As I wrote earlier, what worries me in terms of ideology about the CCSS and other recent educational fads isn’t the ideology per se, but how that ideology affects pedagogy. When the dust settles, will kids end up learning a systematic body of core knowledge that they will be able to recall and make use of in the long term?
Take one fad: namely, multiculturalism. One of the effects that I’ve seen played out in schools is a piecemeal approach to social studies. One girl I know who attends a small, self-styled progressive school spent a whole month learning all about North Korea—its geography, its history, its culture. Then the class moved onto some other part of the world, and later on, when I last visited them, they'd just begun a unit on West Africa.
“It’s so incredibly random and piecemeal,” her father observed.
I asked him how well he thought she remembered the earlier units.
“I doubt she remembers anything.” he said, and summoned his daughter.
“D,” he said. “What do you remember about North Korea?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Nothing at all?” he asked. “Nope.”
If the facts she briefly learned about North Korea had been integrated into a systematic (well-organized, chronological) world history curriculum, in which each country is repeatedly revisited over time, maybe she’d have remember something.
We also see this piecemeal approach in the CCSS-inspired approach to “helping” special education students achieve one of the more elusive of those one-size-fits-all-goals that. As I discuss in my recent Atlantic article, instead of teaching general (in this case unattainable) skills, teachers resort to handholding, spoon feeding, and an an ad hoc, situation specific giving away of answers. Again, the ultimate takeaway is close to nothing.
This piecemeal approach—along with Lattice Multiplication and explaining your answers to math problems--is what worries me most about the Common Core. No, Ms. Boylan, I’m not worried that the CCSS will prevent my kids from becoming carbon copies of myself, or cause them to become black-to-white, white-to-black photographic negatives of me--or any other deviance within the shades of gray between carbon copy and negative. First of all, I’m not particularly into carbon copies of myself. Second of all, the CCSS (just like all those purportedly character-building, kindness-inducing, grit-inspiring social/emotional curricula) aren’t anywhere near as personality transforming as Boyle and others would like to believe. Nor are the CCSS anywhere near as personality transforming as Boylan would like to believe its detractors fear.
And no, I’m not worried that the CCSS will make my kids smarter than me or cause them to have original ideas. Instead, what worries me, along with many, many other CCSS opponents, is pretty much the exact opposite of that.
Research indicates that mental tests do predict people’s patterns of behavior in consequential ways. For instance, graduate students’ G.R.E. scores are correlated with the ratings faculty members later give them, their likelihood of remaining in a program, and the impact of their publications (as measured by citations). And tests like the NEO-PI-R that measure social and emotional traits like conscientiousness and agreeableness can predict a person’s longevity and likelihood of staying married.
In addition, tests are our only way to study and attempt to understand ineffable mental qualities like intelligence, openness to experience and creativity. They help make the mysteries of mental life tangible. Neuroscientists use them to discover who excels in particular mental abilities, and to try to identify the parts of the brain responsible.
What if, in addition to the SAT, students were offered new tests that measured more diverse abilities? For future artists or musicians, there are tests that measure divergent thinking — a cornerstone of creativity largely ignored by the SAT. For future engineers, there are tests that measure spatial reasoning. And new measures of “personal intelligence” — the ability to reason about a person’s motives, emotions and patterns of activities — may also tell us something important about students’ self-knowledge and understanding of others.