Education, the Bible and Obama’s Common Core

booksDavid Coleman, the non-English teacher who wrote the Common Core national English language arts (ELA) standards, is conducting a charm offensive to persuade Christians to embrace the new national standards. According to Mr. Coleman, students “educated” under Common Core will be better readers and better able to understand Scripture, and thus will enjoy deeper and more satisfying spiritual lives. Quite a claim for any set of school standards – much less standards based on an arid view of workforce-training rather than true education.

The central organizing theme of the Common Core ELA standards is that study of creative literature must be diminished in favor of nonfiction “informational texts.” The idea is that students should be drilled in the types of documents they are more likely to encounter in their entry-level jobs (and make no mistake, Common Core is a workforce-development model, not an education model).

What is Coleman’s evidence that switching focus from classic literature to nonfiction (including Federal Reserve documents and the EPA’s “Recommended Levels of Insulation”) will create better readers? There is none. To the contrary, all the historical and empirical evidence confirms the opposite. As Dr. Sandra Stotsky and Dr. Mark Bauerlein have shown, “classic literary texts pose strong challenges in vocabulary, structure, style, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony.” Isn’t this the kind of education students need to be able to understand Scripture – much of which, obviously, is constructed as stories, parables, and creative literature?

The premise that great literature creates great readers is validated by the Massachusetts experience. Massachusetts rejected the workforce-training model in 1993, embracing instead a reading curriculum rich in high-quality literature. This curriculum was incorporated even into the vocational high schools, so that students who chose that path would still be expected – allowed – to explore the classics. The result? Massachusetts SAT scores rose for 13 consecutive years beginning in 1993, and Massachusetts students routinely scored highest in the nation on national reading tests. Sadly, this was before Massachusetts jettisoned its high standards for Common Core.

When not trying to win over Christians, Coleman himself promotes a method of teaching that is greatly at odds with true Bible study. Coleman advocates “close reading” of a text, unencumbered by anything that might help the reader actually understand the text. For example, he has trained English teachers to present the Gettysburg Address “cold,” with no instruction about the historical situation, the purpose of the address, or the scriptural allusions, and no dramatic reading of the speech. Students are to consider it as merely a collection of sentences that fell from the sky and arranged themselves on a page.

Apply that technique to Bible study. Christians should read the Scripture closely, of course, but in isolation from the breadth of Biblical truth? How are we to truly understand Jesus’ teachings without reference to the Mosaic Law that came before? How is it possible to fully appreciate the instruction concerning, for example, marriage and family without locating it in the center of God’s covenantal love throughout Scripture? How can the poetry of the Psalms touch our hearts if it is severed from the deep faith – the souls — of the people who composed it? Or are the Psalms even worth our time? When has a supervisor asked any one of us to explain Psalm 37?

The fundamental problem with the Common Core approach is that, to achieve its job-training goals, it recognizes no difference between one “complex” text and another “complex” text. A great work of literature has value far beyond the complexity of the words used – it allows students to understand the eternal human condition; it allows them to confront human challenges that recur throughout the ages; it teaches empathy, prudence, forgiveness; it transports the readers to places and times not their own. The Common Core ELA standards are, quite simply, indifferent to this type of education. Training, not educating, is their goal. They are not interested in helping students become the people God created them to be; they are interested in creating workers.

So although Coleman argues that the ELA standards promote “slow, deep, reflective” reading, Christians should ask exactly what types of texts are being offered. Why does Common Core reduce the type of texts that can actually help develop good Christian men and women – and that comprise most of the Scriptures? “Recommended Levels of Insulation,” read slowly, deeply, and reflectively, is still “Recommended Levels of Insulation.” Students deprived of the great stories are less likely to embrace, fully, the greatest Story.


This article originally appeared at the Christian Post.

image credit: shutterstock

Jane Robbins


Jane Robbins is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • BillinJax

    I have been informed that teachers who do not “embrace” the program stand to loose stature and open themselves to poor evaluations. One described the program as “a can of worms”.

  • LLC

    I am most concerned with finding recommended readings in the Common Core for Catholic schools that normalize same-sex marriage. I was shocked. When I contacted the person in charge of this, she ignored me. Why are Catholic schools going along with this?

  • cathyg

    Great article! For this and many other reasons, I find it utterly preposterous that now so many Archdioceses are planning to implement Common Core Standards in the CATHOLIC schools! For the most part with parents having no knowledge of the sizemic shift coming in their children’s education.

    At a time when public Education will slowly implode teaching the mind numbing “recommended levels of insulation”, Catholic Education would have the perfect opportunity to shine. If we would be who we are called to be, we could set the world ablaze. But instead, we will go along… to get along… and ultimately Catholic Education may render itself obsolete.

  • Mark Chance

    I taught in a Catholic school for about 8 years, starting in 1996. It’s curriculum was virtually identical to that used by the failing public schools down the street. The textbooks were the same, and the educational objectives were the same. There was little outside of a four-day-a-week religion class and a once-a-week Mass that was designed to be distinctively Catholic.

  • Yvonne

    Thanks for stating the obvious. Not so obvious to Mr. Coleman

  • Elisa

    Wasn’t there a news story not long ago about two mothers who challenged the Common Core Standard in their home state?

  • Jennifer Staszak

    You are essentially correct. Except that your solid piece of opinion is laced wiith unnecessary and incorrect rhetoric. You have “Obama” in your title, and for whatbreason, since you never mention him again? And standardized testing is a right wing endeavor, and the emphasis on creating a workforce also comes from the right and the hysteria around the US losing ground in math and science. Having said that, you capture exactly the concern of English teachers nationwide. The number of children we have left behind is astonishing, most of them poor and under served to begin with. Overall standardized testing has been a dismal failure. But it’s interesting that you only find it a failure under a democrat, but were ok with it when it came from a republican.

  • Susie Patriot

    I don’t believe Ms. Robbins title this op-ed; it is under a different title at the Christian Post.

    NCLB on the surface sounded like a good idea; at least it didn’t compartmentalize children into subsets based on race as some state plans under CC do. Nevertheless, the US DOE never has educated one child, and won’t do so now under the latest “reform.”

  • BillinJax

    Obama and his administration are advancing our society to a commonality alright.

    “A common corruption”!!

  • BillinJax

    Standardized testing failings, where they were, resulted from union management constantly complaining about them because it forced teachers and administrators to actually do the work in order to raise the bar for student advancement not because it wasn’t an effective tool for better education.

    But speaking of dismal failures, poor and under served children were a big part of what the War on Poverty (always credited to LBJ and the democrats) was supposed to put an end to with hundreds of billions of tax payer dollars and thousands of government agencies and employees. That has been
    THE most colossal failure for the same reasons; the focus was put squarely on the establishment of an ever expanding obese bureaucracy led by liberal
    progressives constantly in search for more funding to maintain their standing
    as providers for the poor. When Jesus said we would always have a multitude of poor among us it must have been because he knew congress would be full of government lifetime bureaucrats telling us they have come to help us.

  • Robbe Sebesta

    If this happens where I live, make no mistake…my kids will be then be home-schooled.