BOOK REVIEW

Some Very Smart People Analyze Common Core

Acommon refrain I’d hear from Common Core pitchmen (such as a state senator from Georgia) was that “a lot of very smart people” support it.

These “very smart people,” it turns out, work for non-profits aligned with technology and curriculum companies profiting from Common Core. They often have no teaching experience. Their concern is limited to producing “workers for the global twenty-first century economy.”

Fortunately, there are some “very smart people” who have a sincere desire in seeing that our schools perform their true functions: preparing students for life as free and independent-thinking American citizens, educated to the best of their abilities and talents.

Drilling through the Core: Why Common Core Is Bad for American Education offers a compendium of analyses by such people, following an excellent and comprehensive introduction by Editor and National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood.

Contributors Sandra Stotsky, James Milgram, and Ze’ev Wurman have been writing and speaking about the shoddy academic standards all along. Now, their insights are offered in one volume, along with an exposition of the legal problems by former legal advisors in the Department of Education, Robert S. Eitel and Kent D. Talbert, and by Williamson S. Evers, also a veteran of the Bush administration. In the chapter, “The Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and Conditional Waivers” they demonstrate how “The Department has simply paid others [namely non-profits] to do what it is forbidden to do.” It is the states (shown by Accountability Works’ charts and graphs in the last chapter) that will be paying for “a de facto national curriculum.”

The other chapters are devoted to the downgraded academic standards, in the two subjects that Common Core directly addresses, math and English Language Arts, as well as those that Common Core is creeping into, such as history and college instruction.

The chapter, “The Fate of American History in a Common Core-Based Curriculum,” traces the continued deterioration of the study of history, from its transformation into the practical “social studies” conceived at the turn of the twentieth century as a watered-down substitute for the study of history for African-American students. The deterioration of history instruction continues apace as it is relegated to the status of “social studies” and “informational reading” in English class.

One area that has needed more attention, I think, is what Common Core does to literature, especially poetry. This is where Anthony Esolen, Jamie Highfill, and Sandra Stotsky come in. They provide impassioned and informed answers to those like the former Georgia state school superintendent who asked me what purpose reading Beowulf served after I had complained about how Common Core shrinks class time for literature. “The Fate of Poetry in a Curriculum for the Proletariat” answers such questions.

Esolen draws on the theories of German philosopher Josef Pieper to reassert what should be self-evident: that human beings have worth beyond their usefulness to employers. He attacks the utilitarianism that undergirds Common Core by restating the age-old truth, “if we believe that human beings are meant to be free, and if we intuit . . . that a free soul aims to know what is true and good and to love it, then we will see that the ‘use’ of the liberal or free arts is precisely that they transcend the category of the useful.”

Jamie Highfill reminds us of the joy children find in the rhythm of poetry. She rightly states, “The literature of our culture reflects where we come from as much as does our history.” Many will appreciate her analysis of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”—especially in contrast to Common Core’s mechanical treatment of poetry. To the utilitarian efficiency experts, Highfill responds, “A school’s poetry curriculum is not designed to teach skills that help students get jobs. Rather, it is to ‘make minds, not careers.’ And when a mind is strengthened, so is the ability to secure employment.”

Sandra Stotsky offers a historical view of poetry reading lists. The latest offerings under Common Core show the continued deterioration in quality and quantity. The Common Core reading method mechanically repeats thematic ideas so much that they become “the ‘drill and practice’ methods that reformers continually denigrate.”

The three authors conclude that the Common Core ELA standards turn poetry into just another “text” to be dissected for “information.” The study of poetry becomes a joyless operation: “There is no life in it, but a gray death-in-life—work here, vote there, shop here, die there.” The aim is not to raise and ennoble, but to “depress and level” and “make proletarians of us all.”

The chapter, “How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk,” is drier in style than the others (reading more like a policy paper), but provides good ammunition against claims of rigor and college readiness. Professors Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky show how Common Core inappropriately takes a reading test and uses it for a reading list. Thus, a pamphlet guide to the Washington, D.C., Metro system makes its way onto the reading list for literature! The authors speculate whether “the case for more informational texts and increasing complexity (but not necessarily text difficulty) is a camouflage for lowering academic challenge so that more high school students will appear college-ready. . . .” They predict the next battle will be at the college level.

In “Common Core’s Mathematics Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade,” Ze’ev Wurman methodically demonstrates that the lowered standards for math are not more rigorous, but actually lowered.

The Common Core math standards, like the ELA standards, lower the definition of “college readiness,” as chapters 5 and 6 reveal. In “How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEM,” we are reminded of math standards lead writer Jason Zimba’s moment of candor when he admitted that college readiness meant readiness for community college. States that entered the Race to the Top contest for stimulus funds were required to make state colleges and universities “alter their definitions of ‘remedial education’ and to concede significant authority to state boards of K-12 education.”

Chapter 6 reveals that the promises about building “career-tech and advanced ‘pathways’” were only “lip service.” Contrary to the rhetoric, Common Core math, which tops out at Algebra II, does not raise standards for all, but punishes bright and talented students, especially those stuck in bad schools. As the SAT college entrance exam becomes aligned to lowered standards, it loses its ability to locate students with high STEM potential in high schools with weak math and science curriculums. The authors cite a similar program in Chile, where only the well-to-do were able to escape the barriers of lowered standards.

Richard Phelps and James Ingram conclude that under Common Core “all students are to be educated by age-based grade levels in a slow-moving train on a single track heading to colleges with low standards. When there is just one set of standards, standards, test items, and passing scores must be low enough to avoid having a politically unacceptable number of students fail.”

Common Core, and its future iterations, sure to come under the Every Student Succeeds Act, was never intended to be academically rigorous. It was meant to level and produce compliant workers. We’ve got the evidence here from a group of very smart people.


Mary Grabar, Ph.D., taught college English for 20 years. She is now a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. She founded the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., a 501(c)(3) education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is also a published poet and fiction writer. Ms. Grabar is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

Related Articles