Martin Luther King Jr. and the Common Core

A critical reading of close reading

By Daniel E. Ferguson

Illustrator: Bec Young

Proponents of the Common Core have likened the struggle to implement it to the Civil Rights Movement.1 As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the height of that movement, we must consider how these standards and the related testing are threatening students’ rights to education, not upholding them. As one critical example, the Common Core’s strict interpretation of “close reading of a text” dismisses the notion that students’ own thoughts and experiences, and how they connect to a text, are integral to reading. Rather, student voices are silenced in their own classrooms, and literacy is reduced to the ability to navigate standardized tests.

April 16th of this year marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”2 King, calling Birmingham “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in America,” helped organize a nonviolent campaign there in early 1963 to address the segregation policies of downtown businesses. While jailed after a demonstration, King responded to an open letter by a group of white Alabama clergymen who expressed disapproval of the Birmingham demonstrations. In King’s response, he outlined a moral justification for civil disobedience. Although the New York Times initially chose not to publish the letter, it has become one of the most iconic and widely published texts of the era. A replica of the letter is on permanent display next to King’s jail cell at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a place I visited many times as a student and as a teacher in Birmingham.

Last year, David Coleman, chief author of the Common Core standards and now president of the College Board, created a video of himself explaining how he would teach a “close reading” of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The video, along with commentary videos by Coleman, Kate Gerson of the Regents Research Fund, and New York State Education Commissioner John King, were all published through EngageNY, a project of the New York State Department of Education.3 Coleman’s performance is reminiscent of former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett’s nationally televised lesson on The Federalist Papers to a high school class, but Coleman delivers his lesson to teachers charged with implementing his new standards to teach close reading.

A Critical Reading of Close Reading

Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the text.

Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”4

King’s letter in which he confronts the clergymen’s accusations that the demonstrations in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely” by recontextualizing their meanings according to his worldview is a paragon of critical reading. Early in the letter he says:

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

King proceeds to include the clergymen in a deep discussion of the imperatives and strategic approach of nonviolent direct action tying it to a common text, the Bible; the experience of African Americans in Birmingham and throughout the South; and philosophers ranging from Socrates to Paul Tillich.

In the video, Coleman reads the above paragraph from King aloud and then dives into his own play-by-play analysis of King’s argumentation. He asserts that reading instruction has overemphasized personal connections to texts at the expense of understanding the author’s meaning, assuming the two are diametrically opposed: “We cannot hear King if we jump too quickly to ‘What do you think?’ . . . It’s so tempting to go beyond the letter, but first we must honor and revere the letter.” To be clear, no one is arguing against trying to hear an author, simply that reading devoid of one’s own thoughts and realities or the broader social context is impossible. Understanding what you read and your own world are, to borrow from King, “caught within an inescapable network of mutuality.” A curriculum that de-emphasizes students’ worlds is one that obstructs their making sense of the word. For Freire, such obstruction is an act of oppression.

What would happen, I wondered, if I were to attempt a close reading of Coleman’s video? Would it be possible to dismiss my own thoughts from the four corners of the text? How would the attempt affect my “reading” of his lesson? How can I see David Coleman speaking about instruction and not be reminded that he represents both the Common Core and the College Board, positions of power in national curriculum and standardized assessment? How can I forget that he was a founding board member of StudentsFirst with Michelle Rhee, who advocates the use of standardized tests to judge teacher quality? As he grins at the camera, how can I forget him saying, “People really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think” in regard to student personal narrative writing? How can I dismiss the fact that Coleman had a former career as a business consultant, but he has never been a teacher? Although these connections from outside the frame should not overshadow the picture itself, do we understand Coleman’s text at all without understanding its context?

“What’s at stake here,” Coleman argues, “in this kind of patient teaching is letting kids [who] have a very wide range of ability into the hard work of reading a text closely, carefully, and well.” A close reading of Coleman here would acknowledge his argument for more careful, text-based analysis of writing. A critical reading of Coleman, however, would also ask who is producing the text, the voices that are left out, and the power dynamics established by those exclusions. Coleman says his lesson is “one model in alignment with the [Common Core] standards in literacy; there can and should be several others.” But then he immediately moves to “attacking the three most popular ways” of introducing a reading lesson, including building background and context: “What about letting King establish the agenda of what he thinks is important . . . as opposed to our own prefatory judgments?” But it is Coleman who, distrustful of teachers and students, is casting judgment. It is Coleman’s solo voice in the video, positioning himself as the arbiter of curricular decisions in classrooms.

A Straight Line to Testing

Paragraph by paragraph, Coleman argues how King’s letter should be read and what questions a teacher may ask students. Although there is an illusion that these questions may arise and be discussed organically “What question might you ask about this first paragraph?” Coleman asks and answers his own questions definitively, insisting that discussion questions be “text-dependent.” Coleman claims that, according to his own research, 80 percent of questions students are asked are answerable without direct reference to the text. In a previous speech, he elaborates: “Think about it, right? You’re reading a text and you talk about the background of the text, or what it reminds you of, or what you think about it, or all sorts of surrounding issues kids are genius at this because anything to avoid confronting the difficult words before them is money.”5

Text-dependent questions, for Coleman, hold everyone accountable to what’s within the four corners of the text. What he does not say, however, is that they also make for better standardized test questions. Coleman has made it clear that, as president of the College Board, he intends to align the SAT and AP tests to Common Core standards. He also stated explicitly in recommendations to curriculum publishers that because “80 to 90 percent of the reading standards require text-dependent analysis, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”6

To force a discussion of King’s letter to remain “text dependent” may make it easier to test, but it also forces out its entire social and historical context. Imagine students reading King’s letter and not talking about how Jim Crow functioned in Birmingham, or how children their age, two weeks after the letter was written, skipped school to participate in the Children’s Crusade, leading to an agreement to desegregate downtown businesses and giving momentum to the rest of the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine not addressing how, 50 years later, some schools are no less segregated now than they were then. For the sake of testing students on comprehension in the narrowest sense, what understandings about the world we live in are being forced out of the classroom? In his “model” lesson, Coleman reveals no interest, no curiosity, about the specific social conditions of Birmingham or the strategic choices facing civil rights leaders at the time choices that students need to learn about to locate “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in context and thus better understand the issues of race and power today.

Insiders and Outsiders

The story beyond the four corners of Coleman’s video is one of a man whose agenda is served by teachers following a curriculum that requires students to read in a way assessable through standardized tests he oversees and profits from. This unprecedented level of power within U.S. public education, while not mentioned in his video, cannot and should not be ignored. The ultimate hypocrisy lies in how Coleman uses King’s letter to prop up his own message anathema to the very ideals King promoted. King’s letter, written in the margins of newspapers and on scraps of toilet paper while he was in jail for exercising his freedom of speech, is a demand that the voices of demonstrators no longer be marginalized:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. . . . We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.”

King’s critical response to being called an untimely extremist, the extent to which he does not stay within the four corners of the clergymen’s text, is precisely what makes his letter so powerful.

“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘Wait,'” King suggests. Why must students postpone the chance to have their voices included in the curriculum? Student voices and the stuff of their lives are already being silenced by mandated scripts and high-stakes tests. Too many students in schools today already feel what King describes as “a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.'” If not so intent on close reading, Coleman might connect the sense of isolation students experience in school today to King’s impassioned explanation for why the demonstrators “find it difficult to wait.” Instead, Coleman asks, “Why not let King set the agenda?” as if allowing students space to make connections to the text is somehow against King. In fact, Coleman’s agenda most resembles King’s description of “the white moderate . . . more devoted to order than justice.” King did “set the agenda,” and the agenda is racial equality and social justice, not a model for test-friendly reading instruction.

There is a grand irony in the last few minutes of the video when Coleman praises King for not just responding to what was in the clergymen’s letter, “but pointing out how critical is what’s not in the letter.” Why then, is it problematic to let students do the same, to let their world inform their reading? It was at this point that I wondered: What if King had done only a close reading of the letter from the Southern clergymen he was addressing? What if he did not allow his own reading of the world to inform his understanding of the white clergymen’s words? What leadership and wisdom would have been lost? Would he have been more sympathetic to their concern about “outside agitators” meddling with Birmingham’s affairs? It was King’s understanding of the world that led him to state, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Critical literacy argues that students’ sense of their own realities should never be treated as outside the meaning of a text. To do so is to infringe on their rights to literacy. In other words, literacy is a civil and human right; having your own experiences, knowledge, and opinions valued is a right as well. Despite praise for King’s rhetoric, Coleman promotes a system that creates outsiders of students in their own classrooms.  


  1. King, John. “Our Feet May Be Tired but Our Souls Are Rested,” speech published at Nov. 12, 2013.
  2. King, Martin L. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” April 16, 1963.
  3. Coleman, David. “Middle School ELA Curriculum Video: Close Reading of a Text: MLK ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’,”
  4. Freire, Paulo, and Macedo, Donaldo. “Literacy, Reading the Word and the World,” in The Paulo Freire Reader. Continuum, 1998.
  5. Coleman, David. “Bringing the Common Core to Life” speech.
  6. Coleman, David and Susan Pimentel. Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common CoreState Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3_12.

“Daniel Ferguson taught elementary school and high school debate in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. He is currently a doctoral student in curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a preschool teacher in New York City.

Illustrator Bec Young’s print work can be found at”