The Common Core Standards and Our Work as WPA Members

What should students learn in writing classes to be prepared for college? Who should make that determination, and how should they do it? And how might we affect responses to these questions? These are the issues that came up for me as I read the Common Core Standards released by the Common Core group and discussions of the standards on wpa-l, in a response to the standards by NCTE President Kylene Beers, and on the NCTE Ning.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative (a group sponsored by the National Governors Association that includes members from Achieve.org, ACT, College Board, and other educational companies and think tanks) released standards for several disciplines, including writing. If you haven’t read the standards or aren’t aware of the work of the Common Core group or Achieve and the National Governor’s Association, this is a good time to get to know them and think whether and/or how to engage with these efforts on the local level. If you do decide to engage with them, it’s also a good time to think about how to frame the case that you (and we) want to make, together. Fortunately, there are lots of resources for this.

An NCTE Task Force (a group including WPA member and former WPA President Doug Hesse) has written an outstanding response to these standards. They explain that the draft standards to have some strengths – they name some important writing skills that students should have, and acknowledge some different purposes for literacy. At quick first read, then, these standards seem fairly reasonable.

But the NCTE response then points out the considerable issues associated with these standards. Put them into dialogue with some of the best practices from our own discipline or of English Language Arts more broadly, and a stark contrast becomes clear. These standards treat writing as the performance of a narrow range of genres (or modes). My colleague Rebecca Sipe refers to this as the difference between standardization and standards.

Best practice documents from our field focus on writerly flexibility grounded in the analysis of genres, purposes, and audiences. For instance, the WPA Outcomes Statement (intended for a different point in students’ development, to be sure) stresses:

  • Rhetorical Awareness
  • Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing
  • Use of Evidence
  • Processes
  • Syntax and Mechanics
  • Use of Technology

The emphasis within these standards is on developing writers’ abilities to analyze the expectations of different audiences and different purposes for writing, to use (or develop acumen with) different genres of writing and their conventions, and to think about the relationships between genres (and conventions) and contexts. This of course includes the ability to work with the conventions of different modes (e.g., argumentative and informative writing), but also to understand that there are many genres, purposes, styles, and media open to writers, who must in turn make smart and conscious decisions about choices available to them depending on their purpose(s) and audience(s). In fact, celebrating the many ways that writers engage with writing everyday is just one of the many purposes of NCTE’s National Day on Writing (October 20, 2009!) and the National Gallery of Writing, as well as WPA’s National Conversation on Writing.

College writing courses are the “target” for these standards – that is, they are supposed to prepare students “for college and career.” It might be possible, then, for us to make a difference in their formation by discussing how we define “successful writing” and “prepared writers” by drawing on frames and conceptualizations from our own work, rather than the work of others. We work with instructors who teach first-year writing courses as WPAs; many of us also teach first-year writing courses on a regular basis. As CWPA’s values state, we also draw on years (millennia!) of research on communication instruction. We know a lot, and we need to draw on that knowledge to share our knowledge and to engage in positive and productive conversations with others, including the group forming the Common Core standards, to try to make a difference. There are some strategies for this available as part of of the WPA Assessment Gallery -- but watch this blog in coming weeks for more on this important issue.