Is Common Core ‘Rigorous,’ Or More Nearly The Opposite?

Published December 23, 2013

So often do avid boosters such as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush extol the national standards for K-12 education as “rigorous,” it would be easy to conclude the adjective had become part of the name: The Rigorous Common Core State Standards.

Google searches of “rigorous” and “Common Core” produce millions of hits. Hundreds of newspaper stories on the impending full-scale rollout of these standards and linked tests in local schools routinely describe the CCSS as rigorous.

Even if they were intellectually rigorous, these unitary standards would imperil individual liberty, parental rights, and local stewardship of education because they define official knowledge that will be subject to boundless political manipulation.

But are these standards for English and mathematics actually rigorous?

If they are, it is only because proponents have “redefined the term,” academic scholar Jane Robbins said in an interview. “You and I think of it [rigor] as requiring a student to demonstrate a high level of academic knowledge. That’s not what they mean. They’re thinking of something infinitely more subjective, such as application to real-world situations, problem-solving, and so forth.”

So just as “relevance” once was the educationese buzzword du jour, “rigor” is now. In fact, one citadel of progressive education has even concocted a tedious “Rigor/Relevance Framework” for pondering cosmic issues.

So-called “critical thinking” is central to all this, and it inevitably appears in breathless accounts of how Common Core will shun lectures and memorization and have kids instead dissect complex issues and arrive at their own opinions, informed or otherwise.

Robbins, who has analyzed Common Core extensively as a senior fellow for the American Principles Project, emphasizes “this is not to be confused with ‘analytical thinking,’ which is logical and linear. Instead, it [critical thinking] means examining a question from all conceivable angles, such as point of view, power structures, and fairness.”

When the first Common Core-linked tests were administered in New York and Kentucky, student scores fell precipitously (some 30 points) from levels on the previous knowledge-based testing. That led Secretary Duncan to sing praises for the New Rigor while chiding critics as “white suburban moms” who were miffed their children supposedly were exposed as not so smart after all.

That ignores an obvious alternative explanation: the Core is more convoluted and frustrating, especially for primary-age children, than previous curricula, and it’s not more rigorous in imparting basic knowledge. Consider whether these examples of CCSS wisdom seem infused with rigor, or for that matter, common sense:

  • A Common Core teachers’ guide gives teachers a 29-page script for teaching ninth and 10th graders to read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Strangely enough, it directs teachers to have students read the address strictly as a piece of isolated text without any shred of context, such as that President Lincoln was speaking at a funeral in Pennsylvania in the middle of the Civil War. That seems stupid, not rigorous.
  • The reverence for “informational text” shines through in the CCSS mandating nonfictional material (including workplace and governmental boilerplate) consume an increasing quantity of reading that might otherwise have been devoted to classic literature, leading to a 70 percent text quota by the high-school years. Technocrats egotistical enough to prescribe such a universal formula for student reading material obviously have little use for the humanities.
  • Speaking of formulas, the CCSS remarkably draws on the convoluted Lexile methodology that uses sentence length and vocabulary to score texts from least to most complex. In a withering critique in the October 29 issue of The New Republic, University of Iowa English prof. Blaine Greteman exposed numerous absurdities of such a rating system—for example, that Huckleberry Finn isn’t Lexile-complex enough for ninth-graders, but Sports Illustrated for Kids’ Awesome Athletes! is. Greteman concluded Lexile scoring “is the intellectual equivalent of the thermometer; perfect for cooking turkeys, but not for encouraging moral growth.”
  • As for Common Core math, even its lead writers have conceded these “college- and career-ready” standards, if followed strictly by participating states, would not prepare students for the truly rigorous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors in universities. Ending after Algebra II, with little trigonometry and no pre-calculus, CCSS basically is geared to the entry level of nonselective community colleges.

It is easy to understand why the anti-knowledge educationists who dominate schools of education would love Common Core. It breathes new life into their feelings-dominated fads that have crippled public education for more than 50 years. What is mystifying is why some supposedly hardnosed business CEOs and political conservatives are on board this bandwagon.

[Originally published on Human Events]