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Common Core and equality

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A lot has been said about Common Core, from the problems with the standards themselves to the dangers of data mining. While it doesn’t directly affect homeschool students, the data collection and shifting standardized tests to common core standards will probably have some impact on homeschoolers.

For me, one of the most troubling aspects of the standards is the diminishing of literature. One component of Common Core is a greater push for non-fiction texts, including technical manuals in English classes.

As Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College in Rhode Island puts it,

“What appalls me most about the standards . . . is the cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form. It is a sheer ignorance of the life of the imagination. We are not programming machines. We are teaching children. We are not producing functionaries, factory-like. We are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women… to be human beings, honoring what is good and right and cherishing what is beautiful.”

(More critiques from college professors, as well as other information about Common Core at the link.)

One of the works of literature that could be shoved aside in favor of “How to screw in a lightbulb, a government manual” is Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I first read this story in 9th grade, and it has stayed with me for (mumble mumble) years. Fine. 25 year ago.

My point is that this powerful story of the quest for equality above all else made quite an impact on my young mind. And the more I read about Common Core, the more the story of Harrison Bergeron comes to mind. “We shouldn’t push Calculus or Pre-calculus for high school kids. No one really even needs Algebra II.” Forget about pushing ourselves harder and seeing who will really soar, who might, in fact, enable the whole world to soar. It’s much better if we have uninspired orderly boxes in which to fit everyone — by force if needed. That is what we call education: the turning out of orderly, identical little widgets.

Harrison Bergeron

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But mostly my reaction is anger. Because no child should be denied an education — being connected with truth and beauty and goodness through great works of literature and art, of joining in the great human activity of discovery through reason — simply so a few bureaucrats with grand dreams of a widgetized utopia can play Dr. Frankenstein. Schooling is not the same as education. Students aren’t widgets, nor are educators — be they parents, professional teachers, or the old man at the park who explains birding– factory workers merely pulling levers. In case you haven’t noticed, the thirty-year experiment in outcome-based education has not actually improved outcomes. It seems that the “experts” really want for education to be some sort of process that allows you to provide all the correct inputs to achieve a standardized output.  The goal isn’t what is good for the child, but what is good enough for the society in which the child will serve, like a useful widget. Sure you’ll have the oddly shaped widget here and there, but you can just toss that aside.  Frankly, that’s an immoral approach to take with people.

“Self-education is the only possible education.”* Thus true education doesn’t merely seek to mark and measure benchmarks in facts acquired, but must by definition treat each student as an individual.  “The question is not — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”*

Such an education will by necessity mean a diversely educated populace, with people pursuing their own interests and cares, building their own dreams and forging their own way. It also means that some people will dream bigger and go further than others. We will have an inherently unequal society — not unequal under law, but unequal in outcome.  If we don’t accept this as not only true but desirable, we are heading down the road of Harrison Bergeron, where outcomes are forced and excellence is punished.

Apparently, someone made a short film based on “Harrison Bergeron” a few years ago. You can rent or buy it from Amazon.


*Charlotte Mason, of course.

3 responses to “Common Core and equality”

  1. Erika Franz Avatar

    There is a problem, here, in schools and their approach to curriculum. The concept behind the Common Core was not so nefarious–at least on the part of those educators with whom I spoke or follow online. In fact, the general concept is one of which I would applaud: each student should achieve certain levels across the board, in all subjects. The goal, in other words, is to coach and teach students to earning a general level of competency in reading, writing, mathematics, science, civics, and history. But, this concept, to work and function appropriately, depends upon the idea that this is a mere baseline!

    A student passionate and gifted in mathematics should nonetheless have a basic knowledge of our country’s government, of great works of literature, of writing properly, and of basic scientific processes. Maybe this sparks a correlative interest in another field that ultimately leads to exciting applications and fulfillment for that student; maybe the student will accept these minimums and stay focused on their original passion.

    This begs important questions, then:
    1) Are our educators capable and willing of establishing the baseline and providing the opportunity to further students beyond that baseline–interested or not–to challenge them to grow?
    2) Does the system allow for such growth? Are deviations beyond the Common Core supported or condemned? Can educators reasonably achieve this between demands of demonstrating their adherence to the baseline standards AND THE DEMANDS OF ACTUALLY PLANNING, TEACHING, AND GRADING (since this level requires grades as the form of evaluation)?
    3) Does the testing of these core standards actually represent accurately what the students have learned? That is, is it really inline with the standards and is it accurately evaluating what the students have learned? Does the testing, in fact, limit teacher creativity, productivity, and ability to challenge students and teach them how to think, evaluate, and analyze?
    4) What happens after testing? This is based on personal experience–one of the contributing factors to our decision to homeschool. In elementary school, my daughter took her MSAs (MD state testing) about a month before school ended, after which students attended their obligatory 8 hours and watched TV shows and movies on DVD. Please, note, that this is the same school that would not let my daughter hand in missed work when we over-stayed spring break by three days in Barcelona, because it was an unexcused absence.

    1. April Avatar

      I don’t think the planners motives were “nefarious” at all, rather they are what the motives of central planners always are: efficiency and what’s best for the ruling authority. Do they mean to harm individual students? No, of course not. The problem is they don’t consider individual students at all. Individuals are merely data points on a graph. Does the line on the graph go up? Good, move along. Does it go down? Let’s rearrange deck chairs on the testing Titanic. The problems with Common Core compound those of standardized tests and central planning, to the detriment of individuals. It is what it always is, but rather than the planners admitting their planning doesn’t work, they come up with a “new” plan. Same old plan, uglier dressing.

      The problem with planning on a nationwide scale is that it restricts what individual teachers are able to do. “Design your own curriculum, but stick to these main points.” Dress the pig anyway you want, but it’s still a pig.

      While I’m not a huge fan of institutional schooling, at minimum it should be small institutions more sensitive to the needs of the individual students it serves, rather than a nation-wide behemoth sensitive to nothing.

      Your anecdote about the test is demonstrative of what happens when the focus is testing. Once that goal is accomplished, education is “done.” It’s tragic how much time institutionalized schooling steals from our children.

  2. Erika Franz Avatar


    But, then there is the difficulty of budgeting–especially for more institutions working with smaller portions of the population at a time. The numbers game ration of teachers to students is hampered by money–or lack thereof, or money available but misappropriated. This comes back to how things are run, of course. (Also, the money game hampers the appropriation of adequate supplies for learning.)

    I did not mean to apply with the questions I posed above, that I have satisfactory answers; on the contrary, the answers to these questions, while not uniform geographically, leads me to worry about implications and consequences of the CC.

    Let me add one more explicitly that was implied in the above: 5) Does the CC provide each student the opportunity to be educated and grow in a well-rounded manner, not just as another cog in the economic machine? If the former than the latter condition will be met; if the latter, well, if the latter, then good luck!

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