It is often difficult to find agreement between conservatives and liberals in the current American political climate, but an unlikely alliance has been made between forces on the left and the right against Common Core. As a teacher, I find this an unfortunate turn of events.
There is irony in that nearly every Republican candidate running for office is now against the Common Core, particularly considering that some of those candidates played an instrumental role in crafting and implementing the new education standards. Conservative activists and pundits have completely forgotten the actual origins of the national framework, fueling opposition to their very own program. The Brown Center for Education Policy published a paper detailing the conservative roots of Common Core, specifying some uncomfortable truths about the conservative foundations of the standards. They wrote:
In 2015, most GOP presidential candidates, as well as many Tea Party leaders, appear to have all but forgotten the conservative principles for the study of content-rich curriculum and foundational texts in civics that Secretary Bennett promoted. The Common Core State Standards are only the second set of state learning standards to explicitly call on educators to develop and use a “content-rich curriculum” in the classroom, but one wouldn’t know it from the wild claims made about the standards by a number of Republican presidential candidates. (Massachusetts was the first state to explicitly call for content-rich curriculum in state standards.) As Jeb Bush has pointed out, the CCSS literacy standards “require students to make arguments with evidence rather than just restate their own opinions and experiences.” Yet many of the GOP candidates seem to have no idea that the Common Core espouses classic conservative principles for developing literacy in American history and civics.
Many on the left were rightfully cautious of the impetus behind Common Core. The corporate connections between the program and its backers have been documented extensively. Morna McDermott mapped the initiative’s corporate links, focusing specifically on the role that the Koch brothers’ organization, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has played in disseminating Common Core. The corporate origins of the standards cannot be ignored, but as voices on the left begin to grow in opposition to the framework, it should not result in an abandonment of Common Core’s critical-minded approach to student learning. By joining in unison with conservative activists calling for the abandonment of the standards, we are working against the establishment of critical thinking objectives beneficial to our students and our nation.
It’s important to differentiate between the Common Core’s standards and curriculum. The standards are benchmarks students are required to demonstrate to measure mastery of specific skills. For example, my 8th grade students will be expected to “Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.1) and “Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.1). These expectations for developing critical thinking skills should not be seen as incendiary by any political stripe. In fact, these very underpinnings are the foundations to conservative Catholic and Jewish models of education.
Pundits and politicians have heavily influenced public understanding of curriculum related to Common Core with little connection to the facts. The Brown Center report states:
The problem is not simply that outlandish, paranoid claims about the Common Core are rampant on the far right (e.g., that the Common Core calls for iris scans of children and facial recognition technology to read students’ minds, that it promotes communism, homosexuality, gay marriage, teaches children Islamic vocabulary, advances global warming propaganda, equates George Washington with Palestinian terrorists, indoctrinates children into the New World Order, data-tracks students from kindergarten on, etc.). The problem instead is that the norm of public understanding of the Common Core bears little connection to the standards themselves.
A December 2014 national survey from Fairleigh Dickinson University found that two-thirds of Americans erroneously believe that sexual education, global warming, evolution, and/or the American Revolution are included in the common core. Only about one in ten Americans know these four subjects are not part of the Common Core (though the Common Core standards do require high school students to read the Declaration of Independence, and the Preamble and Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution).
These inaccurate assumptions about the actual content being taught in classrooms have resulted in a backlash against the framework that needs to be contested. Ironically, many schools have opted for a far more scripted pedagogy than the liberal free-for-all envisioned by conservative activists. Diane Ravitch, an education historian and opponent of the corporate influence over the education-reform movement, noted:
In some states, teachers say that the lessons are scripted and deprive them of their professional autonomy, the autonomy they need to tailor their lessons to the needs of the students in front of them. Behind the Common Core standards lies a blind faith in standardization of tests and curriculum, and perhaps, of children as well.
As teachers, we must oppose the boisterous emphasis placed on testing, but the scenario painted by Ravitch is the very thing Common Core standards should undermine. How can students be expected to think critically if their teachers are forced into a factory-like setting that requires little thought and engagement on their instructor’s part? Paradoxically, schools adopting this scripted approach in the name of Common Core actually undermine the framework’s objectives.
When Common Core is applied properly in a school, it can be liberating for teachers and students alike. In my 8th grade humanities classroom, students have pondered the purpose of government while engaging with primary and secondary sources ranging from John Locke and Thomas Hobbes to Carl Schmitt, Howard Zinn and St. Benedict of Nursia. They apply these thinkers to challenging social problems facing our people today, developing skills applicable to any field of study they pursue in the future. Students do not parrot ideological talking points, but cultivate their own positions grounded on their reading of the texts in question. For these aims to be achieved, it requires that administrators and parents put faith in a school’s teachers to provide a balanced and critical framework for student learning. Our school is proud of our program and the results it produces in student knowledge and engagement, and it would be remiss to see the critical thinking component present in the Common Core standards washed away in the hysteria surrounding the framework.
Education activists on the left and right should oppose top-down reforms of our education system and work to empower local communities to develop curriculum based on the culture of those residents. Yet, the standards rooted in critical thinking and application should be expected and required at all learning institutions across the nation. If those standards are in place and truly addressed, parents and students of any philosophical orientation will find something to support in their local schools.
As teachers, we need to be advocating for a classroom environment that is engaging and challenging. Classrooms need to be places where students decipher and analyze texts they would not elsewhere. By instilling critical thought at the center of our classroom’s learning expectations, we help craft an educated and engaged citizenry that can address the problems facing our nation and world today. The Common Core allows for that, and should not be abandoned by educators, administrators and parents, even if elements of its framework (such as its corporate ties and testing structure) require resistance.