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Common Core Curriculum: A critique of pure reason

Via Krugman, I hear there’s a movement to establish a Common Core Curriculum in schools. There’s also growing resistance to it from the usual suspects who fear that if children learn anything this may hinder their subsequent participation in fact-free politics.

I’ve been on another planet the past couple of months (a very nice one, thank you for asking) and this is the first I’ve heard of it. Well, teaching biology is what I’ve done for a living, so things like Common Cores are fascinating to me. I followed the link to see what’s in this one.

First glance shows that there’s no heading for science at all. English and Math. That’s it. (Also no arts. No history. No geography. No life skills such as physical fitness, good nutrition, birth control. But I guess that’s our brave new world by now.)

Second glance is to see what they have under English. That’s where I see a Science heading. Odd. But perhaps I haven’t grasped the organization of the web site.

No, it turns out that this is the section of English class where the students learn how to comprehend and critically evaluate scientific information.

About now I’m starting to boggle. The students are supposed to magically make sense of scientific information without a single fact that could actually enable them to do so. Not one class is required in that Core to teach them anything about any of the sciences they’re supposed to know enough about to evaluate. I think these people are serious.

To really picture just how useless it is to evaluate, critically or otherwise, subjects one knows nothing about, consider a small thought exercise. “Tscherganskaya in the capitol building at Ulan Bator has received payment from Karganvili of Consolidated Cement Industries.” You may not even know where that is on the planet (with apologies to any Mongolians who may be reading). Who is Tscherganskaya? The President taking a bribe? The head of the environmental agency taking payment for carbon trading credits after a lawsuit? The accountant at a mining operation that’s delivered limestone? Is it good, bad, indifferent? You can think about the sentence all you want. Without facts you have no way to make sense of it. Similarly, without facts about herd immunity you can’t evaluate certain arguments about vaccination, knowing nothing about peat bogs handicaps evaluation of climate change, ignorance of DNA functions makes it impossible to understand genetically modified food.

I’m sure it’ll turn out that science and history and all that good stuff is supposed to fill in from somewhere, as extra courses taught at the discretion of local school districts.

Testing, testing, testing … 1…, 2…, 3….

In recent decades, any subject gets shortchanged if it doesn’t contribute directly to raising a school’s ranking based on some multiple choice test or other. In poor districts it gets shortchanged to oblivion. The tests for the Core Curriculum will test — I know you’re surprised — English and math.

All this is stupid, but we’re not done yet. Teaching nothing but English and Math, unsupported by any subject that English or Math might be about, will have all the fascination of learning the alphabet but not using it for anything. Just admiring the alphabet itself, over and over. English and math are tools, like hammers. Hammers do nothing if there are no nails. Learning about the parts of the hammer is just boring.

So having a Core Curriculum, without an accompanying actual Curriculum, is not going to lead to smart graduates who know how to think without all that time and money wasted learning stuff nobody ever needs. On the contrary, the tyranny of the test will deepen, and the thing students hate worst of all, doing exercises whose point they don’t see, will become the only thing they do.

Once that bears fruit, the pundits will again moan about the inexplicable lack of “critical thinking” skills among today’s youth. Some new bright wit, looking to secure tenure in their Education Department, will start the next round of “improvements” that require even less money and promise even greater results. And some new fools, of whom there will be an increasing proportion, will gladly hand over their money for the newest magic beans.

I know that in the popular view the last people who know anything about teaching are teachers. But in case anyone wants to hear it, let me tell you a secret about education. You sort of get what you pay for. You can spend more than you have to, but you can’t spend less.

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