For presidential hopefuls, 2011 is the year of campaigning. In the New York teaching world, thanks to the new Common Core standards, 2011 is the official Year of the English Teacher.
That’s right, it’s all about reading to identify flaws in others’ argument and writing airtight arguments of one’s own. Instead of the onus of literacy living principally in the English department, now all subjects at my school are expected to work together toward more coherent development of ideas in our students’ writing. Walk into any classroom in my school over the next couple of weeks, and chances are you will be hearing about paragraph structure, thesis statements, the use of evidence, or the difference between fact and opinion.
While it’s edifying to iron out my learning objectives with colleagues across the disciplines, the critical value of the Common Core Standards came to my attention while watching the Republican presidential last week. Rick Perry was asked to speak about his position on immigration, and he did. Kind of. After taking a hard line against anyone who would usurp America’s resources without due contribution, he went onto emphasize his pride in his own immigrant roots. He talked about how hard his Italian grandfather and father had worked to give him the opportunities he’s had in his life. He talked about how vital immigrants are to America’s prosperity. He closed with a sanguine (but apparently unmemorable) relish meant to further inspire American pride in anyone who hadn’t yet been swept away by his passion.
There was no connection, however, between his nostalgia and his original point: that we need to limit the number of immigrants entering our country without documentation, or make sure that those who do enter are properly taxed. In a national debate, the governor of Texas had just earned himself a 50 percent on one of my 10th-grade writing assignments.
Newt Gingrich took some weak jabs at our ability to educate our children — newly immigrated or otherwise — but he, too, failed to provide evidence. Both men relied entirely on passion, sound bites, and personal narrative to rally their audience. I thought about the thousands of Republican Americans watching and wondered how many of them would be swept away by whatever personal commonalities they had with these men. Equally, I thought of my hard-headed liberal friends and wondered how many Democrats or Independents would simply scoff at these candidates’ positions on immigration but miss the opportunity to scoff at their lack of evidence. How did men who can’t support their arguments ever get to run for president?
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Lest I seem too partisan, allow me to examine President Obama’s recent jobs speech, delivered earlier this month. In it, the president tries to speak to the hardworking, middle-class American who wants to provide for his or her family and enjoy a healthy retirement. Like Perry, he romanticizes the American who believes hard work pays off. He then posits the American Jobs Act as a lifesavor for these poor, dissatisfied Americans. He even gives evidence for exactly what the Jobs Act will do: provide support to small businesses and more jobs for teachers and construction workers. But he doesn’t explain why the American dream has been threatened, or why this particular bill is going to save it. He doesn’t explain why his evidence supports his thesis. Obama, too, would earn an unsatisfactory grade in my class.
In a country that has become complacent with little evidence and sweeping, passionate statements, a politician need only hook us with flowery rhetoric and then propose a plan with a respectable number of specific figures included. Why would happen if students at the top of their game in the Common Core Standards scratch beneath these simple layers of facts? Perhaps, over time, a new set of standards can truly create a more critical voter population. Perhaps it will produce people more of us want to vote for.
I don’t know that the Common Core standards will give us better candidates, though I do hope to see some more thought-provoking debates from future generations. I can’t help but start my year, though, with a little more confidence in the value of my curriculum. If my students can distinguish facts from opinions, if they can build their own arguments based on hard evidence and refute those whose evidence is inappropriate to its thesis, they will be ahead of several presidential candidates.