Again with Common Core!

Within the past week I have had two different individuals ask me about Common Core. What is it? What does it mean for schools? The perspective in both instances was that Common Core is evil, the result of some corrupt attempt by politicians and bureaucrats to manipulate the public and to force cookie cutter educational standards on every child in the United States. In both instances I have been able to explain what Common Core is — and is not — and hopefully allay some of the fears that these individuals possessed. I cannot have a face to face conversation with everyone who has heard the horror stories about Common Core, though.

Just a few minutes ago I finished watching a film created by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) called Building the Machine. The film is available online; just Google the title or “Common Core movie” and you will have no trouble finding it. Here is how the web site for the film describes the movie: “Building the Machine introduces the public to the Common Core States Standards Initiative (CCSSI) and its effects on our children’s education. The documentary compiles interviews from leading educational experts, including members of the Common Core Validation Committee. Parents, officials, and the American public should be involved in this national decision regardless of their political persuasion.” There is nothing inaccurate there and I certainly agree that the American public should be involved in making decisions about education in America.

The web site goes on to describe Common Core this way: “The Common Core is the largest systemic reform of American public education in recent history. What started as a collaboration between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to reevaluate and nationalize America’s education standards has become one of the most controversial—and yet, unheard of—issues in the American public.” I would question the assertion that it is unheard of; sometimes it seems like I hear about nothing else but Common Core!

I have addressed Common Core in this space at length in the past so I am going to attempt to avoid restating that which has already been said. I do want to make a few comments on specific things in the HSLDA movie, though.

First of all, the film laments the fact that there was no “public comment” on the development of the Common Core standards. This statement is questionable in and of itself. However, even if it were true, it is not necessarily cause for concern. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were not developed by a an elected board of education or any such body. The CCSS were, however, developed by groups that included elected officials (such as the National Governor’s Association). One commentator in the HSLDS movie compared the supposedly-secret development of the CCSS to the development of state standards in Massachusetts. He said that in Massachusetts the process took years to select texts, etc. That was no doubt appropriate for standards being developed within a state and by a state board of education. Furthermore, the CCSS do not dictate texts to be used, so there was no need for the review of texts. (The CCSS do include recommended texts or exemplars of texts that may help meet the standards, but the adoption of any specific texts is up to states and/or local boards of education). Oddly enough, one individual on the movie even went so far as to assert that the fact that elected governors were included in the process of developing the CCSS, and developing the process for the creation of the CCSS, does not mean that the voices of the people were represented. Really? I was under the impression that that was exactly how representative democracy worked….

At one point in the movie one of the “experts” stated that the federal government “played a major role in incentivizing states to adopt Common Core.” That’s true. But that’s exactly how the government works. It offered money to states that adopted the CCSS — or developed their own equally rigorous standards. It was up to the states to decide to adopt them, however. The movie continued with experts suggesting that many states blindly signed off on Race to the Top grant requests which committed the states to the CCSS. If true, that may well warrant investigation but it is a problem with the elected officials and/or the funding process — not with the CCSS themselves.

Sandra Strotsky is one of the experts heard from frequently in the film. She was on the CCSS validation committee and decided she could not endorse the standards as developed. That’s fine; it is certainly her prerogative. She stated in the movie, though, that the CCSS diminish the importance and use of literary texts in English classes in favor of technical texts. Having reviewed the lists of text exemplars I do not agree. The lists include novels, works of non-fiction and so-called technical texts (which are often speeches and other first-person or primary source documents that effective teachers include anyway, such as the Gettysburg Address or Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia Convention).

Another point emphasized in the movie is that the CCSS do not prepare students for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs or selective colleges. Would you imagine for a moment if they did, please? Imagine the uproar that would have ensued had standards been adopted that were designed to ensure that every student would meet the admissions expectations of the nation’s top colleges and STEM programs! High school diplomas have always been a statement that minimum standards have been met by the students receiving them. Some states offer various kinds of diplomas, such as advanced, standard and general. That’s fine if they want to do that, and there is nothing in the CCSS that prevents them from continuing to do that. But the CCSS themselves are a statement of what every student should know as he progresses through a K-12 education.

Michael Farris, the chancellor of Patrick Henry College and the chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, describes in the movie a conversation that he had with David Coleman, the lead writer of the CCSS. Farris indicated that Coleman has some good ideas for public schools and Farris thinks he has some good ideas for home schooling. The difference between them, Farris said, is that Coleman is “trying to use the force of law to require everybody to implement his good ideas.” Again, this assertion is simply not true. Coleman may want every state to adopt the CCSS but he cannot require that and neither, I might add, can the federal government! Any state that has adopted the CCSS has done so of its own accord and by its own choice.

Texas is one well-known state that has not adopted CCSS. Indiana was an early adopter but has since decided to opt out. Indiana must now develop its own standards in order to retain funding from the federal government. If Indiana feels this is the best move for its students then good for Indiana. Let me reiterate that I am not necessarily for the CCSS. My concern is simply that so much of what is being said about the Common Core is inaccurate.

If you watch Building the Machine you will no doubt notice a counter at the top of the screen prominently displaying how many times it has been viewed. When I was watching it had been viewed more than 118,000 times. That’s great. I’m sure the HSLDA is tickled pink. But my hope is that individuals who are truly concerned about the education of children will research the facts for themselves. Watching Building the Machine can be an important part of that process but it is only that — a part of the process. Do not swallow whole the perspectives or statements of any individual or group (including me!). Check it out for yourself.

Building the Machine ends with the statement that the single most important element in an effective education is parental involvement. That is absolutely correct and a statement on which I imagine we can all agree. Like the Common Core or hate it, it is not a magic potion that will miraculously produce brilliant kids. Parents still need to be involved.

What About Common Core? (part 3)

As I indicated at the end of the last post, all of the hullabaloo over the Common Core State Standards is really over a much deeper issue than these standards. One of these issues is one that was around long before CCSS, and if Common Core is going to alert people to it then that is a good thing. The second and third are problems with the government, not with the Common Core, though most people seem not to understand the difference. Perhaps I can shed some light…

First, the problem that has been around since long before Common Core is the issue of local control of public schools in general and textbook selection in particular. Public schools do not operate as agents of the federal government–or at least they ought not. Public schools are under the auspices of the various state departments of education and under the authority of local school boards. Most public schools have committees that deal with textbook adoption, and these committees often include educators as well as community members. Of course school boards are almost always elected bodies, with members of the community serving on the boards and deciding who the board members are. What anyone who takes the time to truly study what Common Core is (and is not) will discover is that individual states have adopted the Common Core; the federal government neither designed the CCSS nor forced them on anyone. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, the CCSS does not assign or dictate textbooks. Even in the English standards, the CCSS provide a recommended reading list, or what the CCSS call Text Exemplars. There is no mandatory reading dictated by the CCSS. There have been concerns raised by various people about some of the titles included on the reading lists. I consider that debate to be healthy. At the same time, the fact that Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is one of the recommended texts does not mean that the entire CCSS is evil. After all, the recommended reading lists also include O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention,” George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” among many other worthwhile titles. And again, the decision as to which titles will be read is to be made by the state, the school or the teacher, depending on how the particular system works–not by the CCSS. Bottom line, people who care about their children and the education being offered in public schools need to take every opportunity to be involved in the decision making process.

The second problem–the first of two with the government–is the federal government’s use of money to essentially bribe states into adopting the CCSS and the refusal of most states to even consider rejecting money. This is an issue that is much larger than the CCSS and would require much more space for me to address than you really want me to spend right now, so I will try to keep it brief and restricted to the CCSS. The CCSS were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers–not the federal government. Respected leaders and experts in mathematics and English were involved in the development of the standards, and feedback was provided by literally thousands of individuals, including teachers and parents. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia expressed approval of the standards as they were being developed and reviewed. So where did the federal government come in? The 2009 stimulus package included $4.35 billion in education funding through the Race to the Top education program developed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The funding would be available to states that adopted some standardized (i.e., common) guidelines and benchmarks for student learning. Only the CCSS met the guidelines and benchmarks the Race to the Top program designated, so states were faced with (1) adopting the CCSS to receive their slice of the pie, (2) developing their own standards that would meet the Race to the Top guidelines, or (3) saying “no thank you” to the federal dollars. To my knowledge no state has yet attempted option number 2, and rarely are states willing to pursue option number 3, especially when money for education is such a hot topic already.

A number of individuals have cried foul over the federal government’s use of monetary incentives to push the adoption of the CCSS, but it is nothing new and is certainly not unique to Common Core. Jane Robbins of the American Principles Project has suggested that federal involvement in education violates the Constitution because education is not within the domain of the federal government but power shifts that way when states choose to accept federal funds. But again, no one is forcing states to accept federal dollars, the federal government does have the authority to offer financial incentives, and it has done so for decades and in various areas in which the federal government does not have authority on its own. If people are unhappy about this there is a built-in remedy for it called the ballot box. Common Core is an example of the “problem” but is not the problem itself.

The third problem–and the second one that involves the government–is the way in which questions about CCSS have been handled. For example, a couple of weeks ago Focus on the Family e-blasted an article called “Common-Core Chaos.” The article started with this question: “Are you tired of hearing the message that ‘we know better than you what’s best for your kids’ from liberal media pundits and overzealous government officials?” The article went on to describe the way in which Robert Small, a parent in Maryland, was “shut down” when questioning the adoption of Common Core at a public meeting for parents. According to the Focus on the Family article Small was then “shoved and dragged out of the meeting by a security officer. Once outside the doors, he was handcuffed and slapped with criminal charges carrying thousands of dollars in fines.” Apparently his charges were later dropped. “But still,” the Focus article continued, “the spectacle of a parent being manhandled for simply trying to express a relevant viewpoint was disturbing.” I absolutely agree. But again, the Common Core standards did not drag this man out of a meeting. The CCSS are simply standards that were lawfully developed and lawfully adopted. The problem that Focus on the Family needs to be focusing on is the way in which governments have responded when questioned. If Focus has issues with CCSS then by all means it should address them, but it needs to distinguish between problems with the standards and problems with the individuals handling questions about the standards.

Unfortunately Glenn Beck, his lieutenant David Barton, and other conservative talking heads are misrepresenting the facts about Common Core State Standards. Last summer Barton, filling in for Beck on The Blaze, said that CCSS wants to make every student the same. The reality is, though, that assertion cannot be supported with any actual evidence from the CCSS. In that same broadcast Barton, after highlighting some of the questions students were expected to be able to answer after completing 8th grade in 1895, said, “See, back then, students were actually required to use their brain.” The implication, of course, is that the CCSS do not want students to use their brains. There is nothing that could be further from the truth. In fact, one of the key areas of focus in the CCSS is reasoning and evidence. Compare these statements from teachers who have familiarized themselves with the CCSS and teach in schools that have adopted them with the assertions made by Barton… Andrew Jones, a Christian school English teacher in Indiana, told WORLD Magazine, “In a world that is telling kids that they make their own meaning, it’s encouraging to see Core standards encouraging methods like, ‘Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says.'” Lane Walker, a Christian who teaches in a public school near St. Louis, says of the CCSS math standards, “There’s a huge difference between getting kids to memorize a formula and getting them to understand a formula,” and the CCSS emphasize understanding. The same show on The Blaze where Barton made the wisecrack mentioned above featured a spot accusing the CCSS of wanting to eliminate instruction in cursive handwriting. As opposed to that line of thinking as I am, it is not original to the CCSS; there have been folks advocating that for years.

Again, I could keep going, but I will not. I should perhaps even point out that I serve in a non-public school, so we are not even required to adopt the CCSS. I am not spending all this time and effort to defend the CCSS themselves. Rather, what irritates me is the spin, the misrepresentation and the outright lies. Should there be a rigorous and vigorous debate over education in America? Absolutely. But the Common Core State Standards are not, in and of themselves, the real issue. Demand that your leaders learn and speak the truth, and seek the truth yourself! Be informed, be knowledgeable…and do not swallow hook, line and sinker anything anyone says…including me!

Jesus Matters All the Time

In a recent article in Tabletalk, a monthly periodical with articles and Bible studies from Ligonier Ministries, R.C. Sproul, Jr. wrote an article entitled “In the School of Christ.” The article begins with this paragraph:

It is not hard to complain about the government’s schools. The government, at least during every election cycle, seems less than satisfied with its own product, ever promising us that it will improve. Atheists complain about prayers before football games. Christians complain about the teaching of sexual (im)morality. Everyone complains about graduation rates and test scores.

When it comes to government schools, Mr. Sproul is right; there is plenty to complain about, and the complaints come from all sides. And any efforts at improvement are met with new obstacles. Michelle Rhee faced overwhelming opposition when she tried to clean up the mess that was Washington, D.C. public schools. No Child Left Behind, a joint effort of the unlikely-combo of Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush did seemingly little to accomplish the goals it established for improving the education (read, test scores) of American school children, and the newest version, Race to the Top, is not any better. Now Common Core State Standards have been almost unanimously adopted in the U.S. to establish clearer expectations of what students in schools should be learning, and when, and these are encountering opposition and obstacles of their own–some perhaps legitimate, others seemingly concocted from thin air by Glenn Beck and others.

Private schools tend to fare better than public ones in the test scores and graduation rate areas. The school where I serve, for example, had a 100% graduation rate this year, and last year, and our high school students’ mean scale scores exceeded the national norm group in every subject area in our standardized testing this year.

However, that does not automatically mean that our school is successful. It does in a graduation rate and standardized test conversation, but that is not the sole reason why our school exists. Our school exists to invest in the entire student, body, mind and soul–spiritual, physical, intellectual, communal and emotional (SPICE). Sproul writes later in his article that children “are not products to be manufactured but lives to be nurtured.” Referencing the Shema, Sproul says, “Moses is talking about an immersive educational experience–we are to talk about the things of God with our children always and everywhere. The things of God are to be the very warp and woof of our daily conversation.” Sproul is specifically challenging parents to be instructing their children about God all the time. And that is what sets our school apart from government schools. The students at our school–and at many Christian schools–are receiving excellent academic instruction, but are also receiving intentional and intensive spiritual instruction, being taught about God in Bible class, yes, but also in science and history, in physical education and music, at the lunch table and after school. Effective Christian education destroys any boundaries that exist between the five SPICE areas outlined above.

Sproul continues,

Most of us are the products of schools that taught us to divide our lives, to separate what we think about Jesus and what we think about our work, to separate what we think about our work and what we think about our play. We give time to Jesus on Sundays, perhaps on Wednesday nights, and, if we are peculiarly pious, every day during our quiet times. These all may be terribly good things, but not if they are hermetically sealed. We dare not believe that Jesus matters only during these times while He is beside the point the rest of our days.

That is exactly right, and that is exactly what sets truly Christian education–whether it takes place in a Christian school or in a homeschool–apart from education at government schools or even most private schools: Christian education does not believe that Jesus matters only during specific times set aside for Bible study and worship, but that Jesus matters all the time.