It was a sneaky idea — and sneaky ideas in American public policy tend to have exactly the life span that Common Core has had.
The core sneakiness of the Common Core is that it was (and still is) presented as a state-level project when it was from the get-go intended to be a national project.
The proponents of the Common Core insist, often vehemently, that it is simply a set of “standards” and not a “curriculum.” It is, in fact, very much a curriculum. The sneakiness in this case is again aimed at getting around legal barriers that prohibit federal efforts to establish curricula, but the sneakiness is also aimed at diverting teachers and the public from the truth. The Common Core standards are finely detailed, grade-by-grade specifications for what should be taught, how it should be taught and when it should be taught.
Perhaps the strongest proof that the “standards” are a curriculum in disguise comes at the next layer of sneakiness, the Common Core-aligned tests. For no matter how creative teachers are in supplementing what the Common Core standards mandate, in the end, they have to prepare their students for the tests, and the testmakers have no interest in anything teachers add to the Core.
The content of the exams, of course, inevitably drives what the teachers teach. That’s because the teachers want their students to succeed, but it is also because the teachers themselves will be rewarded or punished on the basis of how well their students perform on the tests.
And what is on those tests?
The creators of Common Core said that mathematics should be matched to “pragmatic analysis” of what people actually need when they enter the workforce. We shouldn’t waste time and efort teaching math that people won’t use later.
Mathematics standards should be chosen to “dramatically” raise “the number and diversity of students performing at the highest levels.” To accomplish this would require lowering the definition of “the highest levels.”
The rhetorical trickery is immediately recognizable. If we define mountains to be elevations of 100 feet above sea level, lots more people can proudly declare themselves to be living on mountaintops. What drove this chicanery was the search for a shortcut to solving the achievement gap between various ethnic groups.
In other words, the Common Core takes its origins in what President George W. Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” If our primary concern should be to boost the numbers of students who pass eighth-grade mathematics, then the Common Core could well be the ticket. If our primary concern should be to foster the intellectual achievement of all students to the highest levels they are capable of attaining, then the Common Core is probably not the route forward.
When it comes to reading, meanwhile, the Common Core puts a huge emphasis on teaching children to read for “information.” It does that by putting literature in modest quantities in the primary grades and tapering it off until by the end of high school it is a negligible part of the curriculum. Poetry is especially hard-hit.
The Common Core essentially puts imaginative literature on the far side of a hill and leaves students mostly with what the standards writers call “informational texts.” Works of literature that have endured for generations (think of “Huckleberry Finn”) aren’t banished but fade into relative insignificance.
I don’t celebrate local control of schools as a glorious thing. I’ve seen schools be run into the ground by inept local control. I’ve seen many other schools content in proud mediocrity. But state and local control can also ignite excellence, and I prefer the chances it offers of that to the dead certainty of the Common Core.
We won’t squeeze better educational “performance” from students by imposing a national regimen of standards and tests but will instead breed a deeper alienation and lassitude by taking away — or at least shrinking — the imaginative horizons of students, parents, teachers and the communities in which they live.
What is truly common and at the core of American life is our sense of freedom and self-governance. The Common Core is at war with those ideals.
Peter W. Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars. Excerpted from “Common Core Yea and Nay” by Encounter Books