Don’t Know Much About History

Who’s afraid of the Common Core? On the surface it seems like an innocuous attempt to up the educational game of America. According to an illuminating piece on a recent Newshour, the foes are not just the usual suspects. That is, Lost Cause zealots out to preserve the rights of states to substandard education in the face of encroaching federal bureaucracy.

The reporter talked instead to some students and parents who threaten to opt out of the required testing. It’s possible they are getting their talking points from Fox News, but a lot of the objections seemed to spring from the other end of the spectrum. From the kind of people who object to measles vaccine because it doesn’t come from Whole Foods. Many appeared to oppose a Common Core for being, well, too common, too cookie cutter.

Through all the objections ran several recurrent themes. It seems the Common Core will require students to learn certain approved information. As a result it will cause teachers to teach to the test. It won’t take into account individual differences, tastes, desires, styles. It is regimented, demanding, rigid, prescriptive, unforgiving. Students will be graded. Aha, the crux of the matter.

One bright girl offered the immemorial complaint about multiple choice tests. That they are a blunt instrument. “…they had a defined right answer, but they asked, which of these is not a main idea? But all of them kind of tied in to the idea…There’s never going to be one right way to solve a problem, so why should there be one right answer?”

The only answer to that is: “Because it’s a test, and that’s the way they work. You’re smart enough to figure out how to play this game. And by and by, you’ll get to take essay tests which you may like even less. And after you know what’s on all the tests in all the grades, you can be a problem-solving individual equipped with the store of knowledge which is the common heritage of humanity. You’ll find it useful. You’re welcome.”

In short, the teachers, parents and students gave vent to the kind of complaints students since Rome or before have made when being forced to learn their declensions and master Aristotle and Virgil and practice their rhetoric. They were really complaining that the Common Core is boring, hard, and judgmental – some things are right, others wrong. Some students get good grades, others don’t. It’s not fair. It’s not fun. And by the way, the dog ate my homework and can’t I take an incomplete or a make-up test?

Alas, twas ever thus. One of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man is “the whining schoolboy…creeping like snail unwillingly to school.” Yet Shakespeare had to go learn his Common Core, including small Latin and less Greek, and so does everyone else who doesn’t want to be a dolt.

All subjects can be taught well, even inspiringly. But not all can be made easy. Euclid told Ptolemy that unfortunately there was no royal road to geometry. Nor is there to learning a foreign language. Or the history of the world or music or art, computer programming or genetic engineering. You have to put your ass in the chair and study.

Some subjects you will hate forever and never really master, but some you will learn to love forever. And you don’t necessarily know which is which until you try them all on for size. That’s one upside of a Common Core. Another is, if one were well-designed and well-taught and halfway well-learned, we’d produce citizens better able to make sense of their world, successfully compete and adapt in it and perform their civic duty. Or we can just let our kids keep up with the Kardashians, Tweet and play Angry Birds until they die as ignorant as they were born. Tough choice.

Interestingly, the broadcast contained one voice endorsing the Common Core as a diagnostic tool. Marcia Lyles, Jersey City School Superintendent, is a formidable black educator who knows the value of competence. When told that critics complain that poor kids are often poor students and such tests will only make them feel like failures, Lyles was scornful.

No, on the contrary, she said, they (and their school system and parents and teachers) will be reminded that if they’re not successful in high school, they will not get into the college of their choice and will face the need to take remedial classes. Or worse, they may never graduate and will have a stunted economic and intellectual future. “We need to know now how they are performing. We need to know now, so that we can provide the interventions necessary.” Amen.

It looks like many people are less exercised about the Common Core per se than about having to take tests and be outed. But Lyles and the defenders of a Common Core are right. There is a royal road to upward mobility and a life that allows people to use the brains they were born with. That’s a tough, wide-ranging curriculum treated with vigor and a ceaseless commitment of time, effort and passion. Too often the only things in school treated like that are sports and avoiding study. Time for a change.

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