Tone-deaf Common Core rives broken communities yet further

Jordan Shenhar

Public education systems across the United States are plagued with more problems — and more complex problems — than you’ll find on any trendy standardized math test. They perpetuate intergenerational inequality by providing superior resources to wealthier districts. They’re too bureaucratic to adequately respond to student concerns. And, worst of all, their curricula are outdated. Now that the age of assembly-line workers and mid-level corporate hacks has been killed by outsourcing and technology, rote memorization and uniform standards have no place in the classroom.

So what’s the Common Core’s plan, which has now been adopted in whole or in part by 44 states? Replace cold, harsh standardization with colder, harsher standardization. How’s that for critical thinking?

For instance, instead of learning to form their own opinions or analyze works of literature in their English classes, Common Corified students will get to parse through informational texts in order to answer multiple-choice and short-answer comprehension questions. That’s because, as Common Core architect David Coleman put it in a 2011 speech to New York state policymakers, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

Coleman isn’t entirely wrong. In the modern world, data analysis and evaluation have become exponentially more important in everyday life, governing baseball roster selections and political decisions and even opinion journalism, where “because I said so” prognosticators are giving way to statistical brains in the FiveThirtyEight mold. And being able to quickly recognize and evaluate written information is obviously an important skill — especially when scanning the labyrinthine Common Core website for relevant material.

The problem with the Core, then, lies more in its implementation than in its construction. In order to evaluate student progress, the program relies on the standardized Smarter Balanced Assessment. And no evidence suggests that students benefit from learning how to fill in bubbles or cram buzzwords into an answer box, which, despite protestations to the contrary from Common Core hoplites, is what invariably follows when a district’s funding and prestige are tied to test scores.

That’s the sort of outcome that worries Anne Lutz Fernandez, co-author of the forthcoming book “Schooled” and an English teacher in Connecticut. While Fernandez described the political controversy surrounding the Core itself as “overblown,” she fears that its assessment procedure will lead to a “narrowing and redirection of the English curriculum” in public schools. Overall, Fernandez said, the teachers interviewed in the book share her aversion to the testing that comes along with the Common Core package.

At Fernandez’s suggestion, I took an online version of the 11th grade Smarter Balanced Assessment for English and language arts to check out how we evaluate America’s future leaders and innovators. Luckily for me, the computer system the program runs on glitched out on Question 16 out of 99, or else I would’ve spent all afternoon skimming passages on sustainable cotton farming for EPA data and “Life of Pi” excerpts for information on solar still utility and the history of shipwrecks. The multiple-choice questions all include excerpts from the piece presented, which means you don’t really have to read the whole thing to take the test. In that regard, maybe it is a pretty good approximation of high school life. However, the instructions are just vague enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if districts have to devote a significant amount of time to teaching test-taking skills instead of, you know, books that aren’t about sustainable cotton farming.

So even if the Common Core isn’t supposed to replace a school’s individual curriculum, in practice it does exactly that. It seems clear, then, that Coleman doesn’t understand kids too well — unless he genuinely believes that his system can convey valuable information in 99-problem doses to millions of different children with millions of different experiences raised in millions of different households across thousands of different districts. If that’s the case, I recommend that he try babysitting. That might show him that his Common Core as it’s currently constructed cannot replace a teacher’s intuition or a student’s creativity.

If Texas’ Republican leaders felt equally strongly about individualism, I’d be encouraged by their rejection of the Common Core and by Rick Perry’s declaration that “the academic standards of Texas are not for sale.” But through their willingness to fund religiously motivated charter schools and the Texas Education Agency’s promotion of “alternative” science, it seems as though lawmakers care just as much about getting Bibles into the classroom as they do about keeping bureaucrats out of it. Through its stand in favor of the 10th Amendment, Texas is short-shrifting the First, thereby wasting a great opportunity to develop students who might actually remember which government departments they want to abolish.

That kind of nonsense can’t continue, unless America wants its cultural and economic future to hinge on preachers and Dwight Schrute knockoffs. With the likes of Coleman and Perry becoming increasingly influential nationwide, states should pull a lesson from every kid’s standardized test playbook: Sometimes, the correct answer really is “none of the above.”

Shenhar is a Plan II, economics and government sophomore from Westport, Conn. He writes about campus and education issues.