At its annual meeting held in Saratoga Springs the weekend of March 23-25, the New York State Council for the Social Studies passed five resolutions condemning the national and state common core standards for marginalizing social studies. The resolutions charged that attention to math and reading left little time or money in K-12 classrooms for effective instruction in social studies, citizenship, and history. The Council demanded that the state develop a new set of core standards that emphasize the teaching of social studies, citizenship, and history.
This action by the NYSCSS is one of a number of reasons to question whether the much ballyhooed national common core standards will deliver promised improvements in education. On Wednesday, April 12, thirteen teachers from Mepham High School in Bellmore on Long Island brought their campaign to challenging the common core requirements to the New York state capital in Albany. They conducted informational picketing at the Legislative Office Building protesting caps on local taxes, newly proposed teacher evaluations, and the common core. One of their banners read "The Common Core Lacks Common Sense."
An article in Newsday reports on Long Island, New York schools trying to implement common core standards. The article asked us to "Think of it as America's first national lesson plan -- coming soon to a public school near you." But as you read the article, more questions arise about the "common core" than are answered. For example, "English classes are tackling more works of nonfiction from Common Core's recommended lists, which include the philosophical writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, along with speeches by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan."
While I hate to be picky, I can't think of any speeches by George Washington. There are two big problems. First, Washington was barely literate. Letters that he is known to have written are spiced with examples of invented spelling. John Adams called him "too illiterate, too unlearned, too unread for his station and reputation" and according to Thomas Jefferson, he was "chiefly in action, reading little."
Second, Washington didn't like to speak in public, partly because of ill-fitting false teeth. His famous "Farewell Address" was largely written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and published as a written report rather than delivered as a speech.
I also wonder which speeches delivered by Ronald Reagan students should concentrate on. Reagan was a decent actor who could deliver his lines and his speeches offer solid sound-bites: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall;" "A people free to choose will always choose peace;" and "It's morning in America Again." There is also his declaration that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." But the speeches overall are less than memorable and Reagan wrote none of them. Instead, he had a coterie of speechwriters including Peggy Noonan, Ken Khachigian, and Peter Robinson. I can only guess that Reagan speeches are included because the common core must present teachers with conservative Republican alternatives.
It will also be interesting how teachers address the religious connotations in some of the "Reagan" speeches. At the time President Reagan made the "evil empire" speech in 1983, I thought he was drawing a connection between the popular Star Wars movie series and the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. What I did not realize was that the speech was delivered at a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, probably not a group overtly familiar with the movies, but definitely a group that knew the Book of Revelation from the New Testament where John calls on Christians to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God by doing battle with the Roman evil empire.
But more important than historical gaffes is the substance of what common core asks teachers to do. The Newsday article reports on an eleventh grade English class at Ward Melville High School in Setauket, New York where an "English class recently spent five days studying Lincoln's Gettysburg Address -- a speech just three paragraphs long." I asked a class of working teachers what they would teach if they spent five days on the Gettysburg Address. They had some interesting replies including using the Gettysburg Address as a model and having students write funeral addresses about people who died as a result of other mass deaths such as Hiroshima and 9/11 that they would connect to broader historical and moral points. However, none of them could figure out how you would spend more than one or two days on the speech. Their general conclusion was that this effort to implement the common core wasted a lot of time.
Now Ward Melville may be able to afford the time. The school is located in the Three Village school district of Suffolk County and according to its school profile, 93% of its students already pass the New York State English Regents, 54% with distinction. Scores on the Global History (94), United States History (97), and science regents (96) are even higher. It is hard to see why Newsday chose such an atypical district to illustrate the article.
I did find two useful pieces of information in the article. The author noted that the common core standards "are a creation of the National Governors Association, working together with the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state education commissioners." What he left out however is that much of the work of these groups is funded by foundations related to companies like Microsoft and Pearson that stand to make a lot of money selling new products to school districts if the standards are implemented.
In 2010, the National Governors Association received a significant portion of its operating budget from foundation grants and contracts, corporate fellows, and other contributions. The NGA and CCSSO have received millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation. Its over one hundred corporate partners include Educational Testing Service, Apple, Pearson, Cisco, College Board, DeVry, Houghton Mifflin, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Scholastic, all companies that stand to benefit from its policy recommendations. Recent corporate award winners include Walmart (2011) Intel (2010), and Microsoft (2009).
The Newsday article did mention that "On Long Island, many educators wonder where school districts will find the extra money to buy Common Core textbooks that are being rushed out by publishers eager to capture an expanding national market. New textbooks are just one of the budget expenses, along with new commercial tests and teacher training, that local administrators say are being pushed on their districts in the drive for education reform." It quoted an adjunct math professor from Hofstra University that the standards provides publishers "an unprecedented opportunity to print mountains of textbooks and piles of cash."
The Gates and Pearson Foundations now have a number of shared initiatives centering around the development of the "common core curriculum" adopted by over forty of the states. Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, a former director of the U.S. Department of Education's research arm said the Pearson-Gates arrangement represents an "interesting intertwining" of non-profit and for-profit motives and will undoubtedly prompt questions about "who profits from the common core."
Pearson also partners with Apple and has been implicated in the suit the U.S. Justice Department has brought against Apple and five publishers including the Penguin Group, which is owned by Pearson, for conspiring to raise the price of e-books in violation of anti-trust laws. After all, the business of business is profit, not education.