A Final Thought
Not a New Concept
- By Paul Abramson
- October 1st, 2014
When I started writing this column, the national headlines and talk were about the Common Core — who favored it, who was opposed and why. Many people opposed the very idea of there being a Common Core of learning, suggesting that in some way having a Common Core was a federal intrusion on local autonomy, somewhat un-American, and that we had never had a common curriculum before.
As I thought about it, I realized that we actually have had a Common Core in the United States for hundreds of years. It was called “The Three R’s”, and it specified that every child in a school must learn to “Read, wRite and do some ‘Rithmetic.”
There were other goals, too, but the Common Core was spelled out in those few words. Go to school anywhere and that goal would be the same, no matter what else might be covered or how it might be taught.
That was the Common Core Curriculum for public schools in the United States during the 1800’s and the early 1900’s — really until well after the end of World War II. That Common Core served the United States quite well. It educated the workforce that built this nation and turned it into a world power. It provided the education that was needed by the great majority of people who graduated from our high schools. And, incidentally, it met the needs of the people who were running the public schools, too.
In 1957, with the Three R’s still defining the Common Core, I was involved in starting a magazine designed to be read by school superintendents, school board presidents and architects. Reading the competitive magazines of the time, we who were writers — not educators — found ourselves lost in the jargon. If we could not understand it, we wondered how our readers could.
My bosses commissioned a study of the reading level of our target audience and found that the average school superintendent read at the eighth-grade level. The educational jargon sounded good, but professional words were barely comprehensible to the average superintendent and meant little or nothing to the laymen on his school board. (Yes, “his” board; well over 95 percent of superintendents were male.)
In starting our magazine, we adjusted our writing to use words that could be found in an eighth-grade textbook. The Common Core curriculum had worked. It produced a generation of leaders who could read whatever was necessary during that simpler time in our history.
Unfortunately, mastering “The Three R’s” alone is no longer enough to prepare a person to understand, run, manipulate and otherwise take control of, or just function in, the world today. They are still necessary tools, but much more must be mastered, including scientific concepts that some may prefer to ignore, arts of various kinds, an understanding of technology and how it can best be used and controlled, even how to maintain a healthy body.
We live in a very complicated and interconnected world and our children, wherever they go to school, must be given the skills and knowledge to navigate it. That should be the purpose of a Common Core Curriculum — to make sure all students have an exposure to, and opportunity to master, the skills needed for the 21st Century. That’s not a federal or “government” imposition of what we need to learn, but a common understanding of the necessary skills.
With that as the objective, educators and non-educators should be able to join together with little significant argument about the knowledge needed, though there may be questions as to how and when specific things are taught or learned.
The real problems come when the purpose of the Common Core is perverted from spelling out the educational needs and goals to becoming an instrument of measurement, judgment and punishment. When the Common Core is tied to national standardized testing, and the result of that testing is used to judge and threaten schools and teachers, then Common Core stops being a useful definition of basic knowledge and becomes an instrument that works against the very purpose of education. When it is used to measure individuals and to score them and their teachers, it works against the concepts of working together toward a common goal, of debating, of sharpening ideas and changing minds as evidence changes.
The problem with the Common Core is not that it exists, but that it is misused. There is good reason for educational professionals and laymen to fight against that.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.
Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."