A Philosophical look at the Common Core

The backlash to the Common Core State Standards movement is quite ironic. It’s interesting that the CCSS, which was developed to promote education, has produced such anger-based ignorance. Just like any good teacher or parent those of us who support the common core and understand the spirt of the movement must continue to find ways to explain it to those that don’t get it or maybe they do but are ideologically opposed to it.


Socrates and Idealism

I think a quick look at basic western philosophy and the four educational philosophies that have emerged from it might help to enlighten how the common core came to be. There are four basic philosophies: Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism and Existentialism. Idealism is thought to be absolute and eternal. It’s like a birthing in that humans are believed to have latent knowledge and that it is the teacher’s role to bring that knowledge to consciousness. Realism is thought to be based on nature’s laws. The teacher’s role is to teach external knowledge to the student. Pragmatism is thought to be experience based and is always changing. It is the teacher’s job to cultivate the student’s critical thinking. Existentialism believes that knowledge comes from personal choice. The teacher’s role is to cultivate the student’s self-definition.

From the basic philosophies came the four primary education philosophies of Perennialism, Essentialism, Progressivism and Reconstructionism. Perennialism, which evolved from Idealism, focuses on past and permanent studies. It is the teacher’s roles to teach traditional values and the mastery of timeless knowledge. Essentialism, which evolved from both Idealism and Realism, focuses on the essential skills of the academic subjects of history, English, math, science and foreign language. The teacher is the absolute authority and also teaches traditional values. Progressivism, which grew out of Pragmatism, focuses on active and relevant learning.  The teacher is a guide for problem solving and scientific inquiry. Reconstructionism, which also grew out of Pragmatism, focuses on improvement by reconstructing society. The teacher serves as an agent of change and reform.

All of these education philosophies have one thing in common. They all were developed in an effort to best educate our children. From the turn of the 20th century Progressivism, which attempted to educate the “whole” child, dominated the education landscape but as the 1982 report “A Nation at Risk” stated, the nation’s education system was in shambles due to lax standards and progressivism fell out of favor.

Progressive Era #3

John Dewey and Progressivism

This prompted the revival of Perennialism and Essentialism. In the 1980s, both the “Back-to-Basics” and the “Excellence in Education” movements, which were grounded in these philosophies, emphasized higher achievement in the academic areas, which meant a need to stress cognitive achievement and rigorous grading, testing, and discipline. The focus was now on higher standards for passing courses and meeting graduation requirements. There was no time for art, music, physical education, homemaking, and vocational education as these were considered education “fads or frills.”

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which implemented these more rigorous standards and assessments (high-stakes testing), has not had the intended results. Test scores and graduation rates have not significantly improved. As a result the CCSS was initiated in an attempt to improve on NCLB. Instead of a knee-jerk back and forth approach CCSS is trying to incorporated the best of each education philosophy in the continuing effort to find the best ways to educate our nation’s children.  And that’s the true spirit of the common core.

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