March 11, 2010
the Common Core State Standards and active citizenship
Educational "standards" are general guidelines for what should be taught and assessed. They can have the force of law, and policymakers can be held publicly accountable for them. I think the general concept of explicit educational standards is good, because deciding what should be taught is a core democratic task, a matter of establishing values and priorities. The standards that govern our schools should be transparent. Of course, bad standards are worse than none, and many actual state standards are weak, miscellaneous and arbitrary, hopelessly unrealistic, or otherwise misguided. If Texas continues on its course to rewrite its social studies standards, Texas children would be better off with none.
A related question is who should set standards, and for whose kids? Most of the nation's governors and state school superintendents are now proposing a set of uniform state standards that would be voluntarily--but widely--adopted. The goal is to provide one set of good standards (streamlined, thoughtful, and ambitious but not onerous). This effort threatens local autonomy and citizen participation, but also promises to improve existing standards in many states. And the authors have tried to reduce the damage by proposing truly "core" standards in only two disciplines--English/language arts and
science math--while leaving much to be decided at the state and local level.
My professional concern is democratic education or education for active citizenship. From that perspective, it could be problematic that the proposed standards are not for social studies or civics. National standards for only English and math could narrow the curriculum even further. On the other hand, streamlining standards in those two disciplines could actually increase space and time for civics.
Besides, English skills are civic skills, if they are well designed. I have read the proposed standards for English/language arts and see many openings for improving civic education.
That seems to be an intention. On p. 2, the document says, "Students who meet the Standards ... reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic."
Some specific objectives seem especially useful for civic purposes. For example, students in grades 11 and 12 are supposed to "Analyze how various authors express different points of view on similar events or issues, assessing the authors’ assumptions, use of evidence, and reasoning, including analyzing seminal U.S. documents (e.g., The Federalist, landmark U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents)."
Another example is the standard that says, "Present claims and findings with relevant evidence that is accessible and verifiable to listeners, and use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation." That is a very important skill for civic participation. By 11th grade, students are also supposed to "Cooperate with peers to set clear goals and deadlines, establish roles, and determine ground rules for decision making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views)."
The general thrust of the proposed Standards is to define outcomes, not methods or approaches, which are left to schools. But sidebars provide advice about methods, and sometimes that advice would be favorable to civic learning. For instance: "To become college and career ready, students must have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—whole class, small group, and with a partner—built around important content in various domains."
The standards do not mandate a curriculum or syllabus, but they suggest readings, including "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964) and America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar (2005)--good choices.
I wish education reform today emphasized constructive ways to get communities involved in education, and this effort is very different: top-down. Yet I would acknowledge that the ideas in the document are thoughtful, not burdensome, and sensitive to democratic values,
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