And return to the basics
There's been a lot written lately about "Common Core."
Boiled down to the essence, the debate has raged between those who oppose Common Core as a dubious intrusion of government control into the content of what is taught in our schools and those who believe that the government—in this case the Federal Government—should determine what each child knows and should be able to do after being schooled by the government bureaucracy. Control. Government control. Translated into the practical, the idea is that the government sets "standards" for what children should learn. It then tests our students to determine which ones have learned what those standards prescribe and consequently holds educators accountable for whether their students achieved a certain level of performance on those tests. Again, more control.
From the standards grows an entire industry that seeks to make money "training" educators how to get students to do at least well enough on those tests. Moreover, every "movement" that seeks to engineer change in the culture seizes upon those standards and the accompanying materials produced by the profit seekers to inculcate their version of the "way things ought to be" into what school children are taught.
Then politicians try to use the rig-a-more-row to garner votes. "Improving education" is the mantra of nearly every vote seeker. That's natural because they correctly decipher that most parents and grandparents have as one of their prime objectives in life: what they hope is best for their children. Pandering "for the chirren" works to get politicians elected (and defeated).
What is missing in all this, it seems to me, is that the most important question(s) never gets addressed. That is, "what should an education achieve"? In other words, "what's the point in schooling"? Or to put it yet another way: "what does an educated person know"? (that an uneducated person does not know)? The issue is much more than what is taught and how are the teachers held accountable for teaching what they should be teaching. Rather, the issue is: what is the purpose of schooling.
Schooling is much different than education. Schooling is the structure of teaching. Education is what results, not only from schooling but also from life's experiences. All of us know we have learned much more than what we were taught in school. In a very real sense, schooling is nothing more than providing us with the tools for the pursuit of happiness...to live a good life. The greatest impediment to achieving happiness in life is ignorance. Education therefore is the antithesis of ignorance. It is what light is to darkness. If that be true, then education is the light that illuminates what one becomes conscious of when the darkness is banished. It is not, as the Common Core proponents perceive, what the light shines upon.
No blue ribbon panel, experts or not, can make a list of the things the light of education should illuminate. That misses the point. The point is that each of us must have the ability to form our own construct of what the light reveals. In the end, it is the individual that must make sense of what they know.
Most of us have been blessed to have experienced some good teachers. But likewise, most of us have suffered some bad teachers. But at the proverbial "end of the day" when we reflect upon those teachers we have had, we learned from both the good teachers and the bad teachers as well. When you stop and think about what you've learned in your life you realize that it was because of YOU that you learned it, not what was in a text book (if you're old enough), what was taught by a teacher, or even what you learned from the internet. Thus, real education is an individualized experience. Nobody ever "learned you anything." They may have taught you some tools with which you could learn those things you learned, but you had to learn what you learned.
So if learning is uniquely individualistic and personal does it not make sense that everybody learns, more or less. Some people have learned much more than others. So would it not make sense that the main purpose of school should be to allow those who have learned more than we know to share what they learned so that each of us does not have to re-invent the wheel and we can all benefit from the knowledge that others who have gone before us have already learned?
And that is where Common Core, in my opinion, falls way short. It is grossly deficient in transmitting the culture that has grown from knowledge created by those who came before us have learned.
I would suggest a simple intermediate solution for the N. C. Board of Education (SBOE). It is that North Carolina abandon Common Core and replace it with a simplified course of study K-8 that has as its purpose the development of the essential tools and skills one needs to acquire knowledge. Yea, I know what you're already thinking if you've plowed this ground before: "He's going to propose the classical Back to Basics approach to schooling." And yep, you are exactly correct. The SBOE should rent ten rooms in a building somewhere. Nine of those rooms should be filled with people who know what skills a student should master at each grade level, and a tenth room that allows everyone from the nine rooms to assemble to hear what each room came up with (to define the scope and sequence of skills over the K-8 continuum.) Then take what this group comes up with and teach the basic skills and teach them well. Teach them to the maximum, not the minimum, that each student is capable of mastering. Then send them to high school.
In grades 9-12 we should focus on an inquiry approach to the Great Books. Not the physical books, but the Great Ideas that have evolved in our culture. (Yes, our culture—Western Culture—and yes it must include the Holy Bible). Every student would be confronted with the Great Ideas and offered the opportunity to learn from what others have already learned. Somewhere in the last two years of high school the student would be offered an "early out." They could choose to acquire employment skills (trade, vocational, apprentice—whatever you want to call it). They could choose to apply their learned knowledge in a specialized profession. Here they may matriculate to a community college for study in a concentrated field of knowledge or they could choose to become an apprentice to successful masters who have distinguished themselves in their chosen professions. This "track" would include the military or even the arts (if they can earn a living). A much smaller cadre of highly motivated learners, as demonstrated by excellence in the K-14 system, could choose to proceed to the university level where their focus would be on expanding the knowledge base that would subsequently be transmitted to the "front end" of the K-14 system as described above. Incidentally, these scholars would not only not have to pay for their university education (the public would) they would be paid while they refine and expand the culture's knowledge base. The measure of their success would be singular: How much of their knowledge was accepted for transfer back into the K-14 system. Or in other words, how much they contribute to the nation's culture.
So there you have it. And yep, there is nothing new about it at all. Yes indeed, it is classical liberal education. Teach the basic skills in the early years, expose every student to the Great Ideas that have withstood the Test of Time, insure the transmission of the traditional culture while supporting a system of expanding the knowledge base of our culture, with it all being based on every learner being responsible for their own education.
Meanwhile, knowledge and education will suffer while we debate common core. What a shame.
Delma Blinson writes the "Teacher's Desk" column for our friend in the local publishing business: The Beaufort Observer. His concentration is in the area of his expertise - the education of our youth. He is a former teacher, principal, superintendent and university professor.