Instructional Leadership in Action

Could common core save our democracy?

by Stephen Fink on Mar 22, 2016

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You might have noticed that that there is an election going on. So far, it has been surprising, convention-defying, outrageous, at times downright mean — but above all, it has been a spectacle full of dubious declarations and light on real world compatible policy proposals.

I’m a lifelong political observer and I think I have a good grasp of the state of education in this country.

After hearing so many patently false statements on the campaign trail, I wonder if we, as citizens, are able to evaluate the credibility of claims so that we can make an informed decision at the ballot box. And, do we even care to?

Fact-checking to the rescue?

There is no shortage of falsehoods on both sides. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of the fact-checking organization PolitiFact, showed that almost one third of each candidate’s (checked) statements were mostly false or worse. Often it was much higher.

There is enough information available to make an informed decision. But there is also more than enough to make an uninformed one.

Despite this sobering picture, Holan sees cause for optimism. She points to survey and click data that show fact checking getting more popular. Plus, accurate information is becoming more available and easier for voters to find. She is “confident that Americans have the information they need to help them choose wisely.”

She is certainly right on one point. There is enough information available to make an informed decision. But there is also more than enough to make an uninformed one.

The all-you-can-eat media diet

Today’s media diet is no longer a limited menu of vetted news items but more of an all-you-can-eat buffet for every taste. No topic is too insignificant and — thanks to social media — everything is up for debate.

All in all, that’s probably a good thing. We are now hearing about issues we haven’t heard of before and political discourse is less of a one-way street. But we also have to live with a new reality: In this networked world of news anywhere, anytime, it’s up to us to figure out if something is based in fact or not.

One way to deal with this is to outsource critical analysis to dedicated fact checkers. But that seems like a poor solution and in any case just covers a small sliver of statements from high-profile personalities.

No, I strongly believe that everybody who participates in our democracy should be able to look at a report, an opinion or an argument and determine the level of accuracy.

What we should learn in school

Where should we learn this? As an educator I would say: Where we should learn many of these critical thinking skills, is in school. And as it turns out, we already have — in some places — learning expectations that focus on this important skill.

Let’s take a look at some of the Common Core standards that relate to the understanding of political speeches and texts.

Here is what 8th graders should be able to do:

Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.2

At the end of high school, the Common Core standard states:

Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.2

I realize that for many, Common Core standards are a dead end. And it’s ironic that some of the very politicians that want to end Common Core are the ones that create a jumbled web of falsehoods that to untangle requires the higher-academic thinking skills called out in the Common Core.

So if we take a step back and ask if somebody leaving high school should be able to evaluate the credibility and accuracy of a source to make an informed decision, we can probably all agree that this is not just a “nice-to-have” but a “must-do.”

Difficult decisions

I know that many teachers have taught this skill in the past and that many of us have the knowledge and discipline to apply it. Yet, it’s probably safe to say that as with many higher academic skills, not all students have access, particularly those who are caught in an endless cycle of “drill and kill” teaching geared toward meeting the most basic levels of tested skill development imposed by federal and/or state policy.

Public education needs to ensure that voters are ready for a media environment that puts the task to tell truth from truthiness on them.

This unevenness in the teaching of higher academic skills that are, in my opinion, as fundamental as the ABCs, is a problem. As “high journalistic standards” are increasingly a thing of the past, sloppy reporting, careless rumors and targeted misinformation are becoming commonplace.

Combined with the speed and convenience of social media and the easy retreat into echo chambers, it gets more difficult to make the kind of informed decisions a democracy depends on.

Our next challenge

Public education in the United States always carried the obligation to prepare students for a productive participation in the nation’s democratic process. Today, that means ensuring that future voters are ready for a media environment that puts the task to tell truth from truthiness on them.

This election season shows vividly how misinformation is spread intentionally and unintentionally. It also shows how the “vetting filter” of media is increasingly irrelevant, as candidates directly communicate with foes and followers on social media.

In our polarized politics we don’t agree on many things but maybe this could be one: for the sake of a healthy democracy we need to make sure that everybody is able and willing to assess the accuracy and quality of information. Call it Common Core or something else, but this is an education standard our democracy can not live without.

Topics: Educational Leadership

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), and affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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