It's the season of Pomp and Circumstance, flavored with dashes of parental pride, as a rising generation in cap and gown marches solemnly into its future. They're glowing with the beauty of youth, eager to take on the world. But what have we taught these young men and women, and will what they have learned lead them to become good citizens with productive and satisfying jobs?
A high school diploma is only the first rung of the ladder to a complete education and career with the freedom (and hope) to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We hold these truths to be self-evident. Or we did once. But many of these truths now come stippled with asterisks. We haven't actually come very far in achieving excellence in our public schools over the 30 years since Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education published its report with the provocative title: "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." It diagnosed the public schools as suffering from "a rising tide of mediocrity."
Remedies followed that promised that no child would be left behind and every child could race to the top, but mediocrity continues to rise on a dark tide of peril. Many young Americans can't even identify the decade in which North and South fought the Civil War, or whom we fought as enemies in World War II. Public school students continue to do poorly on competitive tests in math and reading, falling farther behind those in other industrialized countries.
The latest and best idea to fix all that is called "Common Core Standards," which have been adopted by 45 states. This time, reform comes from the bottom up. The standards are largely the creation of the nation's governors, with disciplined analysis of content drawn from lists of "cultural literacy," with funding by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The standards are questioned and debated from different directions, and the debate is making unusual allies and adversaries, as if characters in the Netflix television series "House of Cards." Tea party conservatives call Common Core "core corruption," "leftist indoctrination," and government tyranny at work in the schools. Other conservatives counter that it's a "core correction," "content enrichment," knowledge based on standards to make America competitive across the globe.
In defense of the Common Core standards, Mike Huckabee, the conservative former governor of Arkansas and a reliable conservative Republican, says it's a program America should embrace because it enhances local control. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and another conservative Republican advocate, argues that the standards create increased incentives for innovation in the classroom and "less regulation." The Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, describes it as a more rigorous and cohesive approach to education than most states now use.
I've read through the literary and informational guidelines to the point of numbness, checking out every lesson plan, with its demands to "contrast and compare," "determine the central idea" and "cite evidence to support argument," and found Common Core to be a rigorously structured program to improve math and reading standards over the hodgepodge of "learning" that now afflicts public education in America.
The Common Core is not perfect, but the core content offers a floor on which to build. It includes the study of fundamental documents, such as the Gettysburg Address, the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. "Tom Sawyer" is in the guidelines, and "Huckleberry Finn" is not, but an imaginative teacher could assign both. An emphasis on non-fiction will increase reasoning capacity and teach precision of language.
Like any guideline, the teacher is the most important element, and a student's learning depends on proficient guidance. Evaluations of teachers as well as students will determine the ultimate success.
Imperfect as they may be, Common Core standards are a necessary start to restoring public education. What is as troubling as the dismal test scores is a lack of a cohesive approach to shaping moral character, guiding a young person to take on responsibilities in a free society. That's more difficult to achieve.
"Every successful civilization must possess a means for passing on its basic values to each new generation," Donald Kagan, the Sterling professor of classics and history at Yale, said in his recent valedictory lecture. "When it no longer does, its days are numbered."
The imparting of such values should start in the public schools, and this requires an informed understanding of traditions and institutions and an appreciation of what makes America special. But we not only lack a shared belief, but confidence in who we are. Common Core can't change that, but with it we could make a start.