HM - May 2014 - Dangel

The History Corner

Perfecting the Argument:
How the Common Core Standards Can Improve Writing

Andrew Dangel
Old Mill Middle School North / IB MYP World School, MD

The Common Core standards have faced great criticism over the past year.  Largely this reflects the fact that it takes time and extended data collection to show the impact of any educational shift.  The Common Core Standards have faced the dilemma shared by all educational standards: they are far too vague for some critics, and according to other critics they are too binding of teacher flexibility.  This contrast has always challenged the implementation of educational standards and there is no perfect solution. 

At Old Mill Middle School North, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, I have seen a dramatic and effective change in student writing since we began the implementation of Common Core.  For the last two years we have integrated the Common Core standards both with our state curriculum standards as well as the goals and expectations of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme.  Although this was not seamless the programs were found to be complimentary, at least in our department.

One of the greatest successes that we have seen in our school reflects Common Core ELA Literacy Writing Standard 1, Argumentative Writing.  This thread traces through all the grade level literacy standards.  In 2012 Old Mill Middle North made a concerted effort to focus on this standard across all grade levels and content areas.  This specific standard was picked by our administration as the first school wide focus for implementing Common Core because it was easily adaptable to different subject areas.  Since that time writing has received increased attention in our classrooms. 

Writing was always important at Old Mill Middle North, but now we share the same language across grade levels and across content areas.  Teachers are assessing students on the same standards using the same criteria whenever they form and write an argument.  This consistency, along with collaborative planning and a greater focus on formal writing assessments by our entire school system, is reflected in some of the best writing I have seen in nine years of teaching.  The improvement that we have seen in our history classrooms in two years has been remarkable. 

The improvements we have focused on in our history classrooms are not in style (although that has improved as well) but in choice of evidence and support for good thesis statements that pose real historical arguments.  Historians write and write to defend arguments; it forms a central part of our discipline and is one of our Habits of the Mind.  It is one of the skills that without a doubt good history classrooms foster.  But one of the expressed goals of Common Core is to introduce a unified language and method across grade levels and disciplines.  At least for us this has been successful in that across subject areas we are encouraging the same skills.

I have seen great student growth in the quality of thesis statements, choice of supporting evidence, analysis of source material, and objectivity of style.   With this focus we have been able to increasingly have students write formal responses based on historical inquiry questions supported with evidence from primary and secondary sources.  I do not think that this growth would have been as widespread without the focus given by Common Core, and the support of our department and the administration.

Controversy has plagued Common Core, just as it does all major educational shifts.  In order for a set of educational standards to gain acceptance data analysis needs to show they improve student performance.  Although I cannot speak to the larger successes and failures of these standards at the present, I can say they have improved the consistency and quality of student writing at my school over the past two years.  I am excited to continue to push the boundaries of historical thinking with my students and watch the quality of their historical writing grow as we continue forward with implementing the Common Core standards.