The Common Core's Unsung Benefit: It Teaches Kids to Be Good Citizens

The standards identify only three texts that every American student must read: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
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The Common Core has started to take political flak from the right and the left. Conservatives worry about the overreach of federal incentives, while unions don’t want the standards connected to teacher evaluations. What is being lost?  The standards’ significant emphasis on reinvigorating the democratic purpose of public education. Making good on this promise presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine and reprioritize the special role that schools play in preparing students for active civic participation.

These new educational goals emphasize higher-level abilities: analysis and critical thinking; marshaling evidence and making arguments; collaboration and problem-solving; and communicating clearly. The stated focus of the Common Core—to prepare students who are “college and career ready”—advances one fundamental purpose of public education: preparing students for productive employment and economic self-sufficiency.

But Common Core is not just about college and career readiness. It is also deeply and explicitly focused on preparing students for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. And while many skills are transferable across the domains of college, career, and citizenship, the commitment in the Common Core to the democratic mission of public schools goes much deeper.

The Common Core identifies three texts—and only three texts—that every American student must read: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution (Preamble and Bill of Rights), and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The foundational documents of American democracy are what bind us together as a people, and the only texts Common Core expects every single American to study; everything else students read in school is determined by local educators.

Acknowledging the explicit prioritization of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution can re-center the political debate on the merits of Common Core. These documents are embraced across the country and across the political spectrum because they represent the common ground and shared commitments that unite us as Americans. Understanding them is at the core of why public schools were created in the first place. Closely reading and deeply comprehending these documents is essential to Thomas Jefferson’s vision that public schools should enable every American “to understand his duties to his neighbors and country” and to scrutinize the actions of public officials “with diligence, candor and judgment.” More recently, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that “the better educated citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have. . . Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.”

In addition to calling for students to read and understand the foundational documents of American democracy, Common Core emphasizes the skills students need in order to apply this knowledge. For example, the high school English-Language Arts standards require students to:

  • Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features (emphasis added);
  • Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses); and
  • Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

The Common Core defines a literate American as having the ability to understand and evaluate the acts of government and to determine independently whether arguments accord with our government’s structure, purpose, and history. The standards posit that a high-school graduate should be able to understand Supreme Court opinions and dissents and decide for him or herself whether the Court arrived at the right decision.

In addition to focusing on building students’ understanding of civically important content, Common Core articulates standards for speaking and listening that develop students’ ability to participate in democratic debate:

  • Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.
  • Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a fair hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

These skills—analyze, delineate, evaluate, communicate, challenge ideas, promote divergent perspectives—are without a doubt valuable on college campuses as well as in many modern, knowledge-economy careers. But the deliberate choice to define these advanced literacy skills by illustrating their application to seminal texts of American democracy highlights Common Core’s dual purpose of also preparing students for the increasing intellectual demands of citizenship in a complex world.

The standards do not cover all the content or address all aspects of civics education, and they certainly are not a panacea for all that ails civics education. But the Common Core makes an essential claim regarding American education: Preparing young people for government “of the people, by the people, for the people” means more than a course in government or civics, and more than basic skills in reading and math. To enjoy the privileges and shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship, young Americans must master the content and analytic processes needed to fully participate in democratic processes. While some of this is undoubtedly covered in good history and civics classes, the innovation of Common Core is to explicitly connect knowledge of the principles and rules on which American democracy is based with the development of the practical skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as in math, that students need to be discerning, empowered citizens.

Studying seminal documents of our democracy and the analytical approaches needed to deeply comprehend their meaning does not privilege any particular political position. Schools, of course, should never seek to impose or encourage fealty to any party or faction. Quite the opposite: Common Core envisions every American possessing a personal understanding of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution so they can make their own judgments about what these documents mean.

Educating young people for citizenship should feature prominently in how we talk about and think about the Common Core. And citizenship should be part of how students are tested on the standards:, At least one writing task on the high school language arts assessment should engage students in analyzing and arguing an issue with reference to at least one foundational document of American democracy, among other texts. Taking these steps will not directly address the immediate political challenges Common Core is confronting right now. But these signals will make it more likely that states, districts, and schools implement Common Core in a way that reinvigorates the democratic purposes of public education, and this could ultimately pave a path back to bipartisan support for education policy.

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Ross Wiener is a vice president, and the executive director of the Education and Society Program, at the Aspen Institute.

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