When I’m asked if I support the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I give an emphatic “yes.” They constitute the first multi-state plan to give substance and coherence to what is taught in the public schools. They encourage the systematic development of knowledge in K–5. They break the craven silence about the critical importance of specific content in the early grades. They offer an example (the human body) of how knowledge ought to be built systematically across grades. They state,
By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.
That principle of building coherent, cumulative content animates the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge from the earliest grades in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability—which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.
The words quoted above don’t define the specific historical, scientific, and other knowledge that is required for mature literacy. (If they did, no state would have adopted the CCSS, because specific content remains a local—or teacher—prerogative in the U.S.) But those words are an impetus to a brave and insightful governor or state superintendent to get down to brass tacks. In early schooling, progress cannot be made without coherence and specificity. Little can come from today’s incorrect but widespread assumption that critical-thinking or reading-comprehension skills can be gained without a specific, systematic buildup of knowledge.
Nobody can know whether the Common Core standards will end in triumph or tragedy. The certitudes and fierce warrior emotions that beset this topic, however, are misplaced. It’s said that truth is the first casualty in a war. Subtlety has been the first casualty in this one. Whether the CCSS improve American education will depend on what the states actually do about developing rich content knowledge “within and across grades” as required. Doing so will take, at minimum, the courage to withstand the gripe-patrols that will complain about the inclusion of, say, Egypt in the second grade. But who can be sure such courage won’t be forthcoming from a forceful governor or superintendent once the absolute need for specific, cumulative content is understood? Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” It will take just one state to have the guts to form a specific curriculum. Big, unmistakable gains will result, and those results will influence others and the die will be cast. That will be the triumph. The tragedy will be the status quo, which is all the opponents of the CCSS currently have to offer.
The Bohr principle ought to be the watchword in this debate. Those who confidently predict failure haven’t any more knowledge about what will really happen than I do.
But this can be said with confidence: Unless the alternative educational plans of the critics (where are they?) also require coherent content knowledge within and across grades, their schemes are not likely to be as effective as the CCSS. If critics do support those key principles of specificity and coherence—well, then, why not just support this daring effort that has been miraculously adopted by multiple states and correct whatever defects you see in the course of its actual implementation?