Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Defending Liberal Arts from Common Core

THIS article recently appeared in the N.Y. Daily News. Several months ago when I wrote to the Utah State Board of Education on this topic, they dismissed my concerns saying that the Gettysburg Address is an informational text and Washington's Farewell Address was an informational text. Had they read my FB page? Those words are close to my heart.

I'm sorry, but Bill Clinton's speech writer is no George Washington! And, the reports I've heard from our local high school? In practice students are not studying the Gettysburg Address or spending an hour with Shakespeare's Sonnets or the plays of Oscar Wilde.

How would you feel about The Rape Culture of India or How Cross-Dressers are Discriminated Against IN PLACE OF the poems of Robert Frost? There is only so much time in a classroom.

I am often told by supporters of Common Core that literature is unnecessary and obsolete, that is does nothing to prepare a student for a career. Don't forget about "college and career readiness" and turning our children into "human capital". I was even asked at the Davis County REPUBLICAN Convention when the last time I picked up a work of classic literature. I was happy to answer, "yesterday."

What does the study of classic literature do for a student? It gives them a rich inner life. It keeps them in touch with the best of culture and history. It gives them a vivid and varied vocabulary. It exposes them to great thought and beauty. It teaches them about human nature, about compassion, about good and evil. Great literature teaches judgement and wisdom, Great literature cultivates the soul. Great literature keeps us free. Our society is starved for students who have been saturated in these ideas and ideals.

The following is an essay I love written by Gregory Dunn capsulizing the many thoughts C.S. Lewis had about the incalculable value of liberal arts education. It is well worth your time.

On Principle, v7n2
April 1999
by Gregory Dunn
When I received my Master of Arts degree, as a gift I was given a T-shirt that read, "Liberal Arts Major: Will Think for Food." The gift drew a smile then, and the phrase draws a smile now, for it is a common sentiment that those who pursue what is called a "liberal arts education" may have refined intellects but may also have difficulty paying the bills once out of school. In truth, it is a widely held perception that such an education is, at best, impractical and unnecessary and that it is preferable to obtain a more useful degree, such as accounting, nursing, or engineering. After all, with the time and expense of college education today, what use is it to leave school without developing any marketable skills? In short, what good are the liberal arts?
In answering this question, we will find it helpful to look to C. S. Lewis for insight. Although best known in his roles as imaginative writer, Christian apologist, and literary critic, we should not forget that his profession was first an Oxford tutor and later a Cambridge professor and that he spent the balance of his life–nearly forty years–in the academy teaching literature. As such, Lewis wrote many incisive essays offering a number of reasons why the pursuit of a liberal education is truly indispensable.
To Preserve Civilization

The first reason we study the liberal arts has to do with freedom. That freedom is an integral part of the liberal arts is borne out in Lewis’s observation that, "liberal comes of course from the Latin, liber, and means free." Such an education makes one free, according to Lewis, because it transforms the pupil from "an unregenerate little bundle of appetites" into "the good man and the good citizen." We act most human when we are reasonable, both in thought and deed. Animals, on the other hand, act wholly out of appetite. When hungry, they eat; when tired, they rest. Man is different. Rather than follow our appetites blindly we can be deliberate about what we do and when we do it. The ability to rule ourselves frees us from the tyranny of our appetites, and the liberal arts disciplines this self-rule. In other words, this sort of education teaches us to be most fully human and, thereby, to fulfill our human duties, both public and privat
Lewis contrasts liberal arts education with what he calls "vocational training," the sort that prepares one for employment. Such training, he writes, "aims at making not a good man but a good banker, a good electrician, . . . or a good surgeon." Lewis does admit the importance of such training–for we cannot do without bankers and electricians and surgeons–but the danger, as he sees it, is the pursuit of training at the expense of education. "If education is beaten by training, civilization dies," he writes, for "the lesson of history" is that "civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost." It is the liberal arts, not vocational training, that preserves civilization by producing reasonable men and responsible citizens.
To Avoid the Errors of Our Times

A second reason we study the liberal arts is to avoid the prejudices of our age. "Every age," Lewis writes, "has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes." The way to avoid being ensnared by the popular errors of our day, then, is to rub minds with the great men of the past, and the only way to do that is to read books.
But they must be the right sort of books. Lewis is adamant that a diet of contemporary books will not do the trick. "All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook," he writes, and this outlook brings with it a "great mass of common assumptions" that conceal a pervasive "characteristic blindness." Even those writers who seem most opposed to each other will share this intellectual blind spot and will thus make similar mistakes. "Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already," Lewis writes. "Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill."
The only remedy is to cultivate a discipline of carefully reading old books. His advice: "It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between." In this way, we are able to identify and correct those misperceptions that prevent our seeing the truth.
Lewis makes clear that the reason we consult the minds of the past is not because they were perfect; in truth, they were as subject to their own blind spots as we are to ours. The crucial difference is that they did not have the same blind spots. Such writers will not likely affirm the errors we now make. We will now not likely make the same errors they did. As Lewis writes, "two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction."
To Pursue Our Vocation

A third reason we study the liberal arts is because it is simply our nature and duty. Man has a natural thirst for knowledge of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and men and women of the past have made great sacrifices to pursue it in spite of the fact that, as Lewis puts it, "human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice." In his words, "they propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds." So, finding in the soul an appetite for such things, and knowing no appetite is made by God in vain, Lewis concludes that the pursuit of the liberal arts is pleasing to God and is possibly, for some, a God-given vocation.
Everyone is called by God to do some work, yet each calling is different for each person, and part of the art of Life consists in finding and fulfilling this calling. As Lewis writes, "a mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow." Further, those who pursue a life of learning perform a valuable service for those who do not. "Good philosophy must exist," Lewis writes, "if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered." If those who possess the inclination and leisure for the life of the mind refuse to enter the arena of ideas–"not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground"–then they will place those who have no such inclination and leisure at the mercy of proponents of bad ideas. In Lewis’s words, "nonsense draws evil after it." As Lewis concludes, "we can therefore pursue knowledge as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or
indirectly helping others to do so. . . . The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us."
Last year marked the centenary of C. S. Lewis’s birth. He was a good man and a rigorous thinker, and he has changed the lives of many through his insightful writings. We are fully justified in honoring his life. Further, we will honor his legacy by remembering the indispensable nature of a liberal arts education. Truly, we ignore the liberal arts only at our peril. Without them we will find ourselves increasingly unable to preserve a civilized society, to escape from the errors and prejudices of our day, and to struggle in the arena of ideas to the glory of God.
Gregory Dunn is the Director of Publications at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center. He is a 1992 graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar program and the Ashland Theological Seminary in 1994.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

My Concerns about Common Core

Speech given to 9/12 group on May 17, 2013

I would like to share with you a favorite bit of the Utah Code:

 (Utah Code Title 62A Chapter 4a Section 201)

  (1) (a) Under both the United States Constitution and the constitution of this state, a parent possesses a fundamental liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of the parent's children.
(d) The state recognizes that:
(i) a parent has the right, obligation, responsibility, and authority to raise, manage, train, educate, provide for, and reasonably discipline the parent's children; and
(ii) the state's role is secondary and supportive to the primary role of a parent.
(e) It is the public policy of this state that parents retain the fundamental right and duty to exercise primary control over the care, supervision, upbringing, and education of their children.

As many of you know, I got involved with Common Core when I found that a popular and effective math program, developed especially for our students at Davis High was being displaced in favor of what I believe is a nationalized and substandard program against the wishes of parents and educators.

According to the 10th Amendment, education is one of those responsibilities left to the states. And yet while proponents of Common Core claim state leadership in the development of the CCSS, a little research shows that the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School officers are Washington based not-for-profit organizations which have provided parents with zero representation in these decisions. We find that states signed on to CCSS in the hopes of receiving RTTT funds which only materialized for a dozen states of which Utah is not one. 

I know that neither Common Core nor the Obama Administration are the beginning or the end of federal reaches into public education and I personally don't believe that the Department of Education should even exist. But, I do believe that Common Core is, even more than Obamacare a huge power grab. In 2010 at a UNESCO Conference, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "Traditionally, the federal government in the U.S. has had a limited role in education policy... The Obama Administration has sought to fundamentally shift the federal role." In his 2013 State of the Union, President Obama said, "The federal government must insist on aggressive plans and allocation of resources to level the playing field across states, districts and schools."

Not only is Social Justice the goal of the education reform package, but teaching social justice will be, I believe, part of the curriculum. 

Members of the Utah State Office of Education will tell you that Common Core isn't a curriculum, but just a set of standards. But, Bill Gates who has invested 5 Billion dollars since the year 2000 in an effort to influence public education policy said this: "

"... identifying common standards is not enough. We'll know we've succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards.

Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of tests—next-generation assessments aligned to the common core.

When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better."

It is now 2013 and the standards are in place. The testing will be in place in Utah in the spring of 2014 and the Common Core aligned curriculum is being written and sold to school districts in Utah. Common Core is not just a set of standards like we have always had in place. Common Core is an aggressive and radically progressive education movement affected by those who are willing to spend billions to influence public education and the beliefs of students as well as to create "a large base of customers eager to buy products". 

Education materials producer Zaner-Bloser  has created and the Utah State Office of Education has approved for Utah a literature and writing program called Voices. The informational texts have titles like, "Cesar Chavez: A Hero for Everyone" "Children and the United Nations" "Rights for Right Whales" and "We the Peoples: A Look at the United Nations". Writing themes cover Identity Awareness, Social Awareness and Democracy. Your child can still read Little House on the Prairie and Tom Sawyer, but they won't likely be exposed to those classics at school.

Utah hired American Institutes for Research as the testing arm of the new CCSS. American Institutes for Research defines itself as, " of the world's largest behavioral and social science research organizations." It is one of the largest gatherers of psychometric data in the world. If you are not familiar with the term, "Psychometrics is the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personality traits, and educational measurement. The field is primarily concerned with the construction and validation of measurement instruments such as questionnaires, tests, and personality assessments." The USOE has assured us that AIR will only be making academic assessments of the students, but when you look at the curriculum being developed, I find that very difficult to believe. 

We have also been assured that all gathered data will be safe and that it will not go beyond the State of Utah. But, according to the USOE presentation on the new testing system, information will be shared with "stakeholders". How is the federal government not a stake holder when the State Logitudinal Data System built to gather and store this information was paid for with federal stimulus funds to the tune of nearly 15 Million Dollars? Additionally, in Utah we have already suffered security breaches at the Utah Department of Health and Utah Futures. When I asked Judy Park the Associate Superintendent at the Utah State Office of Education how that office could be trusted with sensitive student information when we already know of breaches at Utah Futures she said, "When we knew there was a problem, we shut it down immediately." It seems silly to me to lock the doors at the bank AFTER all the cash is gone.

It's difficult to put together a short speech on Common Core. My husband can attest that I have practically held neighbors captive at the door while shouting an unwanted alarm. I am so passionate about this issue for many reasons. The most significant of those are that the standards are sub-par. There are no international benchmarks that favorably compare either the math or the English Language Arts Standards to those Utah has had since 2007.  

CCSS are NOT a product of republican government and parents have had no representation in these changes. I can tell you that I get both a robo call from my child's school and an e-mail invitation to a bike safety event or a school dance, but when the state is going to fundamentally change the standards, testing and curriculum in my child's school. .. Silence. I still meet parents every week who have never even heard of the Common Core.

Finally, I believe that the CCSS are an unconstitutional federal over-reach into an area that the founders purposefully left to the states. In a plea for local control of schools Thomas Jefferson wrote, "…if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience...No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to." In Jefferson's time, like now, a ward was just a neighborhood. Jefferson was a proponent of very local control as am I.

I ask that you please become as informed as you can on this important topic and pester the leadership of our state until we can regain influence over the education of our own children once again. We have elected officials that we have trusted to act as watchmen on the tower, to keep our state independent and free of federal entanglements. They have failed us. It falls to us to stand and watch and insist on standards and curriculum that represent the best of what Utah can offer its own. Those standards will be very high indeed. 

Thank you.