jasonbwatson

October 24, 2014

A fourth view

In the October 2014 issue of its magazine, Christianity Today asked three individuals to answer the question, “Do the Common Core education standards endanger religious freedom?” with the subtitle to the Open Question column reading, “Why a nationwide standard for classrooms may cause concern.” While I think that Kevin Theriot, Karen Swallow Prior and Kristen Blair each offer some valuable insight and perspective, I think that Theriot and Blair are wrong in answering the question in the affirmative—especially since they are reaching to do so.

Theriot, a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, writes that while the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will have only an indirect effect on religious liberty “at least initially,” the CCSS create “another tool for big government (judges, legislators and education policymakers) to control the beliefs and actions of parents and their students.” This is a bit of a stretch. The case in question, Parker v. Hurley, ruled that once parents decide what school their children will attend, they have no constitutional right to dictate what their children will be taught in that school. While neither you nor I may like the fact that in this specific case the material being objected to was sexual material in kindergarten and first grade classrooms, the ruling is otherwise consistent with what we would expect and hold to in a private school. The decision of parents to enroll their student(s) in a private school does not entitle them to dictate the school’s curriculum or to pick and choose which elements of the school’s chosen curriculum their student will learn, so why would it in a public school setting? While the à la carte approach to education may seem desirable, the result would be to significantly impair the ability of a school or a teacher to prepare for instruction and grade student learning.

Theriot suggest that the CCSS will “creep into parochial schools and even homeschooling,” with the result being that students will necessarily be taught material that is inconsistent with their religious convictions. Since the CCSS are being reflected in college entrance exams and the GED, Theriot thinks that homeschooling parents may “feel pressure to align with Common Core.” While I think that is an alarmist argument, it also ignores the fact that the CCSS is not a curriculum. Any teacher—whether in public, private or home school—could use any curriculum he or she chose (within the confines of the district or school curriculum decisions in the first two instances) to satisfy the CCSS. In other words, there is nothing within the CCSS that would—or even could—require anyone to teach their student material inconsistent with their religious convictions even if they want to align with the CCSS.

Theriot further argues that “allowing the federal government to make decisions historically left to local school boards necessarily weakens the individual parent’s ability to influence those decisions.” That is no doubt true. The use of that argument in this context, however, assumes facts not in evidence. Actually, it assumes facts that are not facts. The federal government has not, and cannot under current law, make decisions about what state or local school boards will adopt for standards, curriculum, testing, etc. The CCSS was not developed by the federal government and it has not been forced on any state by the federal government. Every state that has adopted the CCSS has done so within the guidelines existing for that state. Yes, the federal government has incentivized the adoption of the CCSS by tying Race to the Top funds to the adoption of the CCSS or equally rigorous standards, but there are two huge facts ignored by most even acknowledging that fact. First, the federal government incentivizes all kinds of things by tying its desired result to dollars. If “we the people” do not like that then there are ways to change it, but that is a problem entirely separate from the CCSS. Second, the option to develop equally rigorous standards and still tap into Race to the Top funds is one that few states have chosen to pursue, though several are doing so now that they have received an outcry of opposition over the adoption of the CCSS. Standards development is difficult and time consuming and many states chose to simply adopt the “off the shelf” standards that are the CCSS rather than invest the time, effort and money into developing their own. Too, foregoing the federal dollars is an option no state is likely to pursue, though it is a legitimate option.

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and she is alone among the three respondents in CT to answer the question in the negative. Prior correctly states, “So many myths and misunderstandings have proliferated about Common Core that some of its critics seem not to know that Common Core is limited solely to these two foundational subjects: math and language arts.” I have read and even heard teachers from other schools suggest that the CCSS is dictating the teaching of sex education in their schools. This is absurd; there is nothing in the CCSS that addresses sex education or requires it in any form.

Prior also writes, “Common Core is merely the foundation upon which those states and private schools that adopt the standards can construct a building of their own choosing.” She goes on to elaborate on what I stated above—that there seems to be considerable confusion, whether innocent or intentional—over the fact that standards and curriculum are two different things. Writes Prior, “standards are the goal; curriculum is a means of accomplishing the goal; testing is the measure of success in meeting the goal. Common Core consists only of standards (or goals). Curriculum and testing are up to schools to adopt.” Any school could teach toward meeting the goals of the CCSS without ever changing its curriculum. The CCSS involves very little of what is taught or learned and focuses much more on how students learn. The intention of the CCSS is to ensure that students are equipped with the skills needed in order to enter the workplace or pursue higher education. That, I would suggest, should be the goal of every school in the world; if any school did not have the adequate preparation of students for success in adulthood as a goal I would question the purpose for the school’s existence. I have said for years that the ultimate purpose of education should be teaching students how to think. This is no small part of the goal of the CCSS—to equip students to learn information, facts and skills but also to learn why those things are and how they can be used, applied and developed in the real world.

Prior makes an excellent point that few so focused on screaming about the government take-over of education seem to be paying any attention to, and that is that Christian schools should be among the most well-equipped to achieve the goals of the CCSS and to provide curricular resources that assist teachers in meeting those goals. “Christians are particularly equipped to create and provide back-to-basics, skills-based curricula aligned with these strong educational standards. Not taking advantage of this opening for cultural influence would be to squander a unique opportunity.”

Prior also writes, “Fears about Common Core’s potential to infringe upon religious liberty stem from broad concerns about governmental overreach.” She is correct in that assessment but, again, this is an unfounded concern because (1) the CCSS does dictate the teaching of any curriculum, and (2) the government is not dictating or requiring the adoption of the CCSS anyway. To the point about religious liberty, Prior concludes, “Equipping the students who are the future of our nation with the most basic intellectual and life skills will help religious liberty to flourish,” and I agree with her wholeheartedly on that point.

The final perspective in the CT piece is provided by Kristen Blair, an education writer and author. She begins her response by writing that the CCSS has pushed to “the forefront of fierce national debate” the question of who decides how and what children learn. While this assertion is accurate, it does ignore the fact that the CCSS do not dictate or prescribe what children learn. (In case you are wondering, I am well aware that I sound like broken record as I keep saying that, but the alternative is so widely declared by CCSS opponents that I have little alternative). The CCSS does address how children learn, and if the national debate were solely about that I would suggest that would be a good thing. Do we want our students to memorize math facts or do we want them to memorize math facts and understand why they are facts? Do we want students to be able to name the titles and authors of classic literature only, or do we want them to be able to do that as well as understand the positions and arguments made within those works of literature while also learning how to read, understand, interpret and utilize informational and technical texts? I know where I stand, but those are legitimate debates to have.

From there, however, Blair strays. She writes, “the [CCSS] over time will likely diminish local choice.” Her support for that position is that the CCSS were developed “without significant input from parents or the public.” This is debatable too, but even if granted this has nothing to do with diminishing local choice. The adoption of the CCSS is local choice (if you define local broadly enough to include the state government) and the implementation of the CCSS—including curricular choices—is truly local choice (since most public schools have procedures for the adoption of curricular materials at the local district level).

Blair continues with yet another of the wide-spread assertions that the CCSS has been “divested of much classic literature.” This is simply not true. The CCSS text exemplars (and again, these are recommendations– they are not mandated) include a healthy variety of “classic literature” in addition to the “informational texts” that some think are replacing literature. Grades 9-10, for example, include recommendations for stories, drama, poetry and informational texts. Homer’s The Odyessey, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Poe’s “The Raven,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73,” and Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” are but some of the recommended reading for high school freshmen and sophomores.

What are informational texts recommended for grades 9-10? Speeches by Patrick Henry, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan are listed for Language Arts. The History/Social Studies information texts include works on Custer, art, fish, African Americans in the Civil War and great composers. Science, math and technical subject recommendations include Euclid’s Elements as well as works on stars, the circumference of the earth and a government document on recommended levels of insulation. Not only do the fiction recommendations exceed the nonfiction recommendations, there is nothing wrong or detrimental about the nonfiction recommendations. The fact is, there simply is not sufficient time for students to read, study and learn all of the text exemplars included in the CCSS and it would be difficult for anyone to argue that are insufficient options contained with the standards. In other words, even if these were prescriptive titles and not simply suggestions, there is plenty of “classic literature” included. The fact is, though, they are not prescriptive. Blair seems to think that they are, writing, “They are no longer open for discussion,” and suggesting that the CCSS are “muting parents’ voices.” At the risk of being blunt, that’s a lie.

To her credit, Blair acknowledges that the CCSS is not a curriculum, but she also suggests that it does not matter. Differentiating between standards, curriculum and testing is “disingenuous” she says, because “standards, curricula and tests form a trifecta: standards drive curricula and testing.” To a certain extent that is true; who would intentionally test students over information they have not been taught? For the CCSS to dictate curriculum, however, the standards would have to include student knowledge about specific texts, and that expectation is simply not there. The closest that the CCSS come to addressing specific authors or titles in grades
11-12 are as follows:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9
Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.

If having standards that expect high school seniors to read at least one Shakespeare play and one play by an American writer, or to be able to show how two texts from the same period of American literature treat similar themes or topics is overly prescriptive than I cannot imagine any standards that would be considered acceptable.

The bottom line is this: whether you like the CCSS or not—and that could certainly be a legitimate debate—they do not endanger religious freedom. Religious freedom is under attack and endangered on many fronts in America today but the CCSS is simply not one of them. Effective countering of the attacks on religious freedom could be far more wisely directed at the judicial requirements that states accept same sex marriage, at the legislatures and educational organizations trying to grant “civil rights” to transgender individuals, at government attempts to coerce privately held organizations to provide abortifacients to their employees, or at judges penalizing individuals for refusing to provide services for homosexual marriages. If you want to argue about the merits of the CCSS please feel free to do so…but do so from a position of truth and an accurate presentation of the facts.

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