Aptly named Common Core hollows out learning

Michigan’s adoption of the so-called Common Core has generated resistance among educators and parents. They worry about the incessant testing, the data mining, and the arcane and age-inappropriate ways of teaching subjects. All worthy concerns, but the Common Core is not a revolution in education. Rather, it’s an extension of long-term trends toward quantification and utilitarianism, and the idea that the energies of all ought to be subordinate to the interests of the state.

The term Common Core is itself a misnomer. A core curriculum refers to a body of knowledge that all students are expected to know. The directors of the Common Core are quick to point out that it’s not a curriculum but rather a set of benchmarks. Granted, there is reason to assume a curriculum is being smuggled in under the guise of attainable benchmarks, but doing so is less than honest.

Education has more than its share of jabberwocky, and few things glaze the eyes of attentive readers more quickly than talk of “benchmarks” or “measurable outcomes.” When educators talk of measurable outcomes, the only outcomes you will have will be those that can be measured.

In the world of the classroom, however, as in life, the most significant things can’t be measured. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” isn’t resolved by filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil. Even in the rhapsodic fulsomeness of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, the reader senses her striving to say what she knows can’t be said, or at least not completely, and is drawn to fill in the remainder of her sentiments with his or her own experience. In short, one is engaged.

Not under the reading instruction that takes place in the Common Core. Here is emphasized the soul-deadening and servile “evidence-based” reading of “informational texts” with the intention of making students effective relayers of information, with proficiency in technology and digital media. The Core’s assumption about the instrumentality of reason and its utilitarian view of education ultimately undercut what learning is about. Students who don’t read for pleasure are students who don’t read. One doesn’t read to learn concepts and rhetorical strategies; one learns concepts and strategies in order to read, to enter the author’s world imaginatively, and to exit somehow transformed.

Education is most nearly itself when it has no end beyond itself; it is a cultivation, a turning-over of the soil of one’s self so that reality, with all its truth, may plant its seed. The Common Core, instead, emphasizes that education is a means to a determined end: to make students career or college-ready. This is a vaporous, indeterminate standard.

“To make students career or college-ready” sounds like it would be a good idea, but it mainly reveals the utilitarian interests of the shills behind adoption of the standards: Business leaders, who are intent on subordinating our educational “system” to the needs of a specialized and technically skilled labor market, and have done so with the enthusiastic support of the government. If anyone still doubts we live in a plutocracy, this should provide further evidence.

The Common Core is largely driven by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which contends – surprise! – all students should be able to work effectively in a knowledge-based economy, and have advanced technological skills, such as those required to run Windows 8. Gates and other defenders of the Core are quick to point out that one of its goals is to correct for the contingencies of birth by providing national uniformity in education, all with an eye toward maintaining America’s economic standing and competitiveness in global markets – which is the summum bonum of the Common Core.

Critics can take solace in knowledge of its inevitable failure. Every seven years, or so it seems, we are presented with another panacea for our educational ills. The problem is that all these reforms are wrong in their major premises: the onus of education rests not upon the schools but upon the student. You can’t teach unmotivated kids, and you don’t motivate them by positing benchmarks business leaders need for profitability and government needs to maintain its tax base. The idea of one-sized-fits-all education is mistaken, and universal benchmarks do not befit a free people whose souls ultimately thirst for the infinite - a reality which, by definition, can’t be measured.

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Sat, 05/10/2014 - 8:49am
From My recent book; A Brewery Worker's Boy in Vietnam (Amazon): Mark Twain, Plato, and libertarians insist on distinguishing schooling from education. Training or schooling is preparation for an occupation or dealing with a particular anticipated event. We train folks to do CPR, be soldiers or lawyers. I and my wife went to medical school and our kids variously went to language, engineering, and public health schools, all in preparation for learning an occupation to earn a living. There are public and private schools to teach kids reading, writing and arithmetic, skills useful but not in themselves self-transformative. Education is properly speaking, a process of evolution, the coming to terms with the self and the really serious questions of life. What is it? What should I do for a living? What is morally right and why should I pay it any attention? Is there a God? Is the individual more important than the society? Is wealth a virtue, is poverty? Education grows out of reflection, prayer, reading good literature and poetry, discussion with friends or the bartender, with quiet, leisure and yes, writing.
Sun, 05/11/2014 - 5:46pm
The distinction between schooling and education is vital. Society needs both those who are well-schooled, and those who are also educated. Education -- the acquisition of wisdom -- is quite different from schooling, and certainly one may have one without the other. The mistake on Dr. Polet's part is to confuse the tools and purposes of schooling with that of education, this transformative acquisition of wisdom.
Sat, 05/10/2014 - 9:57pm
Thank you for this well written article. I hope it gets broad exposure. You hit the nail on the head!
Sun, 05/11/2014 - 10:48am
It's hard to judge what will be useful, even at the high school level. One reason is because the students are in the process of figuring out what they have interest in and talent for. It might take them until they are 30 or beyond to figure that out. One of the most popular video-bloggers in the Spanish speaking world, Chumel Torres, studied mechanical engineering and worked in a factory (maquila) for seven years while amusing himself on the side with his writing. His YouTube channel, El Pulso de la Republica, modeled after his heroes Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, reaches 600,000 people a week. And academic institutions are bad at predicting the future. My high school emphasized the international diplomatic language of the time -- French -- and did not even offer Spanish, which is the language which I started studying in my 40s and is now essential to my work. While my interest in college and graduate school was in English and French literature, the courses I took in calculus and economics turned out to be just as useful to me in my ultimate career -- business journalism. So, yes, I am a big believer in liberal arts education, which introduces students to some of the main arts, sciences and humanistic studies. It prepares us for the immensity of the world and how to parse the new and unknown. The future, and what we will need to participate in it fully as citizens, is unknowable and unknown.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/11/2014 - 11:16am
As a critic of CC, I wish I could take solace in its inevitable demise, but too many students have been harmed by NCLB and its testing mania, narrowing of curriculum, and effects on poor minority school students. The CC itself for me is not the problem, but the standardized tests that are coming to measure these "benchmarks." Informational texts by themselves aren't "soul deadening," but the inevitably inaccurate testing and evaluation of these standards will cause all kinds of problems. Once these tests begin and outcomes measured, then the curriculum will be transformed to teach to the test. Education is much more complex than can be measured in standardized tests and too important to leave to politicians and business leaders.
Sun, 05/11/2014 - 3:00pm
This is just one more educational fad that will cause more money to be spent replacing teaching materials, and frustrating parents and teachers alike as they relearn teaching methods and how to help with homework. Meanwhile, educational suppliers like me will be expected to jump on the bandwagon and carry the newly published materials that will help teachers through the maze of planning new kinds of lessons. I'm not jumping this time. Many of these materials simply take the same material and realign it to standards that match common core instead of the older national and state standards. Many of our leaders and great thinkers and inventors had little formal schooling at all and taught themselves what they needed to know. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. Some had private tutors. George Washington was one. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison both had trouble in school. Of what value would Common Core have been to them? What happened to RTI? The New Math (from a few decades ago when I was teaching)? Reading First? Etc. Seems strange to me that most of the great thinkers and inventors we look back on as those who laid the foundations for what we do today were not taught using any of the methods we are told are necessary today. They somehow learned from lectures, books, discussion, drill, and chalkboards. In my own school days we also had the occasional film strip run on a projector that never worked properly. So why do many of today's college students find McGuffey's last readers too difficult to understand when yesterday's eighth graders could handle them? I believe those who would have thrived under any system of education will still thrive because they are curious, motivated, and often have help at home. Those who do not have family support, live in chaos instead of in a stable family, and whose basic needs outside the school are not met, will have trouble learning no matter what methods one uses, or what benchmarks teachers are expected to meet. It's often the emotional baggage that keeps children from learning, not the teaching methods. It's the relationship between student and teacher that encourages (or discourages) children in their learning. The problem in the schools today is not the curriculum or the standards. It's the breakdown of the family and the schools cannot replace a stable family no matter how hard they try.
Sun, 05/11/2014 - 9:54pm
"The directors of the Common Core are quick to point out that it’s not a curriculum but rather a set of benchmarks. Granted, there is reason to assume a curriculum is being smuggled in under the guise of attainable benchmarks, but doing so is less than honest." Pearson has the contract for the CC standards, AND developed and published the curriculum. No smuggling required!
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 12:05am
The ideological opposition against Common Core can only go so far. That's because the underlying problems remain, the practical problems. The rejection of "utilitarian" thought is the stuff of high and foppish Romanticism, from G K Chesterton to the progressive educators of Summerhill -- oh, these deadening informational texts like those of the Founding Fathers or the speeches of Abraham Lincoln (an ironic protest, surely, coming as it does from a political science professor). Moreover, as with most Romanticism, there is the smuggling in of the issue of class, that "Education" and its concern belongs to some but not all. In fairness, this is a point easily made by those in the ivory tower. It's just not American. From the days of Horace Mann, this pragmatic or utilitarian approach to education has been a feature of America's common schools. With it has also come the commitment to the education, to the schooling of all, to increase the "intelligence" and thereby transform the learner from a consumer to a producer (paraphrasing Mann in his Report No. 12). The public end of education is the contribution to the common good. Settling for the merely ethereal flights of the soul into the infinite will not do. Further, blaming students for being unmotivated is roughly equivalent to blaming your charcoal for not self igniting. You still need the spark. And more important, some students, typically those poor, minority or from other castes, can easily be left out. We continue to settle for peddling substandard schools. Here, lies the great revolution of NCLB: not its mandate of high-stakes testing, but its recognition that education and educational attainment should be the expectation for all our children. It is a matter of the common good. So rid yourself of the Common Core. The problems, the injustices remain. It is difficult to see how one gets to better attainment among the educationally impoverished without tools of assessment; it is no less difficult to see how we can compare different methodologies and approaches without some sort of common language, a common tool. And the more diverse our educational delivery system -- the more choice -- the more the necessity of a common standard grows. You don't need Bill Gates to tell you that. Horace Mann will do.
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 6:27am
Bravo Harris, Bravo
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 8:40am
This column represents an extreme view that is not in the least persuasive. Does the author honestly think that notions of career readiness should play NO role in how education is organized? That would contradict the entire history of human education. It is legitimate to debate how strong a role should be played by career readiness versus such other goals as citizenship, etc. , but the notion that "career readiness" is a new goal for education is ridiculous. If the author is so opposed to informational texts, why did he write his essay as an informational text, that requires a reader who can critically read such texts? He should have written a sonnet! It is true that not everything that is valuable in education can be readily measured. It is then true that NOTHING that is valuable in education can be readily measured?.Again, the author's view is so extreme that it is difficult to take seriously. If we're going to have a productive debate over education reform, we need to have discussion that starts out with less extreme and uncompromising positions.
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 9:30am
Professor Polet's educational theory reminds me of the Leaning Tower of Pisa: beautiful building without an adequate foundation. Poetry is dessert; the vegetables come first. The chief advantage of Common Core is that it will strip away complacency. Some think our schools are doing a great job, others think we are below average. Widely-shared standards (coincidentally designed by educators from the dozens of participating states, not by the folks at the US Dept of Ed who bring us impossible school lunch requirements) will allow us to compare our schools' performance with others, to see what we are doing well and what needs improvement. We already test students so the idea that Common Core will lead to "teaching to the test" is a red-herring. We will--if the Legislature will leave education to our state Board of Education as our state Constitution requires--bury the MEAP and replace it with a better test. We need to guard against too much reliance on testing, sure, but relying on purely subjective feelings as to how well we're doing would be at least as dangerous.
Steve K
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 2:02pm
Randy, The standards were NOT designed by educators from several states either. Most, nearly all, of the CCSS architects came from the college level and test-publishers like Pearson. Virtually no K-12 teachers were in on the CCSS creation. Secondly, your point that this makes school comparisons possible is true but flawed. Simply having national standards doesn't really help education if the standards are flawed and misguided. And these standards leave a lot to be desired. As a high school social studies teacher who works with mostly Advanced Placement students, I can tell you that 11th / 12th grade CCSS Social Studies requires almost no historical knowledge. It's all skills, no content. Students are asked to interpret documents, for example, with no historical background. (David Coleman, primary architect calls this practice "close reading" and used the Gettysburg Address as his primary example. He stated that knowing about the reason for the Address would cloud a reader's ability to interpret it. How silly is that?) So we can compare schools by using inappropriate and misguided standards. So let's compare basketball players to each other through the use of their driving records. Also, you're making the assumption that it will be a better test. Possible but not likely. It will be a different test for sure but that does not denote better. CC Tests are simply harder and filled with more trick questions. Seriously, exemplars have had multiple correct answers and no correct answers at times. I could make all of my tests harder and then say to students "You aren't as smart as students from ten years ago." And teaching to the test will be THE ONLY THING that teachers do since a significant portion of their evaluations will be based on these scores. Teaching to the test creates better test takers. Not smarter students. Not more reflective students. Not more knowledgeable students. Just better test takers. We don't rely on subjective feelings. I analyze student performance through a series of different types of assessments. Some are multiple choice. Some project-based. Some collaborative design. Some essay and reflection. Guess what? Different students excel on different tests. And I'm telling you Smarter Balanced and PARCC are pretty much the same as the previous generation of tests. Just more complicated.
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 5:05pm
Steve, As a public school teacher with 32 years experience, I soundly agree with you. Every "improvement" that has been made moves students away from thinking, questioning, and actually learning. It breaks my heart. You are also correct that teachers will "teach to the test"; evaluations will be 25% teacher "data" this year, and will increase until the data component doesn't honor actual teaching. I still love my job, I work" outside the box" but teaching kids to actually learn is no longer the goal in education.
Tue, 05/13/2014 - 5:14pm
How will CC strip away complacency? If anything, CC will foster complacency. The CCSS are copy written to not allow over 15% deviation above the standards. So how will the smart student be challenged? This will foster complacency. As to the teacher, that role is eliminated. With a technology driven education, they will be guides. Bueller, Bueller??Talk about sucking the soul out of a job.
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 9:47am
"If we’re going to have a productive debate over education reform, we need to have discussion that starts out with less extreme and uncompromising positions." The Michigan legislature is not interesting in such a radical suggestion.
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 9:48am
Sorry..... not "interested" in such
A. M. Swenson
Mon, 05/12/2014 - 6:03pm
The Common Core Curriculum emphasizes the USE of learning, the APPLICATION, the UTILITY of knowing. No longer the "sage on the stage" imparting facts and opinions, this is student-centered learning that provides the learner with real tools to continue life-long learning. What can be so nefarious and worthless and dangerous about such an approach? As a retired teacher of 37 years with a PhD (not in education) from the U of M Ann Arbor, I envy the education that this generation will receive via the Core Curriculum.
Steve K
Tue, 05/13/2014 - 7:47am
A.M., It isn't what you think. As a current practitioner of these standards it virtually eliminates knowing anything. Students won't have the tools for learning. They are simply guided through procedural methods of "using skills" that are preferred by the CCSS writers. Assignments box students into doing those specific procedures without variation. I don't envy their education because they won't actually know anything. Ever see students try to find information? They suck at it because they don't know where to start. That's where teachers providing context and background are important. CCSS considers information unimportant but skills as the end-all be-all. In my class, I typically provide students with background historical information and allow for questions and clarification before turning them loose on any number of a variety of assignments. CCSS actually discourages that practice. Students are simply reading things and interpreting without understanding context which then limits their understanding of purpose and tone. It's like asking students to read or hear Churchill's WWII speeches without knowing that London was bombed into oblivion.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Tue, 05/13/2014 - 8:21pm
Steve K May 13, 2014 at 7:47 am Thanks for your comments and viewpoint. It sounds to me like the intention behind CCSS might be the creation of 'robots' of a sort. Your comment reminded of a story I used to tell, of when I learned one definition of a 'computer' from Webster's 1828 dictionary. Basically, it says that a computer is 'a person that computes.' I was talking with a Receptionist one day that was using her computer while talking about mundane things with me. I told her this definition of computer and you could see all the wheels quickly come to a complete stop. She stopped typing on the computer as the idea came home to her that she was doing the computing, not the machine. The machine was NOT the heart and soul of the activity, she was the heart and soul of the activity. It looks like CCSS takes this robotic idea, the modern definition of computer, to a whole new level. If the student has no context, if he is not the heart and soul, of the activity. If he is not learning to be the evaluator of knowledge, the who is responsible, the who has ethics, then who will acquire wisdom? In industry we try to emphasize the difference between 'information' and 'wisdom'. How do you teach Wisdom? How do you teach Judgement? How do you teach the student to make the individual choices inherent in Right and Wrong? For A. M's question: 'What can be so nefarious and worthless and dangerous about such an approach?' How shall a student learn Wisdom? How shall a student learn Judgement? How shall a student learn to make the individual choices inherent in Right and Wrong? How shall a new employee responsibly employ such skills? What might his response be, his response in life that is, to J. Polet's, or Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's immortal question, "How do I love thee?" from her Sonnet 43.