In recent weeks, we have heard stories from the political right as to what horrors the new Common Core Standards for K-12 education will bring to America’s classrooms. Conservative bloggers warn that the Common Core will require that school children write of the benefits of Maoism; a report tells of a Common Core assignment that seeks to have children in one Arkansas school decide what freedoms should be excised from the Bill of Rights; still another story from Albany, New York tells of a Common Core assignment that asks children to justify the Holocaust. Such is the sense of impending doom on the Right that one fevered Catholic blogger even likened opposition to the Common Core to the fight against abortion.
The problem with most of these news stories is that the Common Core in no way mandates, or even suggests, these assignments. Why the apparent confusion then among critics on the right? First, conservatives are by nature suspicious of federally-mandated or federally-approved educational standards. Though the Common Core Standards may be freely adopted or rejected by individual states—as of this writing forty-five states have adopted the standards—the federal government is pushing adoption and will likely tie federal funding of state education departments to student performance on Common Core standardized testing (which is coming soon). Conservatives argue for local control of educational curricula and see the Common Core as yet another attempt by Washington to exercise dominion over the states. This suspicion is only heightened by the fact that it is the liberal Obama Administration that is pushing the standards. “The point of Common Core is to standardize K-12 education across the nation,” a recent report argues. “Such standardization, of course, cannot be accomplished if states are allowed to exercise autonomy in public-school education.” Conservatives argue that the impetus for the creation of the Common Core Standards came not from the states but from Left-wing funders like George Soros.
Second, it seems that conservatives are confused by assignments advertising themselves as “aligned with the Common Core.” As states adopt the Common Core and prepare for the coming assessment tests, teachers are pressed by administrators to prove that their assignments are compatible with the Common Core Standards. This is usually quite easily done, for the ELA standards aim at literacy and generally require that students are able to read and understand texts. This gives teachers wide latitude in creating assignments and in choosing what texts to use.
The obvious point that critics seem to miss somehow is that the Common Core State Standards Initiative focuses on skills, not content. In addition, it is not a full curriculum and currently has been developed only for English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics, with sections for reading and writing in the Science and Social Studies/History content areas. This article will address the debate about the ELA standards only, a debate that seems to be confused by the Common Core’s use of the term “informational text” and by its listing of “exemplar” texts that may be used in the classroom.
Conservatives bemoan the standards’ alleged neglect of literature in favor of “informational texts” to promote reasoning skills. These critics deride the utilitarianism of this approach and fear that it refers only to some of the relatively dull texts recommended by the Common Core guidelines, such as mundane federal regulatory laws. Yet the term “informational text,” though perhaps a regrettable choice of words, really means non-fiction, especially primary sources. The exemplars, however, also suggest works of fiction that may be used. Indeed, one of the stated literacy standards for high school (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9) requires that students “demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.”
Most conservative Common Core critics seem unaware that on the list of informational text exemplars are: Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention;” The Federalist Papers; George Washington’s “Farewell Address;” G.K. Chesterton’s “The Fallacy of Success;” John Adams’ “Letter on Thomas Jefferson;” Ronald Reagan’s “Address to Students at Moscow State University;” and Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Address to Parliament on May 13th, 1940.” Suggested literary pieces include Homer’s Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphous, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Students are also encouraged to read works by Chaucer, Cervantes, Jane Austen, Alcott, Longfellow, Yeats, Dostoevsky, Melville, Chekhov, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, John Donne, John Keats, Phyllis Wheatley, Dickinson, Thomas Paine, Sophocles, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Euclid, Jefferson, Thoreau, Orwell, Frederick Douglass, and T.S. Eliot.
Some conservatives complain about the lack of context provided to students when examining texts, even if the selected text is worthy. For example, there was a kerfuffle recently over an assignment suggested by a non-profit founded by two of the Common Core’s creators that called for reading Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without regard to its context. This criticism is somewhat ironic, given that many conservatives embrace the philosophy of Austrian philosopher Leo Strauss, whose approach to liberal education entails the study of historical texts without regard to the circumstances of their composition. Strauss’ philosophy in its purest form is practiced at Great Books colleges such as St. John’s College of Annapolis, which promotes the notion that students should eschew the reading of modern scholars’ commentary on the great works of Western Civilization.
Another apparent irony is that conservatives on the one hand bemoan the fact that the Common Core negates local control of education in favor of centralization, and then on the other hand sound the alarm when states choose a curriculum or book not to their liking. For example, controversies erupted recently in the Newburgh, New York school district and in Arizona about books deemed pornographic by conservative critics. These books, of course, were chosen by the districts themselves and were not mandated, or even suggested, by the Common Core Standards. Also in Arizona, conservative critics successfully fought the introduction of a Mexican-American Studies curriculum for the Tucson school district, arguing that it promoted negative views of the United States and of white people. Of course, conservatives have every right to fight such local battles about the content of their children’s education. Because they favor localism, it does not follow that conservatives will agree with particular local decisions. Yet in their opposition to the actions of school boards in New York and Arizona, conservatives reveal that their localist charge against Common Core may simply be an argument of convenience. For prior to the current controversy, conservatives had traditionally argued that there is indeed a common core (lower case) of knowledge that all American—indeed Western students—ought to know. Organizations on the Right like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and the Jack Miller Center have made much of the need to promote civic literacy among American students. Indeed, ISI has published a handbook called A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum, which sets out a program by which college students may study the “core” elements of Western History and thought. To repeat, though, the Common Core focuses primarily on skills, not content. The question as to what content should constitute a school’s or district’s curriculum is an evergreen issue that will exist whether the Common Core Standards are here or not.
Of course, there are legitimate concerns about the Common Core Standards on the Right. Conservatives worry that, especially at the elementary grades, students should not be focused on comprehending texts but on hearing stories and on memorizing poems and songs. Others worry that it sets the bar too low in schools that include many gifted students. (Though the overwhelming concern among the many K-12 teachers with whom we work is that students do not have the intellectual skills to analyze texts in the detailed manner that the Common Core requires.) Still others on the Right object to the utilitarian assumptions of the Common Core Standards; that is, the Common Core claims to prepare students for competition in the 21st-century economy and seems to reject the very notion of a liberal arts education, which values knowledge for its own sake.
Many also worry that a federally-mandated, top-down set of educational guidelines will crowd out the study of subjects not addressed in the standards; music and the visual arts, local history, and religious education will suffer, opponents claim. Indeed the last concern has elicited a strong reaction from conservative Christians, especially Catholics, who have seen many of their dioceses jump on board with the Common Core. Crisis Magazine, one of the leading voices of conservative American Catholicism, has published no fewer than twenty articles attacking the Common Core during the last six months.
Though in many cases the more fevered criticisms of Common Core seem to result from ignorance or misunderstanding, in some cases one must conclude that the conservative attack on Common Core is motivated by a desire to stir up the political base and indeed to open the pockets of conservative donors. Yes, Common Core has become a hobby horse for political fundraising on the Right and a strawman, a convenient target at which frustrated conservatives can throw arrows in an attempt to win some tangible victory against an immense and entrenched American educational bureaucracy that they despise. Even if a victory cannot be won in the end, donations can spur website traffic numbers and pay salaries.
What conservatives seem not to appreciate is that the Common Core is not likely to push education to the Left because teachers and educational bureaucracies already tend to lean Left. In the realm of historical knowledge in particular, too many teachers are largely ignorant. A new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences concluded that “humanities teachers, particularly in K-12 history, are less well-trained than teachers in other subject areas.” Prepared largely by education programs that emphasize methodology over content, teachers’ lack of content knowledge translates into inferior performance by their students. Recent results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) U.S. History exams reveal that when eighteen-year-olds leave high school, 88% of them score below a proficiency level, meaning their U.S. history knowledge is below grade level. Fifty-five percent of 12th graders are below even a basic, partial mastery of the content.
The little content that history and social studies teachers do receive tends to be colored by a liberal worldview. Howard Zinn’s infamous A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980, remains the nation’s best-selling survey textbook, selling about 125,000 copies each year. Zinn, a self-proclaimed radical, has heavily influenced many of today’s textbooks. His work is infused with a clear theme: America is a corrupt nation founded upon the lie of equal opportunity and designed in reality to empower the wealthy. On numerous occasions, Zinn has stated that the world would be a much better place if the United States had never existed. Following Zinn, radical activists such as former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers have promoted educational reforms aimed at indoctrinating children in an effort to overthrow the existing social order in favor of a system built on a Left-wing version of “social justice.”
The point for the conservatives is that teachers and educational boards would likely have assigned the objectionable assignments and texts noted above even if the Common Core never existed. For conservatives, the fact that the standards promote the study of primary sources and require students to provide reasoned arguments, including examples from those sources, should be seen as positives. Again, one needs to bear in mind that the Common Core is skill-based, not content-based; teachers can choose whatever texts they wish in their effort to teach their students literacy skills.
There exists, then, an opportunity for conservatives to bring substantive content knowledge to teachers who so desperately need it. For example, teachers may choose from the Common Core exemplars Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In order for them to understand what King is writing about, teachers need to know who the 8thcentury B.C. Hebrew prophets were. They need to know a little about Paul of Tarsus, the Macedonian call, Socrates, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Roman persecutions, the Boston Tea Party, Hungarian freedom fighters, Jesus, Elijah Muhammad, Amos, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Lincoln, Jefferson, and T.S. Eliot to understand King’s meaning. King spoke to an audience of clergymen and to many others who shared a common educated culture. If teachers do not know these references, they cannot teach this landmark document accurately. Moreover, teachers in Catholic schools are free to ignore the exemplars entirely and use Christian/Catholic texts: Thomas á Kempis, Thomas More, even papal encyclicals. Such a text-based approach ought to please conservatives, who have complained about the trend of “deconstructing” texts and promoting the idea that it is how the student “feels” about a text that is important, not what the text actually says.
It is not the intention of the present authors to defend the Common Core in toto. It is our intent, however, to demonstrate to conservatives that the Common Core Standards actually provide them with an opportunity to accomplish their ends too. For better or worse, for the foreseeable future it appears that the vast majority of states will soon tie the evaluation of their teachers to student performance on achievement tests based on the new standards. Although the Common Core Standards are likely to have a significant impact on education in America, it is important to remember that educational standards and reforms come and go. Whether or not a state has adopted the Common Core, there is an opportunity for anyone, including those on the political Right, to influence the content that is taught when it comes to literature and history.
The Common Core Standards are far from perfect or complete and certainly do not constitute the long-sought-after “solution” to the problems in American education. In regard to the English Language Arts with its history and social studies exemplars, they at least emphasize critical reading skills and an opportunity for conservatives to have a say in which exemplar texts are used in classrooms. Conservative critics should keep in mind that both teacher unions and many individual teachers also oppose the Common Core, largely because they see it as impinging on academic freedom and simply because teachers generally resent being told what to do in their classrooms. Conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru is right in characterizing the fight over the Common Core as “a dismal cycle of elite disdain and populist outrage, each side feeding the other’s worst impulses.” The debate has thus become clouded and slogans have replaced reason, especially on the Right. It is time for conservatives either to oppose the Common Core on legitimate grounds or to drop their opposition and find ways to make the new standards serve their ends.
Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Kevin T. Brady, Ph.D., is founder and president of the American Institute for History Education and CICERO SystemsTM, whose mission is to provide substantive, engaging historical content and activities for teachers to use in their classrooms.
1. “Crayola Common Core lesson plans aimed to promote globalization and interdependence,” Danette Clark, EAGnews.org; “Common Core assignment: Remove two amendments from ‘outdated’ Bill of Rights,” Joe Newby, examiner.com; “School apologizes for ‘Nazi’ writing assignment, Scott Waldman, timeunion.com; “Catholics and the ‘Common Core’ controversy, Marc C. Abbott, Renew America, .
2.Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, “Controlling Education from the Top: Why Common Core Is Bad for America,” A Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project White Paper, p. 14.
3. “Common Core teaching Gettysburg Address without teaching Civil War,” Warner Todd Huston, Breitbart, .
4. “Common Core sexualizes American school children,” Mary Jo Anderson, Crisis Magazine, .
5. “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation,” The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013.
6. Gilbert Sewall, “The Howard Zinn Show,” Springer Science and Business Media, May, 2012.
7. Jeff Ludwig, “How Textbooks Push Children to the Left,” August 16, 2013, .
8. Dennis Prager, on air interview with Professor Howard Zinn, Wednesday, August 30, 2006.