What's Missing From Common Core Is Education for Democracy

This is my third post in a series "Reclaiming the Conversation on Education." In the first "reclaiming" post I discussed what schools and education should be like in a democratic society drawing on ideas developed by the philosopher John Dewey in the early decades of the 20th century. The second "reclaiming" post responded to critics of Schools of Education. These critics promote mechanical scripted instruction and reject the idea that teachers need to have a broader understanding of the nature of our society and how children learn. In this post I examine the importance of education for democracy as fundamental for achieving and maintaining a democratic society.

Something is missing in Common Core's single-minded focus on skill acquisition, education for democracy, and this is a serious lapse.

According to its mission statement,

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

Common Core standards are supposed to "provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn" and be "relevant to the real world." But "real world" expectations are defined as preparing students for "success in college and careers" and "to compete successfully in the global economy." As best as I can ascertain, in the entire document, there is no real discussion of life in a democratic society and the role of education in promoting democratic processes and democratic values.

The view of education promoted in Common Core, devoid of substance and disconnected from life in a democratic society, was endorsed by President Barack Obama at a meeting with United States governors in 2010 and is at the heart of the federal Race to the Top program. Unfortunately, President Obama seems unaware of the consequences of this type of narrowly focused education.

Democracy is hard to build as we are witnessing around the world. It requires a sense of shared community, respect for democratic values such as minority rights, concerns for the well being of others, freedom of expression, and the right to be actively involved in the political process. It requires a sense of being part of an inclusive and diverse body politic, of citizenship. White man's democracy supported by the enslavement of Africans broke down in the United States in the 1850s and led to civil war. Despite the collapse of communism, the countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union remain far from democratic. In India, which calls itself a democracy, government is largely corrupt and most of the population is impoverished. China, the most populous country in the world, is more capitalist than communist, but it still has an authoritarian state.

Without a sense of shared community based on democratic values, democratic processes can be meaningless. In 1933, Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany and the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany through constitutional means. In Egypt today, as happened in Iran in the 1980s, a religious party without a commitment to a broader sense of community and democratic values that respect the rights of minorities and an open exchange of ideas, used democratic processes to achieve power and then used power to suppress the rights of others. In Libya and Syria, without a sense of national community and shared democratic values, the collapse of dictatorships brought civil war, not democracy, and the rise of anti-democratic forces.

Although President Bush promised to export freedom to Iraq and Afghanistan when the United States invaded those countries, and that they would become democratic models for the entire Middle East, anti-democratic forces either control them or are on the verge of acquiring power.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, the democratic process is stalemated by a lack of commitment to democratic values by the Republican Party, which would rather bring the whole house of cards down than compromise. The Republican Party, which has a voting majority in the House of Representatives, under the so called Hastert Rule refuses to even allow proposed laws to be discussed and voted on unless a majority of the Republicans agree to the proposal in advance. This allows 118 House Republicans from Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi, and Missouri to veto any action no matter what a majority of the House wants. It is a Republican Party dominated by a more rural, more White, South and West, so the wishes of the rest of the country, more urban, more diverse, and more populated, are completely ignored while the country plunges deeper and deeper into economic malaise and social decay.

The national Common Core Standards are NOT responsible for current and future civil wars in Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan. They are NOT responsible for the political stalemate in Washington DC that has virtually incapacitated the Obama administration, preventing it from dealing with pressing economic, environmental, and social issues. But Common Core does share something with disasters overseas and at home. They all have roots in a mistaken concept of what it means to live in a democratic society.

The sad thing is that citizenship, democratic values, and preparation for an active role in a democratic society are at the core of many earlier state standards and are prominent in the curriculum goals of the National Council for the Social Studies. But these are being ignored in the Common Core push for higher test scores on math and reading exams.

The New York State curriculum standards being shunted aside by Common Core stressed citizenship throughout K-12 education with a Participation in Government class typically taken by students in the senior year of high school. This class was designed "to increase the student's awareness of their rights and responsibilities as a citizen" and "to engage students in the analysis of public policies and issues that are relevant to individual students."

Preparation for citizenship in a democratic society was a "major aim of education in the State of New York." Starting in Kindergarten students learned how the Constitutions of New York State and the United States and the Bill of Rights are the basis for democratic values in the United States. "This civic mission" was "based on the democratic idea that active citizenship in the form of political participation is essential to the health and well-being of both the person and the polity."

The National Council for the Social Studies took a similar stance in a 2001 task force report on revitalizing Citizenship Education.

According to the report

"National Council for the Social Studies believes that a primary goal of public education is to prepare students to be engaged and effective citizens. NCSS has defined an effective citizen as one who has the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to assume the "office of citizen" in our democratic republic . . . For our democracy to survive in this challenging environment, we must educate our students to understand, respect, and uphold the values enshrined in our founding documents. Our students should leave school with a clear sense of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. They should also be prepared to challenge injustice and to promote the common good."

The report specifically called on students to "embraces core democratic values and strives to live by them" while accepting "responsibility for the well-being of oneself, one's family, and the community" and to actively participate in civic and community life.

Democracy requires that Americans see themselves as citizens, not just consumers or employees. Common Core, by ignoring the fundamental values that make democracy possible, does education and the United States a tremendous disservice.