The Common Core will finally tell us all that needs to get taught in school.


Stop laughing.

I mean it.

Perhaps, it is time for us to admit something.

Beyond the old 3Rs of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – which interestingly are where Common Core has focused, we have no idea what every kid really needs to know by the time they graduate high school.

At the high school level, most teachers end up teaching the subject they love the most, and the actual content ends up being some mix of what they are told to teach and what they most love within the subject. And of course, over the last decade, the content of the tested subjects have been defined by whatever is on the test.

And the arguments over what gets taught seem never-ending. When someone suggests something is unnecessary to be taught… or even unnecessary to be tested, there’s almost a guarantee that someone will make the counter-argument for all the reasons why it is necessary.

I think we’re going about that argument the wrong way.

The problem isn’t that what we teach doesn’t have power and relevance in real life. There are strong arguments to be made about why everything taught in a typical American high school curriculum is important for people to know. But there are at least three problems that I can see with that argument.

  1. Evidence suggests that most people don’t remember much of the content they learn in high school as it is. (And high-stakes testing doesn’t seem to be making that any better.)
  2. There’s a ton of content we aren’t teaching in high school that is probably every bit as important.
  3. There is nowhere near enough time to teach all the content we could argue is important in high school… or all of K-12, really.

As an English teacher, this became obvious to me when I realized that all the lists of “Books Everyone Must Read” that I would come across were a) woefully incomplete, b) deeply subjective and c) more than I could ever cram into a four-year high school curriculum anyway. And worse, people keep writing really amazing books every year, but no one was making high school any longer.

I came to realize that my goals for my class were reasonably simple – I wanted students to realize that stories were lenses not only on other worlds, but on our own as well. I wanted students to learn how to take apart language and create meaning from text. I wanted students to develop their voice and their ability to make an argument, both verbally and in print. And I wanted kids to want to keep reading after they left my class.

For a long time, I thought that was the luck of being an English teacher — the skills we wanted to teach were applicable to so much good content (books) that it didn’t matter what content we taught, really, as long as it was a good book — and I was just arrogant enough to think that I knew what that meant. But the more I really think about this idea, the more I realize just how much “good content” is out there. And much like the list of good books, that content keeps on growing.

So where does that leave us?

More than anything else, we need to recognize that too often school fails at the one thing we should endeavor to do more than anything else — instill a love of learning. Given all there is to know in the world, that probably is the most important thing we could do for our students, and yet, it seems to be a thing that school does really poorly for a great many students. That failure is ours, and it is one we must redress, no matter how hard that is.

Given all there is to know, it makes even more important that we do take the time to make relevant and meaningful the skills and content we do teach, because the immediacy of the world we live in can feel (and perhaps is) more important in the moment to our students than much of the content we are trying to teach. Therefore, the onus is on us to always be willing to answer that question of “Why do I have to learn this” with an answer that is more compelling than a grade on a test if we are to hope to earn our students attention.

And then we should remain humbled before the vast enormity of human knowledge. When we, as teachers, are truly awed by all there is to learn, when we are humble about our own learning and knowledge, we might start from a better place with our students. We might be more willing to accept the things they know as vital as well. And we may be more willing to find common ground upon which we can all build knowledge and wisdom.

The idea that we could cram all we hope our students could learn and know into a “common core” set of skills would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that we’re trying to do it.

In the end, the problem with the Common Core isn’t that it is too broad, it is that it is too narrow. It makes no attempt to teach kids the most important thing there is to understand:

There is always more we can learn.