The man behind the Common Core State Standards, a set of robust learning measurements that have the potential to change the state of American education, recently reached out to Christians to discuss the role of literacy in our society.
David Coleman, also the president of the testing organization the College Board, recognized that Christians, as a "people of the book," would take a particular interest in the next generation's ability to read, think, and understand texts. Coleman invited about a dozen Christian thinkers and scholars to join him for a two-day conference held this spring to discuss the challenges and implications of the new literacy standards for people of faith.
For while the development of reading skills is essential to college and career readiness (the mission of the College Board and the goal of Common Core), no one more than evangelicals can appreciate the importance to a people and a culture of the ability to read, and read well—or the devastating effects of being unable to do so.
From the carving of God's commandments on stone tablets to the narratives and letters circulated within the early church, from the painstaking preservation of the scriptures at the hands of medieval scribes to the Protestant Reformation's birthing of the printing press and the invention of the modern university, ours has been a faith centered on the Word—and words.
The Christian obsession with text is not only a part of our history—but something that continues to shape contemporary Christianity. We readily engage questions around biblical interpretation in deep ways, as we consider infallibility, inerrancy, context, hermeneutics, canonicity, and scriptural authority. Even in the 21st century, entire spectrums of denominations, doctrines, and practices center around our reading, studying, and understanding of Scripture.
Thus, despite my own skepticism toward the countless education reforms I've seen in almost 25 years of teaching, the Common Core reading standards hearten me not only as an educator, but more so as a Christian who recognizes the centrality of words to our faith.
The deep, reverent reading that we find so essential to the Judeo-Christian tradition is one of Coleman's driving passions. And it is this passion that informs the reading standards of Common Core. So far, 45 states have adopted these new standards, which push for deeper, more applicable, concept-based understanding in reading and math.
At this point, if you've heard of Common Core, you've probably heard from the opposition. Critics complain that it's a federal program (it's not) or that it's too dramatic and difficult a shift for our public education system. As a college professor, I can tell you such a rigorous approach is needed, even if it's a struggle for teachers and students to adopt. My colleagues and I in higher education see the deficits in reading comprehension far too often in the college classroom. The kind of sustained, deep reading taught through Common Core will require more discipline—on everyone's part—but the rewards will have exponential results.
The vision behind the literacy standards boasts that the skills taught through Common Core—engagement with literary and informational texts, critical reading, cogent reasoning—will apply beyond the classroom and workplace. It's easy to see the parallels between these skills and the close reading and study of Scripture upheld by today's evangelicals. The Common Core Reading standards require students to understand a text in deep and meaningful ways, prompting them to:
- cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly
- determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings
- analyze how the parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Such an approach represents a sharp turn from the subjective reader-response methods of teaching reading that have trickled down over the past several decades. No longer will there be an emphasis on politicized readings over what texts actually say.
This kind of deep reading has been shown in recent research in the cognitive sciences to be an experience distinct from the more superficial decoding of words that comprises much of our daily reading. In fact, these studies demonstrate that deep reading cultivates the brain's ability to feel empathy and makes readers "morally or socially better"—but only through the kind of slow, reflective reading the Common Core standards encourage.
Despite whatever bureaucratic or pragmatic difficulties the Common Core State Standards pose (and surely, there are some), evangelicals can take heart that others share our understanding of the significance of reading. "Reading is resonant," Coleman explained during the meeting. "It's not important just for academic life, but for work life and spiritual life, too."
Indeed, the kind of careful readers the Common Core literacy standards seek to develop are exactly the kind of readers that people of a Word-based faith seek to cultivate, too: readers encouraged to develop command of textual knowledge, to ask reverent questions of the text, to rely on textual evidence making judgments and drawing conclusions, and to demonstrate these skills by producing their own skillful texts.
In short, the Common Core standards of reading promise to revitalize the fading art of reading well. For Christians, this is indeed good news.