Common Core Thrills Theorists, But May Flunk Consumer Review

Published May 17, 2012

As public-school systems begin to follow marching orders to implement the national Common Core curricular standards for language arts and math over the next two years, teachers and parents are beginning to find portions of this highly scripted education that they deem questionable if not downright objectionable. Expect much more of this ferment in coming months as school patrons discover—much as with the gargantuan health-care bill—what is being handed down from on high as prescribed learning for all K-12 children. This emerging national curriculum was put together behind closed doors by well-financed theorists who have little or no actual teaching experience. For today, consider just the language-arts part. It decrees that at least 50 percent of all reading assigned kids in grades K-5 must be “informational text” as opposed to short stories, plays, poetry, or other kinds of imaginative literature. For grades 6-12, the dictum ramps up to 75 percent informational text. Somehow, downgrading fiction is supposed to lead to enhanced “career and college” readiness. One publisher, Scholastic, is already preparing assorted brochures, catalogs, and even menus to peddle to schools for their required Common Core reading. Will such fare be more likely to produce well-educated Americans than challenging young minds with such works as Don Quixote, Les Miserables, or To Kill a Mockingbird? Recent research by neuroscientists (reported March 17 in the New York Times) has established via brain scans that reading stories with vivid description such as “evocative metaphors” stimulates the brain and sharpens social skills. Actually, common sense should tell us that without a study. A veteran high school English teacher in upstate New York, Jeremiah Chaffee, explained lucidly in the Washington Post’s March 23 “Answer Sheet” blog just how contrary to good teaching some of the early Common Core curriculum prescriptions are. Case in point was a so-called “exemplar” for teachers to use in having students read “The Gettysburg Address.” Among other dubious points, this scripted lesson tells teachers that they may not ask students to read Lincoln’s speech in advance (the better to mimic standardized testing conditions). Furthermore, the exemplar “forbids teachers from asking students if they have ever been to a funeral because such questions rely on individual experience and opinion.” Even more stunningly, it directs teachers to “avoid giving any background context,” so as to remain in conformity with the CC’s cold reading strategy, which “forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all.” Is this the kind of phony egalitarianism that can be expected as the federally subsidized curriculum rolls out? As a teacher, Chaffee finds the ban on context to be baffling. “It is impossible to have any deep understanding of Lincoln’s speech without thinking about the context of the speech: a memorial service,” he notes. As for the “privilege” issue, a teacher cannot command a student who may have read a Lincoln biography or watched a History Channel to develop amnesia. “Attempting to create a shallow and false ‘equality’ between students will in no way help any of them understand Lincoln’s speech,” he observes. On March 23 a New York City public school parents’ blog made similar points about the nationally mandated reading in a scathing blogpost entitled “The depressing idiocy of the Common Core.” Citing education publications, it noted huge publishing companies stand to make big bucks from the enforced shift to informational text, as they did with standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. The Pearson Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also are collaborating on a new digital curriculum that will push the one-size-fits-all Common Core regimen. It will take more than a few brave teachers and parents to preserve individual choice and liberal learning against the nationalizing forces led by the Obama administration, powerful foundations, and even (most recently) the Council on Foreign Relations, which proposes to extend Common Core standardization to all academic disciplines. Local folks will have to get together and speak up when they encounter absurdities such as the reading ukase, and make it clear they demand something better for their children. Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.