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E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Headshot

Are Schools Dumbing Down the Common Core Standards?

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A family joke when I was growing up involved an argument between father and son about what sort of horse carriage the family should buy. "Daddy, let's have cloth seats." "No," said the daddy. "Boy, what's wrong with you, haven't you got any sense? Cloth is impractical; it's got to be leather." "Daddy, it should have glass windows, not isinglass curtains." "Are you crazy, boy? With glass everybody can look in." "No papa, I want windows!" After a few more such exchanges, the daddy says in exasperation, "O.K. That's enough. Johnny get DOWN from the carriage."

Dare one see a similarity with the fierce objections to the curriculum of the Common Core State Standards, which don't even require a definite curriculum, and haven't been put into effect in the schools? The arguments against them grow ever more fierce -- as if kids' lives were already being wrecked, that useful experimentation were already being suppressed, and that schools were being forced to descend from their current level of excellence to study "informational texts" like tax codes which will drive Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson out of the curriculum.

None of the horrid scenarios need happen -- given an ounce or even a milligram of common sense. Since the standards do not prescribe a definite curriculum, many different curricula could fulfill them. It's no more reasonable to claim that Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson will be excluded as to claim that they will be required. One could easily insist that within language arts courses "informational texts" such as historical ones must qualify as "literature" -- a word that is not limited to fiction and poetry, yet does exclude tax codes.

Moreover many of the current criticisms aren't really directed against the standards themselves but against the frantic directives that principals and superintendents are sending out to teachers. I agree that some school administrators are reacting to the coming of the standards in strange and unproductive ways -- just as they did when No Child Left Behind became law. But the standards don't require folly -- against which the gods themselves struggle in vain.

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Proposals for commonality in any area of our national life have always engendered fierce opposition. We take standardized paper dollars for granted; yet the law providing for a common nationally backed paper currency passed only in 1863 -- narrowly. On the other hand, among our best thinkers, commonality in education has always been a strong positive theme. Although Jefferson and Madison opposed the idea of a national bank, they emphatically did not oppose the idea of the schools imparting a common currency of knowledge. Nor is there need to invoke other early writers like Benjamin Rush and Noah Webster on this score. The case for a core of common knowledge across the nation has been urged by progressive, patriotic leaders throughout our history -- from Lincoln's 1838 Lyceum Address, to Horace Mann, to a thrilling speech to the New York legislature by Governor Silas Wright in 1845, and a long eloquent plea in 1894 by Francis W. Parker, the founder of progressive education in the United States. William C. Bagley, a professor of education at Teachers College in the 1920s and 30s, wrote eloquently that a core of common knowledge is more needed in the United States than in schools of smaller, less diverse nations. Quite apart from other considerations, the social-justice argument alone should be argument enough. For low-income students who learn relatively little at home and who must move from school are hit especially hard by the curricular incoherence among our public schools.

To my mind, the best refutation of the claim that the new national standards will debase public education is the fact that its requirements in language arts have actually been tried out and have succeeded. For three years, a pilot Core Knowledge Language Arts program which fulfilled the requirements of the standards was tried out in New York City. It has been shown to be superior to the arrangements now in place in most schools. You can look up the data here, and read about it here, here and here. While this field trial spanned only kindergarten through second grade, it's reasonable to argue that other schools that have been following the Core Knowledge Sequence for pre-K - 8 for over 20 years have been successfully following the requirements of the new standards.

If something similar were put into effect nationwide, we could expect a big rise in our schools educational productivity and fairness -- not to mention all those other benefits of the common school which leaders down the decades have written about so eloquently. The Core Knowledge example proves that effective curricula can be based on the new standards. It will be up to the critics and the practitioners themselves to create effective curricula. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the standards but in ourselves, if we should fail in this unique new chance to improve our schools.