Does Common Core Encourage War?



Alan Singer is a historian and Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, author of "New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth" (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008), and editor of the New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance curriculum that received the 2005 National Council for the Social Studies program of excellence award.

At the end of May, the Obama administration granted eight states, including New York, waivers from Bush-era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education mandates. The waivers were necessary because a highly partisan Congress would not mend the law and because it is now clear that it is impossible for every child, no matter what their circumstances, to achieve at the top level in every subject. Lyndon Johnson could have made any rule he wanted to in the 1960s, but there was no way I was going to learn to speak French, study for chemistry, or carry a tune. Nineteen states have been granted waivers already and more are in the pipeline.
It is always good to get rid of a silly law, but based on an examination of the New York State waiver, it looks like the Obama administration has sold the American educational system to the Pearson publishing company and its now infamous pineapple. In exchange for its waiver, New York State had to promise to implement “Common Core Standards” for students and “Develop and adopt guidelines for local teacher and principal evaluation and support systems” that use student scores on standardized tests as a significant measure of teacher performance.

In the meantime, Pearson is busy marketing Common Core textbooks, Common Core staff development, and Common Core student and teacher assessments. Its website brags “Pearson’s close association with key authors and architects of the Common Core State Standards ensures that the spirit and pedagogical approach of the initiative is embodied in our professional development.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates the national cost for compliance with Common Core will be between $1 billion to $8 billion and the profits will go almost directly to publishers. According to Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson's K-12 division, Pearson School, “It’s a really big deal. The Common Core standards are affecting literally every part of the business we're involved in." However, as publishers are preparing to rake in the money, Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer of New York City schools is warning principals to be wary. “There's lots and lots of books that have got fancy, pretty stickers on them saying 'Common Core,' but they actually haven't changed anything in the inside."

I am generally very suspicious of top-down mandated magical formulas such as Common Core that are guaranteed to revolutionize the way teachers teach and students learn. My big problem with Common Core is that its focus is on the acquisition and measurement of student skills at the expense of learning, understanding, and applying content knowledge about our world. The bottom line is that skills devoid of content are boring and students will resist mastering them. If you are unsure about this, just remember how much you hated the meaningless repetition of piano lessons, which I think are the model for Common Core instruction.

To see if I am missing something, I have tried to follow the defense of Common Core. Lauren Davis, senior editor of Eye on Education, is one the big advocates for the Common Core standards. Eye on Education is distributing a pamphlet, and for a price, offering staff development workshops and keynote speeches promoting “5 Things Every Teacher Should be Doing to Meet the Common Core State Standards.” For Davis and her associates, “The Common Core State Standards highlight five shifts that should be happening in every classroom. They want teachers to lead “high-level, text-based discussions”; “focus on process, not just content”; “create assignments for real audiences and with real purpose” (emphasis added); “teach argument, not persuasion”; and “increase text complexity.”

My first reaction was that I must be an idiot. I have been a teacher for over forty years and I could not figure out what here was in any way new. They want me to promote high-level discussions as opposed to low-level ones? Okay, but I've already been doing that. I thought teachers were supposed to focus on both process and content -- I certainly did. Were my assignments designed for fake audiences without purpose? Was I encouraging students not to listen to each other? Was I using easier texts as the students became more sophisticated?

David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, two authors of the standards, recommend teachers begin with “relatively simple questions.” Is the problem with learning in the United States that the questions are too hard?

Finally I had to opportunity to see the Common Core standards put into action in material prepared for social studies staff development at “Cluster 2” Queens, New York high schools. Unfortunately -- or fortunately as we shall soon see -- the lesson is not available online.

The sample Common Core aligned lesson, which teachers were invited to critique, was designed for eleventh-grade United States history. The “standards” for this lesson included citing “specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources” and analyzing a “series of events described in the text” to “determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.”

The lesson examined crucial steps as the United States moved from neutrality to participant during World War I. Students were asked to work individually and in groups to examine a timeline of events and decide “If you were President Woodrow Wilson, when would you have entered America into World War I?” [Emphasis mine.] They were also asked to explain why they would have made this decision.

Students were provided with an introduction that gave background information and an eight-step timeline. According to the introduction, “When the war started in Europe (1914), President Woodrow Wilson attempted to follow the traditional American policy of neutrality. At the outbreak of war, most Americans viewed the war as largely a European matter. However, public opinion on the war was strong -- but divided. Nearly 30 percent of the population were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Some Americans of Austrian, German or Turkish background sympathized with the Central Powers; while Americans of British ancestry sympathized with the Allies. Still, President Wilson urged all Americans to be neutral.”

I like “turning point” lessons because they require students to make a decision about cause and effect and importance and to defend their decision with evidence. However, from my perspective, there were two really big problems with this demonstration lesson.

First, although our goal is supposed to be to promote student analysis of primary source documents and “increase text complexity,” students were not provided with any primary source documents in this lesson. It would have been easy to give them a quote from Wilson’s speech asking Congress to declare war in April 1917. Why wasn’t it included?

Second, our goals are supposed to include high-level, text-based discussions, assignments with real purpose, and argumentation rather than persuasion. Yet this lesson missed the entire point that students should have been examining: The issue was not when the United States should enter the war but if the United States should have gone to war at all.

Three leading critics of United States involvement in World War I were convinced it was a mistake, including Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who resigned in June 1915 because he felt his voice was being ignored in the Wilson administration. In August 1914, Bryan, in testimony before a Senate hearing, opposed all loans to belligerents because they would draw the United States into the conflict.
Bryan told the Senate and the nation, in a quote that our hypothetical high school students did not see:

Money is the worst of all contrabands because it commands everything else ... I know of nothing that would do more to prevent war than an international agreement that neutral nations would not loan to belligerents ... We are the one great nation which is not involved, and our refusal to loan to any belligerent would naturally tend to hasten a conclusion of the war ... If we approved of a loan to France we could not, of course, object to a loan to Great Britain, Germany, Russia, or to any other country, and if loans were made to these countries, our citizens would be divided into groups, each group loaning money to the country which it favors and this money could not be furnished without expressions of sympathy ... The powerful financial interests which would be connected with these loans would be tempted to use their influence through the newspapers to support the interests of the Government to which they had loaned because the value of the security would be directly affected by the result of the war.

Another American opponent of the war was Eugene Debs, a radical labor organizer and Socialist. Debs, who received over 900,000 votes for President of the United States in 1912 and 1920, was imprisoned for speaking out against World War I.

Debs argued that:

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder ... They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people. ... Yours not to reason why; Yours but to do and die. That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation. If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.

The final opponent to United States involvement in the war was Woodrow Wilson himself, who ran for reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” A great lesson promoting both argument and persuasion would be having Wilson debate himself. Unfortunately in the sample lesson students did not see these quotes either.

In a 1914 Message on Neutrality, Wilson argued, “Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality, which is the spirit of impartiality and fairness and friendliness to all concerned.”

In September 1916, when he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, Wilson stated:

We have been neutral not only because it was the fixed and traditional policy of the United States to stand aloof from the politics of Europe and because we had had no part either of action or of policy in the influences which brought on the present war, but also because it was manifestly our duty to prevent, if it were possible, the indefinite extension of the fires of hate and desolation kindled by that terrible conflict and seek to serve mankind by reserving cur strength and our resources for the anxious and difficult days of restoration and healing which must follow, when peace will have to build its house anew.

As late as March 5, 1917, in his second inaugural address, Wilson told the nation, “We stand firm in armed neutrality since it seems that in no other way we can demonstrate what it is we insist upon and cannot forget.”

However, in April 1917, Wilson told Congress:

I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent which has thus been thrust upon it; and that it take immediate steps, not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.

The statements by Bryan and Debs and Wilson’s internal debate take on profound significance in a time like today when the American people are pressed to supports wars all over the world. Students need to be able to read speeches such as these with understanding as well as coverage of today’s events in the daily newspapers.

At its best, Common Core draws the attention of teachers to the need to be conscious and systematic as they work to develop student academic skills. If Common Core promotes this level of skill and understanding by students as they master content knowledge and formulate their own questions about the world, it performs a useful function and should be broadly supported. If it does not, it is just a boondoggle for publishers, politicians, and consultants and it will quickly go the way of reading programs like “Success for All” and national policies like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top."

Personally, I do not have confidence in the publishers, politicians, and certainly not in the expert educational consultants. I think the difference makers will have to be teachers. Teachers will be the ones to decide whether this educational change -- or any educational change -- provides real substance and prepares students not just for college or work but for active participation as fully engaged citizens of a democratic society.

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