What Should Christians Think About Common Core?

The majority of Americans are dissatisfied with K-12 education in the United States, and for good reason. Despite spending more on education than any other developed country in the world, the United States lags behind other nations in educational performance. On the world stage, 15-year-olds rank 31st in math literacy and 23rd in science literacy. In response to these disappointing figures, parents, educators, and politicians routinely pour out a stream of ideas to improve educational achievement in our country.

The latest idea — the Common Core State Standards Initiative — which has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, has become extremely controversial, stirring considerable debate and rousing intense opposition. Even though Common Core, which was launched in 2009, has received ample media coverage and even become the target of jokes by well-known comedians, 61 percent of respondents to a recent Gallup poll reported that they knew little to nothing about Common Core standards.

At Summit Ministries, we highly value education and the work of parents, teachers, and principals who are devoted to the development of children’s hearts and minds. As Christians attempting to raise children who are capable of understanding truth, loving God, and reflecting his goodness, we should acquaint ourselves with Common Core and determine whether such top-down, uniform standards will prove beneficial or detrimental to our nation’s youth.

What Is Common Core?

The Common Core Standards Initiative is a state-led program that was spawned when a group of governors expressed a desire to create milestones — uniform throughout the 50 states — designed to establish what students need to know at each level of their education in order to be career- and college-ready. Authored by a group of educational experts, Common Core is not intended to serve as a national curriculum, the implementation of which is illegal. Instead, Common Core is meant to act as a guideline, a minimum set of standards in the areas of mathematics and English language arts that assures parents that the education their children receive in one state is at least equivalent to what children are receiving in other states.

It is a painful — and costly — truth that the majority of students who leave high school are not college ready. Sixty percent of students entering four-year colleges are required to take remedial courses in English or mathematics, while a whopping 75 percent of students entering two-year colleges need remedial instruction in one or both of those subjects. These remedial courses cost students, families, taxpayers, and colleges billions of dollars. If students are not ready for college, they are most likely not ready for the workplace, either.

Thus, Common Core has been recommended — and adopted by most states — to improve U.S. educational performance on a global scale and to prepare students for college and the workplace by standardizing measures for academic success.

While normalizing our nation’s educational standards might seem like an effective way to solve the problems plaguing our schools, there are several reasons why we believe Common Core will fail not only to propel American students to the top of international rankings but also to prepare them adequately for a life well-lived.

What’s Wrong With Common Core?

Aside from the practical problems surrounding the implementation of Common Core, there are important philosophical issues that should be disconcerting for those who believe in an education system that is more responsive to the local community than to federal bureaucrats.

Common Core empowers government and national organizations instead of parents and teachers. In education, the locus of decision-making should be the classroom, not a sterile, distant office-space in which a group of education experts establish standards for the entire country. David Coleman, a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar who has been described as the architect of Common Core, has never even taught in a secondary or elementary classroom, yet he and his associates have been given tremendous control over academic content, standards, and testing.

Teachers whose success is measured by their adherence to Common Core are made accountable primarily to the administrators of those standards instead of parents and taxpayers. Thus, power is wrenched from the local community and placed into the hands of a select number of supervisors, who bind teachers by requiring them to achieve specific goals in a specific manner.

Common Core promotes uniformity rather than customization. Education-policy analyst Diane Ravitch writes, “Behind the Common Core standards lies a blind faith in standardization of tests and curriculum, and, perhaps, of children as well.” Common Core not only encourages uniform treatment of students, but also produces uniform academic content. Elementary and high school textbooks are being written to reflect the standards. And it is likely that these textbooks will support a materialistic view of the universe, which ignores the existence of the soul and breeds a relativistic view of truth and morality.

George Will is worth quoting at length on this subject: “[W]hat begins with mere national standards must breed ineluctable pressure to standardize educational content. Targets, metrics, guidelines, and curriculum models all induce conformity in instructional materials. Washington already is encouraging the alignment of the GED, SAT, and ACT tests with the Common Core. By a feedback loop, these tests will beget more curriculum conformity. All of this will take a toll on parental empowerment, and none of this will escape the politicization of learning like that already rampant in higher education.”

Common Core stifles creativity. When former Florida Governor Jeb Bush advocated the acceptance of Common Core, he said the standards would “allow for more innovation in the classroom [and] less regulation.” But, in practice, Common Core has done precisely the opposite. Although Common Core is designed to give teachers flexibility by allowing them to be creative with curricula as long as the students meet certain milestones, it is actually impeding innovation by turning education into a mechanistic process. In states where the standards have been implemented, student learning has already been disrupted by excessive devotion of time and resources to test preparation. Instead of focusing solely on the needs of their students, teachers are increasingly concerned with aligning their subject matter with Common Core and helping students pass the assessments.

Common Core depends on the implementation of standards that do not guarantee improved educational performance. States with rigorous standards do not necessarily outperform states with lower standards. Similarly, some countries that outpace the United States in math and science have national standards, but others, like Canada, do not. Since high standards do not guarantee success on the state level — and since national standards do not guarantee success on the international level — there is very little reason to believe that implementation of the Common Core State Standards Initiative will cause any significant change in academic output.

Common Core misses the point of education. The standards that are being implemented in schools across the country have been established specifically to make students college- and career-ready. But in an effort to accomplish that goal, schools are encouraged to assign fewer literary works and more content-rich nonfiction as students reach high school. By favoring informational texts over classical literature, Common Core may contribute to the deterioration of literary and cultural knowledge among young people in America.

Professor Anthony Esolen, professor at Providence College, has said that Common Core harbors “contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form. … [Educators] are not producing functionaries, factory-like. [Educators] are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women.”

If the goal of education is to help children grow into mature, reasonable adults, capable of seeking truth, promoting goodness, and exercising self-mastery, then Common Core is fundamentally misguided and ultimately powerless in its attempt to fix what is wrong with education today. Even if Common Core achieves its goal, it will simply prepare students for the lowest levels of higher education, while sapping the creativity of teachers and removing incentives for students to study the great works of literature and to develop the critical thinking skills that are necessary for success in any field.

What Is the Purpose of Education?

A valuable education will help students develop their reasoning capacities so that they can perceive truth and live according to it. The study of mathematics and science fosters an appreciation of order and beauty — of God and God’s laws — while the thorough examination of great literature leads to the contemplation of eternal truths regarding life, death, goodness, evil, and human nature.

By de-emphasizing classical literature, standardizing educational goals, and mechanizing educational processes, Common Core threatens to rob students of the tools necessary to appropriately develop their rational capacities and, as a result, to become more fully human. The investigation of history, science, English, and poetry is not merely to help students excel in college or the workplace, but to help students understand the truth about human nature and the way the world works in order that they may achieve self-mastery and excel as human beings regardless of the profession they ultimately choose.

If the goal of primary and secondary education is to simply provide students with the minimum amount of skills necessary for community-college level competence, then Common Core may save American education. But if the goal of education is to instill students with a passion for learning, a love of nature and nature’s laws, and a desire for truth, then Common Core will inevitably disappoint.

What is the best way to transform education in our country?

Instead of placing control of academic content and testing in the hands of bureaucrats, we should empower those closest to the students — parents and teachers.

In order to maximize the effectiveness of our schools, we should promote:

Transparency. When schools are transparent, offering easy access to the quality of instruction and the effectiveness of their programs, parents are able to determine whether that school is the best fit for their child.

Choice. When parents are given the ability to choose which school to send their child to, schools become accountable to parents. In such a case, parents — rather than Washington bureaucrats — judge the quality of the education their child is receiving. In addition, school choice, which is made possible through vouchers, tuition tax credits, special-needs scholarships, and educational savings accounts, forces schools to compete with each other and develop innovative methods by which to better educate — and keep — students.

The combination of these two factors will unleash the creative faculties of teachers, make schools answerable to parents rather than the enforcers of Common Core, and give parents more input into their children’s education.

Teaching a Child in the Way He Should Go

For several years, Christians who have been dissatisfied with the public education system have opted for alternatives, including Christian schools, classical schools, and homeschools, all of which offer Christ-centered education that not only seeks to inculcate basic skills but also attempts to cultivate virtue. In such schools, teachers are free to “train up a child in the way he should go,” as the Bible instructs us to (Proverbs 22:6).

When students are given a complete picture of truth — informed by the biblical worldview — they are enabled to apply that eternal truth to their lives, which allows them to lift reason above passions and pursue truly worthy goods. In other words, students are enabled to live the right way — as God intended them to live.

Summit’s signature curriculum, Understanding the Times, is designed to help students answer life’s ultimate questions and analyze competing worldviews, so that they will understand the times in which they live and know what they should do as responsible citizens (1 Chronicles 12:32). That is the purpose of education, and Summit has teamed with educators for over 20 years, providing them with materials that promote the cultivation of students’ hearts and minds.