By Nicole Mirra
When I read the title of the March 5th article in The Atlantic – “The Common Core’s Unsung Benefit: It Teaches Kids to Be Good Citizens” – I became quite confused. I devote much of my professional life to exploring ways to infuse meaningful, authentic civic learning experiences into urban high school classroom instruction, and my readings of the Common Core literacy standards certainly have not led to such rosy conclusions.
While the terms “college” and “career” appear dozens of times in the standards, the 60+ page document mentions democracy exactly twice – the introduction claims that evidence-based reasoning is “essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic” and a speaking/listening standard in 11th and 12th grade calls for the promotion of “civil, democratic discussions.”
Note that in both cases, the mechanisms through which the skills of reasoning or discussions are meant to connect to democracy (let alone the kind of democracy we are preparing young people for) are left completely unexplored. The standards call for the skills and suggest that they are important for democracy, but do not help teachers or students actually make the connection in any meaningful way.
No standards call for students to engage in literacy practices in or with their communities, or to create public literacy products like letters to legislators or public service announcements. Could individual teachers develop such projects and find standards that relate to this work? Certainly. But do the standards themselves highlight the democratic purposes of literacy? No. That commitment is not apparent.
And so, I wondered, what was the article’s author, Ross Wiener, a vice president at the Aspen Institute, seeing that I wasn’t when he praised the standards for putting “significant emphasis on reinvigorating the democratic purpose of public education”?
Apparently, he was seeing three texts.
He writes, “The Common Core identifies three texts—and only three texts—that every American student must read: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution (Preamble and Bill of Rights), and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.”
Wiener deems the inclusion of these three texts, along with the fact that students are asked to analyze historical documents and participate in class discussions, as proof that the Common Core is “deeply and explicitly focused on preparing students for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”
As much as I wish this focus existed, I find it necessary to counter Wiener’s claims so that we can begin to think about what it would truly look like to take civic education seriously.
First, the facts. The three texts that Wiener cites are not the only texts that the Common Core requires students to read. As the standards writers clarify, “In English‐language arts, the Standards require certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare.”
Civic documents get as much required attention as Shakespeare, but I doubt many would argue that the Common Core is ushering in a new renaissance of Hamlet scholarship.
Furthermore, it is imperative to note that the simple inclusion of civic documents in the Common Core required reading list does not constitute a sustained focus on the civic nature of literacy. Consider a sample literacy task that the standards writers themselves suggest that teachers implement after students read such documents:
Students determine the central ideas found in the Declaration of Sentiments by the Seneca Falls Conference, noting the parallels between it and the Declaration of Independence and providing a summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas of each text and between the texts. (Appendix B, p. 183)
This sample task, like countless others developed by Common Core-affiliated folk, involves close reading of the documents, but absolutely no interrogation or application of the democratic values inherent in the documents. Simply reading the Declaration of Independence for its main ideas, in my mind, is not a civic act. Debating the extent to which the promises of that document have been realized in your students’ neighborhoods and then developing community action projects might be. But that is not the focus of the Common Core – the Common Core is focused on students’ ability to read any piece of informational text and draw evidence from it in order to construct a sound argument so that those skills can be applied to any number of college or career assignments. Our founding documents, in the eyes of the Common Core developers, are simply sources of information. No context or democratic purpose necessary.
This, of course, does not even take into account the deeply problematic rollout of the Common Core in many states, which has failed to meaningfully engage teachers, parents, or students in understanding and implementing the standards in spectacularly undemocratic fashion. Or the looming high-stakes tests associated with the standards, which are doing more than almost any other education reform to push the purpose of education toward individual economic competitiveness and away from preparation for democratic citizenship.
I agree with Wiener when he proclaims, “Preparing young people for government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ means more than a course in government or civics, and more than basic skills in reading and math.” But I cannot agree with him that the Common Core offers the “more” that he claims it does. Indeed, its focus on close reading without attention to the identities of students and the context in which texts are written, is offering less.