Common Core Highlighted at 2015 MLA Convention

January 15, 2015

By Sarah Galey

The Common Core was a key topic last week at the 2015 convention for the Modern Language Association (MLA), which took place January 8-11 in Vancouver, Canada. The MLA is a major research associate for the study and teaching of languages and literature. The organization its members are paying close attention to implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts (CCSS-ELA), and particularly the implications the standards have for English language and literacy instruction. Importantly, MLA members are concerned about the “uneven” engagement of the higher education community with the CCSS-ELA, and their limited role in the development of the standards so far. In her summer newsletter, the President of MLA, Dr. Margaret W. Ferguson, noted, “Postsecondary educators in mathematics had considerably greater influence on the CCSS’s grade-by-grade guidelines for math instruction than did postsecondary educators in the several fields that contribute to literacy studies.” Dr. Ferguson also urged MLA members to “join the conversation that has already begun” about what the CCSS-ELA mean for college and university teachers who have an interest in literacy instruction. Notably, the MLA Commons – the organization’s online forum – has a special page dedicated to the ongoing debate over the CCSS.

Obstacles: Institutional Divide

In the long term, the CCSS will have a huge impact on all college classrooms, regardless of subject, as students move from high school to college, bringing with them the reading and writing skills developed in classrooms governed by the CCSS-ELA standards. The MLA convention sessions examined the potential impact of some of the key shifts in ELA standards on literacy instruction and on the high-school to college transition. These shifts include increases in the complexity of texts, the use of nonfiction, and the emphasis on text-based evidence in writing and discussions (for more on these changes, see last month’s article, “Common Core Reading: The Next Chapter”).

In a panel at the MLA meeting entitled “Who Defines College Readiness?” The Common Core State Standards and the Future of English Studies” high school and college educators emphasized the need for more and better communication and collaboration between the K-12 and higher education communities. Since the standards are designed for “college readiness,” it would seem logical that 2- and 4-year institutions be involved in the ongoing development of the CCSS.  Commentary from session attendees suggested that, up till now, college and university scholars have largely felt marginalized from the CCSS process – a situation they feel must be rectified. Joint collaborations between colleges and high schools is one way of bringing the institutional boundaries between K-12 and high education.

Opportunities: Local Partnerships

Local partnerships between colleges and high schools helps facilitate communication between K-12 educators and their college counterparts, which may lead to more effective implementation of the CCSS.  The WAC/ Secondary education partnership at Bridgewater State University (BSU) in Massachusetts, highlighted by both Dr. Ferguson and in MLA conference discussions, represents one such collaboration. Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is a popular literacy curriculum that encourages writing in classes outside of their traditional place in ELA courses. The WAC/Secondary partnership includes a number of different programs that organize conversations about literacy development and instruction between high school and college faculty.

Impact of Partnership

Recent research on the partnership demonstrates its productivity on both ends. Exploring the kinds of experiences students have had with writing before college, for example, led to richer professional development for college faculty. Likewise, learning more about high school literacy programs helped director of BSU’s WAC program design a graduate course on WAC Theory and Practice for high school teachers across the region.  Elizabeth Gonsalves, a high school teacher and participant in the WAC/Secondary program talked about the program at the MLA conference. “We have created an ongoing program for professional development as a joint 6-12 university project,” explained Gonsalves,”particularly to support teachers, both in K-12 and at the college level, who are facing these changes also, to help all of us transition to new standards and assessments.”

This success is encouraging. Although there are many obstacles to CCSS implementation, the new standards also present an important opportunity for college and university communities to identify and share common interests with K-12 partners.