Thursday, May 29, 2014

Critical Theory and the Common Core Standards Initiative

            In a recent NPR article, Stephen Colbert is quoted referring to the Common Core Standards Initiative as, “preparing students for what they’ll face as adults – pointless stress and confusion.” But what exactly is it? For those who are unaware, the Common Core Initiative is “the largest-ever attempt in the United States to set unified expectations for what students in kindergarten through 12th grade should know and be able to do in each grade in preparation for college or the workforce” (NPR). As of now, the Common Core only covers standards for English Language Arts (reading and writing) and Math. Presently, 44 states (including California) have formally adopted the standards, and intend to implement testing that have been made to reflect the standards.
            Why does the government think we need it? Several theories have arisen in order to explain the need for this standardization. One theory, for example, explains that having a single standard should make it easier for students to catch up when they switch schools or move to a new state, as in the case with military families. Another theory, in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act, argues that while once states individually chose its own tests and definition of proficiency, having a Common Core standard nationwide makes it easier to compare statistics between states (NPR).

Why is it important to consider race as an analytical tool for this educational standardization?
            In this post, I will attempt to draw attention to an undeniable relationship between race and the standardization of curricula through a critical race analysis of the English Book Lists of the Common Core Standards Initiative, exploring possible sites of racial exclusivity, but also raising awareness of how this reality can be challenged. Before doing so, it is important to highlight the way in which notions of race will be operationalized. Race, as defined by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, is “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies” (Omi and Winant 55). Race in this sense is formed both by social structure but also by cultural representation. While this is true, it is also important to consider the construction of notions of race as identities imposed onto oppressed people by social or economic circumstances. Derrick Bell notes how, “black people have been used to enrich this society and made to serve as its proverbial scapegoat” (Bell 27). The economic and social inequalities imposed onto bodies of color unquestionably still are strongly present today. The Common Core Standards are a prime example of this institutional racial inequality; educational standardization leads to the continual segregation of students of color under a seemingly natural and justifiable label. As Erica Meiners asserts, “public education has, and continues, to funnel targeted non-white and poor youth towards non-living wage work, participation in the street or the permanent war economy and prison” (Meiners 552).

The Absence of Latino Presence in Common Core Reading Lists
            As Elaine Rubinstein-Avila points out, “the key to engaging with students is by teaching to their strengths in addition to their needs (40). Utilizing cultural relevancy allows for a greater, more meaningful educational experience. A wide array of titles spans the gamut of the Common Core Book List, including titles like The Giver to Charlotte’s Web to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One thing, however, caught my attention: there were very few titles that featured a Latino/a protagonist. This realization was striking considering that “Hispanic students now make up nearly a quarter of the nation’s public school enrollment […] yet nonwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers” (Rich). The fact that books by authors such as Gary Soto or Julia Alvarez were not making the recommended list spoke volumes about the exclusion implicated by the Common Core Book List. “Hispanic children have historically underperformed non-Hispanic whites in American schools,” claims Motoko Rich. Without racial and cultural inclusion in recommended material, should it come as a surprise if the examinations of new Common Core end up perpetuating the same results?

School-to-Prison Pipeline
            What then happens to students who perform poorly in schools that rely heavily on test-based accountability? According to the ACLU, schools may encourage dropouts in order to boost the overall test scores and gain incentives. For many underfunded schools that may rely on such government aid, the desire to push out poor-performing students may result in implementation of zero-tolerance policies that may result in suspension or even expulsion for circumstances as simple as bringing nail clippers to school; the rates of which have been most dramatic for students of color (ACLU). In addition, schools have begun using surveillance and incarceration tools such as metal detectors, surveillance cameras, school uniforms, or on-site school police officers with no experience working with youth (Meiners 549). The ACLU asserts that students of color are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct in school, and to inevitably end up in juvenile detention facilities.

What Can Be Done About This Issue?
            Considering that the Common Core has been adopted by the majority of the states, the question to ask now is what, if anything, can the library do to help remedy the issue with the lack of representation of people of color in the Common Core Book List? A possible solution would be for libraries to make more visible the material that has been written by people of color and focuses on characters that children of color can identify with. Although the library’s founding principles, according to Todd Honma, speak to “a common hegemonic U.S. rhetoric of white ethnic assimilation and meritocratic advancement,” perhaps promoting further the presence of literature written by people of color would advocate instead for diversification. Though the path to a just society is far from reached, advocating for greater inclusivity in realms of literature by the library helps both the realm of academia, and itself in its own transformation.

Works Cited

Bell, Derrick A., Richard Delgado, and Jean Stefancic. The Derrick Bell Reader. New York: New York UP, 2005. PDF.
"Book Lists." Common Core. Scholastic, n.d. Web. 29 May 2014. <>.
"The Common Core FAQ." NPR. NPR, 27 May 2014. Web. 29 May 2014. <>.
Honma, Todd. "Trippin' Over the Color Line: The Invisibility of Race in Library and Information Studies." InterActions (2005): n. pag. Web. 29 May 2014. <>.
Meiners, Erica R. "Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline/Building Abolition Futures." The Urban Review 43.4 (2011): 547-65. Web. 15 May 2014.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994. PDF.
Rich, Motoko. "For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing." The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 May 2014. <>.

"What Is The School-to-Prison Pipeline?" American Civil Liberties Union. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2014. <>.

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