Common Core: Same Exclusion, Different Century

For well over 100 years educational leaders in the field of curriculum have gathered to try and figure out what children in the U.S. ought to be learning. In 1893, for instance, the Committee of Ten published its report on the organization of secondary education in the U.S. In 1895 the Committee of Fifteen was similarly formed to organize the elementary level curriculum. There was also the 1913-1918 Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, as well as the 1931 Committee on the Relation of School and College, the 1934 Commission on the Social Studies in the Schools, and the 1945 Commission on the English Curriculum. Indeed, readers might recall the National Commission on Excellence in Education and their 1983 report, A Nation At Risk, which kicked off the modern era of high-stakes, standardized testing. The United States simply has a long history of relatively small groups of people influencing the direction and tenor of education policy and curriculum nationally.

Over the last few years my friend and colleague Anthony Brown (University of Texas, Austin) and I have been looking at who was included and who was excluded in the early history of curriculum development in the United States. In surveying the decades around the turn of the 20th century we saw a clear pattern: There were numerous “official” conversations about the curriculum in the United States, but the only conversations that were being heard, discussed, and acknowledged in education policy circles consisted mainly of white men hailing from universities and other official educational institutions like the National Education Association or governmental agencies, with the occasional mention of Jane Addams, Carter G. Woodson, or W.E.B. DuBois included for token diversity.

As scholars of color who teach and research about curriculum studies as well as educational history and policy, Anthony and I (who are African American and Asian American, respectively) were particularly struck by the absences within this master historical narrative of curriculum development in the United States. Where was the African American Community in these conversations about what to teach children in the United States during this time? What were Asian American immigrants saying about the education of their children? How come the explicit and purposeful role of curriculum and boarding schools to colonize and Christianize Native Americans during this era was rarely mentioned? How were Mexican Americans struggling against the educational racism and advocating for a meaningful education for their children?

Historically speaking, communities of color, all of whom have been affected greatly by curriculum policy in the United States, were ignored and even colonized by these selective curriculum committees. Communities of color simply weren’t allowed to participate by these very undemocratic, highly exclusionary, select groups of curriculum developers.

So when I look at the Common Core State (sic) Standards (CCSS) and how they came to be, I can only see them within this historical context. The original CCSS workgroups on the Mathematics and English-Language Arts standards consisted of 24 people who worked through a secret process to develop the standards, and who were the final and only decision-makers for the standards. On the surface this looks to me like a Committee of Twenty-Four similar to those formed over the last 100-plus years, especially when we consider who was included and who was excluded from the final decision making body of the CCSS. Outside of two professors, the CCSS Committee of Twenty Four consisted almost entirely of employees and consultants connected to educational corporations Achieve, Inc., ACT Inc., The College Board, Student Achievement Partners, and America’s Choice (a Pearson affiliate).

Noticeably absent from the CCSS Committee of Twenty Four are practicing, in-the-classroom, professionally educated teachers. Also absent from the committee are individuals formally representing organizations of parents, students, and communities (you know, the actual stakeholders). Even if we generously consider the larger list of 142 people either developing or giving feedback on the CCSS, there were only a handful of practicing teachers and a retired teacher, with the rest consisting mainly of district level administrators, more corporate consultants and employees, and more university professors. Regardless of how we look at it, no practicing teachers held decision-making power, and there still was no formal and purposeful engagement with parents and communities.

Further, while I won’t attempt to guess the racial identity of the CCSS Committee of Twenty-Four (or the larger list of 142), the lack of community engagement in this process coupled with the fact of the CCSS being a top-down reform effort, tells me that communities of color were systematically excluded as well. The CCSS Committee of Twenty-Four looks to me like just another in the long history of small committees gathering together to develop recommendations about the shape, structure, and content of curriculum in the United States. And, like those committees that came before, it seems that communities of color specifically, along with teachers, parents, and students generally, still don’t really matter when it comes to official decisions about what our children should know and be able to do in this world.

[The above-mentioned peer-reviewed article is forthcoming in the journal Curriculum Inquiry, under the title, “Race, Memory, and Master Narratives: A Critical Essay on U.S. Curriculum History,” by Anthony Brown and Wayne Au.]

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