In this Oct. 18, 2013 photo Chippewa Falls, Wis., Middle School Teacher Melissa Rasmus, left, works with 8-grade students during a math class at the Wisconsin school.(AP Photo/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram/Shane Opatz)
DALLAS — The Common Core curriculum, an effort to create voluntary national standards and testing for math and English, has long been criticized by some conservatives who say it’s being used to promote a liberal agenda.
But recently, public school materials tied to Common Core have faced increased scrutiny from parents and others on conservative websites. Though Texas is one of five states that has opted not to use Common Core curriculum, some of those critics have latched on to a grammar exercise used in Texas and other states as evidence.
Pushback against Common Core included a call for a national “Don’t Send your Kids to School Day” on Monday. And last week, U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan drew ire when he was quoted as dismissing Common Core critics as “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”
Common Core has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The Texas Legislature was so leery about Common Core that it passed a law this year that bans the state or school districts from requiring use of the national curriculum or standards.
Still, companies that produce school materials nationally also sell to Texas. And much of Common Core matches Texas requirements. It’s likely that Texas schools will use some materials also sold to states that adopt Common Core.
One of the examples that has sparked a recent outcry was a grammar exercise that used the sentence, “The commands of government must be obeyed by all.”
Did the worksheet given to fifth-graders in Texas and elsewhere intend to indoctrinate them with the idea?
There’s ample evidence that the sentence’s inclusion was simply crummy quality control. And Pearson, the company that produced the offending grammar exercise, admits it made a mistake.
But that was after the school worksheet appeared on infowars.com, the website run by conservative talk show host Alex Jones, which stated, “A parent of a ten year old was shocked to discover a grammar and writing test paper that their child brought home from school reads more like document from an authoritarian country such as China.”
The exercise instructed students to change several sentences using possessive nouns: “The choices of the president affect everyone. He makes sure the laws of the country are fair. The commands of government officials must be obeyed by all. The wants of an individual are less important than the well-being of the nation.”
Soon, other reports based on the exercise had been posted on many other conservative websites.
But Pearson says this has nothing to do with Common Core. Back in 2007, years before any Common Core curriculum had been developed, Pearson published a workbook used by fifth-grade reading classes.
One of the books studied was “Passage to Freedom,” about the Japanese ambassador to Lithuania during World War II and how he saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.
Exercises are loosely related to the reading selections, said Nancy Winship, a vice president of product development for Pearson. An assignment on possessive nouns stereotyped 1940s Japanese culture:
“The pride of a son in his father can inspire him all his life. The rights of fathers are strong in Japanese society. … What is more, the commands of government officials must be obeyed by all. The wants of an individual are less important than the well-being of the nation.”
In 2011, the reading selection was switched to “Hold the Flag High,” about an African-American army regiment during the Civil War. But the last two sentences from the old exercise were simply recycled.
That was a mistake, Winship said. In fact, the first exercise failed to meet standards, she said.
“Even in 2007, and in 2011, we would want those sentences to be about forming possessive nouns and not anything else,” she said.
The exercise will be changed for the next edition, she said.
A Web search for “Common Core” and “indoctrination” will quickly turn up other examples that some have found suspicious.
Pearson is not the only company to catch criticism. Macmillian/McGraw Hill produces a reading workbook for fourth-graders that includes a passage about a Hispanic girl listening to adult farm workers.
“Teresa was not sure what unions were, but she knew that a union could make their lives better,” one line says.
Melissa Patin Boyer, a Colorado mother, posted her complaint about that selection on her Facebook page.
“The objectionable material goes against my core beliefs,” she said. “But that’s not the point. It’s also taking time away from what they should be teaching.”
The point of the selection is to teach and test vocabulary words, not the content, said Brian Belardi, Macmillian/McGraw-Hill’s director of media relations.
“This selection is from a reading program, not a social studies program,” Belardi said
Ben Velderman of the conservative Education Action Group Foundation had posted a piece about the Pearson exercise with the headline “Common Core-aligned lesson teaches students to obey government officials, ignore individual rights.”
When he heard later how the offending sentences actually ended up in the workbook, Velderman was not satisfied.
“You have to take their word,” Velderman said, “that this is not an attempt at indoctrination.”
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