How Common Core Literary Standards Undermine Education

With the growing acceptance of the Common Core State Standards, a set of benchmarks that seeks to raise the literacy of our elementary and secondary school students, a debate is underway over the wisdom or folly of a federally crafted plan that aims to have a major hand in the education of our nation’s children. Presently, forty-five states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted the Common Core.

The principal architect of the Common Core is David Coleman, a Yale graduate and a Rhodes Scholar. While his critique that public schools could be more analytical in their approach to reading has some points in its favor, his solution of standardization and diminishing the role of fiction in favor of non-fiction is creating more problems than solutions. As many of his critics point out, Coleman has never taught in an elementary or secondary classroom. Nevertheless, he is among a group of reformers who want to reshape the landscape of education in America.

In 2012, David Coleman was named as the ninth president of the College Board. He is well-poised to continue the standardization agenda he has initiated with CCSS. In fact, his agenda, while its ostensible goals are unobjectionable, is deeply intertwined with progressive politics and a philosophical pragmatism infatuated with the “data gathering” that lead to President Obama’s two-term presidency. As noted by Susan Berry, in Breitbart, Coleman’s remarks at a Harvard Education conference in 2012 included a Who’s Who of Obama’s re-election campaign and Democratic activists: Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Jeremy Bird, who lead the “Turning Texas Blue” campaign, and notably, Dan Wagner, Obama’s former chief analytics officer. The data collection gurus are now set to reform American education with an unprecedented access to our children by means of a nation-wide net of statistics starting in pre-school.

Coleman has not wasted any time. The College Board recently announced a redesigned SAT (to take effect in 2016) in which the essay is optional, and the verbal section is less based on differentiating degrees of word knowledge (gained only by years of reading) and more on students justifying their answers with evidence from the passage. There are also changes in the math section, focusing on linear equations, functions, and proportions. The penalty for wrong answers is gone. Coleman is delighted with these changes.

 

Not all the changes are bad: the essay, scored mechanically, could never accurately gauge writing ability. But what is certainly problematic is Coleman’s obvious aligning of the SAT with the Common Core. Both share the same preoccupation with “college and career readiness,” with non-fiction, Founding Documents, with egalitarian motives that too often are a screen for political activism.

As well, there is the simple fact that though forty-five states have adopted the Common Core, the standards have yet to be proven over time to increase the quality of the education of our children. Writing about the College Board’s ideology behind the recent SAT changes, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, put it this way: “We are embarking on a great expansion of the left’s long-term project of trading off our best chances to foster individual excellence for broadly-distributed access to mediocre education.”

There has been resistance to Common Core as well, some of it articulated in Crisis. Last October, 132 Catholic professors sent every bishop in the United States a letter arguing that Common Core is “deeply flawed” and should not be accepted by Catholic schools, and that the some 100 dioceses that have accepted it “should seek an orderly withdrawal now.”

I share their concern that the Common Core’s vision of education is imbued with pragmatism to the detriment of giving students an opportunity to nurture a love of truth, goodness, and beauty as expressed in the rich textures of fiction and poetry, or as found in history and science free of ideologies that are reductively antithetical to reason informed by faith. I would add that Common Core’s sweeping reforms do damage to the reality of subsidiarity, wherein societal well-being is best served by decisions made closest to local communities.

Diane Ravitch, no friend of conservative politics or private schooling, in a speech in January of this year sharply criticized the Common Core for essentially being a framework to standardize education nationwide, with a burdensome emphasis on online testing (and a boon to the IT industry). “Behind the Common Core standards” said Ravitch, “lies a blind faith in standardization of tests and curriculum, and perhaps, of children as well.”

One of the ironies of modern society is that we can produce iPhones spun from glass thinner than the petal of a violet and still not really figure out how properly to educate students in the literary arts and moral virtues on a suitably mass scale. This really should not surprise us. Persons are not products, and don’t behave at all in the manner of parts fitting into a whole, even if that whole if rationally broken down into measurable units. Perhaps we should add, especially if that whole is put into measurable units.

“The human individual” wrote philosopher Roger Scruton “is the single most important obstacle that all bureaucratic systems must overcome, and which all ideologies must destroy.” For the things of the spirit, the unfolding of a single soul, defies measurability. Governmental systems and their like, of course, thrive on measurable data; it’s their fuel, they can’t survive without it. But a person is a spiritual reality, a union of heaven and earth, in time and yet destined for eternity.

Admittedly, part of that last sentence is confessional in nature, seen in the light of a faith that is a partaking of God’s knowledge of who we are. However, reason has its own light, and should, at the very least, see the mystery which is the person, and as such deal with that mystery in an appropriate way.

What We Can Learn from Literature
Let me explain my admittedly brief critique of the Common Core literary standards by way of a novel.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece, The Remains of the Day (1989), is a close study of an English butler who at the end of his life wonders if he had, after all, tragically wasted his life in the pursuit of a false ideal. In the summer of 1956, Stevens takes a short trip to see a former housekeeper, a Miss Kenton. As he does so, he journeys in his own mind back over the years between the wars, when he missed an opportunity to take Miss Kenton as the love of his life, and foolishly followed his employer, Lord Darlington, with a misguided sense of loyalty that smiled and bowed before the likes of Joachim Von Ribbentrop and other fascist friends visiting the estate.

The tragic nature of Stevens’ story is one of great subtly as his narration of the novel is layered with the evasions and lies with which he has fooled himself for over thirty years. What possible national “outcome,” research-based logarithm could help a student realize Stevens is what critics call an “unreliable narrator” whose observations are untrustworthy, and must be evaluated by the reader’s own sense of humanity and moral decency?

There is one scene in the novel that to my mind captures Stevens’ problem with unique perfection. Mr. Faraday, the new owner of the estate, is showing an American couple around when the wife asks Stevens if an arch in the house is real, or a “mock period piece” recently installed. Mr. Stevens tells her it is possible it is a recent addition. She then asks him: “But tell me, Stevens, what was this Lord Darlington like? Presumably you must have worked for him?”

Stevens denies working for Darlington—who by this time was long dead, his reputation tainted by his Nazi connections—and leaves the visitor puzzled, as she looks again at the great arch of the dining room, and says, “So we don’t know for certain then. Still, it looks to me like it’s mock. Very skillful, but mock.”

Ishiguro leaves little doubt that we should see this as a reference to Stevens himself. While he is a skillful butler of a once great house in England, his choices have left him bereft of the very dignity by which he strove to live each day of his life. His professionalism and dignity have turned against him because he was blind to what lay before him for decades.

I wonder: how would the committee who put together the Common Core read this quiet yet disturbing novel? I suspect they would speak about “scaffolding” with backgrounders on World War II, and assign speeches by Churchill and Roosevelt. While there is nothing wrong with any of that, they are far from appreciating and learning from a story (yes, mere fiction!) the human complexities and imperfections that make for tragedy.

How does one read, after all? It is surely more than a technical skill we are trying to pass on. Perhaps only after reading all those old, good, and great stories of shipwreck and decade-long sieges, of kings exiled and white whales hunted and dreams gone up in flames all gaudy with desire over a Long Island skyline will one really become the reader one dreams to be. Of course, again, that does mean we have experienced at least in some fashion those elemental things (earth, water, sky, wind, rain, cold, a moonlit forest) that the great writers weave into their stories of such harrowing power that the centuries will not stop them from being retold, at least somewhere where hearts seek the good.

When Imagination Dies, So Does Learning
By demanding analytical rigor for its own sake, Common Core will inevitably replace literature with non-fiction pieces, by the senior year of high school making the latter some 70 percent of the entire curriculum. Hamlet, to be sure, will stay, but alongside “Recommended Levels of Insulation” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Renaissance prince will be further reduced to a museum piece rather than be encountered as one of the supreme dramas of human existence in which the mysteries of identity, evil, betrayal, and death are explored in metaphors of operatic beauty and complexity.

In nearly every case in which I have seen a student blossom as a writer and a reader, I have always seen an imagination fired up by a love of the extraordinary nature of ordinary life. These kids are hungry for adventures, and actually see everyday living as one, too. No wonder they take to, say, Jack London’s Klondike stories so readily: they almost know what he’s talking about before they read him.

This passion for the wonder of things is actually a pre-literate requirement to literacy: the outward-looking soul, alive to the real, becomes the engine that feeds the literary disciplines of learning alphabets, gerunds, syntax, and comma usage. In a sense, we endure the thorns of grammar to behold the rose of beauty.

Hence the pre-school years, as well as the primary grades, especially for boys, are absolutely vital. Enclose then in a fantasy world of no effort and constant ego-fulfillment, and curriculum standards, however well-researched, will not easily bring them into the joy of discovering being, the bedrock of truth, and the goal of all education. The temptation to escape to the effortless will be nearly overwhelming.

Hence, too, is the inescapable reality of parents as primary educators of their children. A point clearly ignored by the data-mining reformers now re-fashioning American education.

The German philosopher Josef Pieper, in The Silence of St. Thomas, wrote these words about the world he saw coming into being in 1953:

The world in which man leads today his ordinary life is becoming more and more a purely technological one…. The danger inherent in this situation is that man might, erroneously, come to regard the world as a whole and the created things with it—above all man himself—in the same manner in which he regards, correctly, his own artifacts belonging to the technological sphere; in other words, man is beginning to consider the whole of creation as … fully accessible to reason.

While we should not repudiate our technology, we must—as always—make it serve humane ends. Yet the Common Core, certainly in regard to its literary standards, falls into the very fallacy Pieper was warning about a half century ago. How much greater  is the threat today for us to take the world as nothing more than a problem that our technological minds can surmount with the right standards, the perfect test, and the latest research.

In fact, David Coleman’s speech at the Harvard Conference in 2012 gives chilling testimony to his absolute faith in the ways of “data gathering” to steer the curricula our students follow, and the tests that significantly determine where they attend college. During this talk, he extols the pragmatism which is his guiding light, asserting that “the simple precision and excellence of the use of information to achieve a result is something [sic] in my mind that deserves astonishment.”

What deserves astonishment is how a man with such a diminished view of education could obtain a position with the power to determine the direction of our nation’s schools. It’s as if Stevens became schoolmaster for our country: with skillful precision our north star, method our mantra, data our deity, we can go anywhere, as long as it fits comfortably with a vision in tune with the pragmatists now reigning.

All the time we forget, amid our technical prowess, that the core elements of learning are essentially unseen to the eye, and certainly not fully accessible to reason: the soul of the child, his or her intellect, will, and heart. Our educational reformers tend to see everything except that which truly matters.

Indeed, as Stevens exemplifies: our greatest weaknesses (standardizations as dehumanizing ideology) may find their source in our greatest strengths (the efficiencies of a technological world), especially when we are guided by self-deception and vanity that such a world so easily makes possible. No one learns that from reading a government report.

(Photo credit: College Board president David Coleman by Erich Schlegel.)

Michael J. Ortiz

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Michael J. Ortiz is the author of Swan Town: the Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare (HarperCollins 2006), and, most recently, Like the First Morning: The Morning offering as Daily Renewal (Ave Maria Press, 2015). He teaches English and Religion at The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland.

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