The Common Core survey by Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, which shows a troubling lack of historical background knowledge among American 17-year-olds, is enjoying a nice run this week, with stories in USA Today, the New York Times, and lots of broadcast coverage. But alas, the coverage has been all cause and no effect. At best, it irritates people that students are ill-informed. At worst, it’s seen as irrelevant. There’s a lot of “tsk-tsk” reporting. How embarassing! It would be nice to see a few journalists take the next step and look at the impact of a content-free education on outcomes.
The CBS Evening News did a piece on the Common Core report which started out as a standard issue “tsk-tsk” piece. In the words of correspondent Ben Tracy, “A lot of educators say all this talk about the ‘dumbest generation’ is quite stupid…students don’t need to know a litany of dates because they can just Google them.” The problem here is twofold: the continued absurd association of content knowledge with rote memorization of dates (does any school do that?) and the idea that content and critical thinking are mutually exclusive. One high school teacher in the CBS piece says, “I know that this generation is the smartest that we’ve had.” Based on what empirical evidence, exactly?
“Students are expected to analyze concepts rather than memorize dates,” Tracy reports knowingly. I continue to await an example of a concept that can be analyzed in the absence of content knowledge. This kind of thinking by educators (and uncritical reporting by journalists) implies a content-free education that infantilizes the learner. Some years ago, I was marched off to a social studies professional development session. The theme of the session was “No More Trivial Pursuit.” “It doesn’t matter if your students don’t know when the War of 1812 happened,” the staff developer said. “It’s more important to grapple with ‘essential questions’ like ‘Is war ever justifiable?’” Clearly no meaningful response would be possible without a solid grasp of history to bolster one’s point of view.
Linda Bevilacqua, the President of the Core Knowledge Foundation, was a guest on G. Gordon Liddy’s Radio America show yesterday to weigh in on the Common Core study. A caller described how he was taught in school that Martin Luther and Martin Luther King were the same person. It’s not merely embarrassing to not know the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. Even those—especially those—who believe that critical thinking is the purpose of school should be alarmed. How much critical thinking about the Reformation and the Civil Rights movement is a student capable of who doesn’t know that Martin Luther and Martin Luther King are two different people separated by 500 years, language, culture and the Atlantic Ocean?
Until and unless we start to make a connection between content knowledge, reading comprehension, and critical thinking, I fear we’re not going to move the level of concern above the level of “tsk-tsk…these kids today!”