It is hard to say which claim about the Common Core is the more absurd — the right-wing activists' assertion that it's President Obama's instrument for “federalizing the schools,” or the leftist education activists' claim that the Common Core is Bill Gates' vehicle for privatizing the schools and “colonizing public education.”
Conservative and leftist critiques of Common Core now often overlap into one unified conspiracy theory.
Common Core is neither a right-wing nor a left-wing plot. And its demise would harm the country's schools.
I remain convinced that, faults and all, the Common Core still presents a golden opportunity and a challenge for states and school districts to rethink what is taught in their classrooms. The standards are more than just a list of learning objectives and skills that American students are expected to achieve by the end of each grade level.
The most hopeful part of the new standards is that they reject the instructional malpractice that prevents public schools from fulfilling their historic mission of producing literate American citizens who know something about their country's history and its republican heritage.
The Common Core is not a curriculum, as many critics have falsely claimed. But it emphatically calls for states and school districts to implement the standards with “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”
Because of that instructional guideline, there is now at least the possibility of a serious discussion in the schools about the role of academic content knowledge and a coherent curriculum in raising student achievement.
That's a conversation that hasn't taken place in American education for almost half a century.
To appreciate what is now at stake for public education, it's worth looking at the performance of our K-12 schools on the eve of the Common Core rollout in 2012.
A vivid snapshot was provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also called the Nation's Report Card. NAEP is a federally funded, independent testing agency that periodically measures the education achievement of American students.
Perhaps the most significant of NAEP's many grade-level assessments are the reading tests that, beginning in 1971, have been administered every four years to a representative national sample of 17-year-olds. That's because the level of reading proficiency of children who have completed nearly 13 years of schooling is, arguably, the best measure of the success (or lack of success) of the nation's public schools. Math is very important, of course, but verbal ability is the essential tool for college readiness and also closely predicts future economic success.
That's why the results of the 2012 NAEP reading tests were such a dispiriting commentary on the condition of the schools. The tests confirmed that there had been no improvement in reading for 11th- and 12th-graders since the first national tests were administered in 1971. NAEP assessments in civics and US history similarly exposed the amazingly low level of general knowledge by college-bound students.
(On one of the tests, only 43% of 17-year-olds correctly identified the half-century in which the Civil War was fought.)
Throughout the past 40 years of education stagnation, there was no shortage of high-level study groups aimed at turning around the schools. Nevertheless, one necessary reform was never tried at the state or federal levels during the four decades of education failure.
It was the curriculum, stupid.
Indeed, in the schools of education where the nation's future teachers were trained, the prevailing wisdom continued to be that there was no need for schools to follow a sequenced, grade-by-grade curriculum or even impart a coherent body of content knowledge to students.
According to E.D. Hirsch, well-meaning school reformers merely advocating structural reforms — i.e., charters, vouchers and accountability schemes for teachers — ignored the most potent force for academic achievement.
The classroom was the “primal scene” of all education improvement, Hirsch noted. “The effort to develop a standard sequence of core knowledge is, to put it bluntly, absolutely essential to effective educational reform in the United States.”
In short, if we don't ask more of our students, if we don't set certain benchmarks and expect a standard level of knowledge, how can we hope that our schools will get better?
This piece originally appeared in New York Post