The Common Core State Standards have their critics, left and right, and some of the objections are worth listening to. Although the Common Core train has left the station, we still don’t know whether it will reach its destination of producing more literate and knowledgeable citizens. So it would be useful to have an informed debate about how the states, our “laboratories of democracy,” are doing in implementing the Standards and particularly whether they are moving forward with fidelity to the Common Core’s call for a restored American curriculum built with “rich content knowledge.”
Unfortunately, two recent Minding the Campus articles here and here denouncing the Standards and the newly reconfigured SAT exam by Peter Wood, the admirable president of the National Association of Scholars, contribute little of value to this critical conversation. That’s because his vitriolic attack on the Common Core is mostly evidence-free.
Wood alleges that the Common Core and the redesigned SAT constitute a two-pronged assault on the K-12 public schools that will also lower academic standards in the colleges and universities. At the center of this effort, according to Wood, is David Coleman, the new President of the College Board. In Wood’s telling, Coleman orchestrated the Common Core Standards and then, in partnership with the Obama administration, imposed them on the states — all in order to lower standards and dumb down K-12 education. To accommodate the millions of new Common Core (mis)educated high school graduates, Coleman then reinvented the SAT, thus forcing the colleges to lower their entrance requirements. And this near revolutionary transformation of American education — for “social justice” purposes, according to Wood – has unfolded in little more than five years. Quite a coup for the 43 year old Mr. Coleman.
A Charge of Illegality
Wood’s insistence that the Common Core is likely to have a dumbing-down effect on the quality of American K-12 education is not supported by a single citation from the 200-page Standards. Similarly, Wood’s accusations regarding the College Board’s plan to dilute university admissions policies and lower academic standards are simply that – accusations without evidence. Before there is even a new SAT and test items to evaluate, Wood has concluded that its only purpose is to compensate for Common Core’s failure to raise academic standards at the K-12 schools. (You might think that Wood and NAS have already proven that there are virtually no academic standards left on our campuses – but never mind about that.)
Fueling Wood’s discontent is his belief that the Common Core Standards were part of a “deceptive and probably illegal” power grab by the Obama administration, transferring a lot of power over the nation’s schools from local districts and state governments to the federal government. The deception, he believes, comes from the Common Core being sold as “voluntarily” adopted by the states; the illegality comes from disregarding “statutory law that prohibits the federal government’s involvement in creating school curricula.”
A Manichean View
The claims of illegality and deception are also the foundational principles of the Tea Party activists now trying to block implementation of the Common Core in the states. In their Manichean view (and apparently in Wood’s), Americans have a stark choice: either defend our constitutional republic’s tradition of local control of education or surrender to what the Tea Party calls “ObamaCore” (i.e. the Standards.) To back up his own allegation that implementation of the Standards in the states is likely illegal, Wood refers readers to the website of the Pioneer Institute (one of the leading right-wing think tanks opposing Common Core) and more specifically to a paper written by two former Bush administration lawyers. The lawyers argue that the Standards were forced on the states in violation of established constitutional principles and statutory law prohibiting the federal government from imposing curriculum on the nation’s schools.
The lawyers’ brief is nothing more than a bluff by the anti-Common Core activists. Lawyers make arguments all the time about the meaning of the Constitution and federal laws. It’s one of the things they do for their clients. But what makes a legal claim true or not true is not what lawyers say, but rather what judges and juries do in a court of law. With so many disgruntled parents and teachers available for a class action lawsuit, you might think that the Pioneer Institute (or one of the other anti-Common Core groups) would have been eager to test the argument about the illegality of the Common Core Standards in a court of law. The fact that they haven’t done so suggests that they realize they would be laughed out of court.
Wood also writes that the public has been sold the grand “deception” that the Common Core Standards were adopted “voluntarily” by the states. But he fails to mention or account for the fact that five states declined to adopt the Standards in the first place, yet weren’t penalized in any way. That alone seems to make use of the word “voluntary” perfectly apt. Moreover, the Tea Partiers themselves are now proving just how much leeway states still have to discard the Standards even after initially agreeing to adopt them. The activists are constantly boasting about their success in convincing various state officials to drop the Common Core. (The most recent example is Indiana, which appears on the verge of rejecting the Standards in their entirety.) But the activists can’t have it both ways — celebrating every state defection from Common Core, but continuing to repeat the fiction that the Standards are a federal mandate on the states. My bet is that they will continue to do both anyway, thereby further exposing their hypocrisy on this issue.
‘Watering Down Math’
Like most Common Core opponents, Wood also vigorously contests the notion that the new Standards will raise academic achievement in K-12 schools. In a section of one of his essays titled, “Watering Down Math,” he asserts as an uncontroversial fact that “Common Core defers the teaching of Algebra to the 9th grade,” which in turn will make it “difficult for schools to offer pre-calculus to students before they finish high school.” Thus, the Common Core does a disservice to our most talented students in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) who then “will have to scramble before they get to college to supplement what their high schools offer.” Adding to this chain of disasters, Wood predicts that colleges will soon “reduce the rigor of their science programs to accommodate students who have to spend their first year catching up on mathematics that used to be taught in high school.”
It’s hard to know where to begin untangling this series of misunderstandings. First, in the Common Core Standards for Mathematics, there is not a single reference to the question of whether Algebra should be taught in 8th or 9th grade. The Standards are agnostic on the issue for the very good reason that there are a variety of practices in American schools regarding when to teach Algebra and how much of it to teach. Only about half of the nation’s elementary schools now offer Algebra – or more accurately a course labeled “Algebra” — in the 8th grade. Meanwhile, Common Core’s recommended 8th- grade math sequence, though not called “Algebra,” contains as much algebraic content as many of the 8th- grade courses in the schools officially named “Algebra.”
Moreover, even if Algebra is offered in 8th grade in some schools, that doesn’t mean that children are receiving the deep content that would allow them to move ahead proficiently to the next levels of Geometry and Trigonometry. In New York City, for example, many elementary schools do offer Algebra in 8th grade. But since the course is aligned with the state’s dumbed down Regents examination the curriculum content is inadequate. To deal with this gap, some of the city’s specialized math and science high schools require entering students to repeat a more sophisticated Algebra sequence in the freshman year (often along with Geometry) yet still manage to include pre-Calculus and Calculus in their four-year math sequence. Wood’s prediction that colleges will now dumb down their science and math programs because of how Common Core handles the Algebra issue is a red herring.
Denigrating Great Literature
It gets worse. In a section of Wood’s article titled “Locking Out Liberal Learning” he claims that by emphasizing the need for students to do more reading and analysis of non-fiction texts (“informational texts” in Common Core parlance) the Common Core denigrates great works of literature and cheats students of all the wonderful things that the “written word” can convey. These include, according to Wood, “stirring emotions, point[ing] to truths beyond itself,” conveying “beauty” and “ugliness,” “tapping into secret memories” and “rallying us to public causes.” In contrast to these noble human sentiments stirred up by reading imaginative fiction, Wood condemns the Common Core’s alleged overemphasis on “informational texts.” To dramatize the point he asks us to think about “the recipe on the back of the soup can for turning soup into a tasty casserole” as a parable for the utilitarian informational texts that Common Core forces on students. There is nothing about food recipes, on soup cans or anywhere else, in the ELA Standards – so Wood’s reference is preposterous.
A reasonable criticism Wood might have made instead was that the writers of the Common Core should not have specified an exact 70% – 30% ratio between “informational” and “fictional” texts that high school students should be reading across all subject areas. Unfortunately, Wood and other opponents of Common Core seem to prefer painting a series of caricatures about this serious issue. Wood never offers examples of the texts or authors actually mentioned in the Standards, so here is the actual list of “exemplar” 11th grade informational texts from New York State’s official version of the Standards:
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense
Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence
United States. The Bill of Rights (Amendments One through Ten of the United States Constitution)
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Society and Solitude.”
Porter, Horace. “Lee Surrenders to Grant, April 9th, 1865.”
Chesterton, G. K. “The Fallacy of Success.”
Mencken, H. L. The American Language, 4th Edition
Wright, Richard. Black Boy
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.”
Hofstadter, Richard. “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth.”
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.”
Anaya, Rudolfo. “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry.”
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America.
Declaration of Sentiments by the Seneca Falls Conference
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?:
An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852.”
An American Primer. Edited by Daniel J. Boorstin
Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe. “Education.”
McPherson, James M. What They Fought For 1861-1865
The American Reader: Words that Moved a Nation, 2nd Edition
Amar, Akhil Reed. America’s Constitution: A Biography
McCullough, David. 1776
Bell, Julian. Mirror of the World: A New History of Art
FedView, by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
Paulos, John Allen. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Tyson, Neil deGrasse. “Gravity in Reverse: The Tale of Albert Einstein’s ‘Greatest Blunder.'”
Calishain, Tara, and Rael Dornfest. Google Hacks: Tips & Tools for Smarter Searching, 2nd Edition
Kane, Gordon. “The Mysteries of Mass.”
Fischetti, Mark. “Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control.”
U.S. General Services Administration. Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management
Kurzweil, Ray. “The Coming Merger of Mind and Machine.”
Gibbs, W. Wayt. “Untangling the Roots of Cancer.”
Gawande, Atul. “The Cost Conundrum: Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas.”
Is this list as damaging to a good liberal arts education as Wood suggests? Does it really make any sense to dismiss works by Thoreau, Emerson and de Tocqueville on grounds that they are merely “informational” and not “literary”? Knowledgeable parents are likely to appreciate that, taken as a whole, these non-fiction readings, some of them American classics, are more academically rigorous and come closer to reflecting our nation’s republican experience, than anything their children have been offered up to now in their junior year in high school. Indeed, based on the excellent work that Wood and NAS have done in documenting the intellectual wasteland of American higher education it’s clear that most college students today – the “Dumbest Generation,” according to former NAS director Mark Bauerlein’s recent book of that name – would benefit greatly from being assigned some of Common Core’s representative 11th grade non-fiction texts.
Is Literature Really Scanted?
Nevertheless, Wood continues to insist – again without any evidence from the Standards- that “the Common Core prizes ‘informational texts’ above literature, and that it has “limited use for imaginative literature.” Though he concedes that Common Core “gives some small space to mythology and literature,” it is nevertheless “space that retracts year by year as students’ progress through the Common Core.” Wood sets up a zero-sum game in order to pose an imaginary conflict within the Common Core between informational texts and supposedly higher order imaginative literature. “We should surely want students to be able to read recipes on soup cans and to extract important information from ‘texts,'” Wood writes. “That’s a useful skill. But it is a skill that, cultivated at the expense of a more well-rounded form of literacy, cuts students off from the foundation of a liberal education.”
This allegation that the Common Core deliberately pushes great literature out of the curriculum in favor of mind-numbing informational texts such as federal government manuals has been used rather unscrupulously by both conservative and leftist critics of the Standards. I still recall the screaming headline above a December, 2012 story in the London Telegraph: “Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of informational texts.” According to the article’s anonymous author, “American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014.”
Despite lacking any sourcing, the article was reprinted on the Drudge Report and then circulated through the food chain of right-wing blogs and web sites. Not one of those publications dared to mention that there has never been a uniform U.S. curriculum from which authors like Salinger and Harper Lee were now being dropped, or that the Standards document never suggests that teachers not teach the two popular authors. Nor have any of the critics acknowledged that To Kill a Mockingbird is actually on the list of Common Core exemplar fictional texts for grades 9/10. Similar baseless horror stories about the Standards’ “displacement” of great literature have appeared on a regular basis for the past year and a half in both conservative and liberal publications.
Because of Wood’s canard that the Common Core “lock[s] out liberal learning,” plus the fact that he never offers any evidence from the Standards document itself, let’s actually consider the entire list of exemplar literary texts for the 11th grade:
Novels and Stories
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales
de Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.”
BrontÃ«, Charlotte. Jane Eyre
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
Jewett, Sarah Orne. “A White Heron.”
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor
Chekhov, Anton. “Home.”
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths.”
Bellow, Saul. The Adventures of Augie March
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye
Garcia, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet
MoliÃ¨re, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. Tartuffe
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest
Wilder, Thornton. Our Town: A Play in Three Acts
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun
Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman: A Play
Li Po. “A Poem of Changgan.”
Donne, John. “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”
Wheatley, Phyllis. “On Being Brought From Africa to America.”
Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.”
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”
Tagore, Rabindranath. “Song VII.”
Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Pound, Ezra. “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”
Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.”
A Content-Rich Curriculum
As the Common Core makes clear, 11th grade teachers are not required to teach any one of these texts. The list is meant to be used rather as “text exemplars illustrating the complexity, quality, and range of reading appropriate for various grade levels.” The Standards document also contains this important declaration:
“While the Standards make reference to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not – indeed cannot – enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.”
I find it mystifying that Wood is unable to see that this straightforward call for a “content-rich curriculum,” plus the academically high level of the Standards’ exemplar texts (fiction and non-fiction) presents an historical opening to lobby for exactly the kind of liberal, humanist education, an education steeped in American republican values, that he and his NAS colleagues have tried for decades to resurrect. In the Common Core states there is now a struggle emerging over which curriculums schools will be offering to students as part of their adoption of the Standards and just how much academic content knowledge will be taught in classrooms. In New York, for example, the State Education Department has wisely chosen E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum, chock full of academic content knowledge, for the early grades, but a rather mediocre curriculum by Expeditionary Learning for the middle grades. Those selections are on the Education Department’s website, Engage NY, and can be used by any school in the state. (The state is still developing a high school curriculum.) In New York City, Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina has announced that high-school principals will be writing their own curricula aligned with the Common Core Standards. So in New York everything that is important about the Common Core adoption is still up for grabs.
What About the Tea Party?
Wood and his fellow academics could have been, could still be, involved in this ongoing process, lobbying states and school districts to provide teachers and students with exactly those literary texts that Wood praises for “stirring emotions, point[ing] to truths beyond itself,” and “tapping into secret memories.” But instead of battling for NAS’s academic values from inside the Common Core tent, Wood announces in one of his articles that, “The task at hand is to stop the Common Core before it can inflict more harm” and that he “await[s] the rallies where Tea Party activists unite in uncommon cause with English and History professors.”
What’s particularly puzzling is Wood’s insouciance about what the likely effect of a Tea Party victory would be for American education. Sorry Peter, it won’t be a glorious return to the academic traditionalism that you and I favor, but that began to disappear from the schools with the triumph of the 1960’s radicalism and the counterculture. The demise of the Common Core would instead mean a return to the wasteland of progressive education and of “child- centered” (rather than teacher-centered) instruction. It was the progressive education pedagogy of no knowledge in the classroom — except knowledge of “social injustice” — that prompted the push for the Common Core Standards in the first place.
Also, I remind Wood that there’s another picket line outside the Common Core tent. It’s the one organized by the educational left. The radical protesters are just as passionate as Wood and the Tea Partiers are about bringing down the Common Core. They are not as numerous as the Tea Party cadres, but they seem to be much more aware of their own interests in the struggle. The left knows that if the Common Core tent comes crashing down, its own education ideology will thrive in the ensuing curricular anarchy. Progressive hegemony in the Ed schools will be reasserted and volumes such as Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, with its warrant for social justice teaching in the classroom, will resume its rightful place as the most popular text in the schools of education.
‘This Anti-Intellectual Tide’
The distinguished education scholar Sandra Stotsky is now one of Peter Wood’s allies in the fight against the Common Core. But in her 1999 book, Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction Is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write and Reason, Stotsky eloquently described what instruction in American classrooms was like before the advent of the Common Core and implicitly what it is likely to return to if the Common Core is stopped. This is one of the key passages in her book:
Given the dominating influence of those teacher educators and educational researchers who have been promoting the primacy of social and political goals in the classroom, there is little one can expect from most of our pedagogical institutions to reverse this anti-intellectual tide. . . . In order to restore the primacy of intellectual and civic goals in the reading curriculum, the public needs to understand what multiculturalism has come to mean in the reading curriculum of the 1990s, how it constitutes an assault on the development of children’s language and thinking, and why black and Hispanic children are likely to be among those damaged by this assault.
If the shock troops of the Tea Party do manage to bring down the Common Core I don’t think that Wood and NAS will be celebrating that “victory” very long.