A recent op-ed at FoxNews.com illustrates the philosophical problem with Common Core and other progressive education schemes: the schemes are misguided because the goal is wrong.
Vince Bertram, president and CEO of an organization called Project Lead the Way, argues that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos must focus less on controversial issues such as school choice and Common Core, and more on the goal of education — which he identifies as straight workforce-development. “DeVos’ most important task,” Bertram writes, “will be to cast a vision for what education can be for our next generation to meet the demands of a global economy.” He uses a litany of progressive-education buzzwords — “critical thinkers, collaborators, and problem solvers” — to describe the types of human products our schools must turn out for industry. If there is any other purpose to education, Mr. Bertram doesn’t acknowledge it.
But is developing a workforce for corporations what schools should be about? Such a constricted view of the purpose of education is in fact a central tenet of the utilitarian Common Core (to which standards Bertram’s organization aligns the curricula it creates), but it ignores the deeper purpose that underlies traditional, classical education. That purpose is to offer students the best in human thought so that they may assume their place as knowledgeable citizens, able to cultivate their own gifts and participate wisely in governing their society. It is to educate children so that they can appreciate life, understand others, and fully exercise their liberties.
Common Core’s “workforce development” view is less about education and more about training. The idea is to teach students skills that transfer directly to the modern world of work. By implication, anything that doesn’t contribute to that goal is less important and should be minimized if not discarded. It is the latest iteration of progressive education philosophy. But make no mistake about it, this is not the type of education to which elitist propagators of Common Core — people like Bill Gates or Barack Obama — subject their children. As Woodrow Wilson argued:
We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class… to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.
Bertram and Project Lead The Way apparently focus exclusively on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. It’s thus ironic that they would support Common Core — which, as renowned mathematician Dr. James Milgram has repeatedly warned, is so deficient that it cannot prepare students for future STEM studies.
Without explaining this disconnect, Bertram argues that U.S. schools aren’t churning out enough workers to fill the STEM jobs of the future. “When employers can’t find people to fill their job vacancies,” he warns, “it’s not a job market problem. It’s an education problem. Our schools haven’t given students the skills — and experiences — they need to be successful in the marketplace.” (The logical implication is that since all education is about preparing workers, and most future jobs will be in STEM fields, any student who doesn’t gravitate toward STEM must either be re-purposed in school or become a drag on the system.)
Bertram also puts in a plug for “project-based learning” (PBL), which “helps students see the relevancy of science and math to their lives and inspires them to pursue it.” This pedagogy, which minimizes direct teacher instruction in favor of “discovery learning” by the students, is an article of faith in progressive schools of education. But there is little evidence for its effectiveness. Indeed, some researchers have suggested that reliance on PBL may explain much of the subpar science achievement by American students. (And of course, when PBL is of the multi-student variety, it invariably disintegrates into several slackers’ relying on the work of one motivated student. As one such student said, “When I die, I want my project partners to be my pallbearers — so they can let me down one last time.”)
“Skills training,” whether using PBL or otherwise, would seem to be necessary for developing a workforce, but focusing on that misses the bigger picture. While it’s obviously true that certain jobs require certain technical skills, it’s generally not the job of K-12 schools (outside of vocational education for families that choose it) to impart them. Schools should provide a firm grounding in strong academic content in English, history, science, mathematics, languages, and art. A student with such a foundation — a classical education — will understand more about human nature, about wisdom, about the consequences of prudence and folly. He or she will be well prepared for further study or skills-development — well prepared for life.
In other words, counterintuitively, a student who is taught a broad academic curriculum rather than specific “skills” is more likely to develop into a better employee. And he or she will certainly be more likely to develop into a better human being.
The workforce-development crowd doesn’t understand this. Let’s hope Secretary DeVos does.
Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins are both senior fellows at American Principles Project.