A Rejoinder to Peter

For this exchange I accept Peter’s characterization that I made ten major points in my original rebuttal and will proceed accordingly.

     1.   The issue of evidence

Peter doesn’t really dispute my claim that his critique of the Common Core was supported by little evidence and no citations from the actual Common Core document. His explanation is that his articles “were brief, not dissertations.” I don’t think he would accept such an excuse from one of his students who handed in a 5300 word paper lacking adequate sourcing. Nevertheless, I would be glad to review his book when it comes out.

     2.   The issue of the Common Core’s provenance

Peter continues his original essay’s error about David Coleman’s role by now describing the Common Core as Coleman’s “private initiative.”  This is foolish and a serious historical distortion. The idea of developing national education standards for K-12 schooling began as far back as the George H. W. Bush administration and was further pursued by Bush’s Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch (the conservative Diane Ravitch) in her 1995 book, National Standards in American Education, written for the mainstream Brookings Institute. The standards’ movement continued to grow throughout the 1990s and was endorsed by, among others, Bill Clinton and a host of fellow governors, as well by leading national education organizations, including the Fordham Institute. Finally, The National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers created a consortium and asked Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit headed by Coleman, to convene a broadly based group of education policy experts to draft the Standards.

     3.   The Common Core is supposedly illegal

 Peter again repeats the legal arguments made in the Pioneer Institute’s white paper, which I dismissed as meaningless until an actual claim is made in court. Yes, the relevant statutes stipulate that the federal government may not “exercise control” over a curriculum. The trouble is that the Standards do not call for any particular curriculum. Opponents of the Common Core are entitled to argue otherwise. But if they strongly believe in the argument of illegality they should go to court. Please, make my day. By the way, the No Child Left Behind Act was far more prescriptive for the states, including favoring a reading curriculum, but I don’t recall much opposition to that federal initiative by many of the same groups now attacking the Common Core Standards.                          

     4.   Mathematics Instruction 

Peter now offers a new critique of the Mathematics Standards: a couple of bad classroom lessons that he claims, but doesn’t prove, are Common Core endorsed. Big deal. I once made a living describing the horrendous lessons my kids had to endure in their progressive New York City schools in the 1990s, long before the Common Core was a glimmer in David Coleman’s eyes. For example, my son was asked by his fourth grade math teacher at PS 87 to calculate how many Arawak Indians were killed by Christopher Columbus. This was not an aberration. Such instructional techniques are endorsed by a wide array of progressive teacher groups and many of our schools of education.  If the Common Core goes down there will be many more teachers in our schools supporting the idea of teaching math for “social justice.”  (See my article on this.)

As for 8th grade Algebra, I already conceded this was a debatable issue. But it’s also a rather trivial issue. Peter has yet to prove — either here or in his original essay – that our gifted STEM students will be cheated and excluded from taking Calculus if they haven’t completed a full Algebra course in 8th grade. As I pointed out, several of New York’s specialized math and science high schools find ways of including Calculus in their four year math sequence regardless of whether entering freshmen have already taken Algebra.

     5.   Great literature and the Common Core

I’m glad that Peter now concedes that there are actually exemplars of great literature in the Common Core. But I’m baffled by his larger point that “those aspects of literature that depend on the whole story have low rank in the Common Core scheme of things.”  In my reading of the Standards I haven’t come across any such ranking. Peter really should provide evidence for such a bold and definitive assertion.  Finally, his suggestion that “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,” shows that he doesn’t understand how the Common Core’s shift in the teaching of literature is actually a much needed corrective to progressive education philosophy. It’s a welcome change from reading practices emphasizing children’s feelings that have dominated literature classes for the past 40 years. Instead of reading texts as mirrors of their own experience, students will (hopefully) now be taught how to use the texts as windows into the author’s ideas. “Decontextualizing” texts is no pedagogical or intellectual sin.  It can sometimes save literary works from becoming used as political and historical documents instead of appreciated as works of art. Progressive teachers often contextualize A Farwell to Arms, for example, into an anti-war text. Hemingway then becomes a tool for teachers who want to preach their own agendas. Members of NAS, in particular, should understand this.

     6.   The Appropriateness of “Informational Texts”

Although he seems to have dropped the old saw about soup can recipes Peter’s comments about the issue of “informational texts” remain quixotic. There’s nothing in the Standards document that I know of that would justify his conclusion that “the lion’s share of attention [in the Standards] is on handling information, not developing discernment.” What would be wrong with students in 11th grade getting more “information” than “discernment” from 1776, by David McCullough, but more “discernment” than information from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, just to mention two of the Common Core’s exemplar texts. It’s legitimate for Peter to worry about how teachers handle the mix of non-fiction and literary texts under the Common Core. But teachers are always a big worry in education, regardless if our schools have coherent standards or not.

     7.   The Common Core and Liberal Humanist Education

Peter simply repeats the same complaint that he made in his original essay, namely that “the Common Core is “re-branded utilitarianism, opposite in spirit from ‘liberal, humanist education.'” There’s still no evidence for this sweeping dismissal of the Common Core, and still not a single citation from the Standards document.

     8.   The states will write the curricula

I’m glad that Peter at least concedes (though “technically”) that the states will continue to write the Common Core linked curricula. His problem seems to be with the standardized tests that he claims are “the enforcement wing” of the Standards. I didn’t discuss the testing issue at all in my rebuttal to Peter, but I’m sure he knows that I am opposed to the current testing regime and that I have written fervently about how the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers undermines one of the Common Core’s main principles — encouraging a broader content knowledge curriculum in the classroom. If Peter now wants to launch a NAS crusade against the use of standardized testing of students in order to evaluate teachers, I will join him.

     9.   The Tea Party

I don’t know where Peter gets the idea that I believe tea partiers are “anti-intellectual yahoos.” I don’t even come close to saying that in my rebuttal. It was actually Peter himself who brought up the Tea Party issue in his original essay when he wrote that he “await[s] the rallies where Tea Party activists unite in uncommon cause with English and History professors.” It was in response to his vision of uniting with the Tea Party to bring down the Common Core that I suggested that such a result might actually reinvigorate the education left and the Ed school progressives. Now he again avers that, “if there is a populist revolt against the Common Core, I welcome it.” Look out for what you wish for, Peter.

     10.  The “left wing teachers unions”

I’m not sure what Peter is getting at in point ten. I didn’t say a word in my rebuttal about the position of the teachers unions on the Common Core. When I suggested that the collapse of the Common Core would benefit the educational left and the Ed School progressives, I wasn’t at all thinking about the unions and rank and file teachers. But I agree with Peter that teachers’ growing opposition to “the new testing regime” is a positive development. That is why I always favored decoupling high stakes testing from the Common Core. As I said in point 8, if Peter wants to march with the teachers against the misuse of testing, I will be by his side too.

Sol Stern

Sol Stern is a Contributing Editor to City Journal and a Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow.

6 thoughts on “A Rejoinder to Peter

  1. The arrogance of the author nearly took my breath away. Why would I bother to try to explain to him the multitude of problems Common Core is causing in my school district? Does he sound like a person who cares at all about the children (my children) who are being damaged by Common Core, adopted without our knowledge or consent? It’s not his fault! It’s the implementation/teachers/parents/misunderstandings/state/bad examples/they’re using the floor, not the ceiling. Only Mr. Stein and his Common Core cohorts remain blameless.
    And how dare they test children on the Common Core curriculum! That was never the intent, of course, who could have seen that coming?
    Since I think we can now agree that our beneficent experts have clearly been successful in guiding us in every human endeavor for at least the last 50 years, I guess it’s time for us to let Mr. Stein have his way & get with the program. It’s for the children.

  2. Schools are watering down their math curriculum – and they have to do it, because of Common Core.
    Schools teachers and administrators have limited amount of time and recourses. They are working around the clock to “ALLIGN” the curriculum. They don’t have time and energy for anything advanced.
    Why schools don’t teach ballet? Because they are neither interested and nor required to do so. Same logic for Calculus under Common Core.

  3. My comment on Peter Wood’s article didn’t get posted for some reason, it’s happened before here.
    I generally agree with Sol Stern. I don’t see the CC math standards as anything but a floor — not a ceiling! If schools are watering down their math curricula for good students because of CC, then they are idiots — it is not the fault of CC.

  4. Sol,
    You may not understand, but many mothers and fathers (kindly called “white suburban moms” by Arne Duncan) would fight tooth and nails for their kid’s right to study math. Both my husband and I have Ph.D. in STEM; I can’t imagine that my child would be robbed of an opportunity to study Calculus.
    Common Core pushers just don’t understand how serious the parent’s opposition is.

  5. Dear Sol and Peter,
    Your discussion reminds medieval disputes about the number of legs of a fly (there is nothing to discuss, just count the legs). Common Core is here. Kids are studying it. It is very easy to compare Common Core to the previous curriculum, especially in math. Common Core is, obviously, much weaker.
    Algebra 2 is pushed to the !10th grade! when it used to be in the 8th. My D. took Algebra 2 is 7th, now school district doesn’t know what to do with students like her. Calculus goes down the drain. Next stop – science. You can’t teach advanced Physics without advanced math. No math=no physics.

  6. Dear Sol,
    A rose by any other name … is still sour. I know that my daughter’s math curriculum in her school is pushed 2 years back! I don’t care about the “feeling good”, if my daughter has to repeat Algebra 2 because her curriculum has to be “aligned”.
    You can spin things, but the FACTs are facts. Math curriculum is diluted in Common Core. Schools have zero incentive to advance kids. Common Core is race to the middle that hurts advanced kids.

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