One can hardly avoid the topic of Common Core curriculum these days. Common Core has become shorthand for the Common Core State Standards, which were proposed as a way to make sure that American public schools were preparing American students to compete in a technologically complex and global economy.
The Common Core State Standards are particularly concerned with helping students to succeed in mathematics and with creating standards for language usage. Many critics of the Common Core curriculum have taken issue with the way in which the Common Core literacy standards reduce student reading to non-fiction texts or to parts of texts rather than whole works of fiction.
The Common Core curriculum is an attempt to create a one-size-fits-all education for the nation. But before concentrating on particulars, should we not ask ourselves whether this can be done? Is it possible to create an education that is common to all? Furthermore, is it desirable to create an education that is common to all?
American public education is a long-standing tradition. From the outset, as America pushed west from the original thirteen colonies, townships set aside plots of land for the purposes of constructing schools. The growth of schools mirrored the westward expansion of the new nation, and, in the mid-19th century, educational leaders began to speak of universal public education. For the better part of this time, local communities set their own educational standards and hired and fired their own teachers. However, there was an agreed-upon base for education, a common core curriculum, if you will. That’s where we get the expression “reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
So why all the controversy over Common Core curriculum? One issue is clearly the idea of local vs. federal control. Originally, the American public schools were accountable to the parents in their community. It was assumed that those closest to the community school could best manage the interests of the community. Another issue is the continued difficulty of assessing student progress. For years, education leaders assumed that standardized testing was the best way to measure educational progress. However, this led to an array of problems from “teaching to the test” to teachers cheating on the tests. Perhaps more importantly, it led to a decay of teaching big ideas. In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch talks about how the standardized testing movement led to the death of classes like Civics, in which students learned about their nation’s government and about their rights and duties as citizens.
Parents and politicians alike have taken issue with specific points within Common Core while often failing to look at the bigger picture. The idea of a common core curriculum is not wrong. After all, for over a thousand years in the history of Western civilization, there was a common core curriculum—classical, Christian education. The problem with the new Common Core curriculum is that the educational goals of the program are flawed.
Every program or reform can be assessed by the questions it asks. At its heart, the Common Core curriculum and its proponents are asking the question “What curriculum should we create so that our students will be able to get good jobs?” This question reflects an impoverished view of humanity. Are we just workers so that we can earn money so that we can consume goods so that we can work again? This is not the traditional view of education. The traditional view of education was to cultivate wise and virtuous citizens who could lead themselves and their communities well.
If we want to create a true common core curriculum, we should ask bigger questions, like “How can I cultivate students who value the greater good?” “How can I cultivate students who will sacrifice their own interests to protect their fellow citizens?” “How can I cultivate students who truly understand the rights and responsibilities that accompany freedom?” When we are ready to ask those questions, we will be ready to create a common core curriculum that benefits our students, our communities, and our nation.
Author: Jennifer Courtney