"WHAT DO YOU THINK all students should know and be able to do?"
The Massachusetts Commission on the Common Core of Learning claims to have spent the past six months combing the state to figure out the answer to that question. What it has come up with is a 39-point "first draft" that is so vague, so weak, so mushy, so devoid of content that only a team of professional education bureaucrats could have written it.
Nowhere in the commission's proposed Common Core, for example, is there any requirement that a public school graduate in Massachusetts be able to analyze the causes of World War I. Nowhere does it declare that a student must understand how the periodic table of elements is organized. Or be able to recite the Gettysburg Address. Or know how photosynthesis works . . . or where the Nile flows . . . or how Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata sounds . . . or what the Fifth Commandment commands . . . or how to take 15 percent from $249 . . . or why Columbus sailed west.
Those are examples of specific knowledge, and specific knowledge is what the commission's draft goes out of its way to avoid. From the first item on its list ("Identify well-defined, realistic goals and priorities") to No. 39 ("Participate in meaningful community-service and school-service activities"), the commission has drafted a blueprint for learning that would require Massachusetts students to actually learn almost nothing.
Gov. Weld repudiated the document yesterday.
"Most parents," he wrote in a letter hand-delivered to the two state officials driving the commission, Board of Education chairman Martin Kaplan and Education Commissioner Robert Antonucci, "have an old-fashioned conception of education -- that their children need to know first and foremost how to read and write and that high academic standards are not elitist."
Biology is left out of the Common Core draft. So is physics, Shakespeare, and the Bill of Rights. But it does specify that, upon graduation, all students must be able to "identify stereotyping," "understand human sexuality," "generate original ideas," and "use appropriate gestures."
Use appropriate gestures?
In 1818, Thomas Jefferson needed just one sentence to outline a core curriculum for students in what we would call grades K-12. In the Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia -- a landmark document on American education -- he wrote:
"To instruct the mass of our citizens in these -- their rights, interests, and duties as men and citizens -- being then the objects of education in the primary schools . . . in them should be taught reading, writing, and numerical arithmetic, the elements of weights and measures, and the outlines of geography and history."
Nope, nothing in there about using appropriate gestures. But then, Jefferson never had the benefit of 1970s-style educational progressivism. It never occurred to him that academic rigor -- teaching students to think by making them absorb language and mathematics, master facts and figures, study names and dates and classic texts -- should be jettisoned in favor of soft, sloppy, faddish curricula built around windy notions like self-esteem, relevance, social justice, or diversity.
No wonder Johnny can't read. No wonder most Massachusetts students flunk standard tests of basic competence. No wonder 40 percent of Boston public school graduates are illiterate.
The wreckage of the modern grade-school curriculum is captured magnificently in the Common Core of Learning draft. "Converse and listen to share information," yes. Homework, no. "Promote understanding," yes. American history, no. "Concepts, themes, skills, and current issues," yes. Facts, no.
This is what you get when education is controlled by teachers' unions instead of parents, when tests are dumbed down so nobody will flunk, and when it is thought more important that children express their feelings and clarify their values than overcome their ignorance.
But the common core draft is not just shallow and perverse; it also flies in the teeth of the Education Reform Act of 1993. That statute -- under which state spending on public schools will skyrocket by $5 billion before the decade is out -- directs the education commissioner to "develop academic standards for the core subjects of mathematics, science and technology, history and social science, English, foreign languages, and the arts."
Real standards -- not the squishy drivel of the commission:
"The standards shall be formulated so as to set high expectations of student performance and to provide clear and specific examples that embody and reflect these high expectations" and "shall be expressed in terms which lend themselves to objective measurement . . . and facilitate comparisons with students of other states and other nations."
The statute even specifies that the curriculum "shall provide for instruction in . . . the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Federalist Papers."
The Massachusetts Commission on the Common Core of Learning managed to leave all that out of its report. But at least it didn't forget the importance of using appropriate gestures.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)