The Common Core Rabbit Hole

While prominent conservatives conflate the original philosophy of the Common Core with the Common Core State Standards and chase red herrings over the legality of the their implementation, there are more pressing questions that the Common Core is raising. Namely, how can such an educational strategy be carried out in schools within underachieving black communities?

As was seen during the Rachel Jeantel "creepy ass cracker" episode of the George Zimmerman trial, underachieving black communities in America have their own standards for understanding and interpreting the world around them. But, for the most part, these standards do not necessarily reflect an understanding of or agreement with the core-knowledge ideas of western civilization, which the Common Core advocates.

In addition to the multiple revelations of Ms. Jeantel, the recent provocations of cable-news talkers such as Fox's Bill O'Reilly and CNN's Don Lemon are also helping to push the crude ethics of these communities into the spotlight. O'Reilly and Lemon have insinuated that many of these communities have turned into cultural wastelands where the morals of the people are often at odds with the core values of mainstream society. They are probably right. It seems perfectly logical to assume that most of the ills of black America's underachieving communities stem from one thing in particular: lack of access to a proper education -- in the home and in school -- where common and core knowledge about western civilization and the world at large should be taught profusely and constantly.    

Common Core In Black Underachieving Schools = Ebonics Controversy 2.0

If you don't remember the Black English controversy that culminated into a national fiasco two decades ago, here's a refresher:

In the 1990's the Oakland, California School Board endorsed the use of "Ebonics" (Ebony + Phonics) as a means for teaching Standard English to poor blacks kids. The School Board claimed that Ebonics, also known as, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), was a legitimate and historical dialect of English spoken by over 25,000 of their students. Advocates for the formal teaching of AAVE wanted Congress to appropriate federal funds to schools in order to support AAVE programs for linguistically challenged black students.

The endorsement motivated a fiery nationwide debate and a series of congressional hearings on race and ethnicity. The central issue for the AAVE defenders was that black children who grew up speaking this dialect could not understand Standard English -- and therefore could not perform well in public schools where Standard English was the core language. 

The Ebonics debate was a complete circus, and many black Democrats were shamed into admitting they did not fully understand the depth of the education issues that their constituents were faced with. The embarrassing back peddling of civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson, who at first denounced the AAVE endorsement, but who later recanted, comes to mind.

The AAVE imbroglio represents the type of rabbit hole that Barack Obama and his Department of Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, have decided to lead many unsuspecting public schools superintendents, principals, and teachers down. The Common Core philosophy like the AAVE controversy of two decades ago is sure to expose the alternate universes that many of black America's underachieving communities have been living in for quite some time.

Common Core (CC) vs. Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

Much of the ideology behind the CC is the bequest of education thinkers E.D. Hirsch, Mortimer J. Adler, and Allan Bloom, all of whom began far-reaching public campaigns for the restoration of classical liberal arts standards in American education in the late 70's and early 80's. Mr. Hirsch continues this work through his Core-Knowledge Foundation, which he established in 1986.   

After having done years of K-12 education research, Mr. Hirsch came to discover what traditional educators had known all along: an education grounded in the coherent, integrated, and systematic teaching of facts and background knowledge is compulsory for academic success and cultural literacy.

For years after his discoveries, Mr. Hirsch's ideas continued to be ignored by status-quo education intellectuals, but in the 1990's the state of Massachusetts decided to take a gamble on the type of knowledge-centered and content-rich education model that E.D. Hirsch had been espousing. In 1993, Massachusetts passed its landmark Education Reform Act; and by 1996 Governor William Weld had successfully pushed education reform to the forefront of his state's politics by approving a "common core" like framework that was to be implemented in the state's K-12 public schools.  

By 1998, the Bay State had struck gold. Its new statewide curricula, which had attached to it the rigorous Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams, were a major success. For over 13 years straight, Massachusetts high school students had rising SAT scores; and from 2005-2008, elementary and middle school students began to score highest on National Assessment of Educational Progress exams (NAEP).

As the Massachusetts model continued to garner praise from various education reformers, it was not long before its framework was being seriously considered for use as a national model. The Massachusetts education model was built upon what E.D. Hirsch's Core-Knowledge Foundation and the original ideology of the CC continue to advocate today: unhindered access to a body of common knowledge in literature, history, the sciences, mathematics, and the fine arts for all American children regardless of their ethnic background.

However, this intelligent idea, which essentially gave a much-needed voice to the tried and true model of a classical liberal arts education has been hijacked and distorted by the federal government and various left-wing advocacy groups. The CCSS is an example of this distortion.

Here is a brief time-line of key events that have led to the development and implementation of the CCSS:

1983 - A Nation At Risk; The Imperative for Education Reform is published.

1986 - The Core Knowledge Foundation is established by E.D. Hirsch.

1993 - Massachusetts Education Reform Act is passed.

1996 - Massachusetts Governor William Weld pushes education reform to the forefront of his state's politics by approving a knowledge-centered, content-rich, state-wide curriculum that is endorsed by education reformers such as E.D. Hirsch and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) for use as a model for national curricula.

1998 - First MCAS exams are administered; board of education finds correlation between college success and high MCAS scores.

2002 - George Bush signs No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into law, which is later dubbed as a total failure in the fight for authentic education reform.

2005 - Massachusetts' students (grades 4-8) begin to score highest on NAEP exams; and do so for three years straight.

2007 - CCSS administrators begin hastily developing national academic framework based on the Massachusetts model.

2009 - The Obama administration unveils its "Race to the Top" (RTT) contest.

2010 - CCSS aligned curricula begin to take root in schools nationwide; 45 states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories adopt the CCSS.

2010 - The Obama administration begins to use RTT to entice states into CCSS compliance (although the standards had not been finalized) by awarding amenable states with Title I funding for their low-income schools.  

2013 - First CCSS aligned exams are administered; test scores plummet (as compared to previous state tests under NCLB). In New York, black and Hispanic students score the lowest on the ELA exams as compared to students in the rest of the state. 

As of right now, the CCSS continues to be a poorly thought out patchwork of ideas for an academic framework for the nation's public schools. The ideas are based on an amorphous compilation of core-knowledge philosophy, outdated NCLB aligned teaching standards, and disparate progressive pedagogies from coalitions of educators with dubious academic backgrounds.

However, by law, no state in the Union is required to adopt the CCSS; nor is the CCSS a mandate for a national curriculum for English literacy, history, mathematics, or the sciences.  Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia have opted out, and Minnesota has only adopted the CCSS reading standards.

The Cultural Literacy Debate

Sol Stern, writing for the City Journal, has been following the career of Mr. Hirsch for years. In a recent article, Mr. Stern couldn't help exposing a pattern that has been taking shape even with the best content-rich curricula: although such curricula has helped black children to do better -- as was the case in Massachusetts -- the curricula has not narrowed the achievement gap between white and black students.

The main problem is that the concept of cultural literacy is becoming increasingly difficult to unpack now that American society has become head over heels for runaway multiculturalism. This has led to a great divide between two schools of thought - modern-progressive and classical -- both seeking to define what it means to be culturally literate. It all boils down to these two questions: whose culture should be principally taught in K-12 schools? In other words, why does Thomas Jefferson matter more than Marcus Garvey?  

For over half a century, the multicultural progressives have been winning this debate because they have found ways to link their education philosophies to identity politics. By focusing most of a child's education on social justice themes such as the history of the black-Latino-Jewish-Asian-women-LGBT-etc. struggle, you have a better chance of getting the votes of their parents (who fall into one or more of those categories) during an election. (This is especially true in immigrant communities where first-generation born American children have a great deal of influence over their parents when it comes to interpreting current social and intellectual norms.) In time, these same children grow up to make the political choices that their parents did. It is easy to see how this pattern perpetuates itself.

Here's what this means for children who go to schools in underachieving black communities: they spend an inordinate amount of time learning about cherry-picked episodes in the lives of people like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, but they know nothing about Constantine the Great or John Quincy Adams. So automatically, they have a deficit in terms of their core historical knowledge. The same situation is repeated with their study of literature, art and music history, and yes, even with the sciences and mathematics.

In most of these schools, if the coursework has anything to do with the contributions of Europeans, it is either ignored or handled with a heavy dose of institutional irreverence. However, if the coursework underscores the intellectual or political achievements of non-whites then it treated as sacrosanct. This is how progressive educators make themselves seem "open" and "liberal" to the ideas of non-European cultures.     

Progressives also score more points because their education philosophy rests upon a hodge-podge of groupthink, child-centered, and "fun" learning activities that are meant to, first, motivate kids to want to come to school, and second, have them make coincidental discoveries about the world around them. But the problem with all of this is that the progressive model -- with its games, group projects, and excessive reliance on technology -- does not give children a concrete understanding of the facts of life.

Despite all of this, progressives have found a myriad of creative ways to keep varnishing their lackluster product, much to the delight of their impressionable students. So they win. But black children, who historically have had very few opportunities for anything apart from progressive education, are losing -- and they don't even know it.      

Contrarily, classical educators -- who possess the crown jewels of core-knowledge education -- are not very good at articulating their philosophy to the masses. So they lose. For one thing, although classical educators sit on a treasure trove of stories, ideas, and facts -- the study of which they have turned into the most organized pedagogical framework known to man -- they themselves are not very good at advertising or promoting their product to those outside of their circles.

To make matters worse, classical educators are sometimes confused with classicists, who are often caricatured as highbrow eggheads who sit around writing papers to each other on things like the arcane rituals of the Cult of Dionysius. Some classicists are paid to do this, but that's their job. The job of the classical educator is quite different.

The job of the classical educator is to transmit, intelligently, the enduring core-knowledge ideas and values of his civilization to future generations so that they will one day do the same. G.K. Chesterton once called these core ideas and values "the soul of a society." He was right. And to possess this soul is what it means to be culturally literate.

Why Common Core Philosophy Won't Work In Underachieving Black Communities

One of the reasons behind the profound cultural literacy gap within most of black America is its continued and vehement opposition to the cultural institutions that western civilization has produced. In part, "African-American" is a hyphenated term because -- from slavery to present -- most black Americans see themselves as the ultimate counter-culture to mainstream American values. Most blacks will argue that their right to be treated as full human beings was not initially guaranteed under the Constitution; and that the Declaration of Independence never applied to them. The same blacks will tell you that even after the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution were passed they were still being lynched and burned to death because of the color of their skin. This is all true. So, ostensibly, black America had no choice but to develop their own set of norms for circumventing a world that threatened their very existence.

Because black community has always been diverse, it has found a number of ways to counteract the effects of the historical hardships that it has had to deal with. But for the most part black Americans fall into two main camps: those who unabashedly embrace the institutions and customs of western civilization and what they have to offer, and those who, in varying degrees, reject the propositions of these institutions because they do not see themselves reflected in them.

It will take Herculean efforts for the Common Core philosophy to have long-term success in black underachieving communities. Here are just a few of the obstacles that it must find a way of overcoming:  

  1. Many black Americans are not interested in acquiring core knowledge or becoming culturally literate according to the standards of western civilization. This is especially true when whites champion the acquisition of such knowledge. Assimilating into mainstream western culture is viewed as an affront to blacks' cultural bona fides. 
  2. As the saying goes, "If you want to hide something from a black man put it in a book." The lack of core knowledge within black communities has nothing to do with poverty. It has to do with a culture of intellectual laziness that is passed down from one generation to the next. The intellectual laziness stems from this precedent: from Reconstruction to present, the majority of traditional black Americans have had a lack of access to an authentic classical education that trains the mind to think.
  3. Black rejecters have infiltrated minority public school systems. It's one thing to be a progressive educator, but it's a whole other thing to be a revisionist educator -- which is exactly what these rejecters are. They will work hard to repel the core-knowledge paradigms established by thinkers like E.D. Hirsch.   
  4.  From the phenomenon of "saggin" ("niggas" spelled backwards) to the post-trial gibberish of Rachel Jeantel ("they ole' skool, we new skool"), it is apparent that there is a definitive swath of black America that has reached a point of no return with regards to low cultural standards. The rest of America must be resigned to the possibility that many of these people are irredeemable. They cannot be helped because they do not want to be helped. 

In terms of core knowledge and values, America has become a nation that is at war with itself. This is the other reality that Jeremiah Wright was referring to when he said, "America's chickens are coming home to roost."

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