If the new national Common Core educational standards influence curriculum the way some fear they will, students can say goodbye to literary classics and hello to fuzzy math, say critics.
The Common Core State Standards initiative, a plan devised by the nation's governors and backed by the Obama administration, seeks to set a uniform standard for grades K-12, to ensure kids all over the nation reach the same minimum level of learning. Some 45 states, in many cases enticed by federal grants, have signed on and testing of students in grades 3-8 and once in high school is scheduled to begin next year.
Supporters say Common Core only tests students in math and English, but critics say school districts will devise curriculum to maximize their students' performance on the national exams, and, in fact, have already begun that measure. And those same critics claim Common Core math standards barely cover basic geometry or second-year algebra and that the classics are all but ignored in English classes.
“The math standard focuses on investigative math, which has been shown to be a disaster,” Glyn Wright, executive director of Eagle Forum, told FoxNews.com. “With the new math standard in the Common Core, there are no longer absolute truths. So 3 times 4 can now equal 11 so long as a student can effectively explain how they reached that answer.”
Stanford Prof. James Milgram, the only mathematician on the Common Core Validation Committee, refused to sign off on the math standards, calling the whole thing “in large measure a political document” during testimony he gave in May 2011 in which he advocated for Texas not to adopt the Common Core standards.
“I had considerable influence on the mathematics standards in the document. However, as is often the case, there was input from many other sources -- including State Departments of Education -- that had to be incorporated into the standards,” he said during the testimony.
“A number of these sources were mainly focused on things like making the standards as non-challenging as possible. Others were focused on making sure their favorite topics were present, and handled in the way they liked,” he also said, adding that it led to a number of “extremely serious failings” in the Common Core that made it premature for any state hoping to improve math scores to implement them and that the Core Math standards were designed to reflect very low expectations.
But an official for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which backs Common Core, says the new standards have the opposite effect and can actually encourage critical thinking in students. She denied that the standards allow for wrong answers, but said the emphasis is on the process.
“One of the things we learned from research, and there’s a lot of it out there, is that kids do not necessarily learn from the algorithmic method,” Linda Gojak, president of the NCTM said to FoxNews.com. “The assessment is that it is more about kids making sense of what they are learning instead of memorizing a step-by-step process.”
But Wright believes critical thinking could actually be a casualty of Common Core.
“We think the goal of education is to make individual thinkers of our children,” she said. “The Common Core does the opposite. The [literacy] standard severely de-emphasizes classic literature which will surely lower critical thinking.”
Timothy Shanahan, a professor at the University of Illinois who also was part of an independent expert panel that reviewed the standards, speculates why many are opposed to Common Core.
“The reason that this criticism is coming up is because the Common Core is promoting greater attention to science, history and other informational texts,” he said to FoxNews.com. “Studies show that American kids do better with stories than with science or history materials, placing them at a real disadvantage in international economic competition.”
Because the actual Common Core exams have not yet been formulated, there is no list of what literature students may or may not be tested on. But critics say the stated policy of emphasizing "informational," or non-fiction reading, in English will inevitably come at the expense of literature classics. Those time-tested books are not simply fun to read, according to Brigham Young University English Prof. Alan Manning, they teach students how to write.
"An argument can be made that any improvement in reading/writing instruction should include more rather than fewer exercises where students write stories themselves that are modeled on the classics," Manning wrote in an e-mail to Utah activists opposed to Common Core. "This creates a more stable foundation on which students can build skills for other kinds of writing. The Core standards would prevent public schools from testing these kinds of approaches."
But Shanahan rejects the premise that more non-fiction will mean less fiction.
“Common core doesn't downgrade literature in our schools, but it does push for a big increase in those other kinds of reading,” he added.
While Common Core has plenty of defenders -- and may prove beneficial -- the main criticism is that it is not the federal government's job to impose educational standards, say critics. Finding out what works is the job of local districts, working with parents, they say.
“The bottom line is that the Common Core Initiative is nationalized education -- to which we are starkly opposed,” Wright also said. “Formerly, parents would have control over what their children are being taught in the classroom, but under Common Core everything comes down from a central, national group. Because the tests and standards are copyright and must be used as-is, parents will not be able to control the material on which their children are taught and tested.”
Groups that support Common Core disagree.
“Just because you have state standards, doesn’t mean a district will have a standardized curriculum,” Chad Colby, a spokesman for education non-profit Achieve, told FoxNews.com.
“Many states already have standards in place and curriculum varies district to district and even school to school,” he added, referring to the state standards in Arkansas which have been in place for 20 years but allows every school to independently choose their curriculum.
“The common core doesn’t tell you how to teach students," Colby said. "The curriculum will still be at the state level.”