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Phil-osophically Speaking: December 6, 2013

Common Core And Common Sense

The problem with common sense, a wit once venturesomely noted, is that it’s not common. So how does common sense square with Common Core, Washington’s new public-school curricula and its concomitant performance criteria that are now being implemented in 45 states, including New York, amid a growing chorus of naysayers?

There is ample reason to be concerned about the state of education in America. It was Plato, the father of the Western intellectual heritage, who said that educating the next generation is the most important task a society can be engaged in. I concur, for who can deny that the accumulated knowledge, traditions and values of a civilization is patrimony’s most precious heirloom. It’s also troubling that we are living in a world where students cannot effectively compete with students in other industrial countries. This disparity would be even more alarming if it were not for the fact that our universities and engineering firms are a magnet for gifted foreign students. The United States is importing a brain trust rather than creating one out of its own loins.

Meanwhile, grade inflation here in the United States is epidemic in many school districts and New York City has for years been graduating students who are functionally illiterate and can’t do basic arithmetic. The sham was embarrassingly exposed when pursuant to the mandates of Common Core, testing disclosed that reading, writing and arithmetic scores in 2013 dropped by an eye-popping 30 percentage points from 2012.

The academic performance of a large swath of students in numerous school districts have been penuriously pathetic and has led the educational priesthood to expound their views for reform with an evangelical zeal. Common Core is the anointed solution to address this crisis. In effect, Common Core is a homogenized, federal education program (though not technically so) that establishes quantifiable standards, via frequent testing, to evaluate not only students but also teachers.

At one time, a mere generation ago, the state Regents examinations provided a trusted benchmark for performance. That has been largely dismantled. Common Core, in one important sense, fills the vacuum to provide some reasonable measurement through a methodical, testing regimen. Still, the fear of Big Brother devising a one size fits all for the American education system is becoming pervasively ominous for many educators and parents. Any reader of this column knows that there isn’t any one more apprehensive about the overreach of the federal government than yours truly (do I need to say anything more than the Affordable Health Care Act), but to use the word coercion, as some have in regards to Common Core, is overstating the case.

Common Core was voluntarily accepted by 45 states including, as I mentioned elsewhere, New York. It has also, in some degree, been vitiated because the federal grants connected to Common Core are like manna to cash starved school districts. Intrusiveness and data mining is a deep concern; so are the windfalls of cash that are involved. Money, as in all things governmental, has a role to play and no doubt not only school districts but educational and computer companies see a windfall in the tens of billions.

To obviate fears about the federal government promoting a leftist agenda through Common Core as well as its creeping encroachment into the personal lives of its citizens, Bill Bennett, a founding father of Common Core, and the conservative educational czar in the Reagan Administration, has been trotted out to stump for the idea although, I’m told, he has backpedaled on a few of its provisions. The proponents of Common Core, and they are legion, have also sought to soften its more imperious inflections by publicly eschewing the notion that the federal government should not be establishing and codifying educational objectives. Instead, they have painted their canvas with delicate strokes and colored it with the loveliest and most captivating metaphors.

Common Core, they assure us, is like the architect designing the framework of your home, while teachers, administrators and parents fill in the nooks and corners. They also maintain that this framework has been extrapolated from the blueprints of the highest performing countries in public education and in no way interferes with teachers devising lesson plans and tailoring instructions to individual needs. I have no complaint about the federal government establishing the basics and the fundamentals of education providing teachers and parents are given a measure of flexibility. A democratic republic governs with the consent of the governed and, therefore, more than any other political society requires an educated constituency. So the federal government has a role; what it does not have, or should not have, is plenipotentiary power to override local and parental concerns.

In addition, there are some local school districts, Floral Park–Bellerose for example, whose students are already meeting national objectives. Concerned parents, teachers and administrators have worked assiduously in providing a good education for students attending our local schools. Why should they be compelled to do things differently because Uncle Sam demands uniformity? I realize that there are other school districts, a mere stone’s throw away, which are falling far short of these standards but this should not be a reason to lump the performing school districts into the mix.

I’m not saying that troubled school districts are comprehensively the result of indifferent and incompetent teachers, school boards and administrators. But there is an ostensible difference in the milieu and environment in which learning takes place. A very bright young man I know, harboring strong liberal sentiments, taught in both Garden City and Amityville. On Parent-Teacher night, Garden City was overflowing with parents, who had questions and concerns about their children’s progress. At Amityville, five parents showed up to the surprise of no one on the faculty other than himself. It was, he dishearteningly told me, one of the saddest things he has ever witnessed.

There are purlieus, an intellectual climate, where the culture of education thrives. At the turn of the 20th century, despite their penury, Jews spent more time at the public libraries than any other ethnic group. Jewish mothers would place a dab of honey on books as a sacred symbol to their children that learning was sweet. The Asians, many not even knowing English upon their arrival to this country, have much the same philosophy as well as a hard-headed discipline that young children must be compelled to work. But this culture is not prevalent and is indeed hardly evidenced in our most challenged school districts. While I believe Common Core can measure learning via testing (although turning education into test preparation is a highly dubious proposition) I really don’t see what it can do to change the culture to decisively orient itself to improving learning and academic performance.

If I believed it could, I might well be congenial to Common Core despite my reservations about its procrustean centralization. I’m not, however, dogmatic about these convictions and welcome evidence to prove me wrong. It’s all part of the learning process of supporters and opponents alike.