National Writing Project

Metaphors, Frames, and Fact (Checks) about the Common Core

By: Anne Elrod Whitney
Publication: English Journal
Date: November 2014

Summary: Two former K-12 teachers—Anne Whitney and Patrick Shannon, now professors at Penn State—critically examine some of the metaphors that advocates have used to frame debates over the Common Core State Standards and their origins, drawing on a range of research to critique the assumptions that underlie these framings.


Metaphor: Education As a Race

[Asian nations] want their kids to excel because they understand that whichever country outeducates the other is going to out-compete us in the future. So that's what we're up against. That's what's at stake—nothing less than our primacy in the world.... And I want to commend all of you for acting collectively through the National Governor's Association to develop common academic standards that will better position our students for success. (Obama)

In his talk to the National Governors Association in 2010, President Obama offers an implicit metaphor to explain the rationale for CCSS, its urgency, and its origins. He frames education as a race (his chief reform will be named Race to the Top). And he characterizes it as a race we are losing. We are behind, he suggests, in preparing for the global innovation economy. He frames the issue of school reform as self-preservation: If we don't hurry up, then we will lose the race and lose our standing in the world. He positions a common rigorous education as the engine for quickening the country's pace in this race.[...]

Fact Check:

  1. The US economy is still twice the size of its nearest competitor. We are not behind economically (Reich).
  2. American workers' productivity has increased dramatically since the 1990s, but the increase was/is not dependent on educational attainment (Chang) and the benefits have not been distributed evenly (Krugman, 'Why').
  3. The global economy does not require new skills from all workers, and the United States produces more highly skilled workers than the US economy requires (US Bureau of Labor Statistics).
  4. International test scores show a two-tiered school system in America (Berliner). In schools serving primarily middle- and uppermiddle-class communities, American students score higher on reading and math tests than students from other nations, and schools serving communities with high rates of poverty produce test scores among the lowest nations. Our rankings are over-determined by America's greater tolerance for poverty among its citizens than other industrialized nations (Carnoy and Rothstein)."
About the Authors

ANNE ELROD WHITNEY is a former high school English teacher and South Coast Writing Project teacher-consultant, and is now an associate professor of Education at Penn State University.

PATRICK SHANNON is a former primary school teacher, and now teaches in the reading specialist certification program at Penn State University.

Whitney, Anne Elrod, and Patrick Shannon. "Metaphors, Frames, and Fact (Checks) about the Common Core." English Journal 104:2 (2014) 61-71. Copyright ©2014 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission.

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