A Common Sense Case Against Common Core

Published December 28, 2013

What the public has heard about the controversy over national Common Core school standards largely fails to include the substance of that debate: whether the national curriculum and testing mandates actually offer children a quality education. Contrary to the education and political establishment, Terrence Moore says they don’t. In his newest book, the Hillsdale College history professor and former principal of one of the nation’s best public schools explains why.

His style is refreshingly concrete. Typical media reports of Common Core include fuzzy phrases that have been the hallmark of public education for some sixty years: “rigorous,” “critical thinking,” “authentic learning,” “complex texts,” and so forth. It all sounds vaguely positive, but it’s hard to tell exactly what these mean. Moore goes to the Common Core itself and leading literature textbooks it has resulted in to find out and explain its effects.

The results are downright horrifying. As Moore says, the literature textbooks have almost no literature. A textbook treatment of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, spends 17 pages on the book but quotes not a single word from it. Instead, students are told to write autobiographies of monsters they make up, read Saturday Night Live skits, and read a modern author’s recollection of one of her nightmares.

Lest anyone argue this is the textbook publisher’s fault and not a problem with Common Core, Moore delves directly into the standards and finds a raft of major flaws. For example, he critiques the language of the standards—highfalutin stuff that, when put in English, often becomes a “painfully obvious truism,” Moore says. His translation of one: “Students in second grade should read and understand more difficult books at the end of the year than at the beginning. They may need help, though.” What rigorous thinking! That’s well worth overhauling the entire U.S. education system for, right?

It gets even worse—far worse. The Common Core specifies three main criteria for selecting the literature children will read in schools. One of these is “complexity,” which it determines using a computer formula. Under this formula, The Grapes of Wrath registers as a second- to third-grade book. Common Core also does not list, say, Huckleberry Finn as a recommended text, but it does list an essay on the evolution of grocery bags, as it requires children to read far more nonfiction. In so doing, Moore says, it creates an absurd and false mechanical equivalency between the fiction and nonfiction children must read by using a soulless text complexity formula.

In its recommended reading list, Appendix B, Common Core most clearly reveals its inhumane biases, Moore says. For one, he notes the astonishing fact that it lists not one literary work that deals with or stems from the Judeo-Christian religion, although it is impossible to be well-educated without knowing such works. No creation story, Brothers Karamazov, Paradise Lost, Augustine’s Confessions, or Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It omits other central literary works, such as anything from the quintessential American writer Benjamin Franklin. It also treats the U.S. founding documents curiously: Common Core never suggests children read the U.S. Constitution, but it recommends reading the Bill of Rights. For U.S. students’ introduction to the Constitution, it instead says they should read mocking, derisive modern scholarship.

Moore discovers and discusses these details and more, but he also shines in discussing the philosophy of Common Core and education itself. This discussion is extremely accessible to the lay reader—a mother, father, or lawmaker—whereas many education books and Common Core itself are not. One of his strongest points concerns whether K-12 should aim for “college and a career,” as Common Core claims, or if it should do more, and better.

Although Common Core’s cheerleaders push skills-based training for everyone else’s children, Moore points out, they send their own children to exclusive private schools where they learn to master language, the prerequisite for leading society. Second, public education exists in this country because the founding generation viewed knowledge and virtue as essential to our form of government. But Common Core avoids virtue and any discussion of the higher ends of cultivating the human mind. Third, even if education were merely a means to a job, the biggest problems in the workplace and society are human problems—how to motivate employees, find and cultivate talent, listen to customers, and so forth.

This is where the title of Moore’s book comes into play. Literature has always taught people about people, he notes. Learning the stories of one’s culture is essential to being a civilized human being. Nowadays, however, “When [students] do turn nineteen, colleges and employers find out that they do not read very well. Why not? Because schools have not given the students anything worth reading nor taught them how to appreciate things that are lovely, dark and deep. Their minds and souls lie dormant.”

The consequences of fostering a soul-deadened culture within public schools are not hard to guess. This culture already has been planted and is bearing fruit. We see it in people who know nothing of history and therefore have no perspective, wisdom, or sense of their heritage. These people now vote for our leaders—and they are our leaders. They have created a disastrous education system. It’s called Common Core.


Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute and a 2013 Novak journalism fellow.