This two-part article appears in the spring 2013 issue of Academic Questions (volume 26, number 1), the journal of the National Association of Scholars.
Jane Robbins is a senior fellow with the American Principles Project, 1420 K Street, NW #300, Washington, DC 20005; firstname.lastname@example.org. In this position, she has crafted federal and state legislation designed to restore the constitutional autonomy of states and parents in education policy, and to protect the rights of religious freedom and conscience. Her essays on these topics have been published in various print and online media including Public Discourse and the New York Post.
The advent of the Common Core State Standards has prompted a new discussion about how to produce students who are “college- and career-ready.” But this question differs from the one that governed education throughout most of our history. We used to ask, what should a student know to become an educated citizen? Education would prepare one for college or career, certainly, but, more broadly, for life. What vision of education are we now advancing? As with parents and state legislators, academia has been largely excluded from this discussion.
The Common Core Standards are a set of K–12 school standards in English language arts and mathematics, created over the last five years by a D.C.-based nonprofit called Achieve, Inc., and released under the auspices of two private trade associations—the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Although the federal government did not draft the standards, President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have enthusiastically embraced them as the key to what one CCSSO official described as “transforming” American education. These and other Common Core proponents advocate a single set of standards—and inevitably a single curriculum—implemented throughout the nation and controlled by experts in Washington. To this end, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) offered states the chance to compete for Race to the Top money, and a better chance at receiving a No Child Left Behind “flexibility” waiver, if they would adopt Common Core. Currently, forty-five states and the District of Columbia have done so.
Common Core supposedly will enable students to transition “seamlessly” to college or work and ultimately “compete in the global economy.” What this actually means is that students will be trained for jobs—a concept recycled from earlier Progressive theory but given a new twist. The new standards extend the “school to work” idea beyond the longstanding practice of providing vocational education alternatives for students not inclined to pursue a four-year college degree; instead, they dictate that even the academic English curriculum be recreated along more utilitarian lines. Whether this experiment will achieve the goal is doubtful; whether the goal itself is worthy seems not to have been considered.
In the English curriculum, Common Core will also focus less on “knowledge” and more on “critical thinking” and “higher-order thinking skills.” This lofty language, long trumpeted by Progressive educators, may advance a political agenda more than it does effective education. Quite simply, Common Core is a radical redirection of American education.
A Brief History
Under the Constitution, education is a state and local responsibility. But beginning with the Johnson administration, the federal government shook off the constitutional constraints on its involvement in education policy. Through the establishment of the DOE in 1979 and the passage of a multiplicity of statutes since, the federal government sought to control the reins of K–12 education. Henceforth schools would be increasingly held accountable to the federal government, not to parents and local communities. (The question whether education nationwide has improved or deteriorated under federal control is generally avoided.)
As federal control increased, so did the influence of the early twentieth-century Progressives, who believed that the economy (and society) should be centrally managed and directed by experts. Education became an important strand in this theory. Expanding on—and perhaps warping—the belief of iconic Progressive educator John Dewey in “teaching through occupations,” the heirs to Progressive thought decided that education should be reshaped to be utilitarian: designed to produce not more complete people, but more useful people.
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and a member of the Common Core Initiative’s development team, laid out this concept in a revealing letter to Hillary Clinton shortly after the 1992 election. In this letter (read into the Congressional Record by Congressman Bob Schaffer), Tucker advocated going beyond the idea of separate vocational schools, and instead “remold[ing] the entire American system” into “a seamless web that literally extends from cradle to grave.” This web would be “coordinated by “a system of labor market boards at the local, state and federal levels” where counselors would engage in “job matching” by “accessing the integrated computer-based program.”
President Clinton embraced at least parts of Tucker’s philosophy, as did Congress, during the 1990s. One result was the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. This statute established a “public workforce system” under which the U.S. Department of Labor divided states into “workforce areas” to be facilitated by local “workforce investment boards.” Through this system, employers theoretically could get information about and access to the “workers” they needed.
Of course, this vision required linkage to the public education system. To that end, the federal government promoted three statutes: School-To-Work Opportunities, Goals 2000, and Improving America’s Schools. These statutes focused on how to train students—primarily middle to high school studentsbut even extending into the elementary grades—for the workforce and to compete in the “global economy.” Though steps toward Tucker’s vision, all three statutes were ultimately superseded by the second President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Nonetheless, NCLB itself accepted much of the philosophy underlying its predecessor statutes, and some of the concepts instituted in the 1990s, such as “career pathways” for all high school students, survive and are being revitalized by the current DOE in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Utilitarianism Meets Progressive Politics
As Tucker and colleagues worked to convert schools into workforce training academies, leftists in academia devoted their attention to ensuring that students embraced the correct beliefs. Terrorist turned education professor William Ayers and Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, among others, have labored for decades to create schools and curricula that teach “social justice” and multiculturalism. Darling-Hammond is now coordinating development of the content specifications for one set of Common Core-aligned assessments.
The philosophy of John Dewey underlies this theory of politicized education. Dewey discouraged the teaching of “facts” in favor of the Rousseauean vision of allowing the child to discover knowledge through his own experience, working with others as members of a self-directed learning community. He emphasized “[t]he development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good.”
Dewey also believed that children should be liberated from the “prejudices” of their parents and the strictures of religion. Education should “socialize” them to accept state-approved values unencumbered by parental miseducation and superstition. Dewey’s modern followers have assumed the mantle of student socialization.
So we have here two related but separate strains of thought—educating the workforce and shaping students to accept particular ideas and beliefs. Common Core represents a convergence of the two. This is especially apparent in the English language arts (ELA) standards.
Common Core—English Education with a New Purpose
The objections to Common Core are many, including the unconstitutionality of nationalizing education, the use of political coercion to ensure state adoption, the illegality of imposing the national curriculum that the standards will inevitably entail, and the loss of local and parental control over children’s education. But even if none of these problems existed, the philosophy behind the standards should alarm Americans who reject an education system designed to produce right-thinking cogs for the economic machine.
The ELA standards will supposedly redirect the focus of K–12 English education from “memorizing facts” to more meaningful development of “critical thinking” and “higher order” skills. This redirection, it is claimed, will result in more “rigorous” demands on students and better prepare them for the needs of twenty-first-century jobs. But under this model, the vague notion of critical thinking seems to replace the requirement that students accumulate real knowledge of the subject matter. Whether this increases “rigor” may depend on who is defining the term.
With few exceptions, the ELA standards do not require students to develop knowledge of any particular literary works (for example, other than a bit of Shakespeare, the standards completely dispense with British literature). Dr. Sandra Stotsky, who served on the Common Core Validation Committee but refused to sign off on the ELA standards, has expressed concern about their content-free nature. Stotsky describes them as developing “empty skill sets,” such as the ability to discern the main idea in a literary work—a skill, she wryly points out, that can be employed on Moby Dick or The Three Little Pigs. Common Core expresses no preference.
Common Core proponents note that the standards do require some exposure to classic American literature and foundational American documents. In fact, they argue, the new standards may restore some classics to their proper position after decades of official preference for popular literature that will supposedly engage students saturated in shallow pop culture. But even if Common Core contained any mechanism to ensure these classics would actually be taught—it does not—other parts of the ELA standards practically ensure that they will not be, at least not in any depth.
The reason is Common Core’s radical diminution of the time that can be spent on any literature, classic or otherwise. Instead, the ELA standards dictate that English teachers should focus much more on informational texts such as nonfiction tracts and technical manuals—perhaps 50 percent or more of the English curriculum.  A teacher who is directed to devote at least half of class time to nonfiction, including nonfiction from other disciplines such as science and technical subjects, will simply not have time to teach Melville, Twain, Hawthorne, and Dickinson in any meaningful way. Thus does English education become less academic, and less about English.
The shift away from literature and toward informational texts reinforces the principle that education—even English education—should be geared toward practical workforce development. Another result, as we shall see, is to pave the way for the introduction of state-approved values.
Under the workforce development model, Paradise Lost has less value than a technical tract that may be useful on the student’s job someday. If students are to become “career-ready” and able to compete in the “global economy,” there is no time to waste on frills.
Unfortunately, this view also appeals to many pragmatic “conservatives,” who have drawn the wrong conclusion from the steady decline of educational outcomes as control has shifted to the federal government, and as curriculum has been watered down to introduce popular works at the expense of classic literature. Rather than return to what worked in the past, these conservatives argue, we must refocus curriculum on what will get our poorly educated students a job. As one (conservative Republican) state education official opined, “Reading Shakespeare won’t help a kid fill out a job application.”
The creators of the ELA standards claim that reading more nonfiction will require students to handle greater text complexity and thus make them better readers. Not only are there no academic studies supporting this claim, but as Dr. Mark Bauerlein and Dr. Stotsky have shown, the opposite is true: “classic literary texts pose strong challenges in vocabulary, structure, style, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony.” Bauerlein and Stotsky cogently argue that to boost college-readiness, study of classic literature should be increased rather than diminished.
This position is validated by the Massachusetts experience. Massachusetts rejected the workforce training model in 1993, embracing instead a reading curriculum rich in high-quality literature. This curriculum was incorporated even into the vocational high schools, so that students who chose that path would still be expected—allowed—to explore the classics. The result? Massachusetts SAT scores rose for thirteen consecutive years beginning in 1993, and Massachusetts students routinely scored highest in the nation on national reading tests. Sadly, this was before Massachusetts jettisoned its standards in favor of Common Core.
But whether or not it “works,” the Common Core ELA philosophy diminishes the rich benefits that all students gain from studying great literature: understanding bedrock themes and challenges that underlie all of human experience; considering differing perspectives and points of view; vicariously learning empathy and prudential decision-making; appreciating, and perhaps emulating, the well-crafted phrase, sentence, and paragraph; and exploring places and times other than their own. Under Common Core, there will be less time for literary journeys such as these. They will not help a kid fill out a job application.
Not only does classic literature take a back seat to informational texts, but the entire Common Core approach to the study of English is cramped, desiccated. David Coleman, the guiding force behind the ELA standards, is fond of saying that “students should read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.” They should be presented with a text and told to examine it, without context but, of course, “critically.” No effort should be made by the teacher to bring the text to life; that might interfere with critical close reading.
Consider this Common Core training session for teaching the Gettysburg Address. The teacher attendees were instructed to present the text “cold,” with no historical context, no understanding of the purpose of the address, no reference to the scriptural allusions, and no dramatic reading of the speech. Under Common Core, the Gettysburg Address is a collection of sentences, no more, and students who can stay awake during the arid class are to parse the sentences, in a knowledge-free zone, and think critically about them.
The slant of the ELA standards away from knowledge and toward “critical thinking” is also evident from the recommendations of informational texts to be studied. These recommendations are heavily weighted toward short documents or excerpts from longer documents. Should students read entire books? This is generally unnecessary, apparently, to get the flavor of the work and to have something to think critically about. Will Fitzhugh of The Concord Review notes this truncating feature of Common Core:
[L]et us consider saving students more time from their fictional non-informational text readings (previously known as literature) by cutting back on the complete novels, plays and poems formerly offered in our high schools. For instance, instead of Pride and Prejudice (the whole novel), students could be asked to read Chapter Three. Instead of the complete Romeo and Juliet, they could read Act Two, Scene Two, and in poetry, instead of a whole sonnet, perhaps just alternate stanzas could be assigned. In this way, they could get the “gist” of great works of literature, enough to be, as it were, “grist” for their deeper analytic cognitive thinking skill mills.
A member of the “Implementing Common Core Standards” team at the Center for Teaching Quality argues that excerpts can be as educational as complete works:
Not every student needs to read every word of every work. We can pull essential excerpts and examine them in small chunks—words, phrases, sentences—asking students to wrestle meaning from the text.
It is unclear how students can “wrestle meaning” from “words” or “phrases” wrenched cleanly from their context.
This teacher then highlights (approvingly) another feature of the ELA standards: “we can mix whole-work studies with an examination of shorter works or excerpts along with students’ main mode of discourse, non-print media.” Dr. Mary Grabar reports on New York City’s new “Core-Aligned Task” for eleventh- and twelfth-graders, in which the “texts” the students examine are photo essays and audio clips. The students write a short essay about these materials, but they are not asked to read any actual words on an actual page. The idea, apparently, is that modern jobs are more likely to involve nonprint media, so better to focus on that than on the distraction of real literary works.
In some Common Core school districts, English teachers are being instructed to teach writing in 140-character chunks—because the students’ future jobs will probably require them to use Twitter. Even if it were wise to embrace fads rather than knowledge (will Twitter be obsolete by the time these students enter the workforce?), this job-centered approach demonstrates breathtaking disregard for the craft, and occasional majesty, of English communication.
Reviewing this desolate landscape, Dr. Anthony Esolen warns about the results of this kind of “education”:
Frankly, I do not wish to be governed by people whose minds and hearts have been stunted by a strictly utilitarian miseducation….Do not train them to become apparatchiks in a vast political and economic system, but raise them to be human beings, honoring what is good and right, cherishing what is beautiful, and pledging themselves to their families, their communities, their churches, and their country.
But in Common Core English classes, students are to be discouraged from accepting any traditional view of what is good or right or beautiful. Many of the informational texts marketed to align with Common Core will promote government-approved values that may or may not align with those of students’ families and their faith. Thus reappears Dewey’s vision of using schools for “social engineering”—“the substitute for traditional religion.”
The slant of numerous Common Core-aligned, informational text lesson plans churned out by educational publishers is markedly left of center (not surprising, since many of the Progressives who drafted the standards have decamped to more lucrative positions with educational publishers). Grabar gives examples of such new instructional models: a study of excerpts from documents designed to equalize blame for the Cold War, a book and teaching guide theorizing that J. Edgar Hoover’s “irrational” fear of communist infiltration stemmed from his repressed homosexuality, a lesson series designed to have students write essays focusing on the oppressed and “function[ing] as calls to action.” Through the informational texts, the ELA standards may not be as “content-free” after all—they merely substitute a different kind of content.
The Effect on Higher Education
If K–12 education is to be transformed by Common Core, so, inevitably, must higher education. The stated goal of the federally funded consortia creating Common Core-aligned tests, and of the National Governors Association, which owns the standards, is to have colleges and universities agree to accept a particular test score as sufficient to place a student directly into freshman courses, without remediation. Indeed, the federal testing consortia required member states to secure such commitments from their public institutions of higher education. And what if these students turn out to be unprepared? Then, warns one of the consortia—if “these courses assume mathematics or English-language arts knowledge and skills that are not part of the standards”—professors will have “exciting opportunities” to “reassess their own curricula for…general education in light of these new common state benchmarks.” Institutions that decline these exciting opportunities should expect federal pressure to reconsider.
Perhaps the ultimate result of all this will be a homogenized education system that smooths out the disparities in achievement by placing more emphasis on subjective evaluation of critical thinking skills than on objective evaluation of knowledge. Colleges and universities may find themselves with little choice but to accept the new paradigm.
The worldview of Common Core will impose a radically different education on American students, from kindergarten through college. Even English classes will be transformed by utilitarian drilling and potential indoctrination. This new approach undercuts a pillar of American culture, the idea that every citizen should be able to engage in public discourse, equipped to fully exercise his liberties, and capable of stepping forward as a citizen-leader. Whether or not this approach results in better, more politically correct workers for the economy, it almost certainly will not—cannot—result in better citizens and better people.
See Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, Controlling Education from the Top: Why Common Core Is Bad for America, no. 87 (Boston: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research and American Principles Project, 2012), 3–4, http://truthinamericaneducation.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Controlling-Education-From-the-Top-PRINT.pdf.
Ibid., 4–5. See also President Obama’s remarks to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, March 10, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-united-states-hispanic-chamber-commerce, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s remarks in a CNN interview with Libby Quaid and Michele McNeil, February 22, 2009, http://www.c-span.org/Events/Education-Sec-Arne-Duncan-interviewed-by-Libby-Quaid-AP-and-Michele-McNeil-Education-Week/12961/.
Council of Chief State School Officers, “InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards: A Resource for State Dialogue” (April 2011), 4, http://www.ccsso.org/Resources/Publications/InTASC_Model_Core_Teaching_Standards_A_Resource_for_State_Dialogue_(April_2011).html.
See U.S. Department of Education, Office of Communications and Outreach, An Overview of the U.S. Department of Education (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2012), http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/focus/what.pdf.
James A. Gregson, “The School-to-Work Movement and Youth Apprenticeship in the U.S.: Educational Reform and Democratic Renewal?” Journal of Industrial Teacher Education 32, no. 3 (Spring 1995): 7–29, available at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JITE/v32n3/Gregson.html.
See, “Common Core State Standards Initiative K–12 Standards Development Teams,” www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_K-12_dev-team.pdf.
The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act was enacted in 1984 to provide federal assistance to vocational schools. Reauthorized several times, it is now known as the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act. See Pub. L. No.109-270 (2006).
Tucker to Clinton.
29 U.S.C. §§ 2801 et seq. (1998).
20 U.S.C.6 101-6235 (exp. Oct. 1, 2001).
P.L. 103-227 (exp. Dec. 21, 2001).
See “The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 Factsheet,” available at http://www.newwaystowork.org/qwbl/tools/caltoolkit/Factsheets/schooltoworkact1994.pdf.
P.L. 107-110 (2001).
U.S. Department of Labor, “US Department of Labor Announces More Than $12 million in Grants Available to States to Improve Workforce Data Quality,” news release, February 21, 2012, http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/eta/eta20120352.htm#.UKQfwoc0WSo.
Stanley Kurtz, Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities (New York: Sentinel, 2012), 135–53.
Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, “SBAC Weekly Update,” issue 41 (November 11, 2011), http://dese.mo.gov/divimprove/assess/documents/asmt-sbac-weekly-update-41-50.pdf.
Williamson M. Evers, “How Progressive Education Gets It Wrong,” Hoover Digest, no. 4 (1998), http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6408.
Richard S. Ruderman and R. Kenneth Godwin, “Liberalism and Parental Control of Education,” Review of Politics 62, no. 3 (2000): 514–16, available at http://www.politicalscience.uncc.edu/godwink/RecentPublications/education.pdf.
McGroarty and Robbins, Controlling Education.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (Washington DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010), http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf.
“Exhibit A, Common Core English Language Arts Standards, Statement of Dr. Sandra Stotsky, May 1, 2012,” in McGroarty and Robbins, Controlling Education, 21.
Sandra Stotsky, “Don’t Buy the Snake Oil of Common Core,” Education News (blog), EducationViews.org, July 24, 2012, http://educationviews.org/dont-buy-the-snake-oil-of-common-core/#print.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, 6.
Ibid., 5. See also, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, “Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12,” rev. August 25, 2011, 5, http://www.edweek.org/media/22yatvin-publishers_criteria_for_3-12.pdf.
Another aspect of Common Core that will blunt the effectiveness of any pro-classics standard is the national Common Core assessments. Developers of assessment items must show that every item passes a multipronged test for “bias and sensitivity”—it must be free of anything that could be perceived to disadvantage students based on race, sex, ethnicity, and a host of other characteristics. See, “Proposal of Educational Testing Service to Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers,” PARCC Item Development, ITN 2012-31, February 17, 2012, http://www.parcconline.org/sites/parcc/files/Redacted%20Proposal%20for%20PARCC%20ITN%202012-31%20ETS.pdf. It is highly unlikely that an item based on any American literary classic could pass such a test. And if a work is not included on the assessments, a teacher will hesitate to devote precious class time to it.
Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk, no. 89 (Boston: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, 2012), 7, http://www.schoolimprovement.com/docs/PioneerInstitute_CoreELARecommendations.pdf.
Alison L. Fraser, Vocational-Technical Education in Massachusetts, no. 42 (Boston: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, 2008), 5–8, http://www.agtech.org/images/VocTechWhitePaper.pdf.
Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass, “Education as Work Force Development Falls Short,” SouthCoast Today (July 28, 2011), http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110728/OPINION/107280303/-1/NEWS.
David Coleman, “What Should Kids Be Reading?” in What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools (Wisconsin Rapids, WI: Renaissance Learning, Inc., 2012), 40, http://doc.renlearn.com/KMNet/R004101202GH426A.pdf.
Jeremiah Chaffee, “One (Maddening) Day Working with the Common Core,” posted by Valerie Strauss, The Answer Sheet (blog), Washington Post, March 23, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/teacher-one-maddening-day-working-with-the-common-core/2012/03/15/gIQA8J4WUS_blog.html.
Coleman and Pimentel, “Publishers’ Criteria,” 4.
Lauren Hill, “Follow-Up: How Common Core Is Like a New Set of Cookware,” Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable (blog), Education Week Teacher, March 20, 2012, http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_ahead/2012/03/a_new_set_of_cookware.html?print=1.
Mary Grabar, “Terrorist Professor Bill Ayers and Obama’s Federal School Curriculum,” Accuracy in Media (September 21, 2012), http://www.aim.org/special-report/terrorist-professor-bill-ayers-and-obamas-federal-school-curriculum/.
As an example of this innovation in writing instruction, see Teaming Rocks! Collaborate in Powerful Ways (blog), http://teamingrocks.wordpress.com/category/writing-across-the-curriculum/.
McGroarty and Robbins, Controlling Education, 10.
Richard Rorty, “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity,” in Habermas and Modernity, ed. Richard J. Bernstein (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 174.
Grabar, “Terrorist Professor Bill Ayers.”
Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, “Benefit of Earning a PARCC College-Ready Determination,” Proposal: PARCC College-Ready Determination Policy in English and Mathematics & Policy and General Content Claims for PARCC Performance Levels (July 10, 2012), 2, http://www.parcconline.org/sites/parcc/files/PARCCDraftCRDPolicyandPolicyandGeneralContentClaimsforPLDs7_12_12.pdf; Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, Building a Plan for Higher Education to Implement the Smarter Balanced Assessment System (July 17, 2012), 5, http://www.smarterbalanced.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Building_a_Plan_for_Higher_Education.pdf.
Tabitha Grossman, Ryan Reyna, and Stephanie Shipton, Realizing the Potential: How Governors Can Lead Effective Implementation of the Common Core State Standards (Washington, DC: National Governors Association, 2011), 11, http://www.nga.org/files/live/sites/NGA/files/pdf/1110CCSSIIMPLEMENTATIONGUIDE.PDF.
“Memorandum of Understanding for Race to the Top—Comprehensive Assessment Systems Grant, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers Members,” June 3, 2010, 15, http://www.mde.k12.ms.us/docs/federal-programs/6_parcc_signed_mou_and_documents.pdf?sfvrsn=2. See also, “Letter of Intent for Institutes of Higher Education, SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, Race to the Top Fund Assessment Program: Comprehensive Assessment Systems Grant Application,” Idaho application, May 14, 2010. This document was incorporated into Idaho’s NCLB waiver application and states that the state’s Institutes of Higher Education would “exempt from remedial courses and place into credit-bearing college courses any student who meets the Consortium-adopted achievement standard.”
Jacqueline E. King and Allison Jones, “The Common Core State Standards: Closing the School-College Gap,” Trusteeship (March/April 2012), 21, http://www.smarterbalanced.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Closing-the-School-College-Gap-AGB-Trusteeship.pdf.
Common Core as Tactical Advantage
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322; email@example.com. From 2003 to 2005 he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His latest book is The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2011).
Jane Robbins’s critique of Common Core is compelling but partial, for it overlooks elements of the English Language Arts (ELA) standards. Robbins refers to the report Sandra Stotsky and I wrote on Common Core, which highlights several deficiencies in the document, but our report also notes some of the literary-historical strengths of Common Core, and the recommendations at the end include the strategic use of Common Core to support the traditional English classroom. I’d like to emphasize those opportunities here. The elements of which I speak are few, to be sure, and they are overshadowed by what Robbins terms “utilitarian” elements in the document, many of which are handily steered toward leftist and multiculturalist ends. Furthermore, Robbins rightly objects that “other than a bit of Shakespeare, the standards completely dispense with British literature” (as a requirement).
But she goes too far in attesting that “the vague notion of critical thinking seems to replace the requirement that students accumulate real knowledge of the subject matter.” For, in two of the reading strands appear standards that do mandate literary-historical knowledge, and numerous other statements in Common Core contain language that reflects conservative, core approaches to our cultural inheritance.
In the “Reading: Literature” section for grades 9–10, two standards imply lengthy instruction in literary fields:
RL.9-10.6 Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.
RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).
The first one doesn’t mention any titles, but it does require “wide reading of world literature.” To address this standard, an English teacher must do more than assign, for instance, a few contemporary novels by African authors. Other statements in Common Core about “text complexity” and college readiness make clear that “wide reading” signifies a deeper, more coherent treatment of a substantial body of literary works. The focus on “a particular point of view or cultural experience” and but one “work of literature” doesn’t discount other, related works. On the contrary, students determine what that experience is by reading several works that share the same historical context. This is the point of the tag line “drawing on…” According to this standard, every Common Core-aligned curriculum in ninth and tenth grade must have lengthy modules (five weeks or longer) that cluster numerous works with a common background. Those units should comprise a coherent topic and corpus, such as “The French Short Story (Maupassant, Hugo, Daudet, etc.), “The Iliad and The Odyssey,” “Magical Realism (Borges, Marquez...),” and the like.
The second standard, too, doesn’t mandate any specific works, but it does highlight Ovid, the Bible, and Shakespeare as exemplary assignments. (Ovid, Shakespeare, and other canonical authors also appear in a section titled “Texts Illustrating the Complexity, Quality, & Range of Student Reading 6–12,” though those texts are not required, only suggested.) The necessity of “source material” raises at least one element in the standard to “core” status. Only a work that has served as a source for other works qualifies, and teachers who eschew canonical literature will have to stretch the standard awfully far to make that source a contemporary or pop culture one.
As we move to grades 11–12, the mandate deepens. Two standards require Shakespeare:
RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)
RL.11-12.7 Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
In the first one, the mention of “beautiful” itself reinforces traditional notions of literary study. When leftist and some Progressive educators first saw it, we may imagine, they wondered why a spurious mystification that merely disguises class distinctions should have ended up in an ELA standard. Its presence means that any lesson plan aimed at meeting this standard must contain readings that pass a beauty test. According to the parenthesis at the end, too, it must include Shakespeare, which raises the level of beauty necessary for inclusion.
The second standard likewise requires Shakespeare plus another American play. In asking students to study “multiple interpretations” of the “source text,” the standard ensures firm reading knowledge of the original. Yes, it emphasizes one act of critical thinking, the comparison of many versions of one thing, but as with the source standard above, it also thereby foregrounds the understanding of that one thing as well.
When we move two standards further in Common Core, we find the firmest and broadest literary-historical mandate in the entire document.
RL.11-12.9 Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.
In requiring students to show knowledge of two centuries of American literature, Common Core retains the very literary patrimony that humanities educators have criticized and undermined for the last forty years. It strikes against the call for more contemporary and “relevant” readings, and, in regarding certain works as “foundational,” it flatly contradicts a cardinal premise of literary studies from the 1970s onward, namely, “anti-foundationalism” (most closely associated with Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish). Anti-foundationalism maintains the provisional historical character of all texts, asserting that one work stands as canonical, “great,” or foundational only because it has been constructed that way by professional and amateur readers at a particular time and for social or political reasons (they don’t offer this premise cynically, but as a matter of fact). As time goes by and readers change, so do the foundations, which is to say that they are not really foundations, but only temporary constructions.
With this standard, Common Core states otherwise. It doesn’t qualify the standard with hedges about how foundations shift and about how one teacher’s foundational works are another’s dusty throwbacks. Instead, it reiterates the foundationalist outlook again and again. A reading standard in the “Informational Text” strand for grades 9–10 asks students to “Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’).” Another one for grades 11–12 does the same: “Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address).”
A section on Common Core’s ELA web page entitled “Myths vs. Facts” states, “The standards require certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare.” Another section entitled “Key Points in English Language Arts” echoes the point: “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.” A version of the ELA standards dated June 2, 2010, has a “Note on range and content of student reading” that insists that, along with “high-quality contemporary works,” reading assignments should “be chosen from among seminal U.S. documents, the classics of American literature, and the timeless dramas of Shakespeare.”
The language of “classic,” “seminal,” “foundational,” and “timeless” runs against principles of post-structuralism, postmodernism, social constructionism, political criticism, and cultural studies that have licensed the breakdown of the traditional English curriculum. In even allowing those terms into the document—despite other assertions of diversity, critical thinking skills, “other cultures,” and so on—the architects of Common Core admitted a few critical conservative values into the all-important task of text selection. Even though they are outnumbered by different learning outcomes, their bare existence obliges teachers to respect them, for those other outcomes do not contravene them.
The RL.11-12.9 standard cited above (“Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth- …”) is particularly rigorous. If we take it seriously, then a smattering of texts from long ago won’t suffice. A couple of Hawthorne short stories, a little Poe, a few Emily Dickinson poems—that’s not enough. To demonstrate knowledge of foundational works of American literature from 1750 to 1940, students need to read Edwards, Franklin, Jefferson, Wheatley, Irving, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Whitman, Thoreau, Dickinson, Howells, Twain, James, Wharton, Crane, Booker T. Washington, Frost, Du Bois, Eliot, Stevens, Millay, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and more. They need a full year of study in American literature, one unmixed with contemporary literature, media (visual culture, digital texts), and topical readings (i.e., op-eds on current events that relate somehow to themes in classic texts).
The standard doesn’t identify what those foundational texts are, but in withholding the titles, it actually forces upon teachers a broader survey of the sequence of great novels, stories, poems, essays, and memoirs from the colonial period to modernism. To “demonstrate knowledge” of them, students must move widely and flexibly across the decades, handle different genres, recount stories, characters, themes, and styles, know when realism ascended, recognize the influence of Leaves of Grass, mark the metrics of Frost’s sonnets and Stevens’s blank verse, and so on.
Some authors are necessitated by the standard, and there are enough of them to restrict the number of non-foundational works placed on the syllabus for other reasons such as the racial identity of the author and the demographic makeup of the student body. Indeed, the composition of foundational works from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century clearly mismatches the quota system that obtains in many English classrooms today. The troublesome historical fact is that white male authors dominate the tradition until the end of the nineteenth century, and much of the literature renders women, African Americans, and other non-white-male identities in “othered” terms. This is why, of course, we have watched over the last four decades politically correct versions of high school English downplay literary-historical criteria of selection, choosing contemporary works that fit multiculturalist and “role model” assumptions—the idea that minority and female students need to read authors whose demographic identity matches their own—over works that have endured through the ages.
This standard, then, along with the other statements listed above, resists the quota system that shapes English syllabi and tables of contents in popular anthologies. With them Common Core has provided traditionalists such as the National Association of Scholars a weapon against the multiculturalist imperative that has produced so much historical ignorance and dumbed-down literary exposure among high school graduates. To be sure, Common Core falls short of traditionalist expectations, but it gainsays politically correct axioms, too. It only partly meets conservative visions of English, but it disappoints Progressive visions as well. Given that Progressives have controlled English curricula for decades, we should appreciate the literary-historical content that made it into Common Core, and remember that the English establishment didn’t want any of it mandated.
The real problem lies in the application of these standards to assessments and curricula. As tests are developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness in College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and as states and districts adopt anthologies and determine content for each grade, will they observe these literary-historical standards or will they just ignore them? (Keep in mind that Common Core standards do not amount to a curriculum. They pose a set of knowledge and skills that yields college and career readiness.)
Common Core did not include machinery to ensure that those standards will be taught and tested, such as a recommended reading list—it has strong “exemplars” but their use isn’t requisite—or a stipulation that X percent of readings must possess “classic” status. Had it done so, it might have encouraged more states to refuse to accept them than the current five (Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, Virginia). In the absence of guarantees, then, the maintenance of literary history depends upon the “aligners” who craft exams and lesson plans that line up (or not) with Common Core. ETS and Pearson are creating test items for the reading exam—do the passages in the exam correspond to the standards we have discussed? The National Council of Teachers of English has developed manuals for teachers to use in altering their practice in the wake of Common Core’s adoption in their respective state—do they incorporate literary-historical standards as much as the skills standards?
Early signs indicate that they won’t. Recently, Pearson issued a proposal for developing test items on the reading exam, and the “item checklist” included these provisos:
- The item avoids stereotyping as results of associating genders with certain professions or activities.
- The item is free of content that might offend an ethnic subgroup.
- The item does not rely on an assumed shared experience that is class oriented or native English speaking oriented.
- The item is free from unnecessary cultural references.
- The item is free from religious references.
These stipulations sound ridiculous, but they are in fact customary elements of “bias and sensitivity review,” a process whereby experts examine test questions for their potential to discriminate against certain groups. A reading passage containing details of rural life will give rural students an unfair boost, while a stereotype of the African American basketball player may upset African American test-takers, etc. It will also expose the test developer to lawsuits.
Obviously, the classics of American literature before 1900 are disproportionately white-male authored, and those works contain language and characterizations that are sometimes stigmatizing, Eurocentric, and politically incorrect. One cannot have students “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early-twentieth century foundational works of American literature” and survive “bias and sensitivity” rulings. Pearson and ETS know this, and have no choice but to act accordingly.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) project likewise fails to meet Common Core’s literary-historical standards, but not by invoking bias rules. Instead, it simply ignores them. One volume in the series, Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: English Language Arts, Grades 9–12, purports to show English teachers how to adopt their readings and pedagogies to Common Core. When I reviewed the volume for a report on Common Core for the Pioneer Institute with Sandra Stotsky (cited by Robbins), however, we found the very tendencies that Robbins deplores. Instead of highlighting literary-historical knowledge and foundational works, the authors speak enthusiastically about the value of blogs, videos, podcasts, and graphic novels to English instruction. They mention several classics, but when they pause over them it is usually to surround them with contemporary materials, for instance, attaching to The Odyssey a bit of Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, an NPR segment on veterans, and a Frontline show called “A Soldier’s Home.” The authors assert, too, that “the CCSS focus is on skills, strategies, and habits that will enable students to adapt to the rhetorical demands of their future learning and contributions,” and they relegate the mandated content in Common Core to teacher discretion, stating that the texts mentioned in the list of “exemplars” are
simply offered as examples of topics and genres that teachers might include, not as specific texts to be adopted in all classrooms. Teachers need to select texts appropriate for their own students and for the context in which they work.
Needless to say, Common Core does not insert “appropriate for their own students” into the standards. While the architects maintain that they do not prescribe a curriculum, assuring that “Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards” (the NCTE authors cite the statement on page 9 of Supporting Students), when it comes to readings, the goals themselves set foundational status above teacher discretion and student appropriateness.
Indeed, the literary-historical standards in Common Core allow only so much flexibility to teachers. Shakespeare is required for high schools in Brooklyn and Albuquerque and Green Bay, and so are Hawthorne, Whitman, Twain et al. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, or region marks the student population. However much test developers and curriculum designers wish to omit Common Core’s literary-historical content, the content remains and states adopting Common Core must commit to it.
This fact the NCTE project manages to ignore, thereby indicating the real weakness of Common Core: giving educators enough wiggle room to neglect the content mandate, and containing so much other non-content material—writing and research skills, a “Speaking & Listening” strand, various and nonhistorical acts of reading comprehension, etc.—that classics and foundations may be disregarded. The literary-historical standards, however, provide traditionalists and conservatives an opening for resistance, specifically, a ready weapon in the ongoing contest with multiculturalists over English curricula. Common Core’s invocation of classics and foundations raises the bar of selection, admitting only time-tested and historically influential readings into the classroom (if the lesson plan addresses the standards we’ve discussed). If a curriculum in a school district does not include a year-long survey of great American works, at least two Shakespeare plays, and wide reading in classical myth and world literature, then the district has not fully aligned with Common Core. Conservative critics may cite Common Core against it, pressuring state and local educators to revise high school English along more traditional lines.
It remains to be seen what kind of pressure those critics may apply and in what direction. Does a state’s adoption of Common Core have any statutory or regulatory standing that watchdogs may use to assail an English track that minimizes traditional works and maximizes contemporary literature, mass media and pop culture, and politically correct learning outcomes? Are state officials such as those in the Council of Chief State School Officers, a cosponsor of Common Core, disposed to hear from groups willing to charge districts and schools with failing to meet the standards? Will newspapers and local news shows listen to people who insist upon a traditional humanities education and find it wanting in local schools?
Here lies the effective focus of criticism—and an avenue of response. Yes, Robbins correctly identifies drawbacks in Common Core, but Common Core also contains strengths that work to our advantage if we wield them wisely. All too many public officials and public school educators follow multiculturalist tenets, and conservatives and traditionalists have little authority to combat them. The literary-historical standards and statements in Common Core change that, supplying the latter with a blank and potent rejoinder to the former. “Your English syllabus in John Q. Public High School has no eighteenth-century American literature, and it assigns only a sample of nineteenth-century literature,” they may charge. “You are in violation of the standards your state has adopted. You must add to the syllabus this and this and this…”
I recommend that the National Association of Scholars investigate pathways of influence, beginning with the state of New York, which adopted Common Core in January 2011. The leadership of NAS should contact the Office of Standards in the Division of Academics, Department of Education. New York is fully engaged in implementing Common Core standards, and a meeting with public officials overseeing the process may reveal how closely the state will heed literary-historical content standards in the high school English classroom. It is one thing to object on principle to the dilution of traditional humanities education into political catechisms and utilitarian training. It is another thing to object on the grounds of the most authoritative education document in the land.
Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk, no. 89 (Boston: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, 2012), http://www.schoolimprovement.com/docs/PioneerInstitute_CoreELARecommendations.pdf.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (Washington DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010), 38, http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf.
Ibid., RI.9-10.9, 40.
Ibid., RI.11-12.9, 40.
Common Core State Standards Initiative, “Myths vs. Facts,” http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/myths-vs-facts.
Common Core State Standards Initiative, “Key Points in English Language Arts,” http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/key-points-in-english-language-arts.
National Governors Association, Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, 35.
“PARCC Item Development ITN 2012–31,” Partnership for Assessment of Readiness in College and Careers, http://direct.parcconline.org/sites/parcc/files/PARCC_Item%2BDev_REDACTED_FINAL.pdf. Item prescriptions appear on page C-1.45.
Sarah Brown Wessling, Danielle Lillge, and Crystal VanKooten, Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: English Language Arts, Grades 9–12 (National Council of Teachers of English: Urbana, IL, 2011).
Bauerlein and Stotsky, Common Core’s ELA Standards.
Wessling, Lillge, and VanKooten, Supporting Students, 26.