In a recent opinion piece by William J. Bennett in the Wall Street Journal, “The Conservative Case for a Common Core,” with an unfortunate double-entendre title that misfires, one statement makes good sense: “Nearly all Americans agree that to prepare a child for civic responsibility and competition in the modern economy, he or she must be able to read and distill complex sentences, and must be equipped with basic mathematical skills.”
Certainly no rational person would argue that having communication and math skills is not important in one’s professional life, not to mention in a personal relationship that involves paying a mortgage and all those elements that are part of the American Dream. One could argue, however, that it is possible, unfortunately, to be very successful in society without being able to distill complex sentences, a skill Mr. Bennett finds paramount.
But it is not my purpose here to argue with Mr. Bennett’s reasoning or idealistic version of the common core akin to a man clicking his heels and then he finds himself in Common-Core Land of the Free where all is well. The problem is this: While it is tempting to say the common core is rotten to the core, it is really the implementation or any implementation of the common core that is rotten and will remain rotten.
Here is why. No government educational initiative, be it federal, state, or local, even a private one, will ever bring students up to speed or have them reach the bar, as we use these strange gymnastics terms to discuss education. The reality is that many teachers, whether prompted by supervisors or of their own volition, continue to pass students so that we have many that reach college with the most basic of literacy skills, in English, math, science, the foreign languages.
Tired of listening to some of my colleagues complain of college students being unable to write, I went to look at learning outcomes designed for students in secondary education, and sure enough, as I had suspected, even a junior high, or middle-school, student should be able to write a formulaic, basic five-paragraph theme.
Guess what. Many college students, even graduating ones, are unable to do so. For many years the state of Georgia had a kind of graduation test, the Regents’ Essay, which was required for any student of any institution in the System, be it Georgia Tech or what was then Darton College, to obtain his or her four-year degree. There were cases of students taking this essay test a number of times reaching the double-digit range. The test has now been abandoned and other measures have been implemented to ensure literacy-competencies of college graduates.
To get back to the common core, after having given this example of common testing, the common core will either have to be abandoned or students will somehow continue to be passed along by some teachers and professors. I am reminded of Robert Frost’s well-known poem–besides “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”–“After Apple Picking.” It is on one level about harvesting apples but also about the impossibility of the poet achieving just what he wants to say, no matter his intense dedication, which is likely more than that of many teachers and students. “For I have had too much/ Of Apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired,” writes Robert Frost. As the speaker of the poem gets drowsy, he observes: “One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep is.”
So it is even with the most well-intentioned among us–we are destined to continue to be troubled by education because we will not be able to find a fix to apply. The best strategy is continue to harvest the best we can and be on the lookout for neighbors with rocks making fences that cannot be undone in the field of education and offer resistance so that something truly idiotic does not take hold, though some would say it is already too late for that.