Common Core: Peter Replies to Sol Stern

My friend Sol Stern has published a rejoinder here to two essays I recently published about the Common Core K-12 State Standards.  Sol had quite a bit to say and I have replied point by point in an essay on the National Association of Scholars website.  What follows is an abbreviated account.  Sol makes, by my count, ten points.

1.     My characterization of the Common Core is all accusation, no evidence.

These were brief articles, not dissertations.  But as it happens, I have a book coming out, Drilling Through the Core, which is chock full of evidence. Those with an appetite for detail should repair immediately to the long version of this article over at NAS.org.

2.     The Common Core is a genuine states-based initiative, not an imposition of the Obama administration.

The Common Core originated as a private initiative by David Coleman, who pursued the smart strategy of selling the idea to the National Governors Association (NGA), which endorsed it in 2008.  That brought many Republican as well as Democratic governors and ex-governors into the Common Core corner.  Then came President Obama’s 2009 Race to the Top that dangled a $4.35 billion prize to the states if they dropped everything and signed on to the Common Core.  Of course, 45 states did just that in a matter of weeks.

President Obama clearly didn’t design the Common Core.  He just leveraged Stimulus money and an administrative program called the Race to the Top, to turn another run-of-the-mill educational reform program into a de facto national program.

President Obama found in the Common Core something that resonated with his view of how government in general and the federal government in particular should play a greatly expanded role in the lives of Americans.  After 45 states signed on, he did a victory dance in his 2013 State of the Union Address, and another in his 2014 State of the Union Address.

3.     The Common Core is perfectly legal.

Three federal laws explicitly prohibit the federal government from establishing a curriculum, programs of instruction, or instructional materials. As the 1970 General Education Provisions Act puts it, no

department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States [can] exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials…

Similar prohibitions are part of the Department of Education Organization Act and the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] of 1965. The ESEA also protects the rights of states to set their own standards for educational content and achievement.

4.   The Common Core doesn’t water down mathematics instruction.

The internet has made famous some cases of parents becoming shockingly aware of the bizarre Common Core-style approaches to problem solving.  Perhaps the most famous is this video of a child using a Common Core approach to solving an addition problem.  Another is the father of a second grader who was assigned to write a letter to “Jack” explaining a Common Core subtraction problem.

But the algebra issue is straightforward.  The Common Core defers Algebra I to ninth grade.  The “mathematics progressions” developed and released by the Common Core state flat out that this is so. When Sol says, “there is not a single reference to the question of whether Algebra should be taught in 8th or 9th grade,” he is wrong.  Go to the longer version of this article for the details.

Why should this matter?  Students who can’t or won’t learn algebra in 8th grade can’t or won’t learn it in 9th grade either.  What is alarming about this is that deferring algebra to 9th grade squeezes the time left to take the more capable students further in their mathematical development.

5.     The Common Core doesn’t scant the teaching of great literature.

Sol answers my concerns on this by providing a list of great (and some not so great) novels, stories, and poems that the Common Core holds up as exemplary, and various works of non-fiction that are also exemplary.  I am all for reading works by Frederick Douglass, David McCullough, Alexis de Tocqueville, and (most of) the other writers of non-fiction.   But let’s restore some context.

The Common Core designates these books as places where teachers might find suitable excerpts. The thrust of the Common Core’s approach to literature is to sample and de-contextualize.  Those aspects of literature that depend on the whole story have low rank in the Common Core scheme of things.  Likewise, historical context is diminished at times almost to the vanishing point.  The Common Core’s emphasis on extracting “information” and on citing documents as “evidence” cuts against both the values of literature and the comprehension of history.

6.     The Common Core’s emphasis on “informational texts” is perfectly appropriate.

The Common Core is explicit and emphatic about its elevation of “informational texts” over literature.  In the earlier grades, the Common Core treats this as a matter of “balance.”  Thereafter, the Common Core, grade by grade, increasingly emphasizes informational texts and de-emphasizes literature.  This approach spreads across the curriculum.  Students read history “informational texts” in history classes, etc., but they are also reading informational texts inside the English classroom.

The Common Core justifies all this in flowery language. Who could be against “wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement?”  But the lion’s share of attention is on handling information, not developing discernment.  Students need to tell the difference between the important and the trivial and to develop a sense of proportion on how much detail is needed.  That’s what is missing from the Common Core.

7.     The Common Core is an opening for liberal, humanist education.

The Common Core is re-branded utilitarianism, opposite in spirit from “liberal, humanist education.” At bottom the Common Core seeks to make children into efficient information processors, not thoughtful, well-rounded human beings.

8.     The states will write their own curricula to embody the Common Core Standards.

Technically, yes. The problem is that all those separate state curricula have to line up with the standardized tests that are the enforcement wing of the Common Core. The essential point is that the content of the tests will inevitably shape the curricula.  The freedom that states get to choose their own curriculum within the outline of the Common Core Standards is largely an illusion.

      9.     Criticizing the Common Core gives aid and comfort to the Tea Party types, who are basically anti-intellectual yahoos.

Sol uses “Tea Party” as a scare word, but I’m not scared.  Most of the Tea Party-ish folks I have met are well-educated and thoughtful, though pretty clearly alienated from the attitudes that prevail among my neighbors on the Upper West Side.  In 2010, the “establishment” in the Republican Party took the Common Core in stride, never raising the pertinent questions. That said, in April of 2013 the Republican National Committee passed clear and condemning resolution against Common Core.

If there is a populist revolt against the Common Core, I welcome it.

10.  Criticizing the Common Core also plays into the hands of the left-wing teachers unions who are fighting tooth and nail to keep their version of standard-less “progressive education.”

Sol and I share an aversion to what “progressive educators” have done to our nation’s schools.  The problem has tangled roots, but the taproot is probably the schools of education that prioritize the pursuit of their version of “social justice” over educating competent teachers.

Teachers, of course, vary.  Both national teachers’ unions, the AFT and the NEA, have supported the Common Core. The major Beltway players behind Common Core–the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Governors Association (NGA) and Achieve, Inc.-for 20 years have emphasized skill-based workforce development as the ideal of public education, and they have correspondingly de-emphasized the liberal arts and content-rich approaches to K-12 education.  The Common Core offers a public policy finesse:  workplace development packaged as if it were liberal arts friendly, content-rich education.

But if we are speaking of the organized opposition to the Common Core among teachers, it seems to be gathering strength from those who recognize the threat of the new testing regime.  Teachers bitterly opposed the “high stakes testing” of No Child Left Behind.”  Such was the fervency of their opposition that teachers generally supported the Common Core before it was clear that the Common Core would just substitute one form of standardized testing for another.

In view of the forces lined up in support of the Common Core, I rather welcome the growing dissent from the teachers. I doubt that turning back the Common Core would result in a restoration of ed school progressivism as the reigning doctrine in our schools.  The public is now engaged and is demanding something better.  Along with many others, Sol and I will be part of the ensuing debate about what that better thing is.

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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