On Corbett Bashing and the Common Core

by Christopher Paslay

Common Core texts indoctrinate young children and teach them to manipulate facts for social advocacy.  Sound familiar, Philadelphia? 

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

This is the philosophy I use when I teach students in my high school English classes how to write.  There is no substitute for the right word—no true synonym—and until a writer figures this out, he won’t be able to fully articulate his thoughts.  This is the case whether you are writing a narrative, informational, or persuasive essay (the Common Core’s preferred term for “persuasive” is now “argumentative”).

Good writing, especially in today’s culture of limited attention spans, is focused, clear, and accurate.  Good writers can say more in less space—and they can back their writing with examples, details, and evidence.

This philosophy has worked well with my own students at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.  On the 2012 PSSA Writing Test, 74% of my 11th graders scored proficient or advanced—a whopping 28.1% percent higher than the Philadelphia School District average, which was only 45.9%.

Unfortunately, some English Language Arts texts being promoted by the Common Core are no longer focused on teaching students succinct, accurate writing that avoids the use of flimsy persuasive techniques (such as red herrings, overgeneralizing, circular arguments, name calling, etc.), but on writing that actually encourages the use of emotionally charged propaganda for social advocacy.  In short, some ELA texts supported by the Common Core are not making young children free thinkers, but politically indoctrinating them (type the phrase “Common Core indoctrination” on YouTube and see the results).

One interesting case of indoctrinating students and promoting the use of propagandistic writing for social advocacy is the state of Utah’s first grade ELA primer Voices: Writing and Literature, recommended by, and aligned with, the Common Core.  On the surface it appears the text is about literature and writing, but a closer look reveals a major theme is social justice and social advocacy.  This, amazingly, is being introduced not to college undergraduates in Community Organizing 101, but to first graders!

One section in Voices: Writing and Literature teaches young children how to play fast and loose with facts by using emotionally charged propagandistic words to elicit emotions and bring about liberal social change.  It doesn’t teach children to use the right word, as Twain would have advocated (as well as any respectable writing teacher), but to use a word that will get folks stirred-up for social justice, whether or not that word is true, evidence-based, or accurate.

Click on the below YouTube video to see for yourself:

Because the Philadelphia School District is flat broke and has no money to invest in a new set of textbooks, such a primer may not be made available to our city’s school children.  However, the political indoctrination of School District students—and the teaching of how to play fast and loose with facts—is well underway.  Groups like Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union, who often partner with politically motivated adult organization such as the Education Law Center, are well schooled on the use of propaganda in writing.

All three of these groups frequently use “correlation to prove causation”—a logical fallacy and standard propaganda technique—to imply that Philadelphia public schoolteachers are discriminating against minority students because black students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers (and these groups continue to claim this despite the fact that no documented cases of racial discrimination by a Philadelphia teacher against a students exists . . . except, of course, the discrimination against Sam Pawlucy by a black geometry teacher for wearing a Romney T-shirt in class).

The newly founded “Fund Philly Schools Now” does much of the same in terms of their blatant use of propaganda.  Launched to help raise money for struggling city schools, an admirable goal, their website states:

Since Gov. Corbett took office, it has become clear that when he must make the choice between tax breaks for corporations and much-needed investments in our children, he chooses corporations and wealthy donors every time. The crisis in Philadelphia public schools has been manufactured by Gov. Corbett. He is starving the city of resources and then using teachers as scapegoats and Philadelphia families as pawns.

Propagandistic?  No question.  With Federal stimulus money gone, Governor Corbett has been forced to make due with less, and this has no doubt adversely impacted Philadelphia public schools (as well as most public schools in PA).  But the crisis in city schools was not “manufactured by Gov. Corbett.”

During the Ackerman years, from July of 2008 to July of 2011, the School District blew through nearly $10 billion, spending so reckless it prompted the IRS to open a detailed audit of their financial practices.  The rapid expansion of charter schools—nearly 100 of them in 10 years—also greatly contributed to the School District’s financial crisis.  There is also the matter of Philadelphia residents owing over $500 million in delinquent property taxes.  And the fact that the School District loses millions of dollars in unreturned textbooks and stolen computer equipment each year.  And the reality that recently retired baby-boomers are overwhelming the pension system.  And all the cronyism/nepotism over the past five years from the usual suspects . . . Ackerman, Archie, Evans, Gamble, Fattah Jr., etc.

All Corbett?  Please.

Does the School District badly need money?  Absolutely.  Do I want to see our city’s children get the resources they need?  Most definitely.  But the theatrics and use of propaganda to get money is getting old.  People are growing tired of it.  Attacking public officials is becoming counterproductive (just ask Mayor Nutter).  Why does the rest of the state hate Philadelphia, think we are a cesspool?  Perhaps they are tired of Victimology 101.  It’s like with affirmative action: If groups in need simply took responsibility for their problems and said, I’m having some trouble keeping up, can you please lend a hand?, people would bend over backwards to help out.  But it doesn’t work like that.  Affirmative action in 21st century America goes more like this:  It’s YOUR fault I have problems, so give me what you owe me, now!

Not the best way to get the help you need, or to get at the true root of problems.

Neither is using propaganda to bring about reform (or to teach our students English Language Arts).

According to the mission statement of the Common Core:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.

Dr. Carole Hornsby Haynes, a noted curriculum specialist and former public school teacher, disagrees with the Common Core’s mission statement and feels they have an ulterior agenda.  She writes in a recent article:

Common Core is not about “core knowledge” but rather is the foundation for left-wing student indoctrination to create activists for the social justice agenda. Education is being nationalized, just like our healthcare, to eliminate local control over education, imposing a one-size-fits-all, top-down curriculum that will also affect private schools and homeschoolers.

I don’t know if Dr. Hornsby Haynes is totally correct about the Common Core, but I know this: ELA teachers should teach students how to make strong, factual arguments, not how to play loose with the facts to support their own political agendas.

Philadelphia School District focuses on vocabulary to help improve student literacy


by Christopher Paslay


True or false: If a student is unfamiliar with only five percent of the words in a particular text, he will not be able to comprehend the overall meaning of the passage.


Answer: True.


Research on student literacy shows that a child can know 19 out of every 20 words on a reading assignment and still fail to grasp the overall meaning.  The unfamiliar words not only throw a monkey wrench into the student’s overall comprehension of the material, but can cause him or her to become frustrated and discouraged with reading altogether.


Of course, there are many students in Philadelphia who know far less than 19 out of every 20 words on school reading assignments.  This is why the District has recently invested in VoyagerU, a series of professional development programs for principals and teachers that focus on improving student literacy through vocabulary.    


As the teacher-liaison for my high school, I’ve attended the first two VoyagerU professional developments (the final two are 5/22 and 6/12).  Although the instruction at times was padded and long-winded, the presentations were a good reminder of the importance of vocabulary when it comes to reading comprehension. 


As a result of the VoyagerU training, our school has decided to generate multi-tiered vocabulary lists across our school’s curriculum.  The lists have been divided into three categories: literacy words (basic reading comprehension words encountered in grades 9-12); content words (subject specific words in math, science, social studies, etc.); and career technology words (words related to our CTE courses, such as automotive, digital media arts, culinary arts, electrical, plumbing, etc.). 


The goal of the lists is to provide a broad, interdisciplinary base of vocabulary at all grade levels for all students.  These words can be reinforced in many different classes over many months.  This will help students comprehend their very technical career-technology texts (many of which are written on a college level), and hopefully increase their overall reading ability.  By the time students graduate, they should be reading on or close to grade level.    


Research indicates that in order for a student to learn and retain a new word, he or she must be exposed to it in a variety of ways; students must read the new word in the context of a meaningful reading passage, they must incorporate it in their writing, and they must be encouraged to use it during conversation.   


The strategies for teaching these vocabulary words will differ from subject to subject.  An English teacher may use semantic mapping or the Frayer Model to introduce a new word, while career-technology teachers might use root-word association to broaden vocabulary.


In addition to VoyagerU, there is an interesting middle-school vocabulary building program being piloted by the Strategic Education Research Partnership called Word Generation.  This program came about when SERP met with Boston secondary school teachers several years ago, and the teachers told them kids were having trouble comprehending their textbooks because they were stumbling over academic words.


Developed under the direction of Harvard University Professor Catherine Snow, Word Generation has four core program components:


• Focus on the Academic Word List – a set of word families that appear frequently in academic texts across disciplines


• Word study curriculum materials, including high-interest paragraphs and associated activities, designed for flexible use by middle school teachers across the curriculum


• Expectation that schools will dedicate at least 15 instructional minutes a day to school-wide (or grade-wide) study of weekly words


Opportunity for each school team to design a practical implementation plan that suits its own particular school context


Broadening vocabulary is a key factor when it comes to increasing the literacy of Philadelphia public school students, and the District should keep focused on teaching students new words.  Programs like VoyagerU and Word Generation are a good first step in achieving that goal. 


Is cursive writing worth teaching?

by Christopher Paslay


“Are the flowing curves and fancy loops of cursive writing disappearing from elementary school classrooms?” asks writer Megan Downs in a recent USA Today article, “Schools debate: Is cursive writing worth teaching?”


Call me old-school, but I think penmanship is an important skill and should continue to be taught in all schools across America.  Technology is great, but there is a down side to it.  Computers and cell phones are having a negative impact on students’ handwriting and the writing process in general.  There’s too much copy-and-pasting going on during research assignments, and the penmanship of America’s youth is getting weaker.       


According to a report titled Handwriting development, competency, and intervention by  Katya P. Feder and Annette Majnemer, therapists with the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University, “Failure to attain handwriting competency during the school-age years often has far-reaching negative effects on both academic success and self-esteem.”


What do you think about the issue?  Take the poll below.



How do you differentiate grammar?

by Christopher Paslay


Once a report card period, students in the Philadelphia School District are required to take a benchmark test in every core subject to see if they are meeting the state standards set forth in the District’s Core Curriculum. 


After the students complete these benchmark examinations (and after they are collected and graded), teachers are required to analyze and review test results in order to see where their students’ strengths and weaknesses lie.  Teachers must complete a Benchmark Data Analysis Protocol Sheet and come up with a plan to strengthen their students’ weakest skills.  Teachers must also reflect on teaching strategies, and discuss the results of their benchmarks with colleagues and also with the students themselves.    


I teach three sections of 11th grade English.  On December 18th, I was required to give my students the English 3 Fall

Benchmark B test (the second benchmark of the year).  Today I analyzed my results and completed my Data Protocol Sheet.  Although my students are not where I want them to be, as a whole, they scored 14% higher than the Philadelphia School District Average (the District average for the 11th grade English Benchmark was 46% correct; my students averaged 60%).    


This is far from perfect.  But they are improving.  On the first benchmark that they took in October, my kids only outscored the District by 10%.  So they are improving at a rate of 4% faster per quarter than the District as a whole. 


My students weakest skill was the following:  PA State Standard 1.5.11.F: Edit writing using the conventions of language.  Basically, it is a skill involving grammar. 


Here are the two questions that stumped them (as well as the District) the most:


1.  Select the best version of the underlined part of the sentence:


He faced many trials and challenges

throughout his life he never gave up on

his dreams.


A.  life he never gave up on his dreams.

B.  life, he never gave up on his dreams.

C.  life and he never gave up on his dreams.

D.  life; however, he never gave up on his dreams.


The answer is D.  According to the Language Handbook in our textbook (Holt’s Elements of Literature, Fifth Course), you are supposed to Use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb or a transitional expression.  EXAMPLE: Dexter knew that Judy was selfish and insensitive; nevertheless, he continued to adore her.      


A is wrong because you need a comma (,) after the word life, as well as the coordinating conjunction and be fore the word he.


B is wrong because you need the coordinating conjunction and before the word he.   


C is wrong because you need a comma (,) after the word life.


Only 29.3% of my students got this correct (and 29% of the District).


Here is another question that they bombed:


2.  Read the following sentence:


Because I was tired, I left the party

earlier than I had planned.


What is the adverb clause in this sentence? 


A.  left the party

B.  I had planned

C.  earlier than

D.  Because I was tired


The answer is D.  According to the Language Handbook in our textbook (Holt’s Elements of Literature, Fifth Course), an Adverb Clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a verb, and adjective, or an adverb.  It may come before or after the word or words it modifies, tell how, when, where, why, to what extent, or under what condition.  An adverb clause that begins a sentence is always set off by a comma.   


There are only two clauses in the sentence: Because I was tired and I left the party earlier than I had planned. 


The first (Because I was tired) is the only subordinate clause (it does not express a complete thought and cannot stand alone as a sentence).  There fore, it is the only correct choice. 


Only 24% of my students got this correct (and 22.8% of the District).


This benchmark data is no new information.  Students in Philadelphia have been bombing grammar questions since the beginning of time.  Why?  Because there’s been a trend in public education (especially urban education) to marginalize the importance of Standard American English grammar (can you say Ebonics?).  Writers of educational policy seem to favor ambiguity over concreteness—subjectivity over objectivity.  Or to put it another way, they favor creativity over mechanics.     


Feeling and inspiration come first; grammar comes second.  The hot trend in Philadelphia and the rest of the nation is differentiated instruction and higher level questioning.  That’s been the topic of every professional development I’ve been to so far this year.  It’s also one of the National Academy of Education’s recommendations found in their White Papers Initiative (a group of Washington-based scholars trying to influence education policy in Congress).     


Here is the irony, however: There is absolutely NO WAY to differentiate grammar.  An adverb clause will always be an adverb clause.  A coordinating conjunction will always be a coordinating conjunction.  You either know it or you don’t.  Period. 


And how do you learn it?  By MEMORIZING the rules.  Yes, I’m talking about rote memorization.  On Bloom’s Taxonomy, this would be low-level RECALL questioning.  Just the kind of questioning that’s become taboo in public education. 


Why don’t Philadelphia teenagers know English grammar?  Because you can’t dumb it down no matter how hard you try.  You can’t put catsup on it or sprinkle it in sugar.  You have to swallow it whole, every gerund, every dangling participle.  And you must do this in spite of the backward trends in education.          


Grammar questions still make up 25% of every District benchmark.  Why?  Because you’ll find lots of grammar on the PSSA.  That’s what makes the situation so farcical: High stakes standardized tests aren’t differentiated by a student’s ability level.        


In light of this information, here is how I completed my Benchmark Data Analysis Protocol Sheet.


Question 1:  How will you group or regroup students based on the information in the necessary item analysis and optional standards mastery reports? (Think about the strongest data and how those concepts were taught.


Answer: I will partner stronger kids with weaker ones.  Then: I will teach them standard American English grammar.  Period.  I will make them memorize the rules.  Period.   


Question 2:  What changes in teaching strategies (and resources) are indicated by your analysis of benchmark reports?


Answer:  This question is ambiguous.  To this day, I still do not know what it is asking. 


Question 3:  How will you test for mastery? 


Answer:  I will give quizzes (oral and written), and have students write papers and complete projects (and journals) to make sure they are using correct grammar. 


Question 4: In order to effectively differentiate instruction (remediate and enrich) I need to . . .


Answer: . . . find someone who knows how to differentiate grammar. 


Question 5:  Based on patterns in my classes’ results, I might need some professional development or support in . . . .


Answer: . . . finding someone who knows how to differentiate grammar.           


Question 5:  As I think about giving students a better understanding and more ownership for their learning based on benchmark assessments, I . . .


Answer:  . . . feel warm and fuzzy inside. 


Make Anger Management a Part of Core Curriculum

by Christopher Paslay


There are many theories as to why violent crime is increasing in our region’s neighborhoods and schools. Some say it’s the availability of illegal guns on our streets. Others say it has to do with the failure of social service programs to provide help to those in need. In my opinion, violent crime in our society boils down to one thing: the inability of people to control their anger.


One way for our society to reduce its rage is to make anger management a part of public school curriculum. In my opinion, anger management should be taken as seriously as English, math and science. After all, how is a student going to learn Einstein’s Theory of Relativity if he can’t control his temper enough to refrain from assaulting his physics teacher?


Teaching courses on anger management should start in college, where our future educators are being trained. In addition to learning how to give tests and write lesson plans, aspiring teachers should be required to take courses in behavioral psychology, and receive practical training in stress reduction and meditation. They should also be required to work with children with mild behavioral disorders as part of their co-op teaching, and pass an “anger management” assessment on the National Teacher Exam.


Once teachers are trained in anger management, they could pass this important skill onto their students, kindergarten through 12th grade.


At the elementary level, teachers could model simple relaxation techniques to their students. They could show youngsters how to take deep breaths in stressful situations to control their tempers. They could also explain how to use mental imagery to keep calm, to visualize a peaceful place or recall a relaxing experience when anger surfaces.


At the middle-school level, students could learn to use problem solving and communication to deal with angry feelings. Problem solving involves generating a plan of attack to keep from getting overwhelmed by life’s difficulties, such as conflicts with peers and family. And they could use communication to take the time to talk things out with other individuals, rather than getting angry and jumping to conclusions.


High school students, with nine full years of anger management techniques under their belts, could then be exposed to cognitive restructuring. This basically means students would learn to change the way they think. This is a higher level of anger management, because teens must first have the presence of mind to become aware of their thinking. Once they’re aware of their thinking, they may notice it’s irrational or self-destructive. They may realize that they are their own worst enemy, because they are constantly belittling themselves. And how do teens stop belittling themselves? By making a conscious effort to replace their negative thoughts with positive ones; as a result, they will be less likely to react with violence toward themselves or someone else.


Anger management should be a requirement in all public schools in our region. If kids are given techniques to control their tempers at a young age, we can reduce rage in society and help prevent violent crime.