Look at today’s newspapers and you will see that Americans are poised to fundamentally reform two huge sectors of our lives. The headlines on page one will tell you about the healthcare sector. Our government is even “closed” due to the fight over implementing “Obamacare.” That’s one. Look at one of the inside pages and you will likely read about the other wholesale reform, the one of K-12 education. This reform is more important than the healthcare changeover, even though it is less prominently reported.
I am speaking of the “Common Core.” It is a set of K-12 academic standards in math and “English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects,” complete with suggested texts. Conceived by private foundations and political associations and vigorously promoted by the Obama Administration, Common Core has been adopted by 45 states and over 100 Catholic school systems since 2010. Through grant competitions and offers to “waive” federal rules, the Administration tied federally-developed testing, teacher evaluations and ultimately achievement standards to the Common Core. Together, this will drive the curriculum and shape the teaching in our nation’s schools for, well, a long time to come.
Why do I say that this reform is more important than Obamacare? For two reasons. One is that education has more to do with who we are and what we aspire to become than does the scope, affordability and accessibility of healthcare—although those are all very important matters.
The other reason is that the healthcare debate is about means, not ends or philosophy. Almost every American agrees that affordable healthcare should be available to everyone. But there is a heated disagreement about how that goal should be achieved. Many people agree with the President and those who supported Obamacare that the government must take an extraordinarily large hand in healthcare, if this aim is to be realized. Many other people who are dedicated to universal healthcare maintain that government is likely to be neither effective nor efficient in this arena, and that the market must play the predominant role in any realistic plan to achieve universal healthcare.
It is true that people in this debate often disagree too about the proper role of freedom of choice (for patients to choose providers, for example) in any program for universal care. Even so, this argument is secondary, and subordinate: People who agree that the desired end is affordable care for everyone disagree here about how, and how much, freedom of choice fits into the picture. But that picture (of healthcare for all) is still common ground.
Now, everyone agrees that each child should be able to get a good K-12 education, and that one’s ability to pay for that education should have no important effect upon obtaining it. So far then it is much like the healthcare reform. But whereas the point of healthcare—normal functioning of the human body and its organs and systems, or what we call without ambiguity or confusion “good health”—is plain and agreed upon, the point of an education is not so obvious. Nor is it uncontroversial. In fact there are many philosophies of education (if you will) to offer. The argument about Common Core is basically an argument about which of these philosophies shall be ours.
In my judgment (and in the opinion of a growing number of teachers, administrators and parents), Common Core is a wholesale education revision that shortchanges the central goals of all sound education, which are: to grow in the intellectual virtues; to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult; and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government.
Promoters of Common Core say that it is designed to make America’s children “college- and career-ready.” It is instead a recipe for standardized workforce preparation. Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. At or near the heart of its philosophy is the judgment that it is a waste of resources to “over-educate” people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college—if they end up there. Truck-drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses.
Perhaps a truck-driver needs no acquaintance with Paradise Lost to do his or her day’s work. But everyone is better off knowing Shakespeare and Euclid, and everyone is capable of knowing them. Everyone bears the responsibility of growing in wisdom and grace and in deliberating with fellow-citizens about how we should all live together. A sound education helps each of us to do so.
Much of today’s vigorous debate about Common Core focuses upon particular standards in English and math. Supporters say that Common Core will “raise academic standards.” But the criticisms of such educational experts as James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University, and Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas, are persuasive. They have studied Common Core and judge it to be a step backwards. They conclude that this “reform” is really a radical shift in emphasis, goals and expectations for K-12 education, with the result that Common Core-educated children will not be prepared to do authentic college work. Even supporters of Common Core admit that it is geared to prepare children only for community college-level studies.
Thus far Common Core standards have been published for mathematics and English language arts. Science standards and history frameworks have been written and recently released. No state and no Catholic Diocese is bound to implement these standards just by dint of having signed onto those in English and math. But the same financial inducements, political pressure and misguided reforming zeal that rushed those standards towards acceptance starting in 2010 will conspire to make acceptance of the history and science standards equally speedy—and just as unreflective and unfortunate.
These new standards will very likely lower expectations for students, just as the math and English standards already in hand have done. More important, however, is the likelihood that they will promote the prevailing philosophical orthodoxies in those disciplines. In science, the new standards are likely to take for granted and inculcate students into a materialist metaphysics, which is incompatible with the spiritual realities—soul, conceptual thought, values, free choice, God—that Catholic faith presupposes. The history standards are likely to promote the easy moral relativism, tinged with a pervasive anti-religious bias, that is commonplace in collegiate history departments today.
This debate about education—what it is for and how to go about achieving its proper end(s)—belongs on the front pages of our newspapers. The growing parents’ rebellion against Common Core makes it rather likely that it will soon find its way there.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared October 13, 2013 in the Irish Rover at the University of Notre Dame and is reprinted with permission.