The Common Core: Something to Like and Loathe

There’s a lot of hyperbole surrounding the Common Core, whether it’s teachers unions bellyaching about tests, or those on the right warning of subterfuge socialist agendas. And then there are more establishment types like Jeb Bush and former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett who defend it, seemingly with little information about the practical implications of the standards. I have always approached the issue with an open mind, similar to Shakespeare’s Juliet: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move.” And yet I find something to like and loath.

The Common Core doesn’t care about a student’s opinion. Perhaps that sounds provocative. But there is an emphasis in the Common Core on the “text itself,” rather than the annoying progressive education doctrine of having students relate everything to their own lives. This progressive belief presupposes that students only can take an active interest in matters which touch upon their immediate (and limited) experience. Nonsense. It’s much better to challenge one to forget about their ego for a moment and engage with the content at hand. 

The practice material from PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), the Common Core test made by behemoth educational publishing company Pearson, suggests that students should not even offer an opinion on the ideas expressed in a text. At any rate, on the practice tests I note that they aren’t asked for their opinion. Instead, they have to show that they understand what they read. 

Here is a touch of authoritarianism, and I dare say that it is welcome. It is in itself a reaction to the uberliberalism of public schools.Heretofore K-12 schools tended to focus exclusively on the subjective experience of the precious student. Instead, it’s just the facts, ma’am. No one cares if your mom is your hero, or any other irrelevant personal anecdote.   

Also on the positive side, the founding fathers are back in the curriculum, and they make this reappearance uncompromised. The Common Core has a celebratory stance towards the founding of the country and the men who were the brains behind it. This means reading the Declaration of Independence in depth, in English class, mind you. Needless to say, the founding documents and other classic literature are juxtaposed with copious multicultural filler. But this a teacher with any level of autonomy can blithely skip over. 

How teachers will treat the revolutionary texts remains an open question. Doubtless there will be myriad approaches, ranging from reverence to mockery. Will the teachers harp on the Declaration of Independence’s hypocritical call for equality? Will they blush at Thomas Jefferson referring to the Native Americans as “savages”? Surely many will. But there is nothing in the standards themselves or in any PARCC material publicly available to suggest that the Common Core advocates a critical stance towards our country’s founding.

At any rate, the Common Core has established the importance of the founding documents. It’s almost as though we have said as a country that our founding matters and its citizens should actually know about it. Isn’t that an amazing gesture of self-confidence from our politically correct elites? This is an unqualified check in the benefits column of the Common Core ledger.    

Then there are things to loathe: fuzzy math. How can Bill Bennett ignore all these hysterically funny, and actually kind of scary, examples of simple addition problems being turned into trigonometry? Check out 26 +17 the hard way. “Make a ten” seems to be the mantra. Strange and pointless. To be fair, Bennett denied these new “innovations,” shall we say, have anything to do with the Common Core, as they are not to be found in the standards themselves. But isn’t it a little suspicious that we find these ridiculous teaching methods manifest in concert with the establishment of the Common Core? Can that be a coincidence? 

There is a reason behind this madness: progressives hate memorization. The Common Core approach to math is to find “holistic” ways of basic arithmetic. It’s the kind of thing which is so dumb that you have to have gone to a fancy school to believe in it. Just be glad you’re not being subjected to this, and that you learned math the traditional way.  

Also on the negative side of the Common Core ledger: teacher “accountability.” I’m against “holding teachers accountable.” That is to say that I oppose what that phrase connotes, rather than the principle of accountability per se. Common Core is associated with a testing regime that will ultimately be used to evaluate teachers. Teach in the ghetto? Then this is bad news for you, sir. Unless you pull a Michelle Rhee and join a conspiracy to change students’ bubble answers, that is. Of course, another Erasuregate will be more difficult with computer-based tests.

Teacher “accountability” implies a utopian belief in the ability of teachers to affect their students’ test scores to an extent that no study has shown to be possible, despite the free market gospel on this matter. Granted, it can be very motivating to think that your job is on the line based on your students’ test scores. Perhaps you will feel a fire in the belly that was not there before; this I am willing to concede. But ultimately your efforts will be in vain, because the student is who he is, with the brain that he entered class with, at the end of the day.The scores will hardly budge.

The Common Core “raises standards.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t make anyone smarter. Raising standards actually just makes more people fail (see New York’s 70 percent failure rate on the PARCC). Diane Ravitch has opined rather bluntly that most students will fail the Common Core test. 

It’s lovely to have high standards, but a lack of high standards or high expectations is not what ails American education. In fact, I am willing to bet that most teachers err towards having expectations that are too high. The result is students who are confused. This confusion caused by reading relatively sophisticated literature cannot be addressed, I would contend, by making test questions more ponderous. 

To be clear, I say let’s keep the classics and let’s hold the line on Shakespeare. But let’s not for a second delude ourselves when it comes to the diminishing intellectual returns which our investment in the country’s youth yields. It could be students’ obsession with their phones and social media, or the changing demographics, but I can assure you that standards cannot conceivably be raised at this juncture.  

The Common Core is a muddle. It’s not quite a socialist plot a la Mark Levin (I’m just guessing that he’s said something like that). But it’s certainly not all positive either. You’ve got some nice traditional notions in the Common Core, mixed in with some nauseating progressive education ideas, and some utopian thinking as a spice. This is perhaps an inevitable product of our “hodgepodge” culture, totally lacking in any unifying idea of what or who we should be. 

Malcolm Unwell is an English teacher under the Common Core regime. Contact him via email

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