This past Wednesday, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) released for public comment a draft document containing its proposals for nation-wide education standards. The Standards represent the effort of forty-nine states and territories to develop a single, broad outline of the skills every American student should master by high school graduation. In attempting to free our education system from the patchwork of state-by-state standards and curricula, the efforts of the CCSSI indicate a significant, and vital, move towards a truly unified understanding of what it means to receive an American education.
Commissioned by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Initiative sought input from a wide range of scholars, researchers, and educators to ensure that the proposed standards would be rigorous, assessable, and evidence-based; with the end goal being a body of high school graduates who are, in the Standards’ terminology, college and career ready.
It’s an impressive effort, to say the least, and a welcome acknowledgement by our country’s education officials that a more uniform standard of education is essential to keeping America competitive. Wanting to give informed support to this effort, I took some time to peruse the Standards this week.
Well, part of them, anyway. The Standards are divided into two parts: Mathematics, and English Language Arts (ELA). Given that I have no specialty in the maths, I stuck to the ELA material. And I must say, I am most enthusiastic. A few of my reasons:
They promote not just reading in the English classroom, but literacy in the fields of history, social studies, and science. That is, teachers of these subjects are expected to use their field-specific knowledge to help students understand the unique uses of language in that subject. Further, the students are expected to learn and understand the different types of evidence required of different disciplines.
They are “vertically aligned.” Each year’s standards build upon the previous years, so that students experience a consistent, gradual increase in the complexity and sophistication not only of the material they encounter, but the tools and methods they use to analyze them.
They are research and evidence based. According to the documents introduction, “A particular standard was included… only when the best available evidence indicated that its mastery was essential for students to be college and career ready in a twenty-first century, globally competitive society.” Even more encouraging, due to the ongoing nature of research, regular re-evaluation and appropriate revision of the Standards will take place as newer and better evidence becomes available.
They recognize the autonomy of the teacher. The case is made over and over that the Standards are a set of desired results, not means. The Standards establish the end goal, and very prudently leaves state boards, school administrators, and classroom teachers to determine how each student can best achieve it. Further, they state quite clearly that, rigorous as they are, the Standards are but a minimum – that “the aim of the Standards is to articulate the fundamentals, not to set out an exhaustive list nor a set of restrictions that limits what can be taught.”
They give equal weight to college and career readiness. It is understood that post-secondary education is not the end goal for all students, nor should it be. The Standards’ aim is to educate America’s students so that, upon reaching young adulthood, whichever path they elect, they may be functioning, contributing members of society. Or, in the document’s own words:
Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and online. They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews. They reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic. In short, students who master the Standards develop the skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening that are the foundation for any creative and purposeful expression in language.
It’s pretty heady stuff, and insanely ambitious. But it is encouraging for our states’ leaders to recognize that without setting – and achieving – such ambitious goals, our country is guaranteed a future of decline.
The CCSSI wasn’t the only body announcing new academic standards this week. Attracting a great deal more attention was news that the Texas State Board of Education had given preliminary approval to revisions to the state’s history and social studies curriculum.
Rather dramatically referred to as the ‘Texas Textbook Massacre’ by the HuffingtonPost, the School Board’s actions are being cast, not surprisingly, as a coup d’education by the board’s “ultra-conservatives.” Again, wanting to get a better idea of what was going on, I looked over the proposed revisions (like the Common Core Standards, these revisions are still in draft form and are currently posted for public comment). As political drama goes, it was pretty dull reading (according to the news reports, debate over the revisions was quite heated) – but there are some points to make.
To begin, the VAST majority of the revisions are either inconsequential or even beneficial. There are numerous places where the language of a particular requirement is improved and clarified. Even better, many requirements are revised so as to render them broader and more inviting of inquiry and discussion. Key words such as “evaluate” and “discuss” are chosen over narrower directions such as “describe” and “explain.” It’s a subtle, nit-picky difference, yes; but it is the difference between approaching a question of history with a predetermined conclusion in mine (the old language) and allowing the student, through exploration and synthesis, to come to his or her own conclusion (the revisions). There is a lot to support in the new standards.
That, however, is exactly why the few controversial bits that have attracted so much attention are so startling. There are insertions and manipulations of language that are so blatantly political and ideological it’s embarrassing. For instance*:
Obvious political point-grabbing. There are several additions to the curriculum that seem to serve no other purpose than political tit-for-tat –
“explain the impact of the election of Andrew Jackson, including expanded suffrage…” struck from this item was the clause “[including] the beginning of the modern Democratic Party”
“describe how McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the arms, and the space race increased Cold War tensions and how the later release of the Venona Papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government” — because, I assume, confirmed communist spies in the U.S. government makes it, in retrospect, okay that McCarthy and his allies actively and enthusiastically destroyed the lives and careers of countless Americans
“describe the causes, key organizations, and individuals of the conservative resurgance of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association”
That last one especially gets me. Clearly, any capable history or government teacher will address the significance of Reagan’s ascendance, and the mid-term elections of 1994, and what have you. But to spell out, in no uncertain terms, what these teachers have to cover is to do the exact opposite of the Common Standards panel – that is, trust that classroom teachers can decide how best to teach their subject. I suppose government intrusion is okay as long as it’s enforcing your viewpoint.
Use of judgment-laden language.** There are a handful of revisions which mandate terminology that is clearly intended to steer thinking towards a prescribed conclusion (all emphasis added) –
“understand the poor record of collectivist, non-free market economic systems to deliver improved economic development over numerous contemporary and historical societies”
“explain why a free enterprise (capitalist, free market) system of economics developed in the new nation, including minimal government intrusion and taxation, and property rights”
“identify the causes of the Great Depression, incuding the impact of tariffs on world trade, stock market speculation, bank failures, and the flawed monetary policy of the Federal Reserve System”
This, perhaps, is what frustrates me most of all. When you, as the curriculum-setting body, are assigning adjectives to your students’ material, you are deciding for them how to interpret it. And that, you see, is the fundamental difference between education (teaching students how to think) and indoctrination (teaching students what to think).
Education, particularly in the field of history, is about providing students with facts (and teaching them how to gather facts for themselves), and helping them develop the critical thinking skills necessary to synthesize those facts into a sound, well-reasoned conclusion. The only reason I can think of for prescribing one conclusion over the other is that you simply don’t trust the facts to bear out in your favor.
So let me bring this all together.
While the governors and chief education officials of forty-nine states and territories (in case you were wondering, Texas was one of two states not to participate – the other was Alaska) have recognized, and have tried to address, the need for uniform, rigorous standards that will ensure America’s competitiveness; the Texas State Board of Education is tying itself in knots over whether or not to require students to know about Phyllis Schlafly and Reaganomics. Put another way, the CCSSI has concerned itself with how students should learn; conservatives on the Texas Board are obsessing over what students should learn.
Part of this disconnect, of course, stems from the fact that these two bodies have legitimately different missions – and it is, after all, the duty of the Texas Board to dictate the specifics of curriculum. But to do so in such a blatantly political manner does a disservice to the Texas curriculum in particular (which is, overall, quite reasonable) and to American education in general.
Ultimately this is a matter of trust. We have to trust that our teachers know how to teach their subject. We have to trust that, if we give students the tools they need, they will pursue academic inquiry with a cool head and a reasoned mind. And, ultimately, we have to trust that if our nation’s students can accomplish that, then our nation will continue to thrive in the coming century and beyond.
* The term “including” indicates material that is required; “such as” indicates suggested examples
** For the record, one revision that has been criticized in liberal corners – the change from American “imperialism” to “expansionism” – is one I fully support. Use of judgment-laden vocabulary is inappropriate whether it comes from the left or the right, and “imperialism” is dripping with judgment.