Since I wrote this (five months ago as of this writing) more arguments have been added to the four I here enumerate. The opposition is metastasizing, grabbing headlines like nobody could have predicted in December. I will include those new arguments — and my counter-arguments — in red.
There are four main arguments against the Core Curriculum, which constitutes the new learning and teaching standards for elementary and high school.
- It is a dumbing down of the curriculum. We need a more rigorous curriculum.
- It is far too difficult. Children’s self esteem is negatively affected.
- It requires teaching to the test. There are too many tests.
- It is developmentally inappropriate, especially in the lower grades. First graders should not be expected to learn about Mesopotamia.
- No teachers nor parents were involved in its development.
- It is a corporate takeover of education. Follow the money.
Okay, then. First argument. Such judgements were made within the first few weeks of school this year, when the Language Arts skills curriculum was largely and deliberately a review of first grade skills. This quite effectively reversed the effects of summer vacation. In fact, if you ask any teacher using the curriculum beyond week 10, you will learn that this ELA curriculum is incredibly fast paced and very challenging. Math is another area of misunderstanding. Teachers used to be expected to cover Mathematics with a very broad brush, with only one coat of paint. Children had a very shallow understanding, therefore, of grade level Math. The Core Curriculum introduces a new concept: depth of knowledge rather than breadth of knowledge. Children will have a better foundation for higher math if they learn the basics thoroughly.
Second argument. Too difficult? Would you rather a second grader learns about Dan in the Van and Sally in the Alley, or about the Great Wall of China and Greek Mythology? You may be surprised to learn that children actually prefer non-fiction. They love to learn from stories, not just be entertained by them. The previous method of teaching reading featured one story per week: a story that was rehashed on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and part of Friday with the objective of teaching skills such as sequencing events, finding the main idea, and identifying the setting. Believe me, it was as dull as North Korean opera. Now children are hearing stories about Ancient India, Ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and other far-off places. They are not expected, at the primary grade level, to fully understand the geography and the place in literature associated with these stories: they are expected to learn an advanced vocabulary and to gain a foothold in cultural literacy. Later on, in the fifth grade, for example, they may hear about Pandora’s Box. The fifth grade teacher will be able to draw on prior knowledge, because the story will not be entirely strange to the students who learned about Pandora in the second grade. One might well ponder the words of Albert Einstein: “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”
Three. Teaching to the test, or too many tests? Not if you know what a test is. There are several different types of test. One is evaluative; one is diagnostic; one is, quite frankly, punitive. An evaluative test might be, for example, a math assessment at the end of a lesson. Or it might be a worksheet. Or it might be a written explanation of what was learned. It is used to determine whether the students actually learned what was covered in a lesson. A diagnostic test is given before a lesson is taught, so teachers know what the students do not know and must be taught. It is akin to going to a doctor’s office to find out what medicine you may need. A punitive test is one that is given as a sort of punishment, such as a pop test. The important point to remember is that the Core recognizes that any student work can be perceived as a test. If a teacher needs an evaluation of his or her lesson, what could be better than to assess student learning via an examination of student work from that day? The students may feel they’re being tested, but for whose benefit is it and what kind of test is it? Incidentally, there are no more standardized tests in the Core Curriculum than there were in the old one.
Fourth argument? This is a subset of argument two, the difficulty argument. This attempts to pull a veil of respectability over that more direct argument, however; a not very convincing attempt, as you will see. Teaching children about Mesopotamia or Mohenjo Daro is not developmentally inappropriate — even if those places are news to the teachers. You cannot expect to have a literate, civic-minded population if you don’t give them the tools to think and the knowledge that brings wisdom. Allow me to illustrate how the Core Curriculum encourages the development of higher-order thinking skills.
- Assume we’re doing a lesson on Pandora and Prometheus. The children hear how Prometheus brought us fire and how Pandora’s disobedience brought about misery, pain, sorrow, death, drought, disease, famine, war, and all evil in the world. The teacher then asks, “Why do you think this was a popular story in ancient Greece? What do you think was being explained here?” What the teacher is asking is for the children to evaluate what they know about mythology and synthesize a new idea. This is precisely how we will develop critical and creative thinking.
Fifth argument: No teachers and no parents were involved!
- When did anyone, in 170 years of public education in New York State, ever care about who wrote the schools’ curriculum? Where did anyone read that parents and teachers have ever developed a curriculum that resulted in the kind of results society wanted? I am a teacher. I am not an expert on the cognitive needs of children. I am an expert on delivering a curriculum and at getting kids to read and do math. Expecting a teacher to be prepared for curriculum creation is rather like expecting your waiter to know how to cook haute cuisine. Let me repeat: nobody ever cared about who wrote the curriculum.
Sixth argument: My God, it’s Bill Gates!
- It is no secret that the Core Knowledge Foundation (the source of the Core Curriculum) has people working for it. It is not funded by states nor the national government. Fortunately, enlightened capitalists like Bill and Melinda Gates, George Lucas, and George Soros have collaborated to put money into the most promising research on elementary education. This all began in the late 1980s, and nobody made a secret of it. Lucas published a magazine called Edutopia, and it often headlined articles about the efforts to develop a broad curriculum that could be shared by states. The National Governors’ Association got involved and things got rolling. No state was required to take a predesigned set of learning standards; it was like a menu of possibilities, all linked by a common philosophy. States were supposed to develop their own tests, or they could use ones developed by the Core Knowledge Foundation. I know, it sounds like the Affordable Care Act: leave it up to the states and you have disaster. Well, New York State contracted with Pearson, Inc. to make the tests; it relied on itself for the development, preparation, and publishing of its own version of the standards. It was a botched rollout, just like the ACA. But for some reason, perfectly reasonable people who realize the ACA is better than its rollout seem to be unable to apply the same logic to the Core.
- For years, we’ve heard that capitalists and academicians didn’t think schools were doing a good job. We heard about remedial writing classes being given at big banks. We heard colleges saying that fewer than 20% of their incoming freshmen were capable of writing an essay. That didn’t bother us too much. So when the same capitalists and academicians decide to do something about it, it’s time to get up and holler that they’re hijacking the education system? And let’s not forget that the father of public education, Horace Mann, was clear about why he favored it: “For the creation of wealth, then,—for the existence of a wealthy people and a wealthy nation,—intelligence is the grand condition.” (Mann: Twelfth Annual Report of Horace Mann as Secretary of Massachusetts State Board of Education)
The opposition to the Core Curriculum is vaguely reminiscent of the tactics of the Tea Party. Blind rage against inevitable change. But we need to understand the urgency of improving our schools. We need to understand the urgency of making a more national curriculum, because our mobility puts our children at a disadvantage. We need to stick to the Core Curriculum and make it even better.