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Is Common Core Really Dangerous?

For all its legitimate concerns, the Right tends to hyperventilate.

Conservatives are out to lampoon and destroy Common Core. Their reasons for this are legion, but their main objections boil down to one giant fear: the centralization of education. As George Will stated in a Thursday Washington Post column, “What begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials.” But “must” this centralization truly happen? Are these founded predictions, or phantasmagoric fancies?

Homeschoolers are getting worried, too: Dr. Susan Berry wrote at Breitbart, “When SAT, ACT, and GED exams are “aligned” with Common Core, homeschooled students—as well as students educated in private schools—may not be able to ‘opt out’ of the federally incentivized standards if they want to apply for college. These students could be pressured into adopting Common Core for curriculum at home so that they are familiar with the presentation of material on the newly aligned college entrance exams.”

First: all proponents and opponents of Common Core should take a good look at the standards themselves. When one actually looks at the material, it becomes clear that they focus on skills, not content. To use one analogy: the Common Core does not say how you should teach your child to ride a bike. That is up to your discretion. But Common Core will test your child on their ability to ride the bike proficiently. Thus, one cannot really “adopt Common Core for curriculum”—it doesn’t really provide curricular content. One could use it to measure the difficulty and proficiency of one’s curriculum, but that’s slightly different.

For some (myself included) this focus on skills is somewhat concerning. Questions of centralization and impending educational doom are somewhat questionable. But Common Core does prioritize grading and test scores over the actual content of learning. For those who believe quality content should be the end of education, and not merely means to a good GPA, this is rather disconcerting. In application, this emphasis could be harmless—or it could push teachers and students to work merely for the grade (especially since teacher evaluations will now be tied to student performance on the new achievement tests). This would devalue the truest, fullest definition of education—a view that constitutes learning for its own sake. As Patrick Deneen put it in a past TAC article, “A basic utilitarian mindset now dominates the definition and understanding of education and how it thereby constrains, limits, and narrows the scope of education’s purposes solely to the debased end of work.”

One hopes the new tests may function similarly to the SAT—measuring a students’ ability to read well, rather than dictating what students should read.  This would hopefully give teachers the flexibility required to administer proper materials to their students, in alignment with their learning levels and context. But fear of grade repercussions could prevent teachers from studying materials with the desired scope and depth. Rather than ruminating over important, interesting problems, they may rush to study for the next exam.

Standards are important. And Common Core isn’t necessarily the boogey man painted by some in the conservative press. But in considering the standards’ adoption, we must ask ourselves important questions about education’s true meaning and telos. If we know what education is for, we can determine the best means to procure that end.