One of the early criticisms of the emerging “Common Core standards” initiative has been the question of who is writing them–and who isn’t. The groups behind the multi-state effort, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, have set up a website that includes a list of the individuals working on math and English standards. As Edweek notes the list is “dominated by three organizations:” Achieve Inc., the College Board, and ACT Inc.
What’s new and interesting is the announcement of a pair of “Feedback Groups,” to offer expert input on the draft standards, which are due at the end of this month. “Final decisions regarding the common core standards document will be made by the Standards Development Work Group,” notes the NGA announcement. “The Feedback Group will play an advisory role, not a decision-making role in the process.”
If you believe that content matters as much as process in crafting standards–that any attempt to write national standards should outline the specific material to be covered, not just describe the skills children should master–then the inclusion of Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein is a welcome name among the members of the English-language Arts Feedback Group, along with Fordham’s Checker Finn. Bauerlein, author of the best-seller The Dumbest Generation, has been a consistent voice in favor of cultural literacy and teaching broad background knowledge. Ironically, he may have presaged the debate he’ll find himself drawn into when he wrote recently about the difficulty of reaching consensus in college curriculum meetings. Traditionalists, he observed, ”want to identify core texts, events, figures, and ideas….Progressivists want to enlarge the canon and contexts, to give representation to other cultures and identities, and explode the reigning ‘normativities,’ and they resist a core knowledge of any kind being set down as official.”
There doesn’t seem to be any way out of the impasse, however, which I think partly explains the rise of the “skills” movement in education circles. What the skills emphasis does is neutralize the culture-wars conflicts inherent in any knowledge selections in a curriculum. It speaks about abstract cognitive abilities such as “critical thinking,” “higher-order thinking skills,” and “problem solving.” No disturbing questions about representation of female authors on a syllabus or about Thomas Jefferson’s racial attitudes. Instead, the skills approach promises to empower students to handle those questions better later on — not here in the classroom, but after they have graduated from the skills curriculum.
Whether the feedback process is genuine or merely a way to blunt criticism remains to be seen, of course. For now, the entire enterprise can be viewed with guarded optimism–the willing suspension of disbelief that anything of use will emerge.