Common Core vs. Heritage Academy’s Standards

Note: A number of states have adopted the new and mostly unknown Common Core Standards for K-12 education. Nearly all of the “adoptions” have not been done by state legislatures, but by state Boards of Education, a prime example of how administrative law-making is replacing legislative law-making in our country. With the increased attention and rising public opposition to some elements of Common Core, I asked our American History teacher, Cara Palmer, to evaluate how the Common Core standards measure up with what we require at our charter high school, Heritage Academy.

Cara Palmer graduated from Heritage Academy in 2000 where she also served as our Student Body President. She went on to receive her B. A. from Southern Virginia University, her Master of Education from the University of Arizona, and 21 additional upper level history credits at Arizona State University. She now teaches American History at Heritage Academy where students can also receive dual enrollment college credit as they earn credits toward high school graduation.

The following is a summary of her report. The full text may be found here.

Earl Taylor

How the Two Align: Common Core State Standards and 
Heritage Academy’s American History Curriculum (Summary Version)

Introduction

Words from a Concerned Teacher - After reviewing the Common Core State Standards, a teacher at Heritage Academy had some apprehensions of just what American History lesson is being taught to students through the new standards. The teacher made the following comments in a message to the director of the school:

I just took a more thorough look at the Informational Texts and Sample Performance Tasks that you sent us this last week for the content area of History. I am working really hard to be an optimist in this situation, but I am having a hard time seeing how these suggested texts benefit, protect and preserve our country. Are these texts going to be the required texts? Do I have to use these exact excerpts? Every document that I viewed pulls down America’s foundation. I was not too surprised about the texts on the Battle of Little Bighorn and the “Declaration of Sentiments” from the Women’s Convention at Seneca Falls since most public schools and universities place great emphasis on these topics already. However, as I read the letter they chose to represent George Washington and the section they picked from Democracy in America, it became apparent what the motive and objective is behind these standards. Why didn’t they pick a section from Washington’s Farewell Address or choose an excerpt from Democracy in America that shows the benefits of religion and beliefs in our free nation? (2013)

These questions and concerns, as well as many others, steered the administration and staff of Heritage Academy to conduct a more thorough study of just what the Informational Texts and Sample Performance Tasks are not just asking students to do, but what they are teaching them on various topics, such as American History.

An Overview of American History in 
the Common Core State Standards

In a broad perspective there are 333 texts selected for grades K- CCR (CCR means “College and Career Ready” in Common Core) in Appendix B (English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects), at least 72 of these texts are related to significant historical periods and topics taught in American History classes today. Of these 72 texts, at least 32 focus on the stark topic of racism (such as slavery, segregation, white supremacy, etc.) which comes out to be approximately 42% of the American History content. Only 10 of the 72 (approximately ) have the actual words or fundamental documents written by the men who were key players in America’s founding as a free nation (two of which are a collection of primary documents from American History) and of that ten only four are found in the sections assigned for History/Social Studies. Many of the prominent primary documents, such as The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, the United States Bill of Rights and George Washington’s “Farwell Address,” are found in other sections, mainly the English Language Arts and not under the History/Social Studies sections.

A Young Student’s American History 
Experience Under Common Core

The first document a child will read, under the Common Core Standards, related to American History is in Kindergarten or 1st grade. It is the story of George Washington Carver titled A Weed is a Flower: The life of George Washington Carver (Liki 1965). This book has an inspiring message of a man who overcame all odds (slavery and racism being the main ones) to becoming a wonderful scientist of horticulture, who assisted the South greatly in their agricultural achievements. In this document there is also a story being told of America. The first page points out that George was the “son of slaves” and “there was no hope for the future” (3). It explains that George through his life had turned “[e]vil into Good, despair into hope and hatred into love” (3). The story goes on to describe his family running in fear from a band of white kidnappers and tells the sad story that he never saw his mother again. This is the only text related to American History a child will get in Kindergarten and 1st grade. There is no patriotic poem, story or lyrics. There is no story about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. What might be a child’s perception of America based on this introduction? More importantly, why was this the only text chosen in relation to American History and none others? If a student is expected to learn about the life and function of a tree (as in A Tree is a Plan by Clyde Robert Bulla), wind power (National Geographic Young Explorers’ “Wind Power”) or the history of learning to fly (in Fran Hodgkins’ and True Kelley’s How People Learned to Fly), why can’t they learn the basic structure of our government or basic principles of freedom taught by the Founders of this Country? Instead the topic of slavery is their first lesson. This type of pattern continues from grade to grade and into their high school years (read the full response to get a more thorough layout and better details).

The Curriculum Focus at Heritage Academy

What lessons on American History does Heritage Academy teach? More importantly, what type of students emerge from a curriculum that focuses on the “lives, beliefs and accomplishments of the heroes of America—our founding fathers and mothers—and to better understand the values and principles which governed their lives and upon which they built the American nation” (2013, www.heritageacademyaz.com/index.cfm/about-us/)? Heritage Academy for the past eighteen years has worked tirelessly to teach this lesson to its students. What are the results? The following comments from students all come from the most recent school year, 2012-2013, in their American History classroom (Heritage Academy Students, Final Inquiry Paper Presentations, Spring 2013).

“Our Constitution is truly phenomenal” said one Heritage Scholar to her classmates at Heritage Academy at the end of the school year. Students at Heritage Academy are given the opportunity to really read, study and gain a love for the Constitution and the foundational principles that make this Nation great. Another student made this comment, “I truly believe that if we as a nation adhere to the principles our Founders incorporated into the Constitution, we will be able to preserve our freedom.” On the same topic a young man made this explanation of what freedom now means to him:

The Founders secured to the American people a treasure which few had ever before possessed, freedom. The individuals of the United States were left to pursue their own happiness, to create their own success, to ease their own hardships, and to remedy their own problems. Such was, and such remains, the responsibility which the preservation of our sweet, priceless liberty demands. There is neither a cause more noble, nor a task more rewarding than the protection, through diligence and courage, of this essential right.

This leads to another important lesson that students discovered after receiving an in-depth understanding of America’s Founders and founding documents, which are the responsibilities that rest on the American citizens. One scholar pointed out that “government is not the road to your independence and well-being, but being unified in the same principles is the key.” The words of another scholar explained the need for proper self-government in order to have liberty:

Liberty and self-government coincide with each other. Liberty is the power to do as one pleases, or the power of choice. Self-government is self-control, or self-command. These two ideas go hand in hand. Without liberty, we cannot have self-government because we don’t get to choose; we don’t have our freedom to choose. Without self-government, someone else is making our choices, so therefore, we have no liberty. Self-government is just as important as our liberty and our inalienable rights.

This principle of self-government went deeper as a scholar explained the importance of religion and morality:

Without religion and morality, true patriotism can never be acquired. Our Constitution promises us freedom of religions, not freedom from religions. We need right now to set the example of liberty, equality, and morality to the whole world, but we cannot achieve this unless we ourselves are free, equal and virtuous. Virtue and morality are not just things we can apply whenever we want to; they must be enforced every minute of every day of our lives. What makes our country special is not just that we have these standards, but that we live up to them.

It takes self-control, unification and moral principles to remain a free people. As one scholar put it, “You cannot compromise principles. This is a mistake we made as a nation. We sacrificed our freedom for a nice sounding deal.” Of course there is still more to the equation of being a truly free and equal people and the scholars of Heritage Academy have worked hard to piece it together.

It became obvious to many scholars that education is another vital piece to this puzzle. One scholar explained that, “Knowledge is one thing that, if lacking, a person wouldn’t be able to decipher and apply their own rights. When the people are uneducated, then their rights can easily be taken away from them. […] Lacking knowledge and learning, America would unknowingly vote its freedoms away.” The citizens of America must be educated on these topics to know how to uphold, defend and preserve their freedoms. Another student realized the drastic differences that set modern day America apart from days of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin; in response he made this comment: “The world we live in is different, but those principles shouldn’t perish from this world. Kennedy said, ‘And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ In the end ask yourselves should America still follow the Constitution’s principles and moral laws?” Is having a deep and meaningful understanding of our Nation’s founding principles unnecessary in today’s world? On this topic another Heritage Academy student made this statement:

This is our America. Remembering and expanding our education is the first step we must take. We must then understand and apply these principles to help us win our internal and external battles. As we learn to do this, we will become more united as a nation, ready to take on the hardships thrown our way. In conclusion, as a country we must always look to and learn from the past, keep ourselves in line with good values and remain determined to continue forward.

What type of curriculum prompted this type of learning in the young scholars of Heritage Academy? This past year the students in American History (grades 10 & 11) have worked through a curriculum consisting of a vast collection of primary documents which were directly related to the time periods and topics being studied. Over the course of one year the students studied over 75 primary documents. Of the 75 documents, 30 focus on the founding of the American Nation, which is 40% of the documents. Documents included in this collection were, Common Sense by Thomas Paine, The Declaration of Independence and "The Writing of the Declaration of Independence" by Thomas Jefferson, "George Washington to Martha Washington" by George Washington, "Diary of Albegence Waldo at Valley Forge" by Albigence Waldo, "Letter to John Adams" by Abigail Adams, "Speech of Benjamin Franklin" by Benjamin Franklin, The Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights, "Farewell Address" by George Washington, Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville and many more.

One student expressed that she had her own “personal revolution” throughout her experience in American History this last year. In her own words she explained,

The other day in history, I received a letter. This letter was addressed ‘To: my future self, from [name withheld].’ Inside was mostly advice from last semester; however there was one sentence that stood out in particular. It read, ‘Remember, to be free you must first have a personal revolution.’ What could I have possibly meant? […] I believe that it is time for each of us to have a personal revolution of our own. […] Now is the time to change our thinking and not look at history as just some class that we are required to take, but a class to learn from America’s past so we can help build America’s future. Our Founding Fathers knew that in order for America to truly be a nation of liberty and freedom for all, the people must possess the principles and virtues of which this country was founded upon.

What would America be like if every student in this nation had an education that taught them these types of lessons, rather than an education that focuses on racial conflict and prejudice? Would America flourish? As the reader of this response, it is your responsibility to answer this question.

Conclusion

What are the messages that emerge from the two different objectives of the Common Core State Standards and Heritage Academy? Do these objectives align themselves? The answer, after looking at all the details, is no. They do not align. Is it not ironic that a school that teaches principles of liberty, meant to sustain and preserve our nation, is now being forced to accept and implement standards with an opposing objective and purpose? Does this seem right? Why is focusing on the founding fathers and principles of America not the focus of the Common Core Standards? Please help Heritage keep the messages of freedom alive, for as one Heritage scholar explained, “Freedom is something to be grateful for and to not take lightly. It is extremely fragile and must be vigilantly kept safe.” If we the people of this Nation lose sight of these principles and lessons, what will happen to our Nation? A concerned student made this statement: “Will we chant for the founding fathers until they become a whisper and finally forgotten? If there is one thing I know it’s that those men sacrificed all they had to build the strong foundation America stands on, and that is NOT to be forgotten.”