Monday, May 6, 2013

Apologia pro Common Core

Steven Cromack

The 1983 report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform stunned Americans. Schools across the country scrambled to design content standards and implement assessments.
Thirty-years later, history seems to be repeating itself. In an effort to improve K-12 education, forty-five states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted and implemented the Common Core State Standards. As of 2013, Texas, Alaska, Virginia, Minnesota, and Nebraska are the five holdouts. Members of the academy and secondary school history teachers should be euphoric about the Common Core, which mandates that middle and high school students actually do the work of historians. This includes, but is not limited to, reading and analyzing primary and secondary sources, as well as synthesizing such information coherently in written assignments. The crux of the Common Core is 21st-century readiness, i.e., putting a verb in a sentence correctly, and being able to read not “good,” but well. 

The standards themselves are not revolutionary. In fact, they simply mandate that teachers actually teach reading and writing. The best teachers have always done this. But at least with the Standards, teachers will be held accountable if they choose to use PowerPoint and the textbook as their sole methods of instruction. 

Members of the academy should be excited, too. With Common Core on the ground in high schools, the next generation of students should be better readers and writers. It is now time to double down and ensure that history undergraduates who plan to be teachers are introduced to the seminal primary source documents of American history so they can be prepared to teach the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Seneca Falls Declaration, among many others, to the upcoming generations.

Finally, Common Core reminds teachers of something that they perhaps take for granted: words are powerful. Whether they rally the troops before battle, convey universal truths, or declare new ideas about government, words are at the center of any society. Ideas can only be expressed through words. Words are like the ka of the Pharaoh, the lifeblood of any civilization. They are the written and spoken laws. They are nomoi (human conventions) and physis (nature). They are a means of grace, salus (healing), and salvation provided by the religions of the world. Words ended slavery and apartheid. Words relocated sovereignty from the King in Parliament to the American people. They toppled the Senātus Populusque Rōmānus and the House of Bourbon.  Words inspired nationalism and broke the yoke of colonialism. Words also sentenced prisoners to execution, inspired terror, and declared purges. 

History is not just the study of past events, but of words and their meaning. The Common Core Standards allow for history teachers to roll up their sleeves and rediscover with their students the words that have shaped our world.


hcr said...

Steve, thanks for this.

The sudden backlash against the common core makes my blood boil.

There were good reasons to oppose the Common Core when it was debated, most notably that for some states-- mine especially-- the federal standards were actually lower than the state standards. But long and serious discussions convinced skeptics (like me) that the value of standardizing the years in which say, students took HS biology, so that students could move to a different schools w/o being out of step, were worth taking some risks. To my mind, the emphasis on primary sources to teach history, rather than the crazy textbooks states like Texas and Virginia have used lately, as well as the emphasis on critical reading skills, were both significant things in favor of the Common Core, too.

But now the RNC has gone on record with formal opposition to the Common Core. Republican activists like Michelle Malkin insist both that it was imposed secretly and is designed to destroy local control by replacing it with some dangerous federal agenda. This is simply ridiculous. The plan was thoroughly vetted and heartily debated before adoption (I blogged about it here ages ago), and its designers begged for input. The final standards-- available on-line-- emphasize building-block skills, NOT any sort of political agenda. They will raise academic standards in all but a few states (indeed, in some states teachers are complaining that they do not have the skills to implement the new standards).

I simply do not understand how thinking people can ever believe that teaching our children to read, write, and think can be a bad thing.

Today's rant. Sorry.

hcr said...

FWIW, the Washington Times recently covered the story of the fight over CC within the Republican Party. It's at: