Common Core Helps — Not Hurts — Students of Color
Two researchers at Mount St. Mary recently penned an opinion piece that ran in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog. It highlighted a lack of diversity — in both authors and subject matter — among the list of recommended texts that are aligned to the Common Core: Of 171 books recommended for elementary children, only 18 are by authors of color, and few of them, in general, reflect the lives of children of color and the poor.
Those are abysmal numbers, and the recommended list should, indeed, reflect more diversity. But the title of the piece — “How Common Core’s Recommended Books Fail Children of Color” — sensationalizes the message and risks complicating an already-controversial cloud of conversation around new college- and career-ready standards.
How can anyone say the Common Core’s list of recommended texts is failing students of color? As a black parent, I think that’s ridiculous. Inconsistent reading standards are failing kids of color. Poorly resourced schools are failing kids of color. Inadequate access to high-performing teachers is failing kids of color. But the Common Core standards, by their very nature, are designed to help better serve the needs of students of color. Such standards help ensure our children are being taught what they need to know, and that they won’t graduate with a diploma that hasn’t prepared them for success in postsecondary life.
This line of attack is reminiscent of the assault on E.D. Hirsch in the 1970s, whose bestseller, Cultural Literacy, included a list of names, dates, places, and sayings that — in his opinion — every American ought to know. Hirsch’s ideas were controversial and criticized for not addressing differences in learning styles and for ignoring the contributions of African Americans and other communities of color to American culture. He and his Core Knowledge Foundation have since broadened that list, reflecting the reality that children do need to learn about their own unique heritage, but they also need to master the language and concepts in our common culture. So, while the original list could have been improved upon, that didn’t mean it harmed children of color.
And, now this argument has come up again in the context of the Common Core. Perhaps most troubling in this opinion piece is the notion that the recommended reading list is anything more than a set of suggested texts. The list is not a mandate. Literature selections are part of a curriculum, which is designed by educators to adhere to standards. So let’s not conflate curriculum with standards. Just as no one at the national level dictated these standards, no one at the national level is dictating the precise texts that each student should read.
With arguments like this, we risk losing sight of the much bigger issue here: Are the children literate? Can they read challenging texts by a wide range of authors? Let’s focus on that first. Then perhaps we can engage in a scholarly debate on the merits of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy vs. The Coldest Winter Ever by Sistah Souljah.