A Promise Made is a Debt Unpaid
President Elect Trump made many promises during the campaign. Many of which, even as President, he does not have the authority to keep. One of those promises is to get rid of Common Core. The problem with that is Common Core is not a federal program. It is a curriculum established by the various state governors who saw the need for a common curriculum throughout the country. Unlike some European countries, education has always been a local matter in the U.S. As our society has become increasingly mobile and children move around the country with their parents, the issue of extreme differences in curriculum has become more of a problem.
Common Core was not the first attempt to create a shared curriculum throughout the land. About thirty years ago, E.D. Hirsch sounded the call for a common curriculum in his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Hirsch’s thesis is, and was, that more than skills and strategies, students need knowledge. In his 1987 book he included an appendix of 5000 dates, places and ideas that students should learn in school. He has argued that this shared knowledge base would lead to more equal opportunities for all students. His 1987 book was a best seller. At 88 he has published a new book. Once again he is arguing that knowledge not process matters. He notes that racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps remain. Reading scores of 17 year olds have declined significantly since 1988. Hirsh and those in the campaign, Knowledge Matters, argue that students do not bring enough knowledge to what they are reading in the higher grades and without that knowledge their comprehension of text drops.
No Child Left Behind placed significant emphasis on math and reading, often to the exclusion of the arts and social studies. The Every Student Succeeds Act places a much greater emphasis on a well-rounded education and lists subjects outside of reading and math that students should be studying.
Hirsh argues that reading comprehension should be tested based on content knowledge that the students have been taught rather than teaching these skills in the abstract. Because the framers of Common Core took the politically feasible way out, demanding skills but not content, there is no subject matter curriculum that all students learn. Hirsch likes to cite the example of France. Between 1977 and 1989 France had a national elementary curriculum that was content specific. When that curriculum switched to a locally determined curriculum that focused on general skills such as “critical thinking” achievement declined across all demographics and social stratification increased.
Then there is the question of the age of the internet. Many teachers argue that teaching cultural literacy and knowledge based curriculum is not only boring but a waste of kids’ time especially given their digital access to knowledge.
So would it be good to dump the Common Core even if a President Trump could do that? Would a curriculum based on cultural literacy be better? And if so, whose culture would that be? We have promised our children an education that will provide them a future-when will we pay up?