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Paul Horton: Common Core and the Gettysburg Address

Guest post by Paul Horton.

All of those concerned with the decline of history as a discipline in our schools should examine very carefully Valerie Strauss' recent post on how the Common Core Standards teach the Gettysburg Address. 

No one will deny that the Gettysburg address is an important document. But what should concern history teachers, history buffs, and anyone concerned with how our students learn history is that teachers teaching this lesson are instructed not to place the document within any kind of historical context.

This address is to be taught as a document, a collection of words that have a set of meanings much like any other document. 

The reading of the Gettysburg Address for the authors of the Common Core Standards is an exercise in the acquisition of literacy. The document is cut away from any context that would allow students to understand its historical significance.

This idea, after all, is the whole point of the postwar evolution of the "New Criticism": literary value is determined by a work's internal complexity: the tensions between elements or particulars and symbols, as leading "new critic" John Crowe Ransom who was the founding editor of the Kenyon Review might say.

Students who read the Address will be assessed on developing a short essay discussion of three main ideas discussed. The short essay will be graded according to a rubric that looks for key words, organization, and the repetition of key ideas.

Common Core supporters are quick to point out that the requirement of a short essay is a step above a multiple choice test, but this is not what I am hearing from colleagues who have field tested this and dozens of other Common Core lessons.

 My primary unnamed source is a TFA refugee who taught in a charter school last year where these field tests were conducted. Like many other TFA and inner city public school teachers, they are full of love for Race to the Top and the Common Core, but anything they say can and will be used against them in "Domain Four" of their evaluations. They cannot afford to lose any points when VAM assessments are such a crapshoot.

My source, much better educated than I will ever be, tells me that many of these writing assessments are very similar. "My brightest students who did not follow the directions to a t were marked down. They often developed very complicated analyses, but were marked down because they did not regurgitate the expected words and organization. Those who did best on the scoring tended to be those who were willing to regurgitate the obvious."

So instead of teaching kids why the Gettysburg Address is important, we are teaching them to game the system. They love this across the street at the Neo-liberal Valhalla School of Business (The Nobel Prize winners are smiling on the wall).

What teachers and the concerned public need to know is that the Curriculum was made by the test makers. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, this is a bit more than half ass backward. The curriculum goals should drive assessment, not the other way around. 

 When the test makers designed the standards and the curriculum, they were not concerned with what the kids are learning or with anything that could possibly resemble knowledge. They created tests that could be graded easily and cheaply, either by teams that had been validated on an airtight rubric, or by computer algorithms.

With all of the furor in the public discourse about the Gettysburg Address, everybody forgot the Address only earned 2s and 3s out of 6 from a computer algorithm of the sort that will grade the kids' essays -- something the Conference on College Composition and Communication has taken a stand against.  

Heck we have fifth graders who can do better than Abe! In the current educational regime, Abe would have never made it to graduation, his teachers would have been unimpressed by his stories, and he would have ended up fighting for US Grant rather than being his boss.

If you were to write about the unbearable sadness of feeling the weight of hundreds of thousands of deaths and families torn asunder, you would fail your Pearson test. The state Superintendent's "cut" might feel like an amputation.

Context? Don't they do that in history class? From what I have seen, the Common Core snippet patrol can pare "Big History" down to a couple of milliseconds of not so cosmic time. History is lucky to get a "New York minute" these days. Schools are letting go of all of the old farts and marms who teach in depth research and who care about "significance."

If you don't know that the winter of 1863 was a tough time because of all of those details that the retired and fired teachers took with them when they cleared their desks, you would be a great candidate for teaching the "Gettysburg Address" and History with the script handed you by our genius test makers.

Columbia Professor Eric Foner did not like how his Long Beach High History teacher left African-Americans out of her teaching of Reconstruction. Boy, did he prove her wrong! Professor Foner has made a career out of challenging his teacher's factoid acceptance of status quo history by placing African American agency at the heart of the creation of ideas about justice and freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. 

Common Core "close reading" lessons like this one on "The Gettysburg Address" completely miss the significance of African American troops fighting and dying for this "new birth of freedom."  While it might have been true that no African American troops were engaged at Gettysburg, Lincoln was very much aware of the July 1863 bravery of the 1st the 3rd Louisiana Native Guard who assaulted Fortress Hudson on the Mississippi River above Baton Rouge. These African American units suffered 600 casualties in an assault during which they were completely exposed to withering fire. They bravely marched forward until their ranks were broken by heavy losses. Their assault convinced Union commanders that African American troops were every bit as courageous and disciplined as white troops. 

When Lincoln spoke of "a new birth of freedom,"  as Professor Foner reminds us in his recent interview, everyone knew that he was speaking of an end to slavery, but students will not understand that he was thinking of the sacrifices of white and African American (as well as Tejano, Mexicano, and native troops) all over the country. The speech is not just about Gettysburg: it was about about the entire war and shared sacrifice. "Close reading" does not inspire historical analysis. The significance of the address is lost without reference points. 

If Common Core becomes entrenched, maybe the absence of complex history will (inadvertently) inspire more brilliant historians like Eric who defy regurgitation of mindless pap. 

Should our curriculum be driven by tests? Does the sort of "close reading" called for by the Common Core tests respect history as a disciple?

Paul Horton has published in The Journal of Southern History, Civil War History, and many other journals

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