It is this duality of myself with myself that makes thinking a true activity, in which I am both the one who asks and the one who answers.
—HANNAH ARENDT, The Life of the Mind
The English Language Arts Standards Stifle Thought
How can teachers encourage thinking in school?
Arendt’s The Life of the Mind influences my answer. As an educator, my job is to prompt students to think—or, in her terms, to have soundless dialogues within themselves. One way to accomplish that is to structure courses as a conversation between philosophers. In my American political thought course, for instance, I teach lessons on the liberal John Rawls and the conservative Leo Strauss. An integral part of that particular unit is for students to enact a conversation between those two figures in their own minds.
Ideally, when students leave my courses, they will be able to hear different viewpoints speak up in their heads whenever they themselves consider, say, America’s role in the world or the just distribution of resources in a society. My goal is not to indoctrinate but to render students more thoughtful, more broad-minded, which means being able to look at political things from multiple angles. To address the most pressing problems of our day, we need our upcoming generations to become more thoughtful.
This brings me to a raging debate in American politics about the purpose of education. Let me describe the position that I oppose. The Common Core State Standards initiative aims to prepare all American children for success in college and careers in the twenty-first century. For too long, children in poverty or remote locations have not had access to a strong curriculum. The Common Core seeks to offset that trend by setting a bar in literacy and numeracy, one that states, schools, teachers, and students can reach in different ways.
The Common Core emphasizes the skill of close reading. What follows now is a definition of that skill as provided by PARCC, a consortium responsible for Common Core assessment:
Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details.
The purpose of the Common Core is to teach students to answer questions using evidence from texts, a useful skill for education at all levels as well as at nearly any job. According to polls, people tend to approve of the Common Core when introduced to it at this level of generality.
Problems become apparent, however, in the program’s actual implementation. Common Core assignments and tests require students to read a passage and then submit answers using exact words from the text, a pedagogy that facilitates computer grading. Students under Common Core do poorly if they answer questions using material that is not in the assigned passages. Put in Kantian terms, schools now train determinate judgment—the placing of round pegs in round holes—rather than reflective judgment, the crafting of singular responses to complex problems.
From an Arendtian perspective, the Common Core is a misguided response to the crisis in education. Students across the country now read so-called informational texts written by anonymous scribes at educational corporations such as Pearson or McGraw-Hill. The Common Core pressures schools to use a banal curriculum and pedagogy. Should students know how to use evidence to answer a question? Of course. Should that be the almost exclusive focus of the curriculum? No, not if we want schools to encourage students to connect ideas across texts or to confront pressing problems in the world.
Arendt’s concept of natality may give us two clues as to how we can get out of this situation. One is to value the power of educators and citizens to choose, or create, educational possibilities. Throughout her work, Arendt criticizes the thoughtless exercise of technocratic power. She goes on to call on people to act together on matters of public concern. Fortunately, America has a tradition of locally controlled schools, so an Arendtian might argue that school boards, for instance, should remain a site of political debate and decision.
Furthermore, an Arendtian might argue that schools should encourage children to think for themselves and practice disclosing themselves with one another. In her essay “The Crisis in Education” (1954), Arendt contests the child-centered focus of progressive education. Though she is correct that schools have the responsibility of conserving the achievements of the past and passing them on to the next generation, I think that she misinterprets John Dewey’s philosophy of education. Dewey’s thesis in Democracy and Education is that schools should make material interesting, not easy or fun, but rather tap into a student’s care for the world. An Arendtian would appreciate this impulse, particularly when the present alternative is a monotonous routine of finding key words in short texts.
Schools should provide the soil in which a child’s propensity to think can grow and blossom. In this particular moment, that principle requires political actors to oppose the Common Core and envision educational alternatives.
The Math Standards Do Not Prepare Children for STEM Majors or Careers
I am reading a second-grade math homework assignment. To get full credit, students must not only determine which of two numbers is higher; they must also demonstrate knowledge of place value. The assignment illustrates Common Core State Standard 2.0A.A.1:
Use addition and subtraction within 100 to solve one- and two-step word problems involving situations of adding to, taking from, putting together, taking apart, and comparing, with unknowns in all positions, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem.
In case this is opaque to you, NYSED offers the following explanation:
Real-life situations provide context and empirical support for the mathematical properties of addition (commutativity and associativity, which combine to make the so-called “any which way rule”) and for the mathematical relationship between addition and subtraction (subtraction is an unknown-addend problem).
Although I studied statistics and econometrics in graduate school, I must admit that I can barely follow these quotes. Later in the NYSED document, we encounter the following statement:
The Common Core State Standards present a balanced approach to mathematics that stresses equally the goals of conceptual understanding, fluency, and application.
On the contrary, this statement is crystal clear. The standards teach good things, for example, conceptual understanding. If you don’t understand the Common Core, the implication is that it’s your problem.
George Orwell warned against this kind of abuse of language in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell argued that authors should write as clearly and simply as the material allows. He criticized authors who use “pretentious diction” to give “an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.” Authors can use big words and convoluted sentences to make readers feel stupid. In this case, the Common Core literature may intimidate administrators, teachers, and parents to accept the new educational regime.
Parents of young children might be willing to endorse the Common Core math standards if they are confident that the payoff will be worth it. In a policy paper called “Can This Country Survive Common Core’s College Readiness Level?,” two professors on the Common Core Validation Committee, R. James Milgram and Sandra Stotsky, observe that the math progression does not reach precalculus. College students who did not take a precalculus course in high school rarely go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM area. In point of fact, the Common Core does not prepare many students for careers in science, mathematics, engineering, finance, or economics. “At this time, we can only conclude that a gigantic fraud has been perpetrated on this country, in particular on parents in this country, by those developing, promoting, or endorsing Common Core’s standards.”
When discussing politics, citizens should speak to one another as clearly and sincerely as possible. Right now, the Common Core literature uses technical terms and tortuous prose to sell an educational philosophy that may not deliver what it promises.
The state Board of Regents has approved the New York State P–12 Science Learning Standards. The standards identify the practices and ideas children will study in science class from kindergarten until high school graduation. The new standards are based on the national Next Generation Science Standards and claim to teach children science, technology, engineering, and math. According to state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia, these standards will “provide equitable learning opportunities” so that all students will be ready for college and careers.
Unfortunately, the new science standards are created by the same group that produced the Common Core standards, are aligned to the Common Core standards, and are designed for high-stakes online testing. The Regents could have blazed a new path for science education in the country; instead, the Regents continue to build an education system that parents abhor.
Achieve is a Washington, D.C., based organization that developed the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the Common Core State Standards in math and ELA. Achieve’s contributors include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Chevron, DuPont, and ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson once explained why he supports education reform: “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer.” For Tillerson, corporations have entered the standards debate because they want a better “product,” not because they care about democracy or protecting the environment.
It is a shame that the Regents trusted and relied on Achieve and its funders, such as ExxonMobil, to structure science education in New York.
The new standards explicitly align with the Common Core. Here, for example, is a prekindergarten performance expectation for physical sciences: “Ask questions and use observations to test the claim that different kinds of matter exist as either solid or liquid.” This standard connects with the Common Core ELA prekindergarten standard for reading informational text: “With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about details in a text.” While many early-childhood researchers and practitioners recognize that young children learn about the world by playing with blocks, water, sand, and dirt, these science standards demand that kids read at an age-inappropriate level.
The new standards share the Common Core’s focus on “close reading.” There are occasions in life when one needs to provide exact evidence from a text. But close reading provides few opportunities for children to formulate their own hypotheses or proceed in an unconventional manner. Even if you agree with the content of the science standards, one may still protest indoctrinating students into providing the one correct answer. That is not how scientists think or how good private schools teach science.
To understand what is on the horizon for testing, one should read the National Research Council’s A Framework for K–12 Science Education. The book explains that science education requires the alignment of curriculum, instruction, teacher development, and assessment and promotes the development of computer-based assessments. The framework dismisses the idea that standards should emphasize visits from experts to the classroom, field trips to science centers and aquariums, or experiential learning. Administering and scoring hands-on tasks “can be cumbersome and expensive”; whereas “computer-based assessment offers a promising alternative.”
Given that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires testing of science in the grade spans 3–5, 6–9, and 10–12, one may soon see online science testing in New York. And given how testing drives the curriculum, one may anticipate science instruction to be done increasingly on computers. Some have said that science class will become more “hands-on” with the new standards. That is absurd. Clicking a mouse on online science assessments does not constitute hands-on science, nor does it generate wonder at the natural world. The clear beneficiaries of this adoption are testing and tutoring companies.
To be fair, the new standards include material that students should know about science. For some students, the new standards and aligned curricula and testing may constitute an improvement in science education. But the choice does not have to be between the Achieve package of science education or nothing. New York has some of the world’s best scientists, professors, and researchers. Why are we using a set of science standards developed by a Washington, D.C., group funded by oil companies?
When historians look back on this era, they will see Achieve and its funders waging a battle against parents who do not want education to be about preparing for online tests. New Yorkers should tell the Regents that they made a mistake adopting Achieve’s science standards and that we need to plan an exit strategy.
The College Board’s Interest in Advanced Placement U.S. History
In fall 2014, teachers and students in Colorado demanded a say in how history is taught in the state’s public schools. The protests erupted in response to a proposal by the Jefferson County School Board to revise the APUSH curriculum framework to emphasize patriotism, the free market, and respect for authority. The teachers and students replied that this account of history whitewashes injustice and the importance of civil disobedience.
But the Colorado protesters and their sympathizers across the country may have done more harm than good by cementing the College Board’s virtual monopoly on how U.S. history is taught to college-bound students.
The controversy started when the College Board, which administers the AP exams that high school students nationwide take at the end of each school year, released a draft of its new APUSH framework. This provoked a backlash among conservatives unhappy about what they saw as a too-negative assessment of the founding of the United States, among other things. Subsequently, the College Board released a revised draft, and the Jefferson County School Board responded with its proposal, which sparked the student–teacher protests.
The national media have by and large presented this story as a clash between the forces of reaction and the forces of progress, between provincial conservatives and scholars who acknowledge the role of women and minorities in U.S. history. While this narrative contains a grain of truth, it overlooks the question of who should decide what version of history should be taught in schools.
My concern is with the College Board’s attempt to foreclose debate about how communities teach history to college-bound high school students. It is not the details of the APUSH curricular framework that worry me but a private company’s push to usurp curricular decisions from locally elected school boards. What the dispute is really about, then, is democratic control of schools.
In The Human Condition, the German political philosopher Hannah Arendt argues that storytellers, or historians, play a vital role in the community by determining what is remembered or forgotten about political events. Historians not only recount what happened; they also signal to the community what kinds of events are worth celebrating or not. For Arendt, one of the central tasks of politics—what she calls the vita activa—is fostering debate about the stories a community tells about itself.
At the time, the College Board said that it supported the students’ protest against an attempt “to censor aspects of the AP U.S. history course.” That is one way to frame the debate; another is that the College Board wants to prohibit local school boards from revising its product or contesting its version of U.S. history.
Of course, there are elements in the APUSH curriculum framework that may be as good as or better than what the Jefferson County School Board would choose. But that is not a reason to prohibit school boards from having a say in the U.S. history curriculum. In Federalist 51, James Madison wrote, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” If men were angels, there would be no need for checks and balances, but because humans tend to favor people who agree with them, it is necessary to distribute power widely throughout society. In this case, the ambition of the Jefferson County School Board counteracts the ambition of the College Board. No one person or group should hold a monopoly on something as valuable as how a community remembers its past or envisions its future.
Here is a thought experiment for people who still favor the revised APUSH curriculum framework over the Jefferson County School Board’s alternative: if Julie Williams, the outspoken member of the Jefferson County School Board behind the revision proposal, became president of the College Board, how much power would you want her to have? This consideration may help us gain appreciation for Arendt’s and Madison’s arguments for why communities should have the ongoing power to determine what history they will teach their young people.
Can the Common Core be saved? Can its focus on close-reading skills be supplemented by a content-rich curriculum? Can the Common Core’s role in promoting national standardized tests still lead to a more culturally literate population? E. D. Hirsch Jr. answers yes to all of these questions in his book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Education Theories.
Hirsch, a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, published a best-selling book in the 1980s called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. In it, he included a list of dates, names, events, and so forth that cultured Americans already know and that, for egalitarian reasons, should be taught to all young people in public schools.
The Common Core is a set of standards and not a curriculum. Though the Common Core has appendixes that have recommended readings, the Common Core emphasizes above all the skill of close reading, expressed by the first anchor standard that students must “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it.”
Hirsch wrote blogs for the Huffington Post in 2013 supporting the Common Core. In Why Knowledge Matters, Hirsch is surprisingly blunt in his critique of it. “These empty standards were created out of political expediency. The makers of standards and tests have built up an artificial construct . . . based on a faulty and unproductive picture of reading comprehension.” Hirsch cites research showing that students understand a text better when they focus on its meaning rather than the words themselves. “Paying close attention to the text itself debases comprehension by usurping limited mental resources that would be better applied to pondering the substantive implications and the validity of what the text is saying.”
According to Hirsch, “this close-reading standard in the Common Core should be recast (or excised) to conform with the scientific finding that paying attention to word features is less effective than reading for meaning.” This is akin to arguing that the Common Core should have a different philosophy of education. And given that the close-reading standard is embedded in the Next Generation Science Standards, the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies, and the College Board’s AP program, Hirsch’s demand may be even more revolutionary than he realizes.
Rather than oppose the Common Core, however, Hirsch presents himself as helping it realize its promise. The official document says that standards must be “complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.” So far, test and curriculum makers have tended to ignore the Common Core’s admonition to supplement the skill standards with a knowledge-based curriculum.
In the short term, Hirsch would like to see districts and states teach more content-rich curricula, including, but not inclusively, the Core Knowledge program based upon his work. In the longer term, Hirsch would like to see a “nationwide elementary content core.”
Is this at all feasible? In 2014, Politico ran an article arguing that Common Core architect David Coleman shared the same basic pedagogical outlook as Hirsch. This seems wrong. In 1999, Coleman launched the Grow Network, a company that produced reports to help school districts analyze standardized test scores. In 2008, Coleman met with Bill and Melinda Gates, and they supported his plans to write the Common Core standards. Presently, Coleman leads the College Board, the organization responsible for administering the SAT and AP exams. For his entire professional career, Coleman has been involved in building the current standardized testing industry. To think that he wants to disrupt this industry is to dream of a leopard changing its spots.
In Why Knowledge Matters, Hirsch expresses his faith in a national education system that makes all young people culturally literate. “What makes an American competent—whether in Kittery, Maine, or Cleveland, Ohio, or Oakland, California—is mastery of the national dimension of our public sphere. . . . Helping the public to recognize that communal purpose is the practical key to making the Common Core Standards, or any standards, work.” In practice, the Common Core has led to the exact kind of education that Hirsch opposes: one based on teaching generic skills rather than rich content. However, Hirsch still holds out hope that someday, somehow, someone one will realize the Common Core’s “communal purpose.” There are grounds to be skeptical.
On February 2018, Chalkbeat published an article on the Gates Foundation’s plans to shape the curriculum that schools use across the country. The foundation will fund rating systems to help decision makers select “high-quality” curricular materials. The rating systems will determine whether curricula are aligned to states’ education standards—for all intents and purposes, the Common Core. The Gates Foundation has never given a grant to Core Knowledge and has consistently advocated the kinds of standards and tests that Hirsch critiques. The leaders of the Common Core movement may decide that Core Knowledge doesn’t fit within their plans.
In Why Knowledge Matters, Hirsch continues a decades-long feud with John Dewey (1859–1952) and the progressive education movement in general. According to Hirsch, Dewey embraced certain Romantic themes in his writings on education, including a “providential individualism” that maintains that “the natural growth of a child is an instance of God unfolding His purposes in the world.” Though Dewey eventually dropped this kind of religious language, he still believed that educators needed to let children grow naturally. In response, Hirsch maintains, “education is inherently an induction into the adult tribe—and so it has been from the dawn of human social groups. The idea that education is a natural growth has had a relatively recent birth. One hopes it will grow old and die.”
Hirsch and his supporters, perhaps because they continue to endorse the ideal of national content standards, have not joined forces with education progressives to oppose the Common Core. Fortunately, some education traditionalists think that such alliances are possible. Here, I would like to give the last word to Jane Robbins, who criticizes the plans for curricular reform in an article for The American Spectator called “Bill Gates Doesn’t Get It” (June 7, 2018):
“Quality” in curricula is a nebulous concept. Materials that require students to engage in projects and collaboration, with a healthy dose of social-emotional play-acting, may be considered high-quality in some areas. . . . In others, materials that focus on direct instruction in genuine academic content would win the competition. Local communities are different. So local curricula should be different.