This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on March 16, 2014.
Changes in the SAT, announced on March 5 by the College Board, adjust the test to the ongoing decline in the nation's public schools. The new test lightens vocabulary and math and eliminates the penalty for bad guessing. The new SAT grows out of and accommodates the Common Core State Standards, the controversial set of K-12 standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.
The Common Core's standards amount to an assault on the college curriculum. That's because colleges will have to adapt to what the Common Core teaches—and what it fails to teach. It teaches a mechanical way of reading that is poorly suited to literature, philosophy, history, and the rest of the liberal arts. It also fails to teach the math students need to begin a college-level curriculum in the sciences.
The Common Core has aroused a broad-based and sometimes furious reaction among Americans across the political spectrum. The furor, however, isn't yet focused on what the Common Core does to a college education. Rather, the complaints focus on the immediate harm to students and to schools. The arguments against Common Core have proliferated almost beyond counting, but the short version is something like this:
The Race to the Middle. The Common Core promises higher academic standards in the nation's schools. In some cases it will deliver on that promise, but in other cases, the Common Core actually lowers standards. The whole thing is an experiment in social leveling.
Goodbye Local Control. The Common Core transfers a lot of power over the nation's schools from local districts and state governments to the federal government. The transfer is deceptive and probably illegal. The deception comes from the Common Core being sold as "voluntarily" adopted by the states. The illegality comes from statutory law that prohibits the federal government's involvement in creating school curricula.
Big Brother. The Common Core is designed to collect and aggregate an immense amount of data on individual students' academic performance. Critics worry that this will eventuate in detailed federal files on everyone who attends school.
Other objections focus on the Common Core's utilitarian goals. Common Core emphasizes "informational texts" at the expense of literature, promotes out-of-context reading, and significantly lowers expectations for students in math. The Common Core is designed to expedite the way students work, and it minimizes just about everything else schools might be expected to do, such as develop creativity, foster a fullness of mind, and strengthen character.
Common Core was sold to the states as a way to make students "college ready." The sales pitch was that our nation's schools do a mediocre to poor job prepping students for the next leg of the journey to adulthood--the leg that will take them through Chem 101, English Lit, or whatever college "first years" now take.
Like all good sales pitches, this one was grounded in truth. Our schools don't do an especially good job at preparing students for college. As anyone (including me) who has taught freshmen at a "selective" college or university can attest, a great many students arrive at college with no capacity to write a short essay. Many cannot reliably compose even a grammatical sentence. Their knowledge of history and literature is generally many steps below what students twenty years ago brought with them, and twenty years ago was a big step down from twenty years before that. Preparation in mathematics and basic science has plummeted even further.
That said, each semester a handful of students would turn out to be capable and disciplined writers who were pretty well-informed on the things we college teachers used to be able to take for granted. Some are from elite academies or exceptional public schools. But a growing number are homeschooled.
So when Common Core's proponents announced that they were serious about remaking our public schools into places where students would graduate "college ready," the American public was primed to say, "It's about time."
Ready or Not
But a good sales pitch isn't the same as a good product. As we have gotten to see the Common Core up close, it looks less and less likely to yield "college ready students" in the way we hoped.
The Common Core will in all likelihood improve education for some students. How many, what percentage, where, at what cost, and with what drawbacks? The whole thing has been rushed into place so quickly that no one really knows. But a few things have become clear:
Locking In Mediocrity. The Obama administration's way of fast-tracking the Common Core through state approval was the $4.35 billion "Race to the Top." To qualify to get into the competition for these funds, states had to agree in advance that students who complete a Common Core curriculum would be admitted to public colleges and universities as full-fledged students. Such students will be exempt from having to take remedial courses because, after all, the state has pre-certified them as "college ready." What part of "college ready" do those professors not understand? If the students aren't "ready" to write college essays, so much the worse for college essays.
I doubt that the bureaucrats and state legislators who approved this stipulation gave a moment's thought to what this arrangement really means. Thanks to various "preference" programs in college admissions—for racial minorities principally but also for athletes and other "special interests"—colleges admit many students who are mismatched to the prevailing level of academic rigor. The usual recourse for these students has been an effort to repair the gaps in their learning through remedial courses, which are usually non-credit courses, i.e. they don't count towards graduation. They are on-ramps for students who are not yet ready for freshman courses.
The Common Core, in a stroke, abolishes this option. If a college admits students who are mismatched, it will have no choice but to mainstream those students into regular courses.
Colleges could decide not to admit such students at all or admit them and watch them fail. But given higher education's steely commitment to using college admissions to advance its ideas of "social justice," most colleges will simply lower academic standards across the board. Note that this cannot stop with freshman year. Once a college injects "underprepared" (i.e. incompetent) students into mainstream introductory courses and adjusts those courses to avoid embarrassingly high failure rates, the consequences will propagate through all the subsequent courses.
Subterfuges will necessarily evolve. Colleges will create or expand "honors" programs for students who meet what were formerly the basic standards. Remedial courses will be relabeled as regular courses, even though everyone will know they are remedial. Untalented students will be shunted even more than they are now to soft majors in fields such as African-American studies, sociology, and women's studies.
But such subterfuges will be targets for severe criticism by the academic left on the grounds that they discriminate. The emergence too conspicuously of a two-tier system would be denounced as racist, classist, anti-immigrant, and so on. The only viable choice for most colleges and universities will be to dilute the curriculum. The Common Core is thus set to become a bulldozer aimed at leveling what remains of intellectual excellence in American higher education.
Remedial courses, I might add, have themselves become a blight in American higher education, but that's a topic for another day.
Locking Out Liberal Learning. The Common Core emphasizes how to glean information from the written word—and other media as well. The catchphrase that the Common Core uses for the written words that students will mine for information is "informational texts." Think of the recipe on the back of the soup can for turning soup into a tasty casserole. But not all "informational texts" present themselves as instructions. "Information" can be gleaned from all sorts of texts, including picture books, novels, poems, YouTube videos, works of history, and speeches by notables such as Abraham Lincoln.
The trouble is that if you see the written word as mainly a device for conveying information, you miss many other things that writing can do. It stirs emotions; it points to truths beyond itself; alternatively, it conveys lies; it may possess beauty or it may be ugly; it can cause us to ask questions that the text itself does not ask; it possesses implications; it belongs to and participates in a larger context; it taps into secret memories; it rallies us to public causes.
The Common Core slights all of these purposes. That is not to say it ignores them entirely. It gives some small space to mythology and literature—a space that retracts year by year as students progress through the Common Core.
Why should this matter? We should surely want students to be able to read recipes on soup cans and to extract important information from "texts." That's a useful skill. But it is a skill that, cultivated at the expense of a more well-rounded form of literacy, cuts students off from the foundation of a liberal education. Students who know how to read "informational texts," and to read every piece of writing as though it is an "informational text," are ill-prepared for Plato's Republic or Shakespeare's King Lear. Indeed, they are ill-prepared for Goodnight Moon.
This gap between how the Common Core teaches students to read and the kind of reading required in a liberal education is especially worrisome at a time when colleges have to a great extent abandoned their old core curricula. Students these days are lulled with the illusion that they can become "critical thinkers" by studying whatever catches their interest, rather than what their colleges have deemed the most important works. That whole do-it-yourself approach puts a premium on the capacity of college students to read with their eyes wide open and to get to places well beyond the "information" that a "text" lays out.
With the Common Core, we will have the worst of both worlds: students who come equipped to read mainly for information and college curricula designed for students equipped mainly for independent intellectual synthesis.
Watering Down Math. Common Core defers the teaching of algebra to the 9th grade. As a consequence, it will be difficult for schools to offer pre-calculus to students before they finish high school. There simply isn't enough time left in the curriculum to reach that level, and the Common Core poses other obstacles as well. Trigonometry is barely broached. Geometry follows an eccentric path. The result is that students who go to college hoping to study the physical sciences, computing, engineering, economics, and other math-heavy fields will be handicapped. Or they will have to scramble before they get to college to supplement what their high schools offer.
Some students will find their ways around these obstacles, but many won't, and that will leave colleges and universities with few good choices. The likeliest path will be to reduce the rigor of their science programs to accommodate students who have to spend their first year catching up on mathematics that used to be taught in high school.
Everybody acknowledges how important the STEM fields are for America's future—and few are more vocal about this than Bill Gates. One of the ironies of the Common Core is that its most lavish-spending advocate is contributing to the further erosion of our nation's strength in this area. Perhaps it is no wonder that Mr. Gates is also a major supporter of increasing the number of H-1B visas for foreign nationals who have expertise in science and engineering.
The Common Core will not make an appreciable number of students more "college ready." It may smooth the way, however, for more students to be admitted to college. President Obama and Michelle Obama have recently ratcheted up the campaign that Obama announced back in his first address to Congress in February 2009—to make America the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates. The pitch that "everyone should go to college" has been a favorite of American politicians for a long time. It is, on its face, silly. To achieve anything like it would require obliterating academic standards and wasting untold trillions of dollars. But the phrase somehow strokes the national ego.
The Common Core feeds this fantasy and the illusions buried within, namely, that a college degree is a ticket to personal prosperity and that having lots of people who have college degrees necessarily makes the nation more competitive in the global economy. For reference: the nation that currently has the greatest percentage of college degrees in its population is that economic powerhouse, Russia. Moreover, the nation with the strongest economy in Europe—Germany—has about half the percentage of college-degreed people as the United States does.
So the effort to grease the skids from public school to college is founded on a mistake. But it is a mistake that Americans somehow cherish and won't easily relinquish. We would go a lot further towards both a greater degree of personal prosperity and national competitiveness if we really did improve K-12 education—not with the idea of making our schools operate better as conveyor belts to our languishing higher education institutions, but with the idea of fostering a true spirit of educational achievement among students, parents, and teachers. I know. Easier said than done.
The task at hand, however, is to stop the Common Core before it can inflict more harm. The battle will probably be waged over the issues I listed earlier—the race to the middle, goodbye local control, big brother—during the races for public office in which the Common Core becomes an issue. But the Common Core is also an assault on higher education and as that becomes clear perhaps the strange coalition of opponents will grow stranger still. I await the rallies where Tea Party activists unite in uncommon cause with English and History profs.