July 11, 2014


The Common Core Commotion : Haven't we seen this movie before? (Andrew Ferguson, 7/21/14, Weekly Standard)

Most of the criticism of the Standards has come from the populist right, and the revolt of conservative parents against the pet project of a national educationist elite is genuine, spontaneous, and probably inevitable. But if you move beyond the clouds of jargon, and the compulsory gestures toward "critical thinking" and "metacognitive skills," you will begin to spy something more interesting. There's much in the Standards to reassure an educational traditionalist--a vein of subversion. At several points, Common Core is clearly intended as a stay against the runaway enthusiasms of educationist dogma. 

The Standards insist schools' (unspecified) curriculums be "content-rich"--meaning that they should teach something rather than nothing. They even go so far as to require students to read Shakespeare, the Preamble and First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and works of Greek mythology. Phonics is the chief means of teaching reading in Common Core, rejecting the notorious "whole language" method first taken up in the 1970s and--research shows!--a likely culprit in the decline in reading scores. The Standards discourage the use of calculators, particularly in early grades where it has become a popular substitute for acquiring basic math. The Standards require memorization of multiplication tables as an important step in learning arithmetic, striking a blow against "fuzzy math." Faddish notions like "visual literacy" are nowhere to be found. 

Perhaps most impressively, at least in language arts, the Standards require students to read and write ever larger amounts of nonfiction as they move toward their high school diploma. Anyone familiar with the soupy "young adult" novels fed to middle- and high-school students should be delighted. Writing assignments, in tandem with more rigorous reading, move away from mere self-expression--commonly the focus of writing all the way through high school--to the accumulation of evidence and detail in the service of arguments. The architect of the Language Arts Standards, an educationist called David Coleman, explained this shift in a speech in 2011. He lamented that the most common form of writing in high school these days is "personal writing."

It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or it is the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

Now, it is hard to imagine a more traditionalist sentiment than that. Yet conservative Common Core activists single out Coleman as a particularly sinister adversary, perhaps for his potty mouth. The populist campaign against the Standards has been scattershot: Sometimes they are criticized for being unrealistically demanding, at other times for being too soft. Even Common Core's insistence on making the Constitution part of any sound curriculum has been attacked as insidious. Recall that students will be required to read only the Preamble and the First Amendment. That is, they will stop reading before they reach the Second Amendment and the guarantee of gun rights. 

Coincidence? Many activists think not. 

The conservative case, as seen in videos and blogs posted on countless websites, relies heavily on misinformation--tall tales and urban legends advanced by people who should know better. Revulsion at the educationist project predates Common Core by many decades. It is grounded in countless genuine examples of faddish textbooks and politicized curriculums. For the last few years, however, Common Core has been blamed for all of them. Textbook marketers and lesson-plan designers are happy to help. Their market, after all, isn't parents but fellow educationists on state and local school boards that control purchasing budgets. Once Common Core was established as the future (for now) of education, the marketers knew the phrase was catnip. Every educational product imaginable now bears the label "common core," whether it's inspired by the Standards or not. A search of books for sale on Amazon.com shows more than 12,000 bearing the words "common core" in their titles. Many were produced long before the Standards were even a twinkle in an educationist's eye.

And so, from a popular conservative blog, we get lists of horribles like this, attributed to Common Core:

Would you be okay with your 4th grader learning how to masturbate from his school textbook? Would you think it's a good idea to teach kids that the correct answer to 72 + 81 is 150, not 153? What about cutting Tom Sawyer from the curriculum, and replacing it with articles about the imminent dangers of man-made global warming?

All these were evidently drawn from textbooks that sell themselves to educationists as being "aligned" with the Standards. Of course, if you live in the kind of school district that buys a textbook that teaches your fourth grader how to masturbate, that's most likely the kind of textbook you'll get. But Common Core has nothing to do with it. The Standards are agnostic on the onanism question at every grade level. Activist literature commonly confuses the Standards with the National Sexuality Educational Standards, a fringe concoction of left-wing "sexuality educators" that apes the Common Core but has no official or unofficial relation to it. The fact that the Common Core Standards can be plausibly linked to such enterprises is a testament to the neutrality of their content--their intentional blandness. Indeed, it might be an argument for making the Standards more demanding rather than for doing away with them altogether.

Conservative hostility to the Common Core is also entangled with hostility to President Obama and his administration. Joy Pullman, an editor and writer who is perhaps the most eloquent and responsible public critic of Common Core, wrote recently in thefederalist.com: "I wager that 90 percent of the debate over Common Core would instantly dissipate if states adopted the top-rated standards from, say, Massachusetts or Indiana and dropped the Obama administration tests." 

While the personal hostility to Obama might be overwrought, the administration's campaign on behalf of the Standards has borne all the marks of the president's other efforts at national persuasion. There is the hysterical overstatement--Secretary Duncan calls Common Core "the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education." (Has he forgotten Goals 2000?) There are the same sly elisions, the buried assumptions and question begging, the drawing of Jesuitical distinctions. Here are Secretary Duncan's remarks last year to a group of newspaper editors: "The federal government didn't write [the Standards], didn't approve them, and doesn't mandate them, and we never will. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or willfully misleading." 

This is willfully misleading. The federal government doesn't mandate Common Core, but when Duncan and his department made lots of federal funds contingent on a state's embrace of "common standards," the Common Core was no longer "voluntary" for most revenue-hungry state officials. At the same time, for all practical purposes, the department assumed oversight of the program. Only a federal bureaucrat can say when a state has satisfied its obligation to produce materials appropriate to the Standards. And as implementation of Common Core begins in earnest, with confusion about which tests comply with which standards, the federal role will only grow. 

Common Core does not impose a national curriculum, Duncan often insists, correctly; such an explicit move would not only be illegal but would face insurmountable resistance. Yet, in other venues where it is helpful to do so, he speaks of the program as if it had all the conveniences of a national curriculum: "Literally for the first time in American history .  .  . a fourth grade teacher in New Mexico can develop a lesson plan at night and, the very next day, a fourth grade teacher in New York can use it and share it with others if she wants to." This assertion isn't willfully misleading. To the extent it concerns the Common Core, it is nakedly untrue.

Posted by at July 11, 2014 3:04 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus