Dangerous Blind Spots in the Common-Core Standards

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The final version of the common-core standards for math and English/language arts, released in June by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, contain two educational blind spots that, if ignored, can undermine not only the quality of public education, but also the strength of our democracy. The standards devote insufficient attention to the need for an interdisciplinary curriculum, and represent a contracted view of the “common core” that disregards the role of schools in preparing students for citizenship.

Both blind spots stem from the disciplinary myopia that characterizes the standards. They were developed with a technical emphasis on disciplinary research and practice—at the neglect of a broad view of the entire curriculum and of the function of education in a democracy. In implementing these standards, state departments of education and local school systems must act to avoid the potential pitfalls of these blind spots, and groups involved in the Common Core State Standards Initiative should revise the standards to eliminate them.

Although the standards recognize that competency in the language arts, and, to a lesser extent, mathematics, is essential to mastering content in other subjects, they stop well short of advocating that curriculum and instruction make substantive interdisciplinary connections between and among subjects. For decades, both research and experience have shown that students learn subject matter better when they understand its connections to other subjects.

The standards, in effect, envision a single purpose for schooling: education to serve economic interests.

Moreover, the social problems that citizens face transcend disciplinary boundaries. Students need to be able to integrate knowledge from the disciplines to understand and then act upon complex issues in order to be prepared to fulfill their roles as citizens in a democracy. An interdisciplinary curriculum should be part of the common core for all students.

The standards present a contracted view of the core curriculum in two respects. First, the term “common core” typically refers to all of the common requirements students are expected to complete. In the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the term refers not to the complete common requirements, but only to the knowledge and skills fundamental to all education—that is, the “basics.” To refer to the basics as the common core risks confusing the two, and thus risks reducing the common core to the basics. Although the document warns that these standards do not represent a total curriculum, and suggests that they should “be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum,” it would be useful to avoid such confusion by clarifying the language used.

Second, the most troubling aspect of the common-core initiative’s contracted view of the curriculum is its reduction of the role of the school in society to a single function. In the standards document, the main role of the school is to make students “college and career ready,” to enable them to “succeed in college and careers.” This language appears throughout the standards. Because the intent behind the initiative is to bolster the competitiveness of the United States in the global economy through a better-educated workforce, it follows that college education is an extension of career preparation in the K-12 school system. Thus, the standards, in effect, envision a single purpose for schooling: education to serve economic interests.

Their near-total silence on the role of education in promoting individual development and democratic forms of governance is deafening.

Such a narrow perspective on the function of schooling in our society is a problematic development in education reform. Historically, public schools in the United States served a broad range of goals. In his 1984 book A Place Called School, for example, John I. Goodlad conducted an extensive analysis of the American high school. He titled his chapter that surveyed the purposes of American education “We Want It All.” Goodlad identified a range of appropriate goals for public education that fell under four broad areas: academic goals; vocational goals; social, civic, and cultural goals; and personal goals. His summary is representative of the historical commitment in this country to providing citizens a well-rounded education through a broad curriculum.

The common-core state standards, however, substantively address only two of Goodlad’s four areas of purpose: academic goals and career goals—which, again, really boil down to the latter. They offer mere lip service to social, civic, and cultural goals, as well as to personal goals.

Why is this blind spot so dangerous? Historically, centralized control of school curriculum has served as a political tool of totalitarian states. Clearly, these common standards are intended to increasingly centralize and standardize curriculum in the United States. Equally clearly, of course, they do not expressly promote anti-democratic values. Importantly, however, they also do not expressly promote democratic values. Their near-total silence on the role of education in promoting individual development and democratic forms of governance is deafening. They afford education for citizenship in a democracy merely two mentions in 646 pages: as an afterthought at the end of the introduction to the English standards, and in passing in Appendix A.

Arguably, education for democratic citizenship is the historic national goal of education in the United States. Thomas Jefferson asserted: “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.” George Washington implored: “Promote … as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” Preparation for citizenship in a democracy must be a substantive, expressly signified component of the common core for all students in the United States.

The CCSSO, the NGA, and other groups leading the common-core initiative must immediately withdraw and revise the standards, in order to promote interdisciplinary curriculum and instruction and to embrace a broader vision of the purpose of education in the United States, one that makes central the preparation of future citizens to participate in democratic governance.

In the meantime, state education departments and local school systems must (1) implement the standards as the essentials to, and not the entire, curriculum; (2) assure that state and local curricula foster interdisciplinary connections; and (3) establish strong democratic-citizen-preparation dimensions across the state and local versions of the standards, and across other components of the total curriculum.

To implement the common-core state standards as they stand might well be to place at risk both the core purpose of public education and the core values of our democratic society.

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