There’s a wonderful discussion of Common Core in the latest edition of The New Criterion, in which authors Sol Stern and Peter Wood present their arguments for and against the standards. Stern thinks the standards are good (albeit in a limited sense),

Regardless of whether one believes that the main threat to the Common Core Standards emanates from the left or the right, its demise will harm the country’s schools. As a conservative, I remain convinced that, faults and all, the Common Core still presents a golden opportunity and a challenge for states and school districts to rethink what is taught in their classrooms. The Standards are more than just a list of learning objectives and skills that American students are expected to achieve by the end of each grade level. The most hopeful part of the new Standards is that they reject the instructional malpractice that prevents the public schools from fulfilling their historic mission of producing literate American citizens who know something about their country’s history and its republican heritage.

In contrast, Wood sees the Common Core Standards as dangerous and “sneaky”:

The main sneakiness of the Common Core is that it was (and still is) presented as a state-level project. In reality, from the get-go it was intended to be a national project. Its official name is “The Common Core K–12 State Standards,” but the truth is that the Common Core is designed to work as a de facto set of national standards.

I strongly encourage you to read both of their thought-provoking essays. But here are a few thoughts worth pondering as you read: first, Stern’s argument seems to rest on a “something is better than nothing” premise. And while his points are valid, this seems like a dangerous premise to build a system of education upon. The progressive mode of education has been deleterious for our school systems, but is another one-size-fits-all model a better poison? Stern’s stronger point in the essay seems to be this: Common Core could very well help us question the foundations and assumptions that our education system is currently built on, and perhaps urge us to make better reforms in the future. This is an encouraging idea, but will likely require many years of failures and pushback (from progressives and conservatives) before constructive improvements are made.

On the other hand, while Wood makes some excellent points in his essay, he also sets up many of conservatives’ favorite Common Core straw mans—the most notable of these being the hullabaloo about “informational texts” versus literature that students are encouraged to read. As I’ve written on this subject before, the referenced “informational texts” needn’t scare conservatives as much as they seem to. Common Core’s English standards aren’t just for teaching English, but also for teaching literacy in history, social studies, science, and in “technical subjects.” The standards say English classrooms “must focus on literature” and literary nonfiction, thus implying that “informational texts” are meant to be emphasized in the other aforementioned classes. Additionally, “informational texts” aren’t meant to be machine manuals or encyclopedia entries: the standards’ recommended readings include speeches from Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Common Sense by Thomas Paine, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, “The Fallacy of Success” G.K. Chesterton, and “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell.

Wood also says that Common Core is more curriculum than standards, which—if one reads the standards—seems a difficult claim to make. The standards hardly reference any content whatsoever, just skills to cultivate. That said, it is true that the skills emphasized (and tests given) can highly influence content. Additionally, the standard’s rigor (or lack thereof) may drive curricular difficulty levels, thus bearing somewhat on the structure and formatting of curricular material. Thus, the standards present a tenuous balance—one that will always plague an education system that rests upon nationally-supported and maintained standards.

Our federal government is yet unwilling to hand over its authority of students and classrooms to state or county governments. One wonders what would happen if we did: if we got rid of national standards and standardized testing, putting control of the classroom in the hands of individual schools and individual teachers. It could be a disaster, perhaps. But it could also give students the opportunity to cultivate skills without catering to tests, fostering their love of knowledge rather than merely emphasizing technical skills and test scores. It’s been tried and proven true before—but we most focus on the individual student over global competition, before anything will change.