Can you imagine going to school in a museum? At Ascend Learning, a public charter school in New York City, students walk past works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Van Gogh on their way to class. They discuss Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in literature class, Shakespeare’s Tempest in discussions of “family struggles, slavery, and colonialism.” In her profile of the school in The Atlantic, Sara Neufeld credits Common Core with incentivizing this new emphasis on the arts and humanities:
Amid budget cuts and long hours of drills in reading and math, the arts have been decimated in the many of the classrooms serving the nation’s neediest students. Advocates for arts education are hopeful that the Common Core education standards adopted by more than 40 states will soon change that, as the standards and new exams that go with them emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills, which they say go hand in hand with artistic expression. … The Common Core standards mention the arts frequently: approximately 75 times, according to Sandra Ruppert, who directs the nonprofit Arts Education Partnership.
But can the standards really bring about this artistic revolution in America’s classrooms? Many have noticed that Common Core emphasizes test results to a fault, putting immense pressure on both students and teachers to get quantitative results for their academic efforts—regardless of the diversity of their classrooms, quality of their teaching, or specific frustrations of their school. Despite the standards’ best intentions, many worry that Common Core will only further entrench a broken system.
In City Journal, Mary Grabar argues that our system in fact needs to look to teacher education in order to make improvements. We need to make sure teachers understand the content they are teaching, and have the knowledge and experience necessary to share that material with their students:
An entrenched education bureaucracy remains a formidable obstacle to meaningful educational reform, particularly in the area of standards. Many state education commissioners and staff “are influenced,” Stotsky says, “by the education schools they attended, teacher unions, school administrators’ needs, the interests of professional education organizations, and the pressure of political groups (especially think tanks, institutes, and policy-oriented organizations that claim expertise on educational matters).” Testing companies, educational entrepreneurs, diversity advocates, accreditation agencies, and political ideologues also have a vested interest in keeping standards low.
… Stotsky calls on legislators and their constituents to revamp the system. To ensure teacher competency, she proposes raising college-admission standards and abolishing credits for undergraduate education coursework, replacing it with four years of academic coursework for core-subject teachers. Educationally high-achieving countries, such as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, already take such measures. Extensive studies show that a teacher’s subject-matter knowledge is the best predictor of a student’s achievement, in line with the common-sense notion that “teachers cannot teach what they do not know,” as Stotsky puts it.
And one must concede that teachers will teach best what they love. Despite the 75 times that “art” is spoken of in the Common Core standards, it seems that this infectious love is what actually has brought the arts to Ascend Learning:
The network’s CEO, Steven F. Wilson, who founded the network in 2007, studied sociology at Harvard. He wants his students reading great literature in the context of a broad liberal arts education, just like he had. He said too many public schools have a singular focus on test scores. “I don’t in any way discount that, but our purpose is much deeper,” he said. “It’s to equip our students with the broad capacities that can take them anywhere in life, whatever they want to do and whatever a changing world brings them.” Those capacities include the ability to separate fact from opinion, to think rationally, and to have an aesthetic sensitivity. “These are the hallmarks of an educated person,” said Wilson, 55.
In 2010, when Ascend was just a tiny network poised for expansion, Wilson hired a consultant named Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, a literary critic with a doctorate in American literature who’s taught at various colleges. To develop a humanities program for Ascend, Schmidt sought inspiration from elite private academies, high-performing public schools, and her undergraduate alma mater, Wesleyan University.
Wilson and Schmidt are sharing what they know and love. As well-trained academics, they are bringing the classical liberal arts to students who can now benefit deeply from that training. They know that education is about more than 4.0 GPAs and good test scores: it’s about the training of the mind and soul, the equipping of an entire person.
While Common Core actually tends in the direction that Wilson finds so dangerous—with its rather “singular focus on test scores”—he has founded a school that (while still working with the national standards) benefits students in a deeper, longer-lasting way. This demonstrates the fact that while Common Core has particular tendencies—weaknesses and strengths that should not be ignored—the standards’ actual implementation can be very diverse, can achieve good or ill. Whether the implementation of Common Core is done well depends largely on those in charge: the teachers and administrators who run our schools. Thus, we must focus on what we are teaching the teachers, what passions we are instilling them. This will determine whether kids go to school to take tests—or to read Shakespeare and study Bruegel.