Beth Fine

Educational Fiction Author – Serious Thinker – Child at Heart

Concerns about Common Core Curriculum – Part I

The national school board creed implies that decisions of a local board should affirm community values. Busy, hard working parents have normally trusted public schools to teach basics and essentials to prepare their precious children for academic success. However, that trust has been overlooked in our county. We have come to a crossroads of “ideology over substance.” The state and county both claimed that Common Core Curriculum was “out.” Yet, when placed side-by-side with the proffered with the non-CCC materials, stories and worksheets appeared identical.
BACKGROUND TO CURRENT ISSUE
In 2017-18, our county’s only female board of education member fielded complaints from K-3 teachers upset by being forced to teach CCC material. Before voting to retain this material, much less to advance the approach up to the 4-6th grades, she asked to review the current lessons in use but received a hostile push-back from the rest of the board willing to remain uninformed and to approve blindly an unknown curriculum. However, she bravely insisted that local oversight was needed.

That board member (a recently retired teacher), a PhD reading specialist (and teacher at two college departments of education), and I (an author of eight juvenile mystery books), formed an ad hoc committee to analyze, review, and vett about 60,000 pages of K-3 domains and units. Having no child in school and with no previous interest, knowledge, or opinion on this topic, I suddenly found myself immersed in thousands of pages. Gradually I read some of the CCC Pro/Con hubbub online and began to understand the concern of parents and teachers.

From separate study, we three committeemen strangely came to similar conclusions: the material preached a worldly, ungodly view of life. It possessed few traditional approaches and smacked less of education than of indoctrination to sociological fads and pet causes.

Over the course of my next several blogs, I hope to bring my faithful readers along on this bumpy road, starting with this Overview Report – Part I below:

AMBITIOUS GOALS ANNOUNCED

1) Learn to read Kindergarten – 2nd grade
2) Read to Learn – 3rd grade onward

As lofty as these goals appear, I saw a flood of new ones constantly added or implied in the Teacher’s Guides, Teacher Read Alouds, Unit Standards Alignment Charts, Student Readers, and Workbooks. Each domain seemed to say that from now on, “School will be the only bank from which children may legally withdraw knowledge. To accomplish that goal, every year the lessons will encompass every idea on every subject that randomly hits the mind of every contributing curriculum writer so that every child can learn everything about everything.”

Wondering about the future reality of that viewpoint, I recalled the many convoluted information-overkills, too complex for average Grade 2-3 children to retain. For this report, I randomly picked a Grade-3 example from page 20 of Reader Unit 9: The Age of Exploration: “This eldest son would inherit everything his father owned….This system is known as primogeniture. Primo means “first.” “Geniture” means born. Primogeniture is a system in which the first born son inherits everything when his father dies.” Yikes.

“Primogeniture” was neither a spelling word nor in the vocabulary list as was the grade level word, inherit. Although the first sentence clearly explained in third grade language what “inherit” means, the curriculum authors elaborated to the point of diminishing returns. Result: Overkill – a theme/technique/tactic permeating other units to demonstrate the theory of “rigorous” lessons.

BACKGROUND OF ORIGINATOR
From whose brain came this pressurized curriculum?

“E. D. Hirsch, Jr. is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation…A highly regarded literary critic and professor of English earlier in his career, Dr. Hirsch recalls being ‘shocked into education reform’ while doing research on written composition at a pair of colleges in Virginia. During these studies he observed that a student’s ability to comprehend a passage was determined in part by the relative readability of the text, but even more by the student’s background knowledge….This research led Dr. Hirsch to develop his comprehensive concept of cultural literacy—the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge.” (https://www.coreknowledge.org/about-us/e-d-hirsch-jr/)

In graduate school, I researched Texas Academic Skills Program at four community colleges and found four different situations unfitted for a single solution. Legislators had passed a bill promoting the college-for-everyone-concept, so educators designed the TASP to determine which applicants could handle college work and which needed remediation. For several years, I taught the latter group. Unlike Hirsch, I would not dare presume from my experience to say how other states should prepare their students for higher education. Yet based on studying student writing at only two colleges, Hirsch began to formulate changes to the entire American public education system, changes that have brought turmoil to teachers, consternation to parents, and exhaustion to students.

Further, “Hirsch argued…a body of common knowledge would allow children to function as fully rounded citizens. (https://www.theguardian.com/education/…/hirsch-core-knowledge-curriculum-review.) So who decides that body of common knowledge? Do we accept his 5,000 facts, dates, and people as the model of what everyone should learn? (uvamagazine.or/articles/the_facts_of_the_matter)

And who decides what is a fully rounded citizen? We can currently rear a physically mature population, but it is not always fully developed mentally. Many youth believe that being an active citizen means “protesting” for individual rights. Where would they get such ideas? The media offers one place. However, our society steadily moves into approving such thinking and even grooms elementary kids toward that way also. For example, The Viking Read Aloud (p. 79) asked for the definition of sagas. The Read Aloud text gave as the proper answer: “…protests, like the fight for women’s rights or civil rights as the most famous sagas of American history.” Webster, Cambridge, and Macmillan Dictionaries would greatly disagree: (https://www.google.com/search?q=sagas+definition&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b-1)

A third grader of today is also encouraged to be an “activist” like Jane Goodall “…who works hard to solve a problem and change something in the world.” A whole section on Goodall touts her achievements because, “She tells others about human damage to habitats, such as hunting and pollution, and works to stop these problems.” (Reader Unit 2: Rattenborough’s Guide to Animals, p. 108)

Under similar instruction, our youth population seems not to understand that a “citizen” who wants “rights” must balance his actions with personal responsibility, discipline, and the acquisition of useful skills to support himself. Sadly, several generations have followed leaders calling themselves experts, free thinkers, or revolutionaries. These self-promoters have talked about transforming, even overthrowing, our system without first grasping the true nature of the system they want to change. Their answer to all problems eventually reveals a utopian belief in centralized-planning, a policy rooted in the idea that only a comprehensive approach can solve a complicated set of problems. Their answers also lack a historical grasp that central planning always fails in its objective. They also remain blind to the fact that multi-layered societies quite normally have problems but also breed enough talent to correct these problems from within.

Now note how Hirsch reveals his own ideology: “It’s hard to feel like a guru…I’ve been a pariah for so long…I’m practically a socialist.” His personal confessions give uneven images that concern me but should wisely keep our county board of education from rubber-stamping a curriculum based on his ideas. (http://www.politico.com/magazine/ politico50/2014/ive-been-a-pariah-for- solong.html#.WsfF4H8h3IU.)

From his own admission, I think E.D. Hirsch could not resist the temptation to revamp, revolutionize, and centralize our whole educational system. To accomplish this change, he has created extensive theories on value, knowledge, human nature, learning, transmission, society, opportunity, and consensus. In his second theory, he says, “General knowledge should be a goal of education because it makes people competent regardless of race, class or ethnicity while also making people more competent in the tasks of life.” He believed these eight theories, if practiced, “would bring a comprehensive correction to education…” He shields his idea with a caveat: “In order to succeed, one must accept the idea of hard work and be fully committed to the task at hand.” (www.newfoundations.com/GALLE)

Though Hirsch aligns more with Horace Mann’s 19th century ideal of free and democratic public education, he indicts the democratic version of the dominant progressive educational philosophy of today. He believes its “…emphasis on natural and innate ability has proven to be a failure.” Though his theories seem genuine, he is loathe to compromise or recognize the benefits of any part of previous regimens that have worked. Choosing his approach becomes an either/or decision – thus throwing the baby out with the bath. Therefore, I can’t agree that his overly ambitious Core Knowledge, as a replacement for even useful approaches, would prove the only remedy to persistently low scores. Even so, I do agree with his “hard work” statement which finally showed a sense of reality about human nature. Of course, we know no one can force someone else to work hard except by threat of failure, dismissal, imprisonment, or enslavement. It is a personal decision. (www.newfoundations.com/GALLE)

To add to the stew, Hirsch, once critical of progressive educators, is now pleased they are giving his approach some credibility. Though no fan of progressive education, Hirsch declares his Core Knowledge offspring steps away from traditional schooling, the same as the Progressives claimed theirs did. Yet, I see a logical error and a great irony! His recommended changes to today’s system carry such an inherent level of difficulty in what he calls “the lasting body of knowledge that all students must have,” it actually looks more like a return to what the Progressives hated about rigid conformity and difficult courses of study presented by 19th century authoritarian masters, the very type of schooling once called classical or traditional education.

CHANGES IN EDUCATIONAL MODELS
Progressive Education
John Dewey, a philosopher of Humanism, began the idea of progressive education in the late 1800s. He wanted students to have democratic interaction in the life of their school rather than be burdened with the rigidity, conformity, and difficulty insisted on by previous authoritarians. However, some progressive educators went in an extreme, laissez faire direction allowing students total freedom to move at their own pace and to decide their own areas of study. www.summerhillschool.co.uk/an-overview.php.) Many of us experienced a combination of traditional and progressive approaches.

Although it had some success, Progressive Public Education did not necessarily lead to progress for students. Nor did it equal automatic progression to the next natural stage. Yet we accepted even embraced many of its permutations and off-shoots along with government social programs meant to affect education positively. Below you will recognize the many attempts (and failures) at correcting flawed concepts that often only coddled students and adults alike and brought the repercussion of further flaws – the usual result of “comprehensive” programs.

EDUCATIONAL EXPERIMENTS
(Loose Chronology since 1960)
new math
make learning fun
child-centered learning
creative spelling
schools as human laboratories,
creating/guarding self-esteem
lengthen the day (no, shorten it)
stop recess to preserve time (no, restart it)
stop expensive art & music programs (no, restart them)
ensure tolerance/political correctness
social promotion to the next grade
(kick problems down the road; kids will pick up what they need)
write-across-the-curriculum reinvented as embedded Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) models
journaling thoughts ad nauseum
Gardner’s multiple-intelligences*
Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS AFFECTING SCHOOLS
Free school lunch program (1946)
School integration (1954)
Supreme Court Prayer Decision (1962)**
Head Start (1964)
War on Poverty (1964)
Civil Rights Law (1965)
Title I – Primary & Secondary Schools (1965)
Improving Achievement of the Disadvantaged (1965)
Viet Nam War brought Hippie drugs/free love/college protests (1960s)
Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1971
Dept. of Education separated from HEW (1980)
Supreme Court gave illegal kids same rights to schools as citizens (1982)
War on Drugs (1982)
Immigration Reform – Amnesty to 3 million (1986)
Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act (1996)
No Child Left Behind (2002)
Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (2010)
Illegal Immigrants Influx (overlooked- 1990s to now)
Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA) (2010)
Every Student Succeeds Act (2012)

Many of the above listed educational and government programs had good intentions, held hope even promise, had moderate success, yet lacked lasting, laudable contributions. However, the CCSS approach based on the work of E.D. Hirsch and adopted in 2009, sounded like the ultimate, comprehensive scheme.

Whereas Hirsch’s critics saw the added difficulty applied to standards and curriculum as only an unwitting set-up to further separate students by ability to handle such hard materials, his followers believed his ideas would produce schools that would have no inequities or injustices.

It’s ironic that schools and governments seem helpless to resist programs that claim or expect to eradicate life’s unevenness. Ought we not to be wise enough to give greater attention to “the over-comers” of such setbacks than to “the disgruntled” who excuse themselves as vulnerable victims of society? At one time, hard times produced character, not a crop of cranks. Child-centered should not mean child-ruled.

PART II
Stay tuned for next blog entry soon


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