In June 2010, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers published the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for K-12 English language arts and math. CCSS were ostensibly designed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts to provide more rigorous and coherent academic scaffolding than the diverse patchwork of state standards previously in place. According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, these standards were designed to “prepare our children for college and the workforce,” and since June 2010, 48 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2011). Although not explicitly identifying CCSS, the Obama administration has endorsed and incentivized state adoption of internationally benchmarked academic standards that prepare students for college and career readiness through its Race to the Top program. This decision is consistent with the current administration’s stated goal of leading the world in college graduates by 2020.
While it remains unclear what curricular and pedagogical changes will necessarily follow implementation of CCSS, it is possible to closely examine the justifications given for them, as well as preliminary research about their potential effectiveness. I am particularly concerned with the societal direction those who support national academic standards wish to take us, and what this will mean for indigenous peoples and communities engaged in the struggle for self-determination. The first half of this paper traces the origins of CCSS and critically analyzes the common arguments advocates give for national standards. I argue that at least for indigenous communities, less not more uniformity is needed to meet our educational, societal, and cultural needs. In the second half of the paper, I dissect the philosophical and ideological foundations upon which the proposed educational reforms rest, arguing that CCSS do more to legitimize power discontinuities between indigenous peoples and communities and the state than to advantage those most in need. I conclude by forecasting the possible social, political, and cultural ramifications of national academic standards for indigenous peoples and communities.
Arguments and Evidence for CCSS
On March 13, 2010, the Obama administration published A Blueprint for Reform, outlining the administration’s vision for revising the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), now more than four years past its reauthorization expiration date. “Every child in America deserves a world-class education,” President Obama states in the opening sentence of that document. “Today, more than ever, a world-class education is a prerequisite for success,” he continues. America, we are told, once the world leader in college completion has slipped behind 10 countries, necessitating that we “ensure that every student graduates from high school well prepared for college and a career” if the country is to reach preeminence again (U.S. Department of Education, 2010: p. 1). In order to achieve this goal, Obama’s blueprint calls on all states to develop and adopt standards in English language arts and mathematics “that build toward college- and career readiness by the time students graduate from high school” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010: p. 3). States are encouraged to either upgrade their existing standards or work with other states to develop and adopt common, state-developed standards (read: Common Core State Standards). With the exception of Alaska and Texas, all states have adopted Common Core State Standards since 2010.
In 2008, the National Governor’s Association, Council for Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc. published Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education. This document warns of America’s economic and academic slide in world rankings, sounding the alarm that “As other countries seize the opportunity to improve their education systems so their citizens can benefit from new economic opportunities, the United States is rapidly losing its leading edge in the resource that matters most for economic success: human capital” (NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve, 2008: p. 11). In order to help ameliorate this situation, Benchmarking for Success makes five recommendations for action to state leaders, chief among which is that they “Upgrade state standards by adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts for grades K-12 to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to be globally competitive” (NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve, 2008: p. 6). The document also recommends that the federal government fund and incentivize the implementation of this and other changes, which include the standardization of teaching materials and greater reliance on international assessments to measure state progress.
Benchmarking for Success and A Blueprint for Reform provide economic and moral justification for development of Common Core State Standards. These documents are explicit about what the purpose of schooling is vis-à-vis the federal government and, ostensibly, the state governors and commissioners of education who contributed to the conceptualization and development of CCSS through the NGA and CCSSO respectively. This purpose, as articulated in A Blueprint for Reform and implied through federal adoption of the recommendations made by the NGA, CCSS, and Achieve, Inc. in Benchmarking for Success, is to cultivate the workforce needed to guard and enhance America’s global economic hegemony: “The President clearly recognizes that America must educate her way to a better economy,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated in 2010 remarks to the National Press Club. “As he has said, “the nations that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow” (U.S. Department of Education, July 27, 2010).
On their face, Common Core State Standards seem benign. They are, after all, grade-level guidelines mapping the general skills and knowledge children should possess, not specific content knowledge, such as what novels should be read at each grade level or whose version of history should be taught. They include skills such as the ability to evaluate evidence from text, form and articulate ideas, and engage peers in lively discussion. The question we should be concerned with, then, is how much autonomy teachers and schools will retain in working to meet CCSS, and how teachers and schools will be evaluated to determine whether expectations are being met. Answers to these questions remain unclear because states have not implemented CCSS, but school district predictions from at least one study are illuminating.
The Center for Education Policy surveyed a nationally representative sample of school districts in 2011 to gauge district attitudes and expectations toward CCSS. They found that 64% of surveyed districts agreed or strongly agreed that they would require new or substantially revised math curriculum materials in order to implement the new standards, and 56% believed they would require new or substantially revised English language arts curriculum materials. And half of all districts surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that implementing CCSS will require fundamental changes in instruction (Center on Education Policy, September 2011: 4). With respect to these findings and accepting Kauffman et al.’s (2002: 274) definition of curriculum as “what and how teachers are expected to teach,” CCSS may be more akin to a national curriculum than a reference guide for improving teaching and learning.
This is problematic for traditionally marginalized demographics, such as indigenous peoples and communities wishing to use schooling as an instrument of social, cultural, and political self-determination. Efforts by indigenous communities to transform American and tribal schools into legitimate sites for the reclamation and transmission of indigenous languages, knowledge(s), and histories may yet again collide with a national educational agenda riding roughshod over local community needs and interests. Accommodating globalization through the imposition of a national curriculum is not progressive at a time in human history when 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by only 4% of the world’s population, and when small languages are becoming extinct at a pace that surpasses the rate of extinction of animal and plant species (Osahito, 2004: 3). So what are some of the academic advantages of CCSS cited by advocates that will balance these potentially negative consequences?
The Common Core Standards Initiative website makes several bold claims about the rigor and effectiveness of CCSS that are not corroborated by strong evidence. Most notably, we are assured that CCSS include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills, are informed by other top performing countries, and are evidence-based. The findings of at least one 2011 national comparison of the content of the intended curriculum for CCSS with the content of the intended curriculum for current state standards in math and English language arts reveal holes in these bold claims:
Do the Common Core standards represent a change for the better from existing state standards? If one takes state adoption (or at least states’ intensions to adopt) as evidence of quality, then the answer must surely be yes. From our results, the answer is yes if the hope is to move toward greater emphasis on higher order cognitive demand. In terms of topics, the answer is less clear, although at least for Grades 3-6 in mathematics, the Common Core represents less emphasis on advanced algebra and geometry than current state standards do. Perhaps that is an improvement, or perhaps not (Porter et al, 2011: 115).
CCSS advocates claim they are internationally benchmarked with top-achieving countries. Contradicting these claims, the study found that these top-achieving countries put greater emphasis on “performance procedures” than do the CCSS, running counter to the widespread call in the U.S. for greater emphasis on higher order cognitive demand (Porter et al, 2011: 115). CCSS are largely premised on the belief that standardization will raise American students’ achievement on international tests of academic skills and knowledge so that they can compete globally and close the achievement gap in the U.S. Yet Australia and Canada, two Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries without a national curriculum or standards, have consistently scored high on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in math, science, and reading. Canada and Australia ranked #2 and #4 among OECD countries in science in 2006. In 2003, they ranked #4 and #7 in math, and #2 and #3 in reading (Zhao, 2009: 47). Many critics of CCSS return to the fact that just as OECD countries with national curriculums and standards (such as Finland) consistently score high on PISA and other international academic assessments, there are as many that perform much worse than the U.S.
Narrow focus on the economic outputs of schooling is problematic to those of us who are optimistic that passionate, good teaching can help cultivate and nurture in students the creativity, resiliency, and sense of community and social responsibility needed to develop a more just and equitable society. I accept Martin Haberman’s definition of good teaching, which occurs whenever students are involved with issues they regard as vital concerns. In the Alaskan Arctic, for example, Inuit students need to be made conscious of and encouraged to begin actively grappling with complex social and economic issues related to rapid climate change, an elevated suicide rate, land and resource jurisdiction and management, and institutionalized colonialism and racism. In good schools, Haberman argues, “difficult events and issues are transformed into the very stuff of the curriculum. Schooling is living, not preparing for living” (1991: 293).
Quality teaching and schooling require room for improvisation and innovation if students are to interact with the real-life issues and challenges particular to their place. What is desperately needed, particularly among indigenous populations is, in the words of progressive educator Paulo Freire, an education enabling students to “discuss courageously the problems of their context –and to intervene in that context,” and which offers them “the confidence and the strength to confront those dangers instead of surrendering their sense of self through submission to the decisions of others” (Freire, 2010: 30). In the next section, I will explore the ideological and philosophical assumptions and attitudes at work in the standards movement. These assumptions and attitudes must be resisted and dismantled in order to secure a meaningful existence for future generations.
The Ideological and Philosophical Bases of the Standards Movement
The aspect of the current national standards movement that I am most interested in here is that the arguments made to justify them accept as inevitable and permanent, globalizing economic and political forces that require environmental, economic, political, and social subjugation and exploitation of others in order for American prosperity and progress to occur. These ‘others’ include not only nations of peoples and individual cultures and societies, but also the sentient life forces of the planet that are responsible for sustaining our existence as a species. “America’s economic strength and standing in the world economy are directly linked to our ability to equip students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the 21st-century economy,” write Jeb Bush and Joel Klein in a June 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed in support of national standards. “Students are no longer competing with their peers in other cities – they are competing with students across the globe” (The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2011). The abstract notion that “we” are locked in the arms of perpetual, global competition lacks coherence: we are expected to take for granted that global economic dominance is virtuous, and that the goals of the state are aligned with the goals and needs of society at large.
The tunnel-vision push for college and career ready standards formalize the project of ramping up national economic development, which reliant on limitless resource extraction, has profound spiritual and moral, as well as environmental implications for the future generations. In this section, I reveal that the attitudes, assumptions, and activities motivating this latest national school reform initiative flow from Eurocentric beliefs about the position of humankind at the center of the universe. Although always present in our education system, these attitudes, assumptions, and activities are being explicitly validated by the standards movement in ways that limit the creative potential of schooling in our respective societies. I describe what is lost when we concede to operate from the basis of an ideological and philosophical framework in which “Everything must be transformed, changed, improved, so that ever greater productivity can be attained” (Apffel-Marglin, ed. 1998: 37).
American schooling is rooted in a liberal ideology of education that is based on the belief that schooling can simultaneously create and sustain progressive social change through the equalization of educational opportunity, while at the same time attending to the supposed imperatives of ceaseless technological advancement (Dale, Esland, and MacDonald, 1976: p. 1). These goals are fundamentally incompatible, however, because the latter – incentivized by competition and free market capitalism – precludes achievement of the former at nearly every turn. The origins of this liberal ideology can be traced to the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe. During the Enlightenment, notions of time, space, and history were reconstituted as linear progressions, and Christianity’s anthropocentric orientation toward the natural world facilitated the elevation of scientific empiricism as the only legitimate lens through which to interpret reality. This Eurocentric orientation toward time, space, and reality is what gives dominating societies license to label indigenous and other “undeveloped” societies – lacking economically redemptive technology – as prehistoric and primitive. This orientation is exemplified, in the words of Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred, in “unremitting drive of white people to conquer the natural world and exploit it to impose the predictability and order needed for capitalism to function smoothly” (Alfred, 2005: p. 110).
The Eurocentric worldview, based on the arrogant and racist assumption that white is right, saturates modern American schooling and thinking, and is the sieve through which “legitimate” knowledge, languages, and values (read: economically redemptive) are constantly being sifted. The standards movement sits squarely upon this matrix of values and beliefs about progress and modernity because it situates schooling at the nexus of capitalism and individualistic competition and consumption. The skills CCSS were designed to impart react to what employers want, and are intended to serve the institutions and hierarchies of power responsible for much of the human suffering and misery on this planet. Likewise, a national curriculum is doubly threatening because it permanently marginalizes indigenous knowledge(s), languages, values, and histories at a point in time when we are struggling for their recognition and affirmation as distinct knowledge systems with their own epistemologies and scientific and logical validity (Battiste 2008: 85). Tokenizing gestures to “accommodate” and “include” will not result in intellectual decolonization for indigenous communities, nor will it lead to social justice and educational equity for indigenous communities.
Within this Eurocentric framework, the primary function of schooling becomes the socialization of students to accept certain values and beliefs (the idea that competition and economic development are fundamentally good, for example) by habituating them to dominating discourses of hierarchy, power, and competition. Western knowledge, culture, and values are so privileged that “justice” is often confused with the right to participate and excel within the dominating discourse and at the behest of global capitalism: “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cautioned in his July 2010 remarks at the National Press Club. “It is the only way to make good on the American promise of equality” (U.S. Department of Education, July 27, 2010).
Fulfilling this promise of equality is, at least rhetorically, at the heart of efforts to reform education, measured not in terms of large-scale societal change, but by abstract benchmarks: student test scores, high school and college graduation rates, and GDP expansion and retraction. Contradictorily, scholars such as Jean Anyon (1981: 38) have documented some of the ways schooling maintains class hierarchy and power discontinuities by reproducing the tensions of the larger society in classrooms, with sharp pedagogical differences between affluent and impoverished communities that guard class privilege on the one hand and secure its human and economic foundations on the other. Rather than an argument for sweeping educational reforms, however, Anyon locates the seeds of inequity in the flawed logic of capitalism, noting that “extreme pressure is necessary, and excruciating struggle is demanded in a capitalist political democracy to actually maintain one’s position of economic power and privilege” (Anyon, 1981: 38).
The implication is that as long as we live within the framework of free-market capitalism, educational inequity must be maintained to safeguard the status quo.
Rapid global climate change, set in motion by more than a century of unchecked industrialization and resource extraction, is the most tangible and ubiquitous consequence of a myopic Eurocentric worldview. (Looking out my window, the streets of Cambridge, MA are snowless in mid-December with temperatures high above freezing). This worldview is operating latently at points of power and privilege that can make it difficult to discern or seriously question. According to Muskogee scholar Daniel R. Wildcat, a climate shift in our thinking is needed to counteract the destructive changes, attitudes, and behaviors it causes.
The web of life, if taken seriously, implies that our human intelligence must be framed in the context of learning how to live well and sustainably as one small but powerful part of nature, as opposed to strategizing how to mange nature. In short, the atmospheric climate change we must try to avoid, or at least minimize, as a result of our climate-burning activities can only be addressed with a climate shift in our thinking and behavior: a cultural climate shift (Wildcat, 2009: 6).
Schooling is a tool that can help encourage this shift in thinking and behavior. A climate shift in human thinking and behavior is unlikely to occur in schools that are products and progenitors of the very forces causing climate and other hazardous changes in our world, however. We must be humble to the social and cultural diversity of this country, and respect the multiplicity of reasons humans seek education and the ways and contexts in which that education takes place. Localized schooling is needed that fosters divergent, creative, original thought by encouraging students to grapple with the contemporary challenges of their time and place. There is little hope for a dignified existence for all peoples, cultures and societies in the U.S. if those advocating for alternative, more just and equitable ways of organizing society are castigated as hopeless idealists or radicals. As indigenous peoples, we need to question CCSS and the language about technology, progress, and success used by their advocates to justify smoothing over rich differences in how societies define knowledge, progress, and success. Doing so must precede serious discussion of whether or not CCSS will actually be effective at fulfilling desired goals and expectations. That said, the preliminary research cited in this paper does not indicate reason for optimism that CCSS will create a sea change in American schooling. It is high time that states and the federal government recognize the plurality of values, cultures, and worldviews in this country. Doing so may save us from our selves.
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 The Obama administration wishes to see Common Core State Standards or equivalent national college and career-ready standards legislated in the next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. On-reservation tribal schools, under federal rather than state jurisdiction, will likely remain free to choose whether to adopt CCSS until this time.