fact, they might not have to change much of what they do at all.

The Common Core English language arts standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C., require close reading of texts and demand that writing be supported by evidence, not opinion. Elementary school students should spend half their time with informational texts, according to the standards, and by high school, those assignments should take up the majority of time.

The logic is simple: informational texts are more common in college and the workforce. Common Core architects say that the percentages should serve as a guideline and literature doesn’t necessarily have to be reduced, but that nonfiction reading in other classes like science and social studies can increase.

“As much as I admire the ideas behind Common Core, it comes down to socioeconomics. I could come in and read the phone book to them and they’d still do well.” David Nurenberg, Concord-Carlyle teacher

But some educators worry that the new standards will hurt successful schools. Sandra Stotsky, a professor emerita of education reform at the University of Arkansas, helped to develop Massachusetts’ acclaimed English standards in the 1990s. In 2010, the state traded those in for the Common Core, enticed by potential federal money for states that adopted “college and career-ready standards.” Most states took this to mean Common Core although the Obama administration did not specify.

Stotsky was also one 25 experts asked by the Common Core creators to independently review the standards and she was one of five who refused to sign off on them. She remains skeptical. In a 2013 paper, she argued that the call for 70 percent informational texts damages “the entire high school curriculum.”

“I’m not sure why any intelligent school system would be looking at percentages,” she told The Hechinger Report. Stotsky argues that successful schools shouldn’t be asked to do anything differently. “These standards were created for low-achieving school systems,” she said. “The question then for the whole rest of the country, because there are plenty of Concord-Carlisles, why do these schools need to change anything?”

The Common Core rollout began last fall in most classrooms in Massachusetts and across the country. National backlash against the standards is growing, as students have started bringing homenew kinds of assignments and parents eye upcoming standardized tests aligned to Common Core. Indiana voted to repeal the standards in March and politicians in several other states have made similar attempts.

Common Core hasn’t been quite so controversial in Massachusetts (although the local Tea Party organized a small group of protesters during U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s March visit to Worcester Technical High School). Instead, individual schools and districts are still sorting through the standards to identify where they’ll have to make changes before being officially tested on the Common Core. Massachusetts is piloting the new tests this spring, and they will likely be used statewide next year.

A 2013 survey initiated by the Massachusetts Teachers Associations found that 70 percent of teachers who had received training in Common Core supported the new standards, while 54 percent of those who had no training did so.

Concord-Carlisle principal Peter Badalament had reservations about the standards in November. But he’s more positive since attending a conference held by the ASCD, a network of teachers and school leaders that endorsed Common Core. He says his teachers already do much of what Common Core demands. “It really is more about the pedagogy,” he said. “It really resonated with me. It helped reduce my anxiety.”

While the school’s math department continues to shift to a new curriculum, changes are coming more slowly to the English department. “We see Common Core as being a way for us to take a fresh look at how we do the job,” department chair Neil Lynch said, adding that the biggest shift will be to increase the focus on students and their discussions and decrease teacher lecturing.

A formal discussion on nonfiction has yet to take place. The department is open to — albeit cautious about — changing its carefully crafted reading list. But Lynch noted that many classes already include memoirs, autobiographies and other nonfiction books and freshmen spend a quarter of their English class on those works.

Some English teachers have asked colleagues in the Social Studies department for recommendations of journalistic works to assign. No official changes have been required, however.

“I never felt pressured to skew more to nonfiction,” said Nurenberg, adding that if Common Core is “handled correctly,” the majority of informational texts will be read in other subject areas.

This idea, the same argument that Common Core proponents have been making, is something Concord-Carlisle already tries to do. Students even read in their physical education classes. “Reading and writing across the curriculum – that’s not new,” Badalament said. “The Common Core is saying you better damn well do it.”

The same day that Nurenberg’s class was tackling Oedipus, students in Ethan Hoblitzelle’s American history elective were examining parts of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech. They had read the speech over the weekend and now were asked to look at a few paragraphs to hone in on Carter’s main arguments. Using the text and what they had learned about the social and political context in the late 70s, students debated whether they thought the speech was effective.

It was, in many ways, Common Core in action — even though the Social Studies Department, which Hoblitzelle chairs — has only paid minimal attention to the new standards so far. Hoblitzelle has taught that particular lesson for years and his department already includes primary texts in many of its courses.

In a presentation on the English language arts standards, Common Core architect David Coleman recommends teachers spend three days on the “Gettysburg Address.” Hoblitzelle sets aside a week for it. One of his colleagues devotes a whole class period to Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” and recommends a book on the speech to her students who want to dissect it further.

Honbitzelle and Nurenberg both predict that Common Core won’t overhaul their current teaching practices. But Nurenberg said that’s not just because he’s already demanding analytical reading and writing skills from his students, most of whom come from middle- or upper-middle-class families. “As much as I admire the ideas behind Common Core, it comes down to socioeconomics,” he said. “I could come in and read the phone book to them and they’d still do well.”

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Letters to the Editor

4 Letters

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  1. Mr. Nurenberg’s final comment suggests the outgoing state assessment in Massachusetts has been too easy, since it can be passed without some pupils needing to be taught; but the rest of the article usefully reinforces the point that good schools won’t have to change much to meet the Common Core’s English standards, which are their stronger half (the mathematics standards should be rejected as they currently stand, which Minnesota was wise to do). But it’s also useful to remember that no single external test can assess pupil proficiency in all of the standards they need to meet: this is something Congress should bear in mind when it gets round to rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a duty that should have been accomplished years ago, which, if completed, would have saved our states much of the pain that has been inflicted upon them by the federal education department.

  2. Non-fiction isn’t the problem for Concord-Carlisle High School, but “close reading” is. Common Core’s variation on close reading has an important twist: test answers must be “evidence-based” from the actual text ONLY.

    For example, if an article states the causes of the Civil War and leaves out ‘disagreement about slavery,’ then an essay that refers to slavery has zero credit. Really. Only evidence from the text is allowed on PARCC or SBAC. This will drive instruction.

    There are two reasons for this restriction:
    1. Future automated testing may be able to work by getting around the ‘Babel Effect.’
    2. High-SES students will gain no benefit from their ‘enhanced life experiences’ under a testing program.

    A school like Concord-Carlisle High School will be devastated by the lack of discussion that will result. Under Common Core, math has become less restrictive in presentation and evaluation, but English is more constrained. This is being done in the name of rigor. Essays about summer vacations are used in ‘straw man’ arguments for the great value in ‘evidence-based’ answers.


    Non-fiction is funny. In my Professional Development, we are taught that we are all language teachers. In my writing, I’ve had to identify themes in toy assembly instructions.

  3. I can remember having to read “classics” in high school and like Oedipus I wanted to stick a needle in my eye! It is about pedagogy and not content.

  4. It is incorrect to state that tests adapted to the Common Core “will likely be used statewide next year” in Massachusetts. Per vote of the Board of Education, districts will choose whether to use the current assessment (the MCAS) or the new assessment (the PARCC) next spring; the Board will vote on moving the state to PARCC (or not) once the results of next year’s tests are in.
    As changing assessments is controversial in Massachusetts, this is a important piece to have correct.

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