What Will Our Children Learn Under Common Core? – Part I



We recently laid out answers to some frequently asked questions about Common Core in South Carolina. To recap: Common Core is already being implemented in our state; it is a de facto federal education program; and given the power structure of our state government, it isn’t going to be easy to get rid of without major public pressure. As South Carolina schools enter the final “bridge year” into Common Core, we want to know what exactly South Carolina students will be learning.

We sought out sample lesson plans, test questions, and personal experiences of parents whose children are already being inundated with Common Core standards in their schools. We will cover test questions in Part II.

Lesson Plans

We took a look at examples of Common Core lesson plans from Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization founded by three of the contributing authors of the Common Core State Standards that is “devoted to accelerating student achievement by all students by supporting effective and innovative Common Core.” The organization disseminates Common Core materials at no cost and encourages states, districts, schools, and teachers to use their resources and make them their own.

Keep in mind the following texts are listed under “English/Language Arts” – not under History or Civics. They can be found here: Common Core Close Reading Sample Lessons.

Reinforcing Concept of a “Living Constitution

Listed under 8th Grade Informational Texts is a lesson plan covering “Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution” by Linda R. Monk. In this text, the “evolving nature of the constitution” is examined regarding the changing meaning of “We the People,” referring to the lack of voting and civil rights given during the founding and their eventual implementation through constitutional amendments. While the Constitution was made to evolve in this sense –through legal, written amendments to the constitution – the lesson plan makes reference to the “living constitution” in the improper context:

There are many times the Constitution is invoked on both sides of a debate about rights. To reinforce the concept that the U.S. Constitution is a living document, students could investigate an area of debate where the interpretation of an Amendment or amending the Constitution is central to the argument and then debate it in class.

The theme of the text is that the Constitution has evolved through the amendment process, but that is not what “the Constitution as a living document” means in any other context. Also referred to as a “living Constitution,” this concept refers to the changes to the Constitution’s interpretations over time without actual written changes to the document. USLegal Inc. states that under this concept, “the views of contemporaneous society should be taken into account when interpreting key constitutional phrases.”

Without going too deeply into constitutional law, it’s nearly irrefutable to say that the broadened meaning of certain of the Constitution’s phrases over time has allowed the federal government to grow far beyond the power it was originally intended to have.

The lesson plan does not encourage students to question or even look for another argument countering the notion of a living document. Moreover, students are misled by tying in the concepts of a living constitution and an evolving constitution through amendments – implying that the unwritten changes over time that have led to a more powerful federal government are just as necessary and good as the legitimately needed written amendments that expanded rights to African Americans and women.

Liberty needs to be “checked”

One 11th grade lesson plan involves an in-depth reading of Learned Hand’s “I am an American Day Address” in which the author delves into the meaning of liberty. In the text, Hand associates liberty with “freedom from wants” and states the following:

And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.

Among other things, students are asked to compare Hand’s notion of liberty with Norman Rockwell’s pictorial representation of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” which includes freedom from want. The sole focus of this three-day lesson plan is on Hand’s text, and it is not until the end of the lesson that students are asked to compare his concept of liberty with another author’s work like Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let America be America Again.”

Hand clearly has a restricted, “progressive” view of liberty. Although it would be difficult to disagree with the statement that liberty isn’t “the unbridled will,”  Hand’s insistence that freedom must have “checks” should at least invite scrutiny. Moreover, advocating “freedom from want” implies drastic redistribution of wealth and infringement on personal liberties, as eliminating “want” necessarily means goods or money being taken from some and given to others.

But Hand’s text itself is not the problem with this lesson plan. The problem is that the text – and more importantly its ideas – are the sole focus of this lesson. Students are not encouraged to consider any other alternatives until the very end – more of an afterthought than the encouragement of varied thinking.

Promoting “class warfare” in an English lesson?

In this 11-12th grade English lesson plan, students are asked to analyze, and essentially reconstruct, Andrew Carnegie’s arguments in “The Gospel of Wealth.” Among his arguments are that the wealthy have earned their wealth, have a duty to help others, should do as they best fit as they are superior, and should be imposed with a high “death tax,” since he believed inheritors would just squander the money and the money would be better used if given to the rest of society. Students are then asked to write an essay based on this prompt:

Carnegie argues that in his age there is a “…temporary unequal distribution of wealth.” Was it temporary?  Compare the difference between the wealthy and the poor today to the age of Carnegie?

Unequal wealth distribution does merit some discussion. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t created by “low” taxes on the rich. But regardless of one’s view on the matter, is this question really best asked in an English/Language Arts lesson? Perhaps this discussion would be better left for a History/Civics class, and only if it actually included other opposing views. These lesson plans don’t appear to include thoughtful analysis of classic literary works. Instead, these lessons share the common theme of telling students to analyze and construct texts with a political message, and don’t investigate opposing views in any significant way.

Different concepts of liberty should be discussed in the classroom. Education is at least partly about encouraging critical thinking. But these lessons encourage the kind of default progressivism that kills critical thinking rather than fostering it, and it seems extremely unlikely that most South Carolina parents would approve of them for use in their children’s classroom.

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