I have a confession to make: I do not have an opinion on the new common core standards. Since graduating from college, I have studiously avoided looking at any piece of educational material in order to avoid flashbacks to finals hysteria and certain unfortunate incidents with pop quizzes. But in many ways the arguments about universal standards for education are extremely familiar to me. Phrases like one-size-fits-all and high standards are all too familiar to me. You see, I was homeschooled all the way through high school. People have been arguing over my education ever since I was first a student. Because of this experience, I recognize that all the arguments about the common core have a common problem: politics.
Common core arguments fall into two categories and neither of them adequately address the needs of students. The positive category supports universal standards for education in order to make sure every student is up to snuff when it comes time to go to college or get a job. It is a classic quality control argument. Opponents of the legislation say a lot of political stuff about nationalization, federal overreach and some even attack the educational theory itself, supporting more personalized support for students. I have heard it all before.
When it came time to decide on my education back in the early nineties, my parents were firmly in the second category. They did not want the federal government interfering in the education of their child and thereby damaging it or stunting it in favor of “teaching to the lowest common denominator.” Throughout my life, I have heard hundreds of other homeschooling parents say the same thing. Home schooling parents by and large want excellence for their children’s educations and they see that the only way to achieve that is to not participate in the normal school system. Common core arguments are the same type of thing, only in the context of an actual school.
To be honest, from the viewpoint of a student, none of this fighting about the common core really matters. There are still tests, homework, quizzes and readings to get through no matter what. Students do not have time for ideology. So who does this argument serve? Politicians and ideologically motivated people. Agenda is the problem for common core arguments. If you need evidence, there are two negative stories from well-known conservative sites that suffice.
The first is from FOX News which reported that a vocabulary lesson in one school was being used as Islamic propaganda. Todd Starnes was very concerned that a vocab lesson had been co-opted for proselytizing for the Muslim faith. A statement from the school reassured him that the lesson was part of the effort to “expose them to various religions and how they shape cultures throughout the world.” He was unconvinced. Instead, the article likened it to praising Japan right after Pearl Harbor, which sounds heinous.
Starnes took direct aim at the common core in his analysis, tying it to a issue that, to be honest, does not have anything to do with education at all. None of the sentences used in the vocabulary lesson were factually inaccurate. They quite correctly noted the role of Muhammad in creating Islam and were not framed in a proselytizing manner. Instead, they read like a history lesson which has big words for students to define from the context. But Starnes picked pieces of the supposed culture war and the war on terror in order to score points with his like-minded readers. Unfortunately, that does nothing for the students who have to do the exercise. He might have done better in service of their educations by defining the words for them instead.
The second piece of evidence is an article from The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s conservative website, about a speech a 10-year-old girl gave about the “nonsense” in the PARCC test, or Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test. According to the adolescent, there were things in the test that she did not know how to do and had not been taught, including an essay question on the theme of a story or poem using the text to back up the argument. Her parents were opting out for her and she was glad because, according to her, the test was just “nonsense.”
The Blaze reported somewhat gleefully that parents cheered her on and were supportive, but is this really what it seems? At ten, most students have been approached with the concept of an essay and themes in readings and using the text to support their argument. At ten I could do it as could my friends. Most ten year olds I know today could do so in a rudimentary fashion. To be clear, a test question like that does not really expect a student to do it perfectly, but to demonstrate their ability as it stands at that time. This 10-year-old sounds more like a kid who does not want to take a test than someone with an actual gripe. Sadly for her, her parents have fallen into the political arguments and decided not to let her face the challenge. To me, that really seems to defeat the purpose of tests.
I have picked on the opposing side of the common core arguments, but they are not the only ones who have problems. Supporting a universal standard based on generalizations about students’ levels and abilities is woefully inadequate to the real purpose of education. It does seem to encourage teaching to the test rather than teaching to learn. It is a bit like a microwave meal: it can be microwaved for three minutes and it passes as food, but it is less nutritious and exciting than something homemade with real ingredients on a stove.
Nevertheless, universal standards are necessary if only to function as a bare minimum for student achievement. But the common core does not address the problems with the education system that make these standards necessary. Class sizes, teacher shortages, lack of specialist teachers, cutbacks in budgets and other such problems exist and make giving a high quality education to everyone infinitely harder to do. In that respect, the common core is a band aid on a gaping wound.
But politicians support it. They have turned the common core standards into a political talking point where they can say, “Look how much I care about the children.” No matter how much they care, though, politicians are not really the best people to be running education. Educators are, always in conjunction with the parents who have the responsibility of care for their children.
Personally, I could not care less about this issue. The more I look at the argument about the common core, the more I see that they all have a common problem which nullifies them. Politics, culture war, islamophobia and a host of other pet issues have been mixed into an argument that rightly should be about providing the best education possible and nothing else. If the arguments were actually trying to be constructive, they might be worth listening to. Until then, I feel sorry for the students who are still struggling to achieve a good education despite everyone else’s bickering. But I do not feel sorry enough to go back to school. No one who never has to live through finals again misses it and I am no exception.
Editorial By Lydia Bradbury