Common Core Unicorns

“Hello. Museum of Natural History,” the operator said. “How can I direct your call?”

“Yes, I’d like to speak to the curator in charge of your unicorn exhibit.”

I called the museum in New York City after seeing a report that 6 percent of Americans believe in unicorns.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the operator said. “We don’t have a unicorn exhibit.”

“Huh, now why wouldn’t you have a unicorn exhibit?”

“Well, sir, unicorns don’t exist,” the operator said. “They never have existed.”

“Really? Did you know statistically 18 million Americans believe in unicorns? Many of them, I’m sure, are registered voters.”

“No, sir. I didn’t know that,” the operator said. “18 million seems like quite a large number.”

“If 18 million people believe in unicorns, don’t you think the great Museum of Natural History should have a unicorn exhibit?”

“I just answer the phones,” the operator said. “I am not a curator, or even an assistant curator. However, since you asked, I don’t think the Museum of Natural History should have exhibits about things that don’t exist. We have many interesting exhibits about things that do exist.”

“Okay, well, can you tell me where I might find a museum with a unicorn exhibit? I am sure such an exhibit would be very popular and make a great deal of money.”

“Try the Smithsonian,” the operator said. “They believe lots of crazy ideas in Washington.”

I did not call the Smithsonian. My next call was to a company called Pearson, the nation’s leading provider of educational materials and standardized tests. They are to the Common Core State Standards what Maytag was to washing machines.

I asked the operator to direct my call to a learning consultant. Soon, I was talking to a guy named Josh (FYI — Names have been changed to protect the innocent).

“Josh,” I said. “I think we have a problem.”

And I explained to Josh about 18 million Americans believing in unicorns. He thought that seemed like a large number. I was glad we could begin in agreement about something.

“So, Josh, here’s my question: how can the Common Core solve this problem?”

After a few hems and a couple of haws, Josh said, “Well, you see the CCSS encourages rigor in the classroom. A rigorous examination would demonstrate the mythical nature of unicorns.”

“A rigorous examination what, Josh?”

“Text,” he said. “A rigorous, close reading of nonfiction texts about unicorn myths would allow students to discover that unicorns don’t exist.”

To me, that sounded like a pretty good answer. Until I thought about it rigorously.

“Okay, so a close reading of unicorn texts will solve the problem,” I said.

“Yes, sir.

“Josh, isn’t a close reading a text-dependent reading?” I asked. “The reader is limited to just what’s inside the text, correct?”

“Yes, that’s true,” Josh said. “The point is to examine closely the argument the writer makes based on evidence in the text alone. ‘The words themselves,’ is how David Coleman, the primary author of the CCSS puts it.”

“So can we give kids any informational text about unicorns, and students will conclude unicorns don’t exist?”

“Well, um…no.”

“Josh, what do you mean ‘no’?”

“The texts have to be written to disprove the existence of unicorns.”

“Ah, if we give kids texts that prove unicorns never existed, kids will believe unicorns never existed,” I said. “But Josh, what happens if I give kids a rigorous text with convincing evidence that uniforms exist?”

“Do you think such texts exist?”

“Josh, 18 million Americans believe in unicorns. They must get that from somewhere.”

“Well, if they read the evidence closely, and the evidence is convincing, then I guess you can make an argument for the existence of unicorns,” Josh said. “But that wouldn’t happen.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, common sense takes over at some point,” Josh said.

“Josh, can you show me the words common sense in the common core?”

“Um, no,” Josh said.

“Why is that, Josh?” I asked.

“Because,” Josh admitted, “there is no common sense in the common core.”