The Uncommon Core

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In 1969, American astronauts walked on the moon. In 1972, after six successful lunar missions, the Apollo program developed to send them there was suspended and then cancelled. It must come as a shock to the scientists, engineers, programmers, medical specialists, and others involved in that historic achievement to realize that not only have we never been back to the moon, we couldn't go now if we wanted to. We don't have the systems or the hardware. We can't even get to our own space station in earth orbit, a walk in the park compared to a moon shot; we have to hitch a ride with the Russians.

Technology isn't the problem. Science and engineering have made incredible progress since the Apollo landings. The knowledge base in computers, communications, propulsion, medicine, and every other field has advanced to a point unimaginable in the 1960s. The rockets that took us to the moon and back were designed with drafting pencils and slide rules. The most advanced Apollo lunar module had less computing power than a new Toyota Camry.

Forgotten Dreams

It's not that we as a nation have forgotten how to do it. The problem is we've forgotten how to dream.

As wonderful and important as technology is, understanding it is not what makes us human. Or successful. It doesn't inspire us to do great things or reach for the stars. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics alone won't make us complete as individuals or as a nation. They aren't what make us happy, create beauty, or drive us to explore new horizons. Yet to meet the demands of Common Core testing and other educational mandates, these are the topics taught in our schools today to the exclusion of others that are equally important. The missing subjects give depth, purpose, and direction to life, and nurture essential skills and abilities that technical topics don't cover.

In an address before the Fordham Foundation in 2007, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia declared,

“If the U.S. is to compete competitively with the rest of the world in the new global marketplace, we need a system that grounds all students in pleasure, beauty, and wonder.”[1]

He went on to add that America's future success in world commerce depended on creativity, ingenuity, and innovation.

Where do today's students—tomorrow's leaders—acquire and nourish these attributes? Where do they learn how to dream, and that dreaming is good? Study after study, plus widespread anecdotal evidence, tells us that these abilities come from non-technical subjects such as theater, history, sports, penmanship, creative writing, and other disciplines that have been shunted off to second-tier status or eliminated entirely in today's schools. These classes benefit every child, and especially help those who need it most.

Numerous reports and assessments echo the findings of a twelve-year study by Professor James S. Catteral of the UCLA Graduate School of Education: Low-income students with access to fine arts in school are more likely to attend college, receive good grades, and land good jobs than their peers with no fine arts opportunities.[2]

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink predicts that success in the future will be built less on technological knowledge and more on conceptual thinking, which is developed by the visual arts, drama, and music.[3]

The Decline of the Arts

Ironically, the seeds of the decline of the arts in school were sown in an effort to jump-start the space race. America's place as the unchallenged technological leader of the world was threatened suddenly by the Soviets' launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, in 1957. The next year, President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act and encouraged new funding for science, physics, chemistry, math, earth science, and biology in order to help America stay ahead of the Soviets.

At the time, there was no conscious effort to sideline the arts as these other disciplines received more attention and money. Music Educators Journal noted in 1958, while applauding the new science initiatives, that

“the essential base before becoming a scientist or technician or anything else, is to obtain a glimpse of the broader horizons of life, the literature, the arts, the history, the philosophy, the language, the humanistic studies that constitute the foundation for our culture and place in relation with the ages and the experiences of mankind that have gone before.”[4]

Despite the music educators' optimistic view, the growing quest for science knowledge has gradually crowded unrelated disciplines out of the nest. A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, and Common Core requirements have shriveled other fields of study by starving them of resources. Teachers and administrators scrambling to satisfy various demanding constituencies—the government, parents, taxpayers—and safeguard their careers see that dancing and drawing are not assessed by standardized testing and no college requires them. Using their finite resources as best they can, they jettison one “soft” subject after another to satisfy required mandates.

The result is that we earn higher test scores but we can't get to our own space station. Abandoning the arts and other non-technical subjects has robbed us of the vision and imagination we need in addition to STEM and related fields to build our future in the 21st century.

The Value of the Arts

Shelves of books have been written about Common Core and other government directives. The purpose here is not to rehash those arguments but to underscore the fact that as the music teachers knew in 1958, an effective education is a combination of arts and sciences, “soft” and “hard” disciplines, right and left brain. The fine arts and other non-core subjects are equally essential because they develop skills that today's students need but which classes in the hard sciences do not deliver.

Visual Arts

Of the many studies on the value of the arts in developing students' abilities, one of the best and most readable is a report by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland published in the Boston Globe in 2007, two years before Common Core went into effect. After studying five visual arts classrooms in Boston for a year they observed,

“The high stakes exams we use in our schools, almost exclusively focused on verbal and quantitative skills, reward children who have a knack for language and math and who can absorb and regurgitate information. They reveal little about a student's intellectual depth or desire to learn, and are poor predictors of eventual success and satisfaction in life.” [5]

Art students, the report continued, had the chance to take risks, experiment, and learn from mistakes. They were exposed to evaluating themselves and each other. They learned to budget their time, plan ahead, and communicate abstract ideas and concepts. They developed leadership, tenacity, ingenuity, and the ability to work without rules. They honed their skills of observation and interpretation. These experiences promote the innovative, visionary, conceptual thinking and creativity students must have to succeed.

Winner and Hetland concluded,

“We need the arts because in addition to introducing students to aesthetic appreciation, they teach other modes of thinking we value. For students living in a rapidly changing world, the arts teach vital modes of seeing, imagining, inventing, and thinking. If our primary demand of students is that they recall established facts, the students we educate today will find themselves ill-equipped…. Those who have learned the lessons of the arts, however – how to see new patterns, how to learn from mistakes, and how to envision solutions – are the ones likely to come up with the novel answers needed most for the future.”[6]

Physical Education and Sports

The list of orphaned subjects and their advantages goes on. Physical education and even recess have disappeared from many schools, especially in the younger grades—no time for such frivolity. Yet those “wasted” minutes encourage children to be creative, share, lead, follow, solve problems on their own without an adult, and more. High school students fare better in that sports often survive there as a source of school pride and alumni participation. A student's experience on a sports team may teach the clearest lessons of all in crucial areas including teamwork, delayed gratification, persistence, leadership, risk assessment, adaptability, self-assessment, and learning from mistakes.

Many high schools would do well to borrow from their coaches' playbook on teaching discipline, goal-setting, improvisation, sportsmanship, compassion, and tenacity in order to adapt those lessons to the academic classroom­. All are essential characteristics of a good employee, boss, entrepreneur, manager, or leader. Furthermore, students who struggle with academics may discover their strengths and even their careers on the playing field instead.


Music training offers advantages similar to sports. In addition to the aesthetic benefits and possible career opportunities, music students learn leadership, teamwork, persistence, the value of experimentation, conceptualizing, and improvising. Children who speak English as a second language find they can express themselves and show their potential with music as well as anyone else in the class. This universal language breaks down the barriers they face in other areas of communication. Even so, music is often the first subject cut when budgets or schedules are tight.


Consider history: If students don't know where their nation came from and what it stands for, how can they lead it tomorrow? A 2014 study known as the Nation's Report Card found that history was American students' worst subject, with only 12% of high school seniors demonstrating proficiency. Only two percent were familiar with the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling striking down “separate but equal” racial segregation. The problems with understanding our nation's past begin early: most fourth graders could not say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure.[7]


And then there's geography: How can anyone understand the refugee crisis of 2015 without knowing the positions of Greece and Turkey on the map? How can they make sense of wars in the Middle East without knowing how the countries there fit together? The National Center for Education Statistics reports that students' understanding of geography declined overall since 1994, with 20% of seniors considered proficient in a 2010 test.[8] Commenting on the downward trend in student knowledge of civics, history, and geography, Ted McConnell, executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, called the results “disappointing” and “not surprising.” He blamed the poor showing on “a narrowed curriculum and . . . policymaker action that undermines effective instruction in these subject . . . . [which is] dangerous to the health of our republic.”[9]

The information age is giving way to the conceptual age. To thrive in that world, today's students need skills they won't learn in Common Core. And we all need dreamers to set new goals and inspire us to reach for them. Rather than push aside subjects that we know are essential, let us instead find a way to hold on to them and still meet Common Core and other requirements. Let's recognize the Uncommon Core—classes that complete the educational process which Common Core begins—and persevere until a balance is restored. We must do so not by pitting one against the other but by recognizing that they are two halves of the same whole.


[1] “The Arts in Contemporary Education” by John M. Eger: School Administrator March 2008, Vol. 65 Issue 3, pp.32-35. Back to passage

[2] “Art Smart” by Vanessa St. Gerard: Principal September 2011, pp. 2-4. Back to passage

[3] “Teaching Each Student with a Purpose” by Ann M. Gipson: American Music Teacher December 2009-January 2010, Vol. 59 Issue 3, pp. 52-53. Back to passage

[4] “Remain or React: The Music Education Profession's Response to Sputnik and A Nation at Risk” by Lauren Kapalka Richerme: Arts Education Policy Review 2011 Vol 113 Issue 1, pp. 35-44. Back to passage

[5] “Art for our sake: school arts classes matter more than ever – but not for the reasons you think.” by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland: Arts Education Policy Review May/June 2008, Vol. 109 Issue 5, pp. 29-31; reprinted from The Boston Globe, September 2, 2007. Back to passage

[6] Ibid.Back to passage

[7] “U.S. Students Remain Poor at History, Tests Show” The New York Times June 15, 2011, p. A19. Back to passage

[8]  “High School Seniors' Geography Scores Don't Improve” by Jason Koebler: U.S. News & World Report High School Notes Blog, July 20, 2011. Back to passage

[9]  “Shockingly Few Students Are Proficient In U.S. History” by Joy Resmovits: Huffington Post National Assessment of Educational Progress 2015, April 29, 2015.Back to passage

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