A reason why the coterie of movement conservatives and hard-core progressives oppose the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards in 45 states and the District of Columbia is their contention that the various works of fiction, nonfiction and so-called informational texts used to demonstrate what can be read under the standards are somehow overtly political. This view, which has been articulated by the likes of National Review‘s Stanley Kurtz and others, dovetails nicely with arguments by many movement conservatives opposed to the standards that the voluntary initiative developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers is somehow an Obama Administration plot. The latest example of this argument comes courtesy of Education Action Group in a report on its Web site detailing the wrongheaded move by a fourth grade teacher at Glenn C. Marlow Elementary in Mills River, N.C., to use a series of talking points opposing a move by the Republican-controlled state legislature to overhaul the Tar Heel State’s early childhood education program for a classroom lesson. EAG intones that Common Core will somehow lead to “students might soon be reading screeds about mean-spirited Republicans and their wrongheaded policies”.
But a closer look at what the developers of Common Core cite as examples of books and other materials that children can read as part of their learning shows that those statements are hardly true. If anything, the statements made by Common Core foes is another example of what happens when one engages in false statements as part of opposing systemic reform (as well as what happens when one doesn’t do something simple called research and reporting). And why the arguments of Common Core foes are so hard to take seriously.
At the heart of this aspect of the battle over implementing Common Core is also one of the more-interesting aspects of the effort itself: The implicit emphasis on moving away from costly (and often, sub-par) traditional textbooks (as well as the often-politicized processes of deciding what is contained in them that often complicate efforts to provide all children with comprehensive, college-preparatory curricula) to the use of fiction and nonfiction works of higher quality that are available at lower costs. Especially in reading, Common Core offers a compendium of what it calls “exemplar texts” or examples of fiction and nonfiction literature, along with informational texts, that are either culled from the public domain or can be easily purchased from any publisher. This list, which only exists to set examples for what teachers can provide to children for their reading, is in many ways a paradigm shift that will force teachers to actually focus on providing children with high-quality instruction; it will also reveal those laggards who shouldn’t be teaching in the first place. That moving away from traditional textbooks could actually lead to cost-savings also makes Common Core’s list of exemplar texts even more appealing. Most importantly, there will be opportunities to provide kids with the great writings of fiction and nonfiction that are key to understanding the world around them.
What are some of the exemplar texts? For kindergartners and first-graders, the list includes poet Richard Wright’s Laughing Boy, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, and . Third-grade teachers can assign books similar to Ruth Stiles Gannett’s My Father’s Dragon, Emily Dickinson’s Autumn, or even E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (which was one of your editor’s favorite books when he was growing up). Meanwhile middle school English teachers can assign such classics as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, English poet William Butler Yeats The Song of Wandering Aengus, and Langston Hughes’ I, Too, Sing America. By high school, teachers can assign Homer’s The Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Voltaire’s Candide, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Based on any sensible interpretation, the books that can be assigned by teachers can include nearly all of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books featuring the mischievous Anne Shirley, any one of Shakespeare’s plays, and plenty of classics. Nothing which one can say with a straight face is political, unless you really have trouble with, say James Weldon Johnson ode to the black struggle for freedom from slavery, Lift Every Voice and Sing. Of course, there are novel such as Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, whose more adult themes (along with its setting in pre-Castro era Cuba) is one that some find too offensive to their sensibilities. But last I checked, this can also be said of Geoffrey Chaucer’s scatological classic, The Canterbury Tales, which features a soliloquy by a woman discussing her lack of sexual chastity, and that is a classic Common Core foes would wholeheartedly approve of high schoolers to read. [Actually, this can be said of many classics as well as the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (especially the Song of Solomon).] In any case, the books are age appropriate, and also of high quality.
Then there are the informational texts — which include works of nonfiction, science articles, and other materials — which have become the biggest source of criticism for Common Core foes. Besides the arguments that the materials are akin to political indoctrination, the fact that children will also have to read the very books that have helped shape the world around us (including speeches by Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln) also offends their view (as well as that of English teachers miffed about putting focus away from fiction) that kids should only read literature. A close look at the various example texts show little in the way of anything political. From the perspective of folks such as Joy Pullman, the otherwise sensible editor of Heartland Institute’s School Reform News, these texts are “piles of trash“.
A closer look shows that both assertions are off-target. Kindergarten teachers can offer their students books similar to Earthworms, a book by Claire Llewellyn on those lovely Oligochaeta that are found in the soil. Sixth grade teachers for example can give their kids copies of the Invasive Plant Inventory published by the California Invasive Plant Council to read. From reading the 44-page booklet, which details the various plants not native to particular regions that can damage the soil of farms and other property, kids can improve their science literacy as well as understand how to read the very texts they will have to consult in adulthood. High school science teachers can assign sophomores magazine pieces similar to “Amusement Park Physics”, physicist Jearl Walker’s 1985 Scientific American column that explains the scientific principles behind theme park rides.
Eighth-grade teachers can assign to students such classic speeches as Sir Winston Churchill’s rousing Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat, which helped keep Great Britain from losing hope amid the early losses during the Second World War. Meanwhile high school social studies and history teachers can offer perspectives on the conflict between the United States and American Indian tribes by providing students books similar to Son of the Morning Star, historian Evan S. Connell’s history of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Especially given that children rarely get a full, comprehensive perspective on Native communities in American history, providing both books makes sense to do. John Allen Paulos’ excellent book on understanding the role of mathematics in everyday life, Innumeracy, is also featured as an exemplar text. Just about every one of the informational texts found that are exemplars in Common Core are the kind of writing that you would expect to be taught in school. Unless you really want to argue that Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and American Civil War general Horace Porter’s account of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox are both piles of trash.
Simply put, there is almost nothing about the examples that would be considered political. Or trash. Just two out of the 137 informational texts cited as examples by Common Core’s developers would even come close. This includes a 2009 edition of Fed Views, the newsletter of the Federal Reserve System’s San Francisco branch that focused on the economic conditions of the nation after the financial meltdown, and Executive Order 13423, the environmental policy issued by President George W. Bush in 2007 that requires federal agencies to use sustainable resources in constructing federal buildings. Certainly your editor would one can argue that the executive order could have been left out. But one can also argue that it is important for young adults, who will eventually have to deal with political issues, should understand the various documents that shape what government agencies do. For example, it would be hard to discuss the history of American Indians in the United States without talking about the Indian Education Act or any of the executive orders issued by various administrations over the past six decades; same is true in discussing the civil rights movement of the last decade (including Harry Truman’s 1947 executive order desegregating the military). This can be done with high-quality teachers leading discussions about both sides of underlying issues (as well as exercises such as debates). After all, that is what teachers and schools are supposed to do. And we want our children to be knowledgeable men and women equipped to engage thoughtfully in the marketplace of ideas.
In fact, it would be hard for any teacher (or parent) to interpret the text exemplars as giving them leeway to offer anything that would be explicitly political. This is because Common Core’s list of exemplar texts is actually thought through. One can quibble about whether more texts should be added — nearly every book by Smith and John Stuart Mill should be on this list in order for children to gain a full understanding of economics — but it is almost impossible for any teacher to get this wrong if they have strong subject-matter competency, are knowledgeable in instruction, care for the lives of all children in their classrooms, and are entrepreneurial self-starters who know how to lead classrooms. Oh, and have that thing of nature called common sense.
In short, the teacher at Marlow Elementary didn’t follow the examples provided by Common Core’s developers. The teacher should have been sticking with the guidelines for fourth grade, which explicitly state that the focus was to be on showing her students “how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text”, as well as “determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words or phrases” in relevant texts. This could easily be done with a number of books and articles that include Nelson Kadir’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball and Henrietta Buckmaster’s Underground Railroad, both of which are already on the list of exemplar texts; she could have also found any reading material that is similar to those pieces for use in the classroom assignment. Ben Velderman of EAG, who wrote the original piece (and is following up the story) says that the principal told him that the particular piece used by the teacher was, in his view, appropriate under Common Core; the standards clearly show that this isn’t so.
What EAG and others argue is a problem derived from Common Core is actually the problem of low-quality teaching and school leadership, which includes the penchant among those teachers to engage in the kind of political activities that don’t belong in classrooms. That’s been a problem for decades. The solution for that lies not in ceasing efforts to provide all children with high-quality curricula, but to overhaul the abysmal system of recruiting, training, compensating, and managing the performance of teachers and those who oversee them. If Common Core foes are truly serious in addressing those issues, they can join with the rest of the school reform movement in making that a reality.
But as Dropout Nation has noted over the past few months, this is not the first time Common Core foes have engaged in the kind of misinformation, exaggeration and conspiracy-theorizing that reformers wouldn’t tolerate generally from traditionalists on a good day. Within the past year, Common Core foes have attempted to use a couple of asides about the standards in a U.S. Department of Education report on using facial technology in assessing student learning (along with the mention of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program officer in the report’s acknowledgement section) to argue that the standards are the next step in some Orwellian plot to take control of the minds of children. From spinning conspiracy theories about the role of the Gates Foundation in advancing Common Core implementation, to false arguments about the standards leading to middle school students losing out on introductory algebra (when most don’t even take this much-needed course), what was once principled, if wrong-headed opposition to the development of national curricula standards has now devolved into a campaign of misinformation that should be offensive to those opposed to the standards who offer principled, more-serious arguments against them.
But the consequences of such misinformation and gamesmanship are borne by children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, who have long been subjected to educational abuse and malpractice. As this publication has demonstrated since its founding, far too many kids aren’t getting the kind of curricula needed to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Thanks to the emphasis on such approaches as guided learning, children who are particularly struggling in literacy are never exposed to the kind of challenging books that help them become proficient in reading. Addressing this underlying culprit of an education crisis that condemns 121 children each day to poverty and prison requires a series of solutions. The implementation of Common Core is one of the key steps in helping all children get the college preparatory curricula they need and deserve. This isn’t to say Common Core foes don’t care about the futures of kids, including those who are brown and poor. Many of the movement conservatives (along with some conservative reformers) opposed to Common Core are men and women of good will. But it is crystal clear that they are far more concerned about preserving their ideological purity than about helping all children succeed.
Certainly Common Core foes have a right to offer honest, valid, and thoughtful reasons for opposing the standards. But when they engage in misinformation, false statements, and invalid arguments about that which the standards demand, then it is hard to take other arguments that are valid all that seriously.