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May 16, 2014

STAWAR: Rotten to the Common Core

— OK, here’s my position on the “Tonight Show” controversy, I liked Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, but I didn’t care for Conan O’Brien. We all like Jimmy Fallon and the Roots, even if he panders to youth and overdoes social media.

That being said, I would like to distance myself from a recurring segment from Jay Leno’s tenure. He called it “Jay Walking,” and it consisted of filming people answering simple questions. The whole premise was to make fun of folks suffering from what could be called poor “cultural literacy.” Perhaps some viewers enjoyed it, temporarily feeling superior, but it was clearly mean-spirited and disrespectful.

In 1987, E.D. Hirsch from the University of Virginia published his best-seller “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.” Called elitist and narrow-minded, Hirsch proposed teaching hard facts in schools. The book contained a list of 5,000 essential names, phrases, dates and concepts that every literate American was supposed to know.

Since culture changes so rapidly, Diane Ravitch from the Network for Public Education, says that “cultural literacy” can be considered a “de facto time capsule capturing a view of what mattered to academics of yesteryear.” Popular culture is especially volatile as trends wax and wane.

Cultural literacy depends mostly on what culture — or subculture — you’re talking about. Hirsch’s model has been attacked for ignoring large segments of society. For example, it’s Eurocentric and overlooks almost all of popular culture.

You might remember how in the sequel to “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” Bridget is out of her element at the Lawyer’s Council’s Quiz, until the topic turns to popular culture. Likewise “Cheers” know-it-all Cliff Clavin is considered a genius on “Jeopardy,” when the topics are “Civil Servants,” “Florida,” “Mothers and Sons,” “Beer,” “Bar Trivia” and “Celibacy.”

Despite these criticisms, the 85-year-old Hirsch is back in vogue with the ascendancy of the Common Core Standards. These standards describe what all K-12 students should know at the end of each grade. Common Core is intended to establish educational standards that are consistent across the county and to ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college or the workforce.

Common Core relies heavily on standardized testing, and has been endorsed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

David Coleman, president of the College Board, is known as “ the architect of the Common Core standards.” He previously ran a private group, which helped create the common core.

Ravitch says the development was characterized by “the absence of public participation, transparency or educator participation.” Because the U.S. Department of Education is legally prohibited from establishing curriculum, the entire effort was bankrolled by the Gates Foundation to the tune of more than $200 million.

When the standards first came out, they were quickly adopted by 45 states and companies were gearing up to market compatible products. Supporters came from all over the spectrum, including Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Washington, D.C., School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Condoleeza Rice, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ExxonMobi and other corporations.

Likewise, the Common Core has been opposed from both the left and right as governmental overreach and federal takeover of the educational system.

Just recently, when his daughter was subjected to New York’s brutal three-day standardized math testing, comedian Louis C.K. railed against the Common Core through Twitter. He wrote, “My kids used to love math! Now it makes them cry,”

Although he apologized later, Education Secretary Duncan was initially dismissive of parental complaints, saying that it was just a bunch of “white suburban moms” complaining because “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”

As implementation has proceeded, many folks are reconsidering these standards. Some of the evaluation procedures arbitrarily set a cut-off score so high that 70 percent of students were certain to fail. It has also been criticized for failing to recognize individual differences, socioeconomic factors and stifling student and teacher creativity.

Defenders say that the real problem is the poorly written curriculum, in which the standards are embedded. The Common Core is not a curriculum itself, but rather curriculum standards. Curriculum decisions are left to the states, but it must be coherent, specific and have adequate content.

 Kentucky was the first state to implement the Common Core and Indiana recently became the first state to abandon it, replacing it with state standards. The U.S. Department of Education responded with a letter to State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, warning that any new standards must be as challenging as the common core, or Indiana risks losing its federal funding.

Indiana colleges must also certify that students who meet state standards will not require remedial coursework for admission. If Indiana is successful, it will depend on whether the new standards are rigorous enough and educationally rather than ideologically driven.

  According to Ravish, “It is good to have standards … but they must not be rigid, inflexible, and prescriptive. Teachers must have the flexibility to tailor standards to meet the [needs of] students in their classrooms.”

When I applied for graduate school in curriculum and instruction, I was accepted, but mortified to learn that, like a bad joke, I had misspelled the word “curriculum” multiple times in my application.

I guess it was because we didn’t have Common Core back then.

 — Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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