Common Core: A Rotten Apple for Education

Published December 21, 2012

As much as conservatives and liberals may disagree over big government’s permissible role in shaping school curricula, sometimes one act of arrogance and stupidity from on high is enough to unite the two sides behind local autonomy.

That may prove to be the case with a chart printed in the federally-backed Common Core national K-12 standards for English and math. Citing the National Assessment Governing Board as its guide, it asserts precisely how much of each student’s reading henceforth must be devoted to classic literature and how much to “informational text.”

The Word from the Common Core’s savants is that non-fiction works (including a large dose of bureaucratese) must comprise at least 50 percent of each elementary child’s reading assignments, with that proportion steadily rising to 70 percent by Grade 12. Supposedly, reading less of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and more of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation” will make students more “career- and college-ready.”

The mainstream news media have been painfully slow to report on the implications of the Common Core, with the result that a national poll last summer showed that 8 in 10 voters don’t have a clue what this emerging curricular blueprint is all about. A scholarly group at the Hoover Institution has rated the Common Core as one of the most neglected education stories of 2012.

But at year’s end, the brazenness of the reading mandate may be at last penetrating media consciousness, and outlets regarded as on the “liberal” side of the spectrum – notably, the Washington Post and Huffington Post – have done some break-out reporting.

For instance, an in-depth Dec. 2 article by the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton reported the anguish of English teachers across the country in deciding what great poetry, novels and short stories they must cut from their instruction. You see, they must make way for such Common Core non-fictional hits as “FedViews” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management” by those renowned wordsmiths at the General Services Administration.

Arkansas’ Middle-School 2011 Teacher of the Year, Jaime Highfill, told the Post reporter of stripping six-weeks’ worth of poetry from her eighth-grade English class in Fayetteville, Ark. plus eliminating several short stories and a favorite unit from the legends of King Arthur in favor of Malcolm Gladwell tomes on social behavior.

“I’m struggling with this, and my students are struggling,” said Highfill. “With informational [testing], there isn’t that human connection that you get with literature. And the kids are shutting down. They’re getting bored. I’m seeing more behavior problems in my classroom than I’ve ever seen.”

A number of educators responded that, in practice, the burden of teaching reading and writing falls to English teachers. Be that as it may, a bigger issue is the sheer arrogance of national-standards-setters in presuming to dictate right down to percentages how much literature or informational text students should or should not read in each class from kindergarten through high school.

The Common Core’s clear preference for workforce-oriented reading matter is stirring the ire of academics across the political spectrum who perceive all this as an assault on the liberal arts.

Meanwhile, from a conservative perspective, Stanley Kurtz has written in National Review Online about the recommended governmental texts espousing such politically correct causes as “sustainability” and global warming alarmism. The potential clearly exists for a politicized national curriculum.

And then there’s the whole issue of how Common Core will double down on fuzzy math and exclude content in algebra and geometry that is a prerequisite at almost every four-year state college.

Maybe that is a story the media can get around to reporting in 2013.

[First published in the Orange County Register.]