Challenging the Cold War Pedagogy of Common Core

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 10.00.23 PM Back in September of 2012, Thomas Armstrong wrote an article about the origins of the Common Core instructional approach and new standards. Turns out that the close reading strategy advocated by the Core’s primary developer David Coleman has its origins in something called New Criticism, an instructional strategy popular during the Cold War.

New Criticism’s style is highly intellectual and analytical. For some students it can be confusing, boring and/or stressful. Armstrong wisely inquires, why bring it back now? Also, as educator Diane Ravitch and many others have asked, what evidence is there that this particular teaching approach is so superior and effective that it should provide the core pedagogy of an entire nation’s curriculum, and that it will help prepare America’s children for the challenges of the 21st Century?

“New Criticism cautions the reader not to go beyond the text to consider, for example, the biography of the author, the social or historical period in which he/she was writing, or, for that matter, even one’s own personal feelings, attitudes, and experiences in relation to the text.  As Coleman famously stated at an April, 2011 presentation for educators sponsored by the New York State Department of Education:  “no one gives a shit what you feel or what you think [about the text you are reading].”  He doesn’t want students to take what they are reading and connect it to their own lives, or describe how they feel about what they’re reading.

I have serious problems with that.  Too many students already feel alienated by the material they are asked to read in school.  The best teachers are those who can actually help the student make critical connections between what they are reading and their own lives.  Now, teachers all over the country are going to be trained (are, in fact, being trained at this very moment) to stop doing this, and instead, are being told to force students’ noses into the text, so to speak, so that they can start inhaling deeply.  My prediction is that this is going to create a whole new generation of reading-phobic children. ” (Thomas Armstrong)

Many parents and professional educators share Armstrong’s concerns. We believe that Common Core’s teaching approach and standards are too narrow, that the promises being made by current education reformers are deceptive and unwise. Most concerning, the people behind the Common Core are not suggesting that teachers consider using this strategy but are attempting to mandate it for the entire nation.

Educator Anthony Cody suspects that one purpose of these changes is to standardize the curriculum, so that technology companies and test-makers will have a new market. This would explain why Microsoft president Bill Gates has given so much money to the development of the Common Core and is so involved in promoting it. There also seem to be hedge fund managers and charter school companies behind this, who have been profiting financially as public schools are closed down and taxpayer money is channeled to private charter schools.

A few weeks ago I described my own observations, as a University professor teaching in Japan for over 20 years, and someone who was involved with innovative education reform in the United States, from 1988 to 1993. Looking at these descriptions of the pedagogical shifts “demanded” by the Common Core, I noticed that they correspond rather closely to the teaching methods that dominate in junior high and high school in Japan. It’s a method that has not changed much in 60 years, and that has but one purpose- to prepare students for taking tests and high-stakes exams.

Proponents of Common Core deny that improving test-taking skills and raising test scores is the only thing they seek, and yet, what else is this approach good for? My observations, based on living and teaching in Japan, is that Asian children spend much of their time preparing for high-stakes exams. After coming home from public school, my youngest son, an 8th grader, goes to juku (cram school) about 6 days a week, where he is re-taught the information that was presented in public school that week and practices taking tests until 11pm at night.

From 7th through 12th grade, high-stakes exams in Japan put pressure on students to rigorously prepare for testing, and text-based close reading appears to be one of the primary methods used. The result? High test scores, yes (for those whose parents can afford the costs of cram schools), but also, at least in certain subjects, very low skills. This is especially true with English instruction. After 6 years of study, most young people in Japan are unable to actually use the English grammar and vocabulary they study, except in a test-taking situation. This is because they are spending so much time with texts and tests that they don’t have a chance to apply the knowledge they are studying, to develop practical communication skills by using English words to communicate and express themselves creatively.

Incredibly, David Coleman’s Common Core demands that Americans return to the same strategy, that “students build knowledge about the world through TEXT rather than the teacher or activities” and that they discuss everything intellectually and “objectively” rather than expressing their personal views and feelings.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 12.19.33 AMIn my opinion, to suggest that American children should go back in time to a pedagogy of the 1950s underscores the lack of educational expertise of the people behind the Common Core standards and the high-stakes testing that comes with it.

In this informative blog post, John Chase looked at Equipped for the Future, an education initiative in 1994 by the National Institute for Literacy that called for a much broader range of 16 content and national learning standards. As a high school and junior high teacher he found these ELA standards to be more appropriate and better aligned with student’s life goals and diverse learning styles. What evidence do the Common Core creators have that their standards are superior?

“The problem with the Common Core’s mission to improve college and career readiness is not that these expectations are too high, but these standards are too narrow and specialized, so they do not prepare our students for the diverse real world reading and thinking challenges of life, school, and employment… The choice seems pretty clear, we continue full speed ahead down the narrow and selective Common Core college prep and career readiness pathway or take time for a purposeful pause so the Standards can be revised and expanded to focus on a broader and much more inclusive education and workforce pathway.” ~John Chase (Wag the Dog)

As Victoria Young observed recently, one explanation for why Coleman and other “education reformers” are narrowing the focus and attempting to tighten their control over professional educators is that they are applying a marketing model to the education of our young. They are trying to standardize and control what children learn, with no understanding of (or concern for) the actual learning needs of students or of the wide range of innovative teaching methods and standards that already exist in education.

“Joanne Barkan covered the private philanthropic efforts in leadership training quite well in “Got Dough: How Billionaires Rule Our Schools.” Barkin explains “their vision” is “market-based.” Market-based education reform means seeing education as a commodity so reforms are based on demand, supply, and pricing. The vision was sold to us based on the assumption that higher test scores mean better education. The theory relies on parental and public demand for better “outcomes” as driven by high-stakes standardized testing.” (Victoria M. Young)

Common Core’s creators seems hyper-focused on measurement outcomes, while showing a lack of willingness to listen to and collaborate with education professionals who point out the flaws in this approach. For them, test scores are all that matter and charters schools are the solution to all our problems. It’s no wonder so many people around the country are unhappy.

Common Core’s supporters are ignoring decades of very real and progressive reforms- a learner-centered revolution that has been going on since the 1960s, with successful teaching approaches grounded in actual research and understandings of how children learn. The paradigm has been shifting in education for almost 50 years, this is not the time to set the clock back.

Learner-centered approaches have proven their effectiveness and been implemented successfully in countless American schools, in Finland and Norway, at Mission Hill, The Child Development Project at Yale, The Circle of Courage – Native American Model of EducationMontessori schools, and the Escuela Nueva (New School) model of democratic education, flourishing now in South America. These approaches have proven themselves to be successful, while Common Core’s model has not.

To say that Common Core is somehow superior to what has been developed over the course of decades by education innovators without any evidence to back up that claim seems like a hoax, as Diane Ravitch (a whistleblower and former ally of Common Core’s supporters) has expressed it. Many educators are concerned that the Core’s “rigorous” text-focused approach is actually “dumbing” education down, because of the way it frustrates and confuses many students.

Especially disturbing is when these tests are being given to young children, and those with special learning needs. Some are calling this educational malpractice, and rightly so, in my professional opinion. I would encourage teachers to continue to speak out, for journalists to do more research, and for parents to have their children opt-out, to refuse to provide state governments and testing companies with the data they crave.

If we can do that, young people (such as the Tennessee student in the video below) will indeed have gained greater critical thinking skills, as well as a deeper appreciation of the spirit of freedom and democracy. Then we can get back to the effective innovations, research and 21st century learner-centered reforms that have been happening all along, but have been ignored, by current reformers.

~Christopher Chase~


“One of the most distressing characteristics of education reformers is that they are hyper-focused on how students perform, but they ignore how students learn.” ~Diane Marie

“I am concerned with the quality of this assessment. It seems that development has been rushed and established ethical practices have been ignored. And it costs a lot. Our kids have lost so much: elementary PE and band, middle school sports and foreign language, high school art courses, the list is long. How many things could they get back if we stopped spending so much money on testing?” ~Kathleen Hagan Jeskey

“We’re on a wrong track. Standards? Of course! But not standards for school subjects. What’s needed are standards for the qualities of mind, emotion, character, and spirit the young must be helped to develop if they’re to cope with the world they’re inheriting.” ~Marion Brady

“[Last May] I, and my colleagues, [were] asked to participate in educational malpractice. This malpractice [was] in the form of administering the state mandated standardized tests. I have read many critiques about these new Common Core aligned tests. But no criticism I have read has touched on an issue of such fundamental fairness and decency that I must speak of it. These tests discriminate against students with disabilities. They do this is many ways…” ~Jane Lenck, teacher (Common Core Tests: Educational Malpractice for Children with Special Needs).

“Research from both within the United States and other countries suggest clearly that high stakes testing does more harm than good… We should completely abandon the idea of test-based accountability, that is, get high stakes standardized testing out of education, do not use it to evaluate schools or teachers. ~ Dr. Yong Zhao

“The purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults..” ~Dr. James P. Comer; Comer School Development Program

“Considering the diversity of student skills and abilities represented in our classrooms it is foolish and inherently unfair to define and predict student success in life based on a narrow and shallow set of testable math and reading skills.” ~John Chase (Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood)

“What is education for? Is it for pouring facts and formulas into students’ heads, or is it for creating learners? Research shows that an environment that emphasizes evaluation and testing creates a fixed [achievement] mindset. That is, it sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb— not a place to create and learn.” ~Carol Dweck, Ph.D.


* The Biggest Fallacy of the Common Core Standards – Diane Ravitch * Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing * Why VAMs are Unreliable Measures for Evaluating Teachers * Schools That Learn – Peter SengeStandardizing Education – Common Core’s Hidden Agenda * Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery  * A Nation’s Schools Reveals Our Hearts – John Kuhn * Understanding How Our Brains Learn  * Every Child is an Artist by Nature * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education *Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process * Real Learning is a Creative Process  * Why Corporate School Reform Will Eventually Fail *

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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20 Responses to Challenging the Cold War Pedagogy of Common Core

  1. howardat58 says:

    Firstly, ELA (English Language Arts) seems to be a serious misnomer for the latest attempt to kill interest in reading. Perhaps enlightened schools will introduce a new subject called Creative Reading.
    Secondly, the CCSS in math is quite different, although it can, and often will be, presented in the most stunningly boring and prescriptive way. For this see

  2. “We can identify at least three reasons why the Common Core is already harming a generation of young African-Americans.

    First and foremost, Common Core testing has branded a large percentage of black youth as failures. In New York, only 19.3 percent of black students demonstrated proficiency on state math tests and 17.6 percent demonstrated proficiency on state English language arts tests. Do these numbers light a fire under educators to do a better job? Maybe. But they also mean that the educational system is signaling to many black children that they have no future in higher education or the modern workforce.

    Second, the Common Core focuses attention on math and English test prep above all other academic or extracurricular pursuits. The Race to the Top program incentivized states to adopt the Common Core as well as a testing regime that punishes teachers or schools with low student test scores. In New York City, the Success Academy charter schools excel on the Common Core tests. How? According to one administrator, by turning children into “little test-taking machines.” It goes without saying that many wealthy parents would never accept such an education for their children; in practice, the Common Core widens rather than narrows the opportunity gap.

    Finally, the Common Core dedicates limited resources to textbook and testing companies rather than teachers and children. The Race to the Top program awarded $330 million to two Common Core testing consortia: PARCC and SBAC. Schools, in turn, must purchase aligned-curricula as well as the technology to run the online Common Core tests. Meanwhile, financially strapped school districts are cutting art and music programs that stimulate brain development and teach skills such as cooperation and perseverance. This is a tragedy for all students, including African-American ones…”

    By Nicholas Tampio and Yohuru Williams

  3. Lisa Laser says:

    thank you

  4. James G. says:

    DAVID COLEMAN-Rhodes Scholar. Here is more historical context for the post above. Please check out a navigable web brain mapping of New Criticism (Formalism) by Richard Grove from You can click on other topics such as “2+2=5”, or enter terms into the search bar such as “Common Core”. Also from his research notes(kinda all over the place but points to consider if one wishes to contextualize History!): Ludwig Wittgenstein, I.A. Richards, and manipulating language to control perceptions in cybernetics, Macy Conferences of cybernetic applications, and “New Criticism” to decontextualize historical documents, thus re-defining liberty by separating literature from history. Rhodes/Milner Roundtable participation in supporting “New Criticism” and decontextualizing history to create organic unity; which evolved from the Prussian Nationalism which preceded it. I.A. Richards (to create general education without historical meaning) Stringfellow Barr (Rhodes Scholar) Scott Buchanan (Rhodes Scholar) New Criticism (Separation of History and Literature) John Crowe Ransom (Rhodes Scholar) Pythagorean Mystery School Heinz von Foerster (Cyberneticist) Squaring the Circle. Karl Rove quote on Empire / “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush” New York Times Oct 17, 2004 by Ron Suskind / “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality- judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” – Karl Rove

    • Wow, yes….

      “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality- judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” – Karl Rove

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  6. Kim Yaris says:

    The line in this post that spoke most directly to me was this: ““One of the most distressing characteristics of education reformers is that they are hyper-focused on how students perform, but they ignore how students learn.” I share this concern. It feels like learning is no longer education’s primary directive and nothing distresses or saddens me more. I don’t see the Common Core as all bad, nor do I see it as all good. However, what is happening with testing, well, that just feels pure evil.

    • I agree Kim. The teaching approach of Common Core is NOT “bad”… What is bad is forcing an entire nation to align their curriculum and then to obsess with the testing, demanding compliance.

  7. Pingback: Why Opting Out from PARCC is Important | Creative by Nature

  8. bhwilkoff says:

    This is one of the more coherent pieces I have read about the CCSS. It lays out a specific issue that you have with the overall scope of the standards themselves, but then also looks at how they have been used by others and implemented by school districts.

    I do worry, however, about going to any extreme within discussing these standards or their implementation. I too struggle with an overly narrow emphasis, but I like the ways in which you can do deep because of it. I too struggle with a text-only approach, but I understand that this is meant to combat the many assignments that are tangentially related to the text (diaramas, webquests, etc.). I too struggle with an obsession with only the outcomes, but I feel as though equity can be lost when we don’t look at objective outcomes for our kids.

    I believe that there is a compelling alternative to be had for implementing standards in this way, but it will only exist if we create it. I think you are right to call attention to what you believe is misguided, but I also want to propose what we should do instead. Is there a model or a set of standards that you believe would be better? Are there other ways of analyzing text that you see as more valid and that have led to better understanding? How can we get to a place where we are helping one another to create the future rather than just looking at the present in despair?

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here:

  9. Pingback: #C4C15: Challenging the Cold War Pedagogy of Common Core | Creative by Nature | Learning is Change

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  13. Gayle Greene says:

    Who is that amazing student?? his is one of the best analyses I’ve heard…

  14. Pingback: Did Former DOE Official Admit to Breaking U.S. Law? | Creative by Nature

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