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What Is It About the Common Core?

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Common Core State Standards. On the face of it, a good idea: a handful of standards, in critical areas of math, reading, and writing, tied to performance by grade level and readily assessable. It's like educational Wonder Bread, building strong minds through twelve grades. All that's missing are balloons.

As any parent believes who's ever dropped coin on one of the E. D. Hirsch-inspired What Your ___th Grader Should Know books, there are things kids need to know to move forward in their education toward satisfying, productive adulthood. The Hirsch materials may not be everyone's taste, but surely some things are. Why not the Common Core, which echoes Hirsch's work?

Yet the Common Core is under assault from all sides, even as many schools, including some independent schools, rush to embrace it. (I note that the independent schools seem to find the standards in math more useful than those in language arts.) Part of this lies in a deep suspicion, on both the right and the left, of government's place in education.

One liberal objection to the Common Core seems to stem from its apparent "one size fits all" application. Lisa Nielsen has had perhaps the best ink in the "anti-" crusade in a Huff post blog suggesting that the Common Core is an attack on "progressive education." No less than Hirsch himself fired back, blasting Nielsen's thesis while edifying readers with an exegesis on "progressivism" as an educational movement. At what grade level does your kid need to know about John Dewey and Hegel? Hirsch knows, and now you can, too.

I've been interested in progressive education for a while, and in the great scale of things the Common Core is a milder threat than some other. While Hirsch was trying to clean Nielsen's clock at Huffington, the far right--whose fulminations regularly light up my "progressive education" Google alert--calls the Common Core "Marxism for children," a dumbing down of curricula to facilitate a Communist takeover of our schools and of our children's minds. Nor do they approve of federal incentives for states to adopt: "the government coercing the states to carry the Common Core Standards violates the Constitution." Wow! (This link, which I include while holding my nose, will enlighten you on this perspective.)

At the Diane Ravitch blog and its many sources, where I tend to find myself nodding in agreement most of the time, excoriation of the Common Core is a regular feature. Whether it's just the imposition of standards, or the imposition of standards "adopted" by state governments but not necessarily by bodies of teachers, or the imposition of standards that continue to neglect other subjects--M is there, but what about S, T, E, and the hugely-neglected A?--or the imposition of standards with Hirschian (or far more disturbing, ALEC-related) roots, or the imposition of standards that might be a Trojan horse for yet more testing, plenty of teachers in the trenches as well as some influential educational analysts don't like the Common Core.

It goes back to the Wonder Bread analogy for me. Maybe the Common Core Standards are too well wrapped, whether in flags, promises, or some more commercial or sinister guise. At the same time, they may simply be the lowest common denominator, educational white bread, far more squishy than nourishing.

Variations in schools' expectations for students have always been pernicious in their effects--and their causes, too: unevenly distributed resources, a heritage of prejudice and apathy. With many children at a disadvantage even before their first day of school, the notion of national standards as a remedy--even if not the Common Core--might seem commendable.

It is sad, then, to find ourselves in an environment in which the Common Core debate echoes those over every other topic with educational implications, from teacher evaluation to school menus to the regulation of firearms: they're all regarded, by someone, as part of a conspiracy to destroy the future of children in a free society. The Common Core may or may not be educational Wonder Bread--the debate must go on--but the times we live in seem sometimes to rob us of common sense.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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