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Susan Ohanian Headshot

Politics and Parsnips: Obama's Common Core

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The Burlington Free Press reported ("Dinner at 1600," Feb. 23) that as President Barack Obama was offering a toast before a four-course dinner at the White House, he acknowledged a tuxedo-clad Vermont Governor Jim Douglas as "an extraordinary partner with this White House." Obama was referring to the work of the National Governors Association on the Common Core Standards in math and reading.

The New York Times called this national standards effort "a bipartisan project at variance with the highly polarized political mood in Washington." I call it a unilateral policy leaving out teachers, students, and parents.

For starters, I'd like to ask all the governors if they have read As I Lay Dying, with its 15 narrators, offered, along with Pride and Prejudice as Exemplar Text for 11th graders. I'd like to ask Bill and Melinda Gates, too. After all, they gave $1 million smackers to the PTA to promote these standards.

And how about Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), presented as an Exemplar Text, for 9th graders? When I grappled with Wordsworth's great principle of emotion recollected in tranquility as a grad student, I figured I had only myself to blame. After all, I'd chosen to be an English major. And to go to grad school. But hapless 14-year-olds across the land aren't English majors and they have no stake at all in this canon which is traveling as someone's idea of rigor.

Please look up the definition of rigor, and the next time you hear a corporate politico -- or Bill Gates -- call for rigor in the schools, shelter your children.

Do our nation's governors think 14-year-olds will embrace Wordsworth's declarations about the source of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it? And if not, perhaps our Chief State School Officers might offer some ideas for differentiated teaching strategies. After all, the Council of Chief State School Officers were co-conspirators in the production of the Common Core document.

Things are just as dicey for younger students. Here are two selections the National Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers offer as Exemplar Narratives for children in grades 6-8: "Allegory of the Cave" from The Republic by Plato (380 BCE) and "Address to Students at Moscow State University" by Ronald Reagan (1988).

Plato for 11-year-olds.

A friend of mine said that she'd read As I Lay Dying, and as a result never went near another book by Faulkner. Of course, Faulkner is not the point here. A good teacher can pull students through just about anything, but the danger here is that the kid who has "survived " such a piece of literature will be reluctant to pick up another book. And that's a tragedy. I regard it as my sacred duty as a teacher to help individual students find individual books that will knock their socks off, books that touch their lives in such a way that they will be compelled to read another book. And another.

According to the Burlington Free Press account, both Obama and Douglas offered toasts with glasses of water. One can only wonder what the people devising the Common Core were drinking. The Exemplar Text lists offered as an appendix to the Common Core are baffling -- and ludicrous -- at every grade level.

In order to qualify for the pots of money President Obama is eager to hand out, states must accept 100 percent of the Common Core standards document. They cannot pick and choose. Exercising any judgment based on what teachers and parents know about kids and about literature is forbidden. To get the Obama bribe, state politicos must promise that schoolchildren will be forced to swallow ALL the Kool-Aid.

The governors, the chief state school officers, and President Obama insist these are "high-quality education standards," drawing on "the most important international models as well as research and input from numerous sources, including scholars, assessment developers, professional organizations, and educators from kindergarten through college. In their design and content, the Standards represent a synthesis of the best elements of standards-related work to date and an important advance over that previous work."

I say they're parsnips and I say to hell with them.