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Common Core and Uncommon Gutenberg

A bit of a storm is blowing—no longer brewing but now blowing—across the country about the top-down education program known as “Common Core” that originated with the federal Department of Education and is now being implemented all across the country. Things got particularly hot last Friday (11/15) when Secretary Arne Duncan tried to downplay opposition to Common Core and marginalize detractors by saying that “white suburban moms” whose kids can’t meet the program standards are the ones leading the charge in opposition.

 

 

That prompted one of those moms, Ali Gordon, to write an open letter which found its way into a Washington Post blog. Both Duncan’s comments and Gordon’s letter illustrate much that is wrong with a government regulated approach to education which has large monetary strings attached. It is those national regulations and the attached strings that we at Gutenberg College struggle with all the time. Our national accreditation brings those things into play, but to avoid additional strings, we don’t take any federal money at all for scholarships or for any other reason.

Secretary Duncan’s response to the firestorm sets the table nicely for what is at issue. He says, “I have not been shy in letting the country know the enormous value of the state-led movement to prepare young people for college and careers.” What happened to “parent-led” or “school-district-led” or even “citywide”? The further that any government-type program gets from the individual and the local level, the more problematic it can be, as a “one size fits all” approach forces countless numbers of sizes and types into the same small box.

Gordon, the accused “white suburban housewife,” starts off by observing that she does not fit the profile of an anti-government conspiracy theorist. Rather, she characterizes herself as a “Progressive, bleeding heart liberal” who voted twice for President Obama, contributed to and volunteered for his campaign, and took her family to D.C. to celebrate both of the President’s inaugurations. Now that’s commitment!

After listing many more of her “credentials” for having good reason to speak out against Common Core, including her election to her local school district board, Gordon makes her first point. Stating that she does not necessarily oppose over arching standards, she does object to them being handed down from above and adopted locally primarily because of the large amounts of money that are conditioned upon adoption. And she further objects to standards that don’t necessarily adapt well to students with particular needs and concerns, like her fifth-grade epileptic daughter.

Gordon goes on to state that she objects very strongly to standards which force development of curriculum that is not developmentally appropriate. Another Washington Post blog post on the subject of Common Core from January of this year contains this quote from a childhood educator at the University of Hawaii: “The people who wrote these standards do not appear to have any background in child development or early childhood education.” So unless all children are as precocious as were mine and all of yours, that means that the early standards are quite unreachable for many, perhaps most kids.

Then Gordon raises the issue of excessive standardized testing that eats up the time and resources that would be better used in actually teaching—to say nothing of the well known practice of “teaching to the test” that too narrowly focuses what goes on in a classroom. A focus primarily on testing and results will likely end with an atmosphere where students (with their individual personalities, learning styles, and needs) will get lost in the educational shuffle.

Next Gordon makes this very telling critique: “I’m also opposed to the 1%—Bill Gates, et al—imposing a business model mentality on public schools.” There is a tendency in our society today to try to reduce all activities and practices to exercises in technical expertise or in the implementation of successful business principles. While we at Gutenberg are neither Luddites nor Occupiers, we recognize some of the limitations and problems with an approach that doesn’t necessarily take into account the uniqueness of our ethos, our biblical convictions, and our individual students (who certainly don’t come out of a cookie-cutter mold). Even in our little corner of the educational world, we run into any number of strings, overt or not, attached to money that might come our way.

There’s more in Gordon’s letter. That woman is one momma bear that I wouldn’t want to mess with. She goes on to talk about a number of specific ways that Common Core is being implemented and is not working out in the state of New York. But I think you get the point.

This issue gives me the chance to talk about many of the things that I appreciate so much about Gutenberg. I can’t imagine a college or university in which the individual student gets more individual attention and interest. Soon after admission, the tutors and staff have begun to truly know and understand the individual student and are thus better positioned to be able to help the student get the most out of his or her education—academically but also philosophically, morally, and spiritually.

And seldom have I been around a group of people more committed to doing what they believe is right. They will not compromise their principles regardless of where that request for compromise is coming from—national standards for higher education, monied interests, theological arbiters, or any other source. They will gently and humbly pursue that which they believe to be the calling of God in the way that things are done at Gutenberg.

Those are the things that have elicited from me a love for and commitment to Gutenberg College.

 

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