A first-grader works on a math problem at St. Kateri School in Irondequoit, N.Y., in this 2013 photo. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)
Longer ago than I care to
remember, I spent three years working for a Washington-based national education
organization. I liked the people, enjoyed my job, and had the pleasant feeling
that I was contributing to a worthwhile cause.
I also learned a couple of
things. One was that professional educators love innovation, or at least the
idea. Another was that there’s a vast education machinenot only schools and
teachers but administrative bureaucracies, groups like the one I worked for,
unions, producers of textbooks and other
materials, university faculties, foundations, think tanksfor whom innovation
is almost literally their bread and butter.
Since that now distant era, the
education machine has continued to busy itself with devising and implementing innovationsnew
ways of teaching this or that, new standardized tests, new technologyall said
to hold the key to revolutionary change for the better. Alas, reality often
falls short of expectation, and the performance of large numbers of students in
American public schools has remained cause for concern.
Parenthetically, one might note
that a providential lack of resources has generally spared Catholic schools
much of this foolishness. Nevertheless
the church schools have suffered a comparable problem of their ownthe long
reign, now mercifully ending, of catechetical theorists with a liberal agenda
who seized the upper hand in religious education after Vatican II.
In any event, American education now
has the Common Core and the controversy surrounding it. Product of
multi-million-dollar funding by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the
diligent churning of the education machine, the Common Core consists of
standards spelling out what kids should have learned at various stages in their
Forty-six states to date have
bought in. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia said no thanks, while several
of the original 46 have backed out and a couple of others are weighing that.
The alleged evils of the Common Core have predictably become a cause célèbre for some conservatives.
I have no strong feelings either
way. On the one hand, it’s not unreasonable to want realistic, uniform
standards for student achievement. On the other hand, neither is it
unreasonable to worry about ideology-crazed innovators of the future imposing
their wills on American schools in this way. Let the Common Core debate
As things stand, my reservations
go beyond Common Core itself. Like educational innovations of the past, its
focus is on what happensor doesn’t happen but shouldin the classroom. This
implies that the classroom experience determines what kids learn. But although
to a great extent it does, equally or arguably even more important are the
things that happen, or fail to happen, in homes, neighborhoods, and the culture
Why is it that the academic
performance of American students so often is so poor? While the culture of
poverty is frequently blamed, the culture of self-indulgent affluence is hardly
less at fault. Causal factors include parents who don’t read to their kids,
homes with several TVs and heaps of electronic gear but hardly any books, a
youth culture that encourages frittering away time via social media and values
quick-fix gratification at the expense serious intellectual work, and the emotional
fallout from the breakup of marriages and homes.
The list could be extended, but
the point should be clear: the problem isn’t just the classroom, but the
culture at large.
Would the education machine
care to tackle that one? Would the Gates people like to pour multi-millions
into the project? Now that would really be an innovation.