The Common Core Is Not a Common Core


One of the most objectionable things about the Common Core that has been adopted by 45 states in the nation is its name. The Common Core is simply not a “common core.”

Before 2010, everyone in the world of true school reform and most liberally educated people knew what a common core was. The term had been around for a while. A common core refers to a prescribed set of courses—and, further, books within those courses—that are studied in common; that is, by everyone attending an educational institution.

At the University of Chicago, where I attended as an undergraduate, the Common Core (often affectionately referred to as the Common Chore) required all freshmen to take a course called “Soc” (pronounced sōsh), short for the social sciences, and a course called “Hum” (pronounce hume), referring to the humanities.

The first book everyone read in “Soc” was Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Since every freshman at the college read the book at the same time—and everyone else on campus had already read the book—the university essentially invited all the students to take part in a common conversation about Adam Smith and free markets. Since we all read Marx as the very next author, the students could then get into an argument about who was right: Smith or Marx. Had one-fifth of the entering class read Smith, one-fifth read Marx without Smith, one-fifth read a modern Keynesian economist but no Smith or Marx, one-fifth taken Soc without reading any “econ” at all, and one-fifth not even taken Soc, no common conversation would have been possible. Even if the institution had called its battery of required courses by that name, it would not have been a common core in the true sense of the term.  

A common core, then, is exactly what its name implies. Certain things are read and studied in common. And those things are the most important—the core—the heart of the matter. 

Presumably, a genuine common core in American schools would be a set of books and other readings that everyone must know in order to participate in a common conversation about what it means to be an American and a human being. Presumably, those books would be the best books: the classics. With a limited amount of time, who would want to spend much time on mediocre books? 

A common core, then, is a remedy for the communication breakdown portrayed in the story of the Tower of Babel and that confounds the public discourse of this nation even in our much vaunted Information Age. (When is the last time you remember a politician—or Arne Duncan—quoting a line from Shakespeare or Twain?).  To overcome that breakdown, we cannot say that we should all read books of similar difficulty. We must all read and discuss a certain number of great books in common.

The new Common Core English Standards do not constitute a common core. They do not prescribe any single book or set of books. The authors of the Common Core make no claims that certain books simply have to be read in order to consider oneself an educated person and a culturally literate American. That is simply not the aim or language of the Common Core (and we shall see why in due course).  

Had the authors of the Common Core offered a common core, we as a nation could be having a much more interesting and productive discussion right now about school reform. Had the Common Core authors said that all students in high school, whatever else they might study, should read a certain eight books—only two per year, though they could read other things—that everyone in his right mind considers classics, then we could all be reading those books and trying to understand them. We could be having a nationwide discussion about how literature ought to be taught with real books in mind, rather than paying homage to amorphous “standards” that have never done more than butcher great literature. 

Had the Common Core recommended a few great books, college professors could at last know what their incoming students had actually read. In short, if the Common Core had advocated not a set of confusing and often silly standards but instead a canon of great books, this nation that has in many ways lost its ability to read (due in large part to progressive education) could be reading and discussing great literature again. And that reading would not be confined to schools.  Presumably, if these books are important, not only children should be reading them. Sadly, none of this is happening. As it stands, everyone in the nation right now is equally in the dark as to what students will be taught in conformity to the Common Core. 

What the authors of the Common Core did instead was give us a number of dubious reasons for educating students; pages of so-called standards that are in no way different from the current standards in all the states that have done nothing to improve our schools; a tedious, jargon-ridden explanation of why “complex” books and “informational” texts should be read; three criteria for selecting these texts, two of which are not explained; a long list of possible readings; and an unenforceable promise that they will never, never interfere in the schools’ curricula.  And they called this hodgepodge the Common Core. 

No one has any idea what the Common Core is or what it might turn into. No one in the state legislatures can tell us what the Common Core is. No one in the state education bureaucracies can tell us what the Common Core is. The authors of the Common Core themselves reveal as little as possible about what these supposed standards, once the experts and the textbook merchants start interpreting them, might one day become. Yet they do tell us that their creation is a living document and will change over time. Thus, it could become anything. 

The question is, why? Why is there so little common sense in the Common Core? Why is the Common Core not really a common core at all? 

There are several possible, though not equally plausible, answers. The easiest is that the authors of the Common Core simply do not know what a real common core is. They accidently stole a brand name. They innocently fell into a pit of false advertising, and now it is too late to get out of it. 

A more likely answer is that they have no real commitment to the literary works that are casually recommended, but by no means required, in their standards. It is one thing to say that every American ought to read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (which the Common Core does not do; in fact, none of Franklin’s works is recommended). It is quite another to say that students ought to read “complex” texts, including autobiographies, such as those by Benjamin Franklin, Maya Angelou (who is a recommended author), et alia. The latter is what the Common Core does. 

Part and parcel of this explanation, the arch-testers may not regard education as reading and knowing and indeed loving certain wonderful books that constitute our cultural heritage. Rather, they may instead regard education as simply a process. What a student reads is not nearly as important as how one reads or the supposed ability one has in reading, according to this view.  Looking for any rhyme or reason in the Common Core, then, is a fool’s errand. 

I think there is a more likely reason that the Common Core is not a common core, and that reason is ultimately political. If the authors of the Common Core were to say that the children of this nation ought to read certain books that are unquestionably great, books that help them understand themselves as Americans and as human beings, then the nation would have to have a serious conversation about what it means to be an American and a human being. It also means that a lot of post-modern literature that has been coming into the schools for a long time would have to be looked at with scrutiny. 

If the arch-testers can get away with just saying, “schools need to read certain complex texts such as . . .”, then they can make it look like they are not requiring any particular literature when in fact they are. He who controls the testing and the textbook industry controls the schools. And the authors of the Common Core love post-modern literature as well as dubious “informational texts” (often advocating a contemporary political position) that do not belong in an English class at all.

Let’s put a finer point on it. If a true common core were to be adopted for American high schools, which of the two following works would have to be taught: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? The latter is an “exemplar text” in the Common Core English Standards. The former, Huck Finn, does not appear. Ergo, the Common Core is not a common core. It does, however, bear the title Common Core, which confuses most people who have typically looked at a common core, a core curriculum, Core Knowledge, and so on, as the way to improve the schools of this country. Thus the arch-testers of the Common Core have hijacked the language of traditional education in order to foster radical aims. I am pretty sure that sort of thing has happened before. Does anyone remember what the word liberal originally meant?  

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    My experience as a high school math teacher:  Math standards in the US are ‘mile wide and inch deep.’   Common core makes this problem even worse.  Much of what used to be part of a trig course is now part of algebra 2; algebra 2 standards are now moved  down to algebra 1, etc. etc.  The amount and level of complexity of topics in each math course increases under common core, which is a step in exactly the wrong direction.  What is worse, they told us that the common core would fix this problem, that there would be fewer topics per course so that we could get more in depth.  Then, when we saw the standards, the opposite was true.  I think common core is a whole lot like Obamacare:  it sounded great when they sold it to us, but they were completely insincere. 

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    By the way, part of what I love about teaching math is I get less upset about all this.  If I had to skip Franklin’s autobiography or Huck Finn and teach Chinua Achebe, I might not be able to cope.  Teaching the concept of imaginary numbers in algebra 1 is annoying, but more emotionally manageable to me.  Oh, by the way public education is doomed.  Not sure how long I can last in this career, and it’s not because of rude teenagers – it’s because of union victim-mentality and stupid standards (by the sentence structure in this post, you can see another reason it’s good that I’m not an English teacher). 

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    Terrence O. Moore:      Thus the arch-testers of the Common Core have hijacked the language of traditional education in order to foster radical aims.  I am pretty sure that sort of thing has happened before.  Does anyone remember what the wordliberal originally meant?   

    This is  reminiscent of so-called Outcome-Based Education (OBE), which came on the scene in the early 90’s.  It sounded wonderful–at last we will have standards and accountability–when in fact it was an attempt to radically restructure curriculum along progressive lines. Their  misuse of language was almost diabolical.  I still have wounds from battling OBE in my community, and  it would not surprise me to learn that some of the same folks who pushed OBE are behind The Common Core.  

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    Yes, the parallels with Obamacare are alarming.

    • A giant ambitious program that will affect everyone in the country.
    • A nice sounding name that bears zero relation to the actual content of the beast.
    • Soothing assurances to the skeptical that were known to be lies.
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    Common Core is also  a wolf in sheep’s clothing  . And Maya Angelou is also a calypso singer . 

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    Someone once said:

    In the 20th and now the 21st century the argument is between the atheists and agnostics.  The atheists are mistaken for liberals and the agnostics are mistaken for conservatives.  Of course, there is nothing liberal about an atheist and there is nothing conservative about an agnostic.

    Those who think education is just a process are the agnostics.  They don’t actually believe in anything thus they want to exercise everyone’s mind to improve imaginary abilities.  

    Meanwhile the folks who have the agenda are the atheists.  They are ever so sure that if they could just get rid of all the ‘old stuff’ then their brave new world would be so much better.  They missed that whole Bolshevik-Fascist thing that happened in the first 50 years of the 20th century, whoops.  It all sounds great until they get a little power and then the chaos and horror begins.

    hmmm….chaos & horror.  A good description for both Common Core and Obamacare.



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    Matthew Lawrence,  

    Home schooling will not be an answer if the Common Core has the monopoly on College entrance tests which they are acquiring.  Neither home schoolers nor private schools will be able to avoid it.

    J Flei, 

    Common Core is very weak because, as we have seen in the tests and released materials, there is no requirement to actually memorize anything like the multiplication tables.  That means in the fifth grade when the student should be mastering reduction of fractions or long division it is impossible to do so.  The pedagogy (untried but an outgrowth of the “process” progressives is no memorizing — only critical thinking. 


    As you have pointed out, once the standards and tests are determined, the curriculum is determined.  There is no chance of local input or local control and therefore no local responsibility.  Go to a School District meeting.  If you ask the teacher or the administrator why they make any decision, the answer is the same.  The state told us what to do.  The state will say that this is a national program.  

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    Mr. J Flei,

    Get thee to a classical school.  They are always looking for good math teachers.  If you don’t know of any in your area, e-mail me at Hillsdale.  If you are willing to move, there are many great places you should be considering.  


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    West Facing Squirrel: wow. That it outrageous enough that it would seem to require some sort of action.

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    What really bothers me about this is that the small Christian School my children attended has started using Common Core because if they don’t “the kids won’t be able to get into any UC schools.” I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but have heard anecdotes about the state universities looking over transcripts from Christian schools extra closely.

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    I remember one book that somehow seemed central to my English class in each grade from 7th to 12th in my public school:

    • 7th: Treasure Island
    • 8th: Johnny Tremain
    • 9th: Great Expectations
    • 10th:  Crime and Punishment
    • 11th: Huckleberry Finn
    • 12th: A Tale of Two Cities

    Of course, we read a lot of other books.  But those are the big ones I remember.  Oh wait–Rime of the Ancient Mariner (9th grade) and Poe (11th) also made an impression.  (I was assigned the Odyssey in 10th grade,  and I’ m ashamed to say I blew it off.  Cliff’s Notes.)  Everybody was assigned these books in my school.  All in all, that constitutes a pretty solid–if limited–core.  

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    Matt Blankenship: I agree that something should be done, however my daughter doesn’t want me to speak up lest she become a target in the classroom. She does enjoy tweaking the teacher by bringing in articles from The Blaze, for example. It is outrageous that she is missing out on some wonderful classics. When I was her age I was studying Shakespeare in school ,and these kids have to spout leftist talking points. Insane!

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    My eldest daughter (11th grade) had an AP English final today and the topic of her essay was what should the government do to combat global warming. Most of the assignments center around these sorts of leftist ideas. Her textbook stated that a good example of civil disobedience is Occupy Wallstreet! And how many books have they read in the class? One.

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    The “training” model for education is rapidly replacing the “citizenship” model. You can see it in the failure of so many college freshmen and their inability to reason or argue but in their tremendous capacity to limit workloads, collaborate to find the easiest route to an A, and their desire to learn the “right way” to argue a position to ensure–again–that sweet, sweet 4.0.

    In K-12, it’s all about the test scores. Just get ’em to passing. Common Core won’t really change that.

    Let state and local governments make the decisions, and for God’s sake stop dumping money into pointless curriculum development, technology, and other gimmicks. Just find the good teachers and pay them their market value. It’s not rocket surgery.

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    Terrible.  All this will do is push families to home schooling which may be a good thing.  Except that the American commonality that comes from a shared fund of knowledge will (if it hasn’t already) disappear.

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    Of course it’s a Common Core, what else would you call an initiative that’s so all-inclusive? The private D.C. based lobbying groups which developed Common Core (NGA and CCSSO) merely prescribed standards, it’s up to the school districts to devise curriculum to meet the standards. That way everyone is responsible and no one is responsible. That’s how you end up with Hamlet being taught from a comic book.

    I’ve been beating this drum for the past 5 months, and I’m pleased to see that it’s starting to gain traction. The thing that really surprised me is how teachers have reacted to it. I’ve spoken to a number of them in the past months, and they’re uniformly against it, as it’s taking them completely out of the loop. All they can do is teach to the test. This interview on YouTube is quite illuminating as it’s with a self-professed liberal.

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    Matt Blankenship:

    Those are all great books.  Alas, they are not being read in 98% of schools today, and as Kim K. pointed out, Common Core is making inroads into private schools.  The parents I know who are most worked up about Common Core are from Catholic schools that have adopted this monstrosity.  They see the differences more clearly, whereas public schools have been going steadily downhill for a long time.  As far as Dickens goes, he does not make the list of “exemplar texts” found in the Common Core documents.  Imagine that.  How did the “study group” that chose these texts manage to overlook Dickens and find it in their Scroogish, post-modern, multicultural hearts to include so many of the authors from Oprah’s book list that they did? 

    West Facing Squirrel:

    Ugh.  I feel for your daughter.  

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    Terrence O. Moore: Matt Blankenship:

     The parents I know who are most worked up about Common Core are from Catholic schools that have adopted this monstrosity.  They see the differences more clearly, whereas public schools have been going steadily downhill for a long time.

    My wife has informed me that the Catholic school our kids go to has adopted Common Core.  One immediate result: cutting back on music education.  Oh boy, I thought.  Here we go…

    Regarding my public school “core”: I forgot to mention Shakespeare.  In 9th grade we read Romeo and Juliet ( a good choice for 14-year-olds).  In 10th, Julius Caesar (not so good, perhaps).  Again, everyone read these.  My senior year I took a great elective Shakespeare course.  It remains the best Shakespeare instruction I’ve ever had.  We read all the great tragedies, plus the Henriad, plus selected comedies.  Lots of memorization.  To this day, with about a minute of brushing up, I could rattle off “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow…”

    Finally: I forgot to mention the glaring counterpoint to this glorious core…Silas Marner, scourge of all junior high boys.  A perfect attempt to kill any boy’s desire ever to read another novel.

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    That’s how you end up with Hamlet being taught from a comic book.

    That’s not a bad idea if it’s an adjunct to becoming a careful reader.  Even better if the student’s required to storyboard a scene as well as memorize a soliloquy.  And read the text, see a couple of different productions, read Kyd’s A Spanish Tragedy, and supply the logical argument to the proposition that the ghost is Fortinbras’ dad, not Hamlet’s.  Mile-wide, inch-deep is a problem in learning lit, too.

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    The fear is that Common Core will impose itself on private schools and homeschoolers.  It can’t do that, however, if it does not become a monopoly.  There are no natural monopolies.

    With nine states pulling out alternative college entrance exams will be put into place.  Any particular state institutions, like University of California, can impose Common Core requirements.   Those schools have already, as noted, probably been systematically discriminating against religious and homeschooled students. 

    But even in California, the state is not immune to parental pressure.  They tried to end homeschooling as well. 

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    Common Core is very weak because, as we have seen in the tests and released materials, there is no requirement to actually memorize anything like the multiplication tables.  The pedagogy (untried but an outgrowth of the “process” progressives is no memorizing — only critical thinking. 

    Yes, I’ve been saying for years with regards to ‘progressive’ pedagogy, “Why exactly is memorizing so bad?”  They always say we can’t just ‘drill and kill’, etc. etc., and while I get that you have to bring subject matter to life or else school will be too boring, but the pendulum has swung in the other direction.  Kids think they need to be entertained, and schools feed into this by trying to save them from memorization and make everything some sort of pair-and-share activity.  Memorizing is a necessary part of learning, has been for time immemorial.  Epic poets a la Homer memorized entire poems, a ‘Hafiz’ is someone who memorized the Kora, etc.  Guess the followers of Dewey are smarter than all of them.  I’m giving a presentation in this vein at a Sacramento State Common Core math conference in a couple of months, hoping to rock the boat! 

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    J Flei,

    There is a small team of us who are giving talks on the Common Core around Oregon.  Oregon has a new educations plan which buys into the Common Core hook line and sinker.   It will probably be as successful as Oregon’s Obamacare “Cover Oregone.”  I would appreciate it if you would send me notes or slides on your presentation at Sacramento State.

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    Children like memorization and are good at it.  Adults not so much, and they tend to conclude incorrectly that memorizing is boring to children.   I’ve drilled my own and other people’s children, and far from being bored, they feel better and, I would say, stronger for owning a store of often important and sometimes beautiful  information on which they can draw at will, and fortunate is the person who has a large body of poetry and music in his head.    

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