Empathy and Stopwatches: Making Sense of The Common Core Curriculum


My daughter is in first grade and doing very well in school. It’s a charter school in New Orleans. I am not even sure what, exactly this means. Is it a magnet school? No. Do you have to test to get in? Only if you are not in the district, which we are not. Were we happy when she got in? Very.

She started in Kindergarten and is now in first grade. This is the year that the Common Core Curriculum has been adopted by the school. At first I didn’t pay any attention to this. Then I did.


It began a few weeks into the school year–the sounds of distress around Common Core  reached a sudden ubiquity, like crickets at dusk — you don’t notice it and then all of a sudden it’s so loud you can hardly hear yourself think. Emails. Newspaper articles. My wife coming down the stairs with this look on her face. All the signals were flashing.

Common Core’s most polarizing feature is the way it measures success: Tests. Standardizes tests. Many of them. My daughter has one a week. Beyond that, I had only the vaguest sense of what is was and what it meant.

The very phrase, “My daughter,” will be helpful, I thought. If I focus on what is best for my daughter then I will not get distracted by national policy.

All politics is local, the saying goes. Is this true of education? And what do we mean by education? The rhetoric of alarm concerning our schools often mentions American student’s deficiencies in math and science. Also anyone looking into the issue of education in America will hear a lot about how well things are going for the kids in Finland.

The situation in  Finland and the other Scandinavian countries, in a nutshell: their students do very well, and they spend a lot of time playing in the woods while our kids are consigned to carefully pencilling in A,B,C, or D, on multiple choice tests.

Scandinavian parents also let their children  get in bed with them, and they are in the habit of leaving their babies in strollers unattended. On the street. In cold weather. They believe in fresh air, which sounds reasonable enough, and that everyone lives this way. Then they try in in New York City.

I still think about the astonishingly morbid yet borderline comic news story from years ago about the Danish actress arrested for leaving her baby outside in a stroller for an hour while she ate dinner at a restaurant. The story continues to fascinate me. I don’t know why.

It is mortifying how much noise there is around this issue, and how difficult it is to find a credible voice that can sort through it. For example I found this article, which centers on Diane Ravitch, helpful, but only to a point.

The most acerbic and credible critique of the Common Core is not really based on the perils of testing, or the cultish, Hunger-Games-like effect of having a national competition, which is what this testing reflects, but rather Ravitch’s contention that all of this theory is just a money grab on the part of private enterprise. It is the wolf of greed dressed in the sheep’s clothing of education reform and children’s best interests.

Like what has happened to our prisons. The horrors that than can occur when you make prisons good for business can be encapsulated by Mark Ciavarella, the Pennsylvania judge who threw teenagers in jail for his own enrichment. Really.  He was paid commission on each one. 

But why am I talking about prisons at all when I wanted to talk about school?

(The memory of how I felt when I was in school, especially Junior high school, returns to answer this question.)


She loves her teacher. Her teacher seems great: motivated, smart, attentive, prepared, warm.

All good. So why worry?


One problem of thinking about Common Core is that one grasps very quickly that it is a problem you can avoid, if you want, by enrolling your kid in private schools.

On the bright side, we are in New Orleans and not New York or one of the other big cities where getting your kid into a private school is a macabre and or cutthroat experience. One on which, for example, business deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars turn. (This story is so delightfully weird.)

But I don’t take this ultimatum lightly–I have always felt education was a top priority. Am I skimping now that it is my turn to back up this sentiment with money?

The person who provided me with the greatest insight into the Core Curriculum issue was a fourth grade teacher. Not a teacher from my daughter’s school, but the grandmother of one of her classmates, who teaches in a small town in Louisiana. We sat next to each other at one of those Banquet Halls for Toddlers, in which the ocassion being celebrated is not a wedding but a birthday.

“Doesn’t it encourage rote learning?” I said.

“No, just the opposite,” she said. “It encourages analytical thinking. They have to read a passage and not just repeat what it said, but show that they have understood what the author was trying to convey.”

She then went on to say that in order to facilitate this kind of analytical thinking the reading had shifted to non-fiction from fiction.

“So it’s like having first graders be in pre-law,” I said, half-joking.

“It’s actually terrific for my kids,” she said. And by the time she was done I was very closr to feeling assuaged about the whole thing. She was a teacher, after all, and she thought it was good for her kids. But then she mentioned that most of the kids in her school, and in Louisiana, in fact, are working below the national average, and this would be good to bring them up to par, which is to say average. The tower of babble effect kicked in again – the myriad voices complaining the common core is too hard and those complaining it is too easy – and my hard won gains vanished.


The matter of the value of literature remained unresolved; it’s hard to argue for literature when you are trying to measure results. Doubly so when you are thinking on a national scale. The problem with literature is that its value often lies in its ambiguity. Yet in order to measure how much a student grasps of what a piece of writing is trying to say, the piece under consideration should be explicitly trying to say something–  to promote and argument, to make a point. This is not how literature usually works–analyzing literature for its theme and message is not the way to get the most out of literature.

I think my daughter think she is gong to do all right with reading. She lives in a house with two writers. Although, admittedly, seeing a parent frantically tap on a keyboard is not necessarily an inspiring vision. Still, the house filled with books. Once in a while, one of the adults reads one.

I wish I could find something to express my unease with this new system, beyond the fact that so many people are uneasy with it. But all for their own often conflicting reasons!

-It’s too hard!

-It’s not hard enough!

-My child has special needs!

-My child has special skills that requires special treatment!

-My child is special! -My child is me!

-I am special!


Then  I came across an argument for literature that can function as an argument.

A new study suggests that literature can be useful in exactly the practical terms for which its usefulness is derided.

“For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov,” is the headline about a study whose opening line is: “Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies.”

It comes along with  a fun test that helps measure empathy.

The study found, “that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

The implicit indictment of the Common Core is that it leaves very little oxygen in the classroom for literary explorations. The time and money are devoted to other more mechanical pursuits.  Analytical thinking is not rote learning, as the Fourth grade teacher helpfully explained. But neither does it provide the gifts to be had in literary adventure.

What seemed so revelatory about study is that the way it prioritized not just reading, or books in a generalized sense, or even the broad catagory of fiction, but literature. There is a fine line between trash and literature, and to discuss it at all is to make yourself vulnerable to the accusation of suffocating art in a museum – one which requires a lot of money to get into – but there is a distinction nevertheless, and in some way it involves a writer’s  capacity for understanding human weakness and for provoking empathy. (A fascinating analysis of the popular novel, Gone, Girl, that discusses the book in these terms, here.)

Books can be used to avoid other people. But they can also be used to understand other people.

What we if our children were better off reading literature in school? What if there was a test that completely colonized our kid’s education in a way that cut off not just their exposure to literature, but their ability to engage with it?

But what is it they will be engaging? A form of brutal truth perhaps. From Chekhov’s story, “The Beauties,” a boy and his grandfather visit a friend of the grandfather in the country. The boy is served tea by a young girl. The boy looks into her face and feels, “all at once as though a wind were blowing over my soul and blowing away all the impressions of the day, with their dust and drearyness. I saw the bewitching features of the most beautiful face…”

What does this provoke?

A, “painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt very sorry for myself…”


Having slept on this piece for a day, a week, then a month, tinkering with it so it has evolved from one variation of nonsense to another, a different shape comprised of the same substance, it occurs to me now that I have totally avoided discussing the two most terrifying things about the whole subject of the Core Curriculum, namely Math and Meritocracy.

Math is not discussed at all in the above piece, a symptom of my general aversion/fear of the subject in school. Yet Math is both the end and the means of the Core Curriculum–it is  the subject most easily measurable, and also the subject which stands to benefit most from rigorous testing and evaluation. My daughter has practice sheets of math work that need to be timed. Getting the right answer is only part of the goal; finishing the test in the allotted time is of equal importance. The allotted time is one minute. Doing this homework with her involves a stopwatch. It’s like being a track coach. It’s kind of fun and also a bit horrifying. But then you could say that about being a parent, in general.

Also,  math is  the underpinning of our computer code and the means by which these educational benchmarks are being measured. The word that follows “test,” in these Core Curriculum discussions, is always, “score.” A number.

If you frame the Core Curriculum as, “Let’s get rid of cultural variables and subjective criteria,”  it sounds much better. It sounds like, “Let’s reward talent and hard work.” Which in turn is surely the mantra of the meritocracy. Which I am all for! Even if,  like capitalism in its undiluted form, Meritocracy-straight-no-chaser is kind of terrifying. An opinion I have formed in part through Walter Kirn’s book, “Lost in the Meritocracy,” and Wesley Yang’s long reported essay in New York Magazine “Paper Tigers.” Both fascinating.

Article Posted 3 years Ago
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