One of the biggest boogeymen in education today is the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Everyone talking about the deteriorating state of education will point to it as the current reason American students are performing so poorly. There are multiple studies showing that everywhere you see “Common Core” adopted, the students are performing worse than ever before.
This boogeyman is a fundamentally misunderstood creature primarily because the most vocal critics who aren’t educators have no idea that the “standards” they so despise are not new, nor were they ever new. The critics who are educators or are administrators in the education system are the ones who oppose change, oppose higher accountability of the teaching profession, and were never properly trained on how to implement the standards in their classroom in the first place.
Citing an opposition to “federally-run curriculum” is an absurd take on CCSS because standards are not curriculum, and the demonization and rejection of standards is what is ultimately hurting our students, not the standards themselves.
This is where conservative orthodoxy with regard to history should have them at least leaning toward the standards, if not firmly planting their flags there. U.S. History and Civics are frequently lamented as areas that suffer as public education grows steadily more progressive. We see reports of liberal school districts offering “alternative” takes on history, when not straight-up re-writing history, and forcing clear political opinions on students as fact. This isn’t just a failure of teachers and districts, but a failure of the textbooks, many of which are written by these same ideologically-driven education professionals.
It is not a failure of the CCSS, because the CCSS doesn’t dictate what your children learn in school.
The standards that everyone is afraid of? They are simply the skills you need to be able to demonstrate in order to be considered as having mastered the content of the class, and the skills the CCSS currently calls for in history are all literacy- and writing-based standards. Nothing on what content to teach or how to teach it.
If you want content-specific standards, the National Council on Social Studies has produced their standards, all of which are fit into “themes,” and are likewise more skills-focused: determine cultural differences; study and understand time, continuity, and change (those of you with students in AP U.S. History should ask your kids about that one, because it’s a major part of that class); determining individual and cultural identity; and identifying power, authority, and governance. These are all skills you need, and none of them dictate the content your students should be learning.
States that have established their own standards follow a similar template. Louisiana (where I live and teach), for example, has their individual grade levels broken down into strands based on historical era and skills. Here’s a sample of the standards kids need to master when they take U.S. History:
Standard 3 – Isolationism through the Great War
Students trace the transition in U.S. foreign policy from isolationism to internationalism from the late nineteenth century until the end of World War I.
US.3.1 Analyze the causes of U.S. imperialistic policies and describe both the immediate and long term consequences upon newly acquired territories
US.3.2 Describe the influence of U.S. imperialistic foreign policies upon Latin America and the Pacific region
US.3.3 Describe the root causes of World War I and evaluate the reasons for U.S. entry into the war
US.3.4 Explain how the U.S. government financed WWI, managed the economy, and directed public support for the war effort
US.3.5 Analyze how key military leaders, innovations in military technology, and major events affected the outcome of WWI
US.3.6 Describe the goals of political leaders at the Paris Peace Conference and analyze the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles
There is nothing in that standard (or the prior one, which introduces the Progressive movement that birthed Woodrow Wilson) that tells me as a teacher to extol the virtues of the Progressive movement and talk about their great successes against the Republican Party, nor is there anything dictating that I have to talk about how the evil Republicans were against regulations and against the working man. That isn’t teaching history, and the people who have written these standards know that.
Is Common Core flawed? Absolutely. People who swear by it should answer for the lack of results many states have seen. How is it that so many educators were not properly trained to utilize the standards in their teaching? How have we allowed so many activists to publish “curricula” hellbent on converting our students to progressive activists themselves? That is a failure of Common Core’s top crafters to tighten the reins on what their project is and isn’t.
At the same time, conservatives must realize that simply abandoning the concept of “standards” altogether (which is where many who lack the knowledge of what standards are and how they are used go on the issue) leaves classes – especially key social studies classes like U.S. History and Civics – open for local interpretation, greatly diluting the effectiveness of what we’re teaching kids happened in our nation’s history and stunting their basic knowledge of how our Constitution operates.
The system we have is not perfect, but the desire to completely destroy it and move on only works to destroy American history itself: The same forces at work in our classrooms today to convert kids rather than educate them will be given free rein to do so. Conservatives should be outright opposed to that.