Saturday, December 8, 2012

Remaking America through Common Core Standards

Back in 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers announced a nation-wide initiative entitled "The Common Core State Standards Initiative." Basically, the idea behind the initiative is to establish nationwide standards for achievement in public schools that fully prepare students for college and/or careers. From the CCSS website:
These standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards: 
  • Are aligned with college and work expectations; 
  • Are clear, understandable and consistent; 
  • Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills; 
  • Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards; 
  • Are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
  • Are evidence-based.
Sounds reasonable. There are two divisions of standards: mathematics and English language arts. The mathematics standards are rigorous and based on the traditional progression of learning from basic number theory--number lines and counting--to advanced theory like algebra and statistics, though there is an added element (at the high school level) wherein mathematics instruction must include applications to real-world issues:
The high school standards emphasize mathematical modeling, the use of mathematics and statistics to analyze empirical situations, understand them better, and improve decisions. For example, the draft standards state: “Modeling links classroom mathematics and statistics to everyday life, work, and decision-making. It is the process of choosing and using appropriate mathematics and statistics to analyze empirical situations, to understand them better, and to improve decisions. Quantities and their relationships in physical, economic, public policy, social and everyday situations can be modeled using mathematical and statistical methods. When making mathematical models, technology is valuable for varying assumptions, exploring consequences, and comparing predictions with data.”
Okay in theory, I guess. But pretty much pointless--and time-consuming--if students are less than successful in grasping the more advanced ideas. Because at the end of the day, one needs to be proficient in algebra, geometry, and statistics before one starts applying them to real world problems.

The standards for English language arts are even more problematic. And more controversial. Recently, there was this story in the Washington Post. From it:
As states across the country implement broad changes in curriculum from kindergarten through high school, English teachers worry that they will have to replace the dog-eared novels they love with historical documents and nonfiction texts...
The new standards, which are slowly rolling out now and will be in place by 2014, require that nonfiction texts represent 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary schools, and the requirement grows to 70 percent by grade 12.
Those percentages are found in this document on page five. And as the above piece indicates, there is some consternation over what will stay and what will go. Because while the standards are voluntary (45 States have adopted the standards), President Obama made them near-mandatory by tying their adoption (or other "approved" standards) to federal education dollars and waivers for NCLB in 2011. And that very much points to what would be a set of nationwide standards, including lists of "approved" books and the like:
Neal McCluskey of the libertarian Cato Institute, said concerns of lawmakers like Haley may have seemed far-fetched a few years ago — states voluntarily signed on to the standards, after all — but Obama's insistence on tying the Common Core to No Child waivers and billions in federal grants shows that "it is not the least bit paranoid" to say the federal government wants a national curriculum.
Thus, the list of reading materials approved in the Common Core State Standards moves to the forefront. First, let's note what the goals are, with regard to English language arts:
  • Through reading a diverse array of classic and contemporary literature as well as challenging informational texts in a range of subjects, students are expected to build knowledge, gain insights, explore possibilities, and broaden their perspective. Because the standards are building blocks for successful classrooms, but recognize that teachers, school districts and states need to decide on appropriate curriculum, they intentionally do not offer a reading list. Instead, they offer numerous sample texts to help teachers prepare for the school year and allow parents and students to know what to expect at the beginning of the year. 
  • The standards mandate certain critical types of content for all students, including classic myths and stories from around the world, foundational U.S. documents, seminal works of American literature, and the writings of Shakespeare. The standards appropriately defer the many remaining decisions about what and how to teach to states, districts, and schools.
Note the second bullet point's quite explicit language: "mandated content." The last bit--about deferring remaining decisions--comes across as hollow, if we take a look at the actual mandated content for grades K-12. The lists are extensive, with subheadings like "poetry," "drama," and "informational texts." There's not a whole lot of room left for additional readings, from what I can see. So what we have here is--given Obama's actions--a federally mandated reading list, a list of what shall be read by students throughout the entirety of their public school careers.

And frankly, that's just stupid. Asinine, even. Why this book and not that book? Who says one has more to teach than the other? Suppose a teacher is more comfortable teaching the material from a no longer approved classic novel? And this is to say nothing of the decrease in literature in order to add more "informational" texts. Who says doing so will improve education, will benefit students in a meaningful--and measurable--way?

Let's look at the actual list for 11-12th grades:
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales.  
  • de Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote.  
  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice.  
  • Poe,Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” 
  • Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter.  
  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment.  
  • Jewett, Sarah Orne. “A White Heron.” 
  • Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor. 
  • Chekhov, Anton. “Home.”  
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 
  • Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. 
  • Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 
  • Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths.” 
  • Bellow, Saul. The Adventures of Augie March.
  • Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye.
  • Garcia, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban.
  • Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet.  
  • Molière, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. Tartuffe.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest.
  • Wilder, Thornton. Our Town: A Play in Three Acts. 
  • Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. 
  • Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. 
  • Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman: A Play
  • Li Po. “A Poem of Changgan.” 
  • Donne, John. “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” 
  •  Wheatley, Phyllis. “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” 
  • Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” 
  •  Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” 
  •  Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” 
  •  Tagore, Rabindranath. “Song VII.” 
  • Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” 
  • Pound, Ezra. “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” 
  • Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” 
  •  Neruda, Pablo. “Ode to My Suit.” 
  •  Bishop, Elizabeth. “Sestina.” 
  • Ortiz Cofer, Judith. “The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica.” 
  • Dove, Rita. “Demeter’s Prayer to Hades.” 
  • Collins, Billy. “Man Listening to Disc.”
Informational texts: english Language arts
  • Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. 
  • Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence. 
  • United States. The Bill of Rights (Amendments One through Ten of the United States Constitution). 
  •  Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Society and Solitude.” 
  • Porter, Horace. “Lee Surrenders to Grant, April 9th, 1865.” 
  •  Chesterton, G. K. “The Fallacy of Success.” 
  • Mencken, H. L. The American Language, 4th Edition. 
  • Wright, Richard. Black Boy.
  • Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” 
  • Hofstadter, Richard. “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth.” 
  • Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” 
  •  Anaya, Rudolfo. “Take the Tortillas Out of Your Poetry.”
Informational texts: History/social studies
  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 
  • Declaration of Sentiments by the Seneca Falls Conference. 
  • Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852.” 
  • An American Primer. Edited by Daniel J. Boorstin.
  • Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe. “Education.” 
  • McPherson, James M. What They Fought For 1861–1865.
  • The American Reader: Words that Moved a Nation, 2nd Edition. 
  • Amar, Akhil Reed. America’s Constitution: A Biography. 
  • McCullough, David. 1776. 
  • Bell, Julian. Mirror of the World: A New History of Art.
  • FedViews by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
Informational texts: science, mathematics, and technical subjects .
  • Paulos, John Allen. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. 
  • Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. 
  • Tyson, Neil deGrasse. “Gravity in Reverse: The Tale of Albert Einstein’s ‘Greatest Blunder.’” 
  • Calishain, Tara, and Rael Dornfest. Google Hacks: Tips & Tools for Smarter Searching, 2nd Edition. 
  • Kane, Gordon. “The Mysteries of Mass.” 
  •  Fischetti, Mark. “Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control.” 
  • U.S. General Services Administration. Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management. 
  • Kurzweil, Ray. “The Coming Merger of Mind and Machine.” 
  • Gibbs, W. Wayt. “Untangling the Roots of Cancer.” 
  • Gawande, Atul. “The Cost Conundrum: Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas.”
Now that's a pretty full plate. I'm not prepared to suggest there is some sort of nefarious plot here, that this list amounts to an indoctrination of sorts into a particular category of group think, but here's the problem: once the standards are in place and informing education nation-wide, what's to prevent those in charge of setting them from arbitrarily removing a given text so as to replace it with a "better" one? Plus--again--there is the issue of what has been sacrificed in order to expand the "informational" reading lists. Why is it better for students to read Executive Order 13423 than for them to read Henry Miller's play "The Crucible" or J.D. Salinger's novel Catcher in the Rye?

Student A, who shows a particular aptitude for environmental engineering, might very well benefit from a deeper exploration of EPA standards. But Student B, who excels at creative endeavors, might benefit more from reading and studying Miller's play. Moreover, students in Arizona might have strong reasons to delve more into Spanish and Mexican literature, while Students in Maine might benefit more from nautical-themed readings, fictional or non-fictional.

But for me, the most disappointing element of the lists is the continued presence of Thoreau's Walden. If any book deserves to find it's way out of school curricula, it is that one. But I digress.

The point is, there's nothing wrong with designing these kind of standards as general guidelines to help States manage their education systems. But once they become mandatory in fact or in practice via the Federal Government, they create a whole host of problems. Big problems. Critical problems. Because it's simply not the purview of the feds to establish such standards. Maybe the Constitution--and not just the Bill of Rights--needs to be on the list...

Cheers, all.


  1. It's pretty frightening to think that kids in Maine and kids in Utah and kids in Mississippi and kids in Oregon will all be reading the same few books. When they some day get together and sit down to compare what they've learned and what they know it will be exactly the same. Then again, maybe that's what the government wants.

  2. It's a narrowing down of the mind set and opinions of the people. It is basically turning everyone into robots and putting them all into the same box so that they will do, say and think as the government wants them to. Sound familiar?