Argument Holds a ‘Special Place’ in the Common Core

September 17, 2015 Gerald Graff Common Core, The Debatifier

by Gerald Graff

Since the Common Core State Standards are long and diffuse, not all readers notice the special emphasis they place on argument, far more than did any previous standards.  Also easy to overlook is that the CCSS highlight the type of argument in which students engage with opposing views, evaluating “the strength and weaknesses of multiple perspectives” and anticipating “counterclaims in opposition to their own assertions.” 

This dialogical or debate-oriented form of argument represents a great advance (arguably) over the five-paragraph-theme type of argument traditionally taught in schools, which teaches students to make an argument but an argument that isn’t “with” anyone or anything, in other words a type of argument never encountered in the real world.

From Common Core State Standards Research Appendix A, ‘The Special Place of Argument in the Standards’

The Standards put particular emphasis on students’ ability to write sound arguments on substantive topics and issues, as this ability is critical to college and career readiness. English and education professor Gerald Graff (2003) writes that ‘argument literacy’ is fundamental to being educated. The university is largely an ‘argument culture,’ Graff contends; therefore, K–12 schools should ‘teach the conflicts’ so that students are adept at understanding and engaging in argument (both oral and written) when they enter college. He claims that because argument is not standard in most school curricula, only 20 percent of those who enter college are prepared in this respect. Theorist and critic Neil Postman (1997) calls argument the soul of an education because argument forces a writer to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of multiple perspectives. When teachers ask students to consider two or more perspectives on a topic or issue, something far beyond surface knowledge is required: students must think critically and deeply, assess the validity of their own thinking, and anticipate counterclaims in opposition to their own assertions.

Much evidence supports the value of argument generally and its particular importance to college and career readiness. . . . . The 2007 writing framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (National Assessment Governing Board, 2006) assigns persuasive writing the single largest targeted allotment of assessment time at grade 12 (40 percent, versus 25 percent for narrative writing and 35 percent for informative writing). (The 2011 prepublication framework [National Assessment Governing Board, 2007] maintains the 40 percent figure for persuasive writing at grade 12, allotting 40 percent to writing to explain and 20 percent to writing to convey experience.) Writing arguments or writing to persuade is also an important element in standards frameworks for numerous high-performing nations.

Specific skills central to writing arguments are also highly valued by post-secondary educators. A 2002 survey of instructors of freshman composition and other introductory courses across the curriculum at California’s community colleges, California State University campuses, and University of California campuses Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senates of the California Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California, 2002) found that among the most important skills expected of incoming students were articulating a clear thesis; identifying, evaluating, and using evidence to support or challenge the thesis; and considering and incorporating counterarguments into their writing. On the 2009 ACT national curriculum survey (ACT, Inc., 2009), postsecondary faculty gave high ratings to such argument-related skills as “develop ideas by using some specific reasons, details, and examples,” “take and maintain a position on an issue,” and “support claims with multiple and appropriate sources of evidence.”

The value of effective argument extends well beyond the classroom or workplace, however. As Richard Fulkerson (1996) puts it in Teaching the Argument in Writing, the proper context for thinking about argument is one “in which the goal is not victory but a good decision, one in which all arguers are at risk of needing to alter their views, one in which a participant takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own” (pp. 16–17). Such capacities are broadly important for the literate, educated person living in the diverse, information-rich environment of the twenty-first century.