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‘Readiness’ for what?

Education | Thinking critically about Common Core

Issue: "Border gridlock," Aug. 9, 2014

Last May’s annual conference of the International Reading Association in New Orleans kicked off with a spirited rendition of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” played by a local student band. That set the mood, which was generally upbeat throughout the crowded exhibit hall in spite of two little words featured prominently in almost every booth—words that, over the last three years, have picked up a huge amount of baggage.

“What do you think about Common Core?” At this question, the happy faces of attendees went a little flat. These are teachers, librarians, reading specialists—the very people most affected by educational reforms (if we don’t count the children). A guardedness crept into their conversation, a hesitant, “Well. …”

“There’s nothing wrong with having standards,” one reading consultant told me, “and I don’t believe it’s a socialist plot. But I have problems with implementation.” That sounds like Obamacare: Nothing wrong with affordable health insurance, but the road from here to there is convoluted (to put it politely). Everyone agrees public education needs reforming, but is this the way to do it?

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Implementation—the how—is the pressing issue now, perhaps because not enough thought was given to the why. Let’s back up and examine the stated purpose of Common Core, without attributing ulterior motives or socialist plots.

Two goals continually pop up in the literature: first, “Critical thinking.” The phrase is relatively new, but the basic idea dates back to Socrates. Understood correctly, it’s a laudable goal: Education should produce adults who can grasp an argument and evaluate its merits.

The Common Core English standards seem tailor-made for critical thinking, except for being written by people with extensive knowledge of educational theory but little knowledge of children. For instance (choosing at random): Explain how a series of chapters, scenes, or stanzas fit together to provide the overall structure of a particular story, drama, or poem. Or this, for “informational texts”: Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting the important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.

These objectives are for fifth grade, the age when it becomes possible to fall in love with a book. But critical analysis isn’t conducive to love, and though fifth-graders can analyze with enthusiasm (especially when dissecting your arguments for not allowing sleepovers), it’s pointless to require it before they have any sort of personal interest or application.

So why promote it so relentlessly? Common Core sees critical thinking as an end in itself, not a means—as if kids can be taught to think critically without anything in particular to think about. Or any positive good to think toward, unless it’s the hazy dream of worldwide peace and harmony, which everyone supposedly wants—without giving a lot of critical thought to the probability or means of achieving it.

If a genuine critical thinker did emerge from a Common Core education, how likely would he be to measure up to the second stated goal, “College and career readiness”? Where “critical thinking” is hard to measure and define, “readiness” is a clarion call: All high-school grads should march off to higher education and a successful career. The only thing wrong with that is its reductionism. “Readiness” implies certain predetermined expectations: first college, then career, and that’s what your education was all about. “Preparation for the 21st-century global economy,” another Common Core catchphrase, reveals its naked, yet clueless utilitarianism: training workers for a “global” future in an increasingly fragmented world.

Actually, and no doubt unintentionally, the goals conflict. “Critical thinking” requires openness to the unexpected and counterintuitive, but “Readiness,” as understood by Common Core, frowns on experimentation, wrong turns, backtracks—all that makes life, and human beings, so interesting. The straight trajectory of “college and career readiness” runs athwart the necessary byways of “critical thinking.” Do we want Aristotles or worker bees?

“I have problems with the implementation”—don’t we all? The program is huge, awkward, overly ambitious, and at odds with itself. Full implementation isn’t likely; expect a tangled mess instead. 

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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