A Conceptual Critique of the Common Core


The Common Core curriculum is causing quite a stir. And, as there are some good reasons for this, it is worth taking the time to analyze this major educational initiative.

The first thing to jump out about these new standards is their origin: Common Core is the product of educational policy-makers on a federal level who enticed governors and state bureaucrats to adopt this approach and its accompanying standards. The biggest enticement: Accepting the standards was tied to receiving federal Race to the Top grant money.

Now, making educational policy has always been the responsibility of the states, so this idea of federally generated education policy goes against the traditional grain. You know, the old "beware-of-Greeks-bearing-gifts, Trojan-horse thing." It also raises the age-old issue of federalism vs. states’ rights, though in this case the states went down without even swinging.

Along this line, there are manipulative and coercive dimensions to it. The manipulation is the money, and the coercion comes from the almost unanimous supportive majority and the norms arising from such broad-based adoption and the ideologies lurking behind and in them. Such numbers are coercive inherently, even if unintentional.

And that coercion is a problem for any school or family. If families or schools choose to follow a different route in their approach to core skills and curricula, those children are apt to pay a serious price in their future. And it may be more than money and opportunities. Plus, such coerced conformity just isn’t part of our American DNA.


Science vs. Social Science

Conceptually, the second major point is Core proponents’ claim of "scientific research." I mean, science is science, right? Well, no offense against scientific research, but scientific research and social-science research are two different things, and anyone in the education business knows this. And this claim is of social-science research.

It is important to know that most social-science research is thought of as "soft science," as opposed to the "hard sciences" — biology, chemistry and physics — or the "applied sciences" of the engineering fields. Also, educational research and its conclusions are best thought about in terms of "degrees of confidence" or as the "strength of correlations." That is why statistics are used in analyzing most studies.

So, in a scientific and technological culture, calling social science "science" just isn’t accurate or fair. And it smacks of rhetoric, manipulation and overstatement, or maybe even advertising. And, as any practicing educator will tell you, there is much more art and philosophy than science when it comes to the classroom.

This leads to the question of epistemology — the philosophical study of knowing, the theories of how we can know anything. Now, epistemology is pretty crucial to education. It is a philosophical study that goes back to the Greeks, and it is critical to all conversations about education, secular or religious.

To me, the problem is that Common Core doesn’t really spell this out anywhere other than to mention science, though it is implicit in much of what constitutes the Common Core standards. And there are some aspects of this theory of knowledge that are conspicuously evident in the explicit omissions in the specific standards areas themselves. For instance, the standards don’t make a formal study of reason and logic. So we must assume it is not important, or at least not as important as learning the scientific method, when it comes to knowing.

Nowhere is there any mention of teaching reasoning or logic directly as a formal course of study, though children are frequently asked to analyze and apply reason and logic. Also, the power of reason to discover truth is missing too. And, given the crucial nature of reason and its essential power, it is remarkable to find it inferred, rather than explicitly stated, as a deliberate goal and standard in a policy, particularly one focused on core skills.

If reason and logic are important in math and in science, in the analysis of ideas and of texts, in writing, listening and communicating, they should be taught explicitly and developed more formally and directly, even though those concepts have been left implicit in other academic disciplines during the modern educational era.

For Catholics, the secularity of the Common Core is also a concern. Now, I wouldn’t expect anything different from our increasingly secular and hostile government bureaucracies, but secularity comes in degrees and amounts, in the placement and porosity of the boundaries between religion and the secular world. And, over the past 50 years, the government’s secular education has raised a strict, impenetrable boundary between the government’s schools and the Church.

But if there are degrees of secularity, as history, law and educational practice demonstrate, a more virulent form of secularity may be lurking within this initiative. And this does not take the form of the usual moral, social and cultural issues. For instance, the absence of reason instruction mentioned above is not new.

But it is a critical way to undermine the Catholic faith of the young Catholic students, because reason is one way we can prove the existence of God or make moral judgments and insights. Catholics believe reason gets us to right answers.

But our secular schools believe right answers are a function of rhetoric; the only real truths are the truths of the hard sciences. And without a prominent place for real reason and its inherent power to prove things objectively true, the secular educational experience for Catholic students may deform or dismantle their faith, leaving its foundation weak.

Another issue, contend detractors of these federal standards, is the absence of levels of performance within grade levels. Some recognition that children have different talents and abilities, interests and goals seems missing. And, while their democratic desire to create minimum competencies for all children is noble, real achievement differences and competencies have more to do with individual capabilities and goals. Perhaps this comes from a collective-systems perspective where collective data is the measure of success.

There is also an undue level of responsibility for ELA (English-Language Arts) teachers when it comes to the Core’s core skills. This problem has nothing to do with the Common Core itself and everything to do with how we organize curricular elements addressing essential skills.

ELA teachers are the primary instructors for reading, reading comprehension, general vocabulary development, spelling, grammar and exegesis (conducting logical and literary analyses of written texts), along with writing in all forms, literature appreciation and knowledge, technical reading and, implicitly, the basics of philosophy. Now, that is a lot to do, and do well, because most of those are real critical elements of anyone’s education and future, secular or otherwise. But, here, it is business as usual.


Coordination and Focus

Given all of these concerns, is there anything good here? Well, there is, even for Catholics. And I think it is the idea that we should be more intentional, more reflective, more active in making our children’s education coordinated and focused. But focused on the ends God has in mind and in their proper order.

Diocesan authorities might profit from developing a similar systematic and thorough approach for Catholic education that incorporates all the critical elements of our Catholic identity and all the crucial components of what a thorough education should entail at our moment in history, with a particular emphasis on reason and logic, given our cultural proclivity to marginalize its power and ability and our schools’ tendency to leave it implicit in other academic disciplines.

Also, the true problem with any of the particular standards — and there will be many, as the more content-laden ones are released — is not really just their content. Because when we look at the Common Core, if our criticism is only with the standards, we implicitly accept the overall concept and the government’s power to dictate this.

And that is why a more conceptual analysis is the best one, because that is the crucial element. If you get hung up on the details, you can miss the basic ideas. And when it comes to policy like this, when you only deal with the details, you may only change the details. But the policy and power grab never changes. You may win the battle and lose the war.

One overlooked but critical component in our modern conversations about education and our children is often missing in the many policy and pedagogy debates. And St. Thomas Aquinas was all over it: Aquinas said we are all composed of an intellect and a will. Now, intellect is a gift. But our will is up to us.

And it is what children must bring to their education. They must will it, want it and work for it. They must work to meet the challenge education always is. And that is a core skill too. Maybe the most crucial one.

Francis X. Cronin, a public-school administrator and teacher for 25 years, studied education

and leadership on a graduate level at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Connecticut.