David Coleman

Public education systems across the United States are plagued with more problems — and more complex problems — than you’ll find on any trendy standardized math test. They perpetuate intergenerational inequality by providing superior resources to wealthier districts. They’re too bureaucratic to adequately respond to student concerns. And, worst of all, their curricula are outdated. Now that the age of assembly-line workers and mid-level corporate hacks has been killed by outsourcing and technology, rote memorization and uniform standards have no place in the classroom.

So what’s the Common Core’s plan, which has now been adopted in whole or in part by 44 states? Replace cold, harsh standardization with colder, harsher standardization. How’s that for critical thinking?

For instance, instead of learning to form their own opinions or analyze works of literature in their English classes, Common Corified students will get to parse through informational texts in order to answer multiple-choice and short-answer comprehension questions. That’s because, as Common Core architect David Coleman put it in a 2011 speech to New York state policymakers, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

Coleman isn’t entirely wrong. In the modern world, data analysis and evaluation have become exponentially more important in everyday life, governing baseball roster selections and political decisions and even opinion journalism, where “because I said so” prognosticators are giving way to statistical brains in the FiveThirtyEight mold. And being able to quickly recognize and evaluate written information is obviously an important skill — especially when scanning the labyrinthine Common Core website for relevant material.

The problem with the Core, then, lies more in its implementation than in its construction. In order to evaluate student progress, the program relies on the standardized Smarter Balanced Assessment. And no evidence suggests that students benefit from learning how to fill in bubbles or cram buzzwords into an answer box, which, despite protestations to the contrary from Common Core hoplites, is what invariably follows when a district’s funding and prestige are tied to test scores.

That’s the sort of outcome that worries Anne Lutz Fernandez, co-author of the forthcoming book “Schooled” and an English teacher in Connecticut. While Fernandez described the political controversy surrounding the Core itself as “overblown,” she fears that its assessment procedure will lead to a “narrowing and redirection of the English curriculum” in public schools. Overall, Fernandez said, the teachers interviewed in the book share her aversion to the testing that comes along with the Common Core package.

At Fernandez’s suggestion, I took an online version of the 11th grade Smarter Balanced Assessment for English and language arts to check out how we evaluate America’s future leaders and innovators. Luckily for me, the computer system the program runs on glitched out on Question 16 out of 99, or else I would’ve spent all afternoon skimming passages on sustainable cotton farming for EPA data and “Life of Pi” excerpts for information on solar still utility and the history of shipwrecks. The multiple-choice questions all include excerpts from the piece presented, which means you don’t really have to read the whole thing to take the test. In that regard, maybe it is a pretty good approximation of high school life. However, the instructions are just vague enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if districts have to devote a significant amount of time to teaching test-taking skills instead of, you know, books that aren’t about sustainable cotton farming.

So even if the Common Core isn’t supposed to replace a school’s individual curriculum, in practice it does exactly that. It seems clear, then, that Coleman doesn’t understand kids too well — unless he genuinely believes that his system can convey valuable information in 99-problem doses to millions of different children with millions of different experiences raised in millions of different households across thousands of different districts. If that’s the case, I recommend that he try babysitting. That might show him that his Common Core as it’s currently constructed cannot replace a teacher’s intuition or a student’s creativity.

If Texas’ Republican leaders felt equally strongly about individualism, I’d be encouraged by their rejection of the Common Core and by Rick Perry’s declaration that “the academic standards of Texas are not for sale.” But through their willingness to fund religiously motivated charter schools and the Texas Education Agency’s promotion of “alternative” science, it seems as though lawmakers care just as much about getting Bibles into the classroom as they do about keeping bureaucrats out of it. Through its stand in favor of the 10th Amendment, Texas is short-shrifting the First, thereby wasting a great opportunity to develop students who might actually remember which government departments they want to abolish.

That kind of nonsense can’t continue, unless America wants its cultural and economic future to hinge on preachers and Dwight Schrute knockoffs. With the likes of Coleman and Perry becoming increasingly influential nationwide, states should pull a lesson from every kid’s standardized test playbook: Sometimes, the correct answer really is “none of the above.”

Shenhar is a Plan II, economics and government sophomore from Westport, Conn. He writes about campus and education issues.

This Nov. 20, 1963 photo released by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, shows President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Mrs. Warren, and others descending the Grand Staircase during the Judicial Reception at the White House, in Washington. On Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, the Kennedy Llibrary will release the final 45 hours of White House recordings secretly taped during President Kennedy’s time in office.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BOSTON — Final recordings President John F. Kennedy secretly made in the Oval Office include an eerie conversation about what would become the day of his funeral.

In talking to staffers while trying to arrange his schedule, Kennedy remarked that Nov. 25 was shaping up to be a “tough day” after his return from Texas and time at Cape Cod.

“It’s a hell of a day, Mr. President,” a staffer agreed.

The exchange was among the last 45 hours of private recordings Kennedy made, tapes The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum released Tuesday. They provide a window into the final months of the 35th president’s life.

They include discussions of conflict in Vietnam, Soviet relations and the race to space, plans for the 1964 Democratic Convention, and re-election strategy. There also are moments with his children.

The tapes are the last of more than 260 hours of recordings of meetings and conversations Kennedy privately made before his assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

David Coleman, the professor who leads the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia, on Tuesday called the final recordings significant because while JFK didn’t tape himself regularly, he chose to preserve important moments.

The university’s Miller Center of Public Affairs already has published three volumes of Kennedy transcripts and is working on another two volumes from recordings that previously went public, Coleman said.

“Kennedy did not tape as systematically as Johnson or Nixon. But what he did tape was often very important discussions,” he said.

“What you have is an unusually rich collection of decisions being made in real time.”

The recordings also are valuable because they’re a raw look inside the Kennedy White House, Coleman said.

“It’s all unfiltered,” he said. “It hasn’t been massaged by committees or by the White House press machine.”

Historians may gravitate most to Kennedy’s recordings about Vietnam to see where his policy was heading when his presidency ended, Coleman said.

Kennedy kept the recordings a secret from his top aides. He made the last one two days before his death.

Kennedy library archivist Maura Porter said Monday that JFK may have been saving them for a memoir or possibly started them because he was bothered when the military later gave a different overview of a discussion with him about the Bay of Pigs.

The latest batch of recordings captured meetings from the last three months of Kennedy’s administration.

In a conversation with political advisers about young voters, Kennedy asks, “What is it we have to sell them?”

“We hope we have to sell them prosperity, but for the average guy the prosperity is nil,” he says. “He’s not unprosperous, but he’s not very prosperous. ... And the people who really are well off hate our guts.”

Kennedy talks about a disconnect between the political machine and voters.

“We’ve got so mechanical an operation here in Washington that it doesn’t have much identity where these people are concerned,” he says.

On another recording, Kennedy questions conflicting reports military and diplomatic advisers bring back from Vietnam, asking the two men: “You both went to the same country?”

He also talks about trying to create films for the 1964 Democratic Convention in color instead of black and white.

“The color is so damn good,” he says. “If you do it right.”

Porter said the public first heard about the existence of the Kennedy recordings during the Watergate hearings.

In 1983, JFK Library and Museum officials started reviewing tapes without classified materials and releasing recordings to the public. Porter said officials were able to go through all the recordings by 1993, working with government agencies when it came to national security issues and what they could make public.

In all, she said, the JFK Library and Museum has put out about 40 recordings. She said officials excised about 5 to 10 minutes of this last group of recordings due to family discussions and about 30 minutes because of national security concerns.

Porter has supervised the declassification of these White House tapes since 2001, and she said people will have a much better sense of the kind of leader JFK was after hearing them. While some go along with meeting minutes that also are public, she said, listening to JFK’s voice makes his personality come alive.

She said he comes across as an intelligent man who had a knack for public relations and was very interested in his public image. But she said the tapes also reveal times when the president became bored or annoyed and moments when he used swear words.

The sound of the president’s children, Caroline and John Jr., playing outside the Oval Office is part of a recording on which he introduces them to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

“Hello, hello,” Gromyko says as the children come in, telling their father, “They are very popular in our country.”

JFK tells the children, mentioning a dog Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gifted the family: “His chief is the one who sent you Pushinka. You know that? You have the puppies.”

JFK Library spokeswoman Rachel Flor said the daughter of the late president has heard many of the recordings, but she wasn’t sure if she had heard this batch.

“He’d go from being a president to being a father,” Porter said of the recordings. “And that was really cute.”

A traveling photographer with an unknown identity captured Great Depression-era Corpus Christi in a set of 473 photographs that the Harry Ransom Center has been unveiling over the past two months. The TexTreasures grant funded the effort to convert the previously inaccessible glass negatives of 1934 Corpus Christi businesses into a digital format viewable by the public, said photography curator David Coleman. They were previously too fragile to display, he said. “On a broad scale, they represent this tremendous slice of history, almost like a time capsule,” Coleman said. A photographer donated the negatives to the Ransom Center after another Corpus Christi photographer gave them to him, Coleman said. He said the collection was shot in about a month, which makes it unusual compared to other collections of the era, which were formed over a longer span of time. “There’s a real art to display in some of these places,” Coleman said. “You can really see what life was like back then. A lot of things are very similar to now. While the photographer’s name is not known, photographic archivist Mary Alice Harper said the lifestyle typical of a traveling photographer allowed them to be independent financially and personally. “It was very appealing to some people,” she said. “To pack all your gear and drive all over the country with no boss, no time card to punch.” Harper said that this photographer made a living by arriving at businesses in the town, taking pictures and offering to sell prints to business owners. Because of the impromptu style in which the photographer worked, his photos portrayed life truthfully, she said. “No one had time to clean up,” she said. Since the images have been digitized, Harper said Corpus Christi residents have been able to call the Harry Ransom Center and help identify buildings and their relatives. Harper expects many kinds of scholars to appreciate the new availability of these pictures, including those interested in the history of Corpus Christi, American studies or the Great Depression. After viewing the collection, history professor Emilio Zamora said the photographs provide an abundance of historical information. “The images underscore the fact that Corpus had either already recovered or that they did not suffer like the rest of the country,” he said. “No two locations are going to manifest the same effects.” He cited the evidence of agriculture, grocery, dry goods and automobile stores as signs of a healthy business environment. These signs did not surprise him, he said, because of the robust regional economy centered on farming cotton.