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Learning to Live with Common Core

There is much to dislike about the Common Core standards for education. They were not written by educators to promote education. They were written by businessmen to create a single national market for their products: textbooks, testing services, and such. And they have been promoted by ideologues who hope to use them to undermine public education.

But odious as they are, they are a fact of life for almost 3,000,000 teachers who are instructed by their states and districts to teach to the standards. What can teachers of conscience do to both train their students to think while still paying occupational homage to the standards?

Ironically, there is a significant opening in the standards for teachers to promote both progressive values and the “critical thinking” the standards claim to promote. It isn’t easy, but it is historically valid, pedagogically sound, and ethically robust.

Consider high school social studies, the subject area with which I am most familiar.

The standards do not prescribe specific content that must be taught. Rather, they define intellectual skills that must be cultivated. This is where the opening lies.

For example, Standard RH.11-12.3 states that students should be able to “Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence.” Standard RH.9-10.2 requires students to “Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source.” Standard RH.11-12.6 expects students to “Evaluate…differing points of view on the same historical event…” And so on.

In other words, the standards aim to promote intellectual and cognitive skills that can be used to understand historical content. This is a far cry from the rote memorization that has been the norm for social studies teaching for decades.

A creative teacher can use these standards to provide a critical perspective to his or her students on both past and current events, making the past come alive through comparisons with the present.

For example, consider the recent case of the U.S.-sponsored coup in Ukraine. Students could watch Victoria Nuland’s video where she brags about the U.S. having invested $5 billion to promote regime change in Ukraine. They could listen to the taped phone call where she discusses the mechanics of the coup with Geoffrey Payatt, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.

They could use these sources to compare the Ukrainian coup with earlier U.S.-sponsored coups, in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Vietnam (1963), or Chile (1971). In what ways were they similar? Different? What do experiences of past cases suggest about the likelihood of success in the present case?

These would be extraordinary fields for developing both deep understanding of historical content, and the critical skills needed to promote intellectual growth and sound citizenship.

Or, consider another dimension of U.S. aggression in the Ukraine. The U.S. wants to use Ukraine as a launching pad for offensive nuclear missiles that could reach Moscow in 20 minutes. How are these actions similar to Russia’s placing of missiles in Cuba in 1962? That event brought the world closer to nuclear war than it had ever been.

Do U.S. actions today increase the likelihood of nuclear war, as Russia’s did in 1962? Should Russia not be expected to react as the U.S. had, i.e., with almost hysterical fear? Why or why not? How do other U.S. aggressions, for example moving NATO into Eastern Europe, amplify the danger? What are the avenues for backing away from the brink? Can they be taken?

Finally, consider a third opportunity for using U.S. aggression in Ukraine to teach both historical content and critical thinking.

In what ways are the grotesque Western media distortions about the event similar to media distortions leading up to the Spanish-American War? That’s where the term “yellow journalism” was coined.

Students could compare Western deceptions with reporting from non-Western sources. Or, they could analyze patterns of media ownership from 1898 and see how those compare with ownership patterns today. This is a perfect opportunity to bring in more accessible and diverse media sources, including international sources, that earlier eras lacked.

For decades, the teaching of social studies in America has been locked in an intellectual freezer focusing almost exclusively on the West, on the past, and on idealized accounts of exceptionalism—God Bless America; Land of the Free, Home of the Brave; and such.

The Common Core gives honest and enterprising teachers the opportunity to expose their students to the rest of the world, to what is going on in the present, and to reality. The good news is that students eat this up. They are hungering for reality-based (versus mythology-based) teaching that is not simply indoctrination. And trust me, they know the difference.

Teachers may not like Common Core, but they can still work with it. What choice do they have?

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Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman is the author of The Best One Hour History series, which includes World War I, The French Revolution, The Vietnam War, and other titles.  He is the founder of One Dollar For Life, a nonprofit that builds infrastructure projects in the developing world from donations as small as one dollar.

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