The Common Core, A Common Problem

I am not an educator. Let me just say that up front.

I know many educators, though, my wife among them. Some of my closest friends are, or have been, educators by profession. The common thread among all of them is that, with the possible exception of one, they all hold the No Child Left Behind law in extremely poor regard.

No, I’m not going to violate my rule about not posting about politics here. This isn’t political, I promise.

Before moving to New England, I spent four years in a position that contracted into the public school system. I saw my share of classrooms first hand. I met many colleagues who are extremely competent educators, and whose hands are tied by the limits of objective test scores and narrow-minded curricula. Because of what Karen and I have both experienced in public school classrooms, we are seriously considering pursuing home-schooling options for our daughter, because neither of us trust the quality of education that will be received in the public system. The things that aren’t taught leave a gaping absence in my mind. This is a difficult decision for me, because I think that the social experiences of public school are very important, and I myself am the product of primarily public education. The point of the experience, though, is just that…education. If our children aren’t learning enough of the right things…acquiring an acceptable¬†fund of knowledge, to use the jargon…then there sort of isn’t any point.

I’ve been reading a lot about the common core standards of late. Again, I’m no educator, but I am (and I don’t say this to be in any way narcissistic) well-educated, and I am at a point in my life at which I can think back to how I got that way. I am also a stake-holder in this situation now that I’m a father, and I’ve seen my share of how American students receive a sub-standard education that is quantified by test scores, up close and personal. The common core standards, as I understand them, are designed in part to push back on No Child Left Behind. From what I read, I’m hesitant.

Some of my friends are in support of the common core standards. Some are not. I’m firmly undecided, but skeptical, as the core issues at hand…namely, that education is operated as a business and driven toward numerical measurements of success, primarily in mathematics and sciences at the near exclusion of the humanities…seem to remain unaddressed.

The aspect of the common core that gives me the most pause is it’s emphasis on “informational texts.” A significant percentage of time is expected to be spent by students reading these so-called informational texts…that is, texts that talk about what they just studied. I have no difficulty envisioning less time spent with the primary sources (which is the subject actually being engaged), and more with other scholar’s (perhaps of arguable reputation depending upon the political bent of the school board in question) opinions about those primary sources.

That is, before my daughter reads a critic’s analysis of Salinger, I want her to have read and engaged a significant sampling of Salinger herself, because that’s how independent critical thinking develops. And, if American culture is painfully short on anything, it’s critical thinking.

Perhaps I’m paranoid. Perhaps I’m pessimistic. I’ve certainly been accused of both in the past. Perhaps I’m also of the age where I’m beginning to despair at the disparities between the children of today and my own experiences. Those potentialities notwithstanding, I remember my senior year in high school, when I took “Advanced Placement” English. I was exposed to some of the most influential literature of my life that year (we had to read four books the preceding summer as a condition of admission to the class, and continue to read a book on our own and generate a critical paper every three weeks during the year, aside from what the class covered as a unit). I learned to think critically about literature. I learned how to write critically. As a result, I learned a lot about life. None of my undergraduate English courses were as difficult…or as rewarding…as that high school English course.

I resonate with my friends who find their students at the undergraduate level woefully unprepared for the level of thinking a university requires. I want to have enough faith in the public education system to not be concerned about sending our daughter there in the future. I want to see the arts and humanities in their rightfully equal footing with the sciences and math. I want to know that our daughter will be pushed to read great literature like I was my last year in high school.

In my admittedly limited scope of knowledge, but substantial scope of experience, on the subject, I’m not at all convinced that the common core standards are moving us in the right direction.

That said, with our education system in the condition that it is, the bar for improvement is decidedly…and tragically…low.

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