Eric Warne reviews The Story-Killers by Terence O. Moore and examines its critique of the Common Core literature curriculum.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton wrote that “If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.” In other words, it is the greatest story of human heroism ever told. In The Story-Killers, Terence Moore argues that the Common Core is a vehicle which, both by accident and by design, is destroying our love of, and even our knowledge about, the important stories of Western heritage.

The Iliad begins in the tenth year of the Greek siege of Troy, near the end of the war. To begin near the end of The Story-Killers: Moore does what few authors do and suggests a real, practical solution to the Common Core deficiencies he finds by proposing his own curriculum. Actually most of the list is not his own, but it is the basic curriculum that existed for many centuries before the twentieth.

Before Moore reveals his list, The Story-Killers targets the Common Core’s suggested reading, and Moore uses some examples that other Common Core critics have pointed out: Huckleberry Finn is not on the list, for example. Moore also writes about the 70/30 literary/informational split, which is often repeated and defended by Common Core supporters as harmless or even supportive of literature, but is nowhere really defined. The only logical outcome of this vagueness, Moore argues, is that schools will teach less literature. This is not an argument unique to Moore, but he explores the issue in more detail than others have.

Moore spends another chapter examining a Common Core-aligned textbook for American Literature. He goes through multiple examples Common Core opponents
will find objectionable about the standards: a few short excerpts from Shelley’s Frankenstein, with many more pages on Saturday Night Live skits and other representations of Frankenstein in pop culture; only 23 pages out of 111 in the section on the founding on the United States actually consist of the founders’ writings and speeches; etc. Aside from judging the merits of the textbook Moore criticizes, this is a useful exercise in that readers, at least English teachers, may notice that this Common Core-aligned, survey-style textbook doesn’t sound extremely different from the pre- Common Core glossy survey-style textbooks most schools have used for years. This is not to say that expensive, glossy survey-style textbooks are or ever have been good. It’s just that now states have been provided with another incentive to buy new editions from the publishers.

A complaint historically more often heard from liberals than from conservatives like Moore is that schools have an over-reliance on standardized testing, which Common Core will only make worse. Moore writes that “schools slavishly teach to the test,” and they “teach nothing beyond the test.” The sweep of these statements is over-broad, though they fit with Moore’s theme that public schools are prone to check off boxes and are happy to make do in a command-and-control environment, rather than
to really push boundaries and buck the system based on larger visions of what they could be. Educators who bristle at the notion that they “slavishly teach to the test” should ask themselves, first, whether that is true, and then, if it is, whether that fault is “in our stars” or in ourselves – must we explicitly practice for and worry about standardized tests, or might we get better math and reading scores by simply spending our time teaching more math and reading, confident that good results will follow?

Backing up to an earlier chapter, Moore takes on the concepts of standards and the way some specific Common Core standards are written. He translates one second grade standard into normal English, and the result does not flatter the standards writers. So: “By the end of the year, comprehend literature, including stories and poetry, in the grades 2-3 complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the higher end of the range” becomes “Students in second grade should read and understand more difficult books at the end of the year than at the beginning. They may need help though.” Other examples include a litany of jargon-laden first grade standards boiling down to a child asking, “Are you saying you’re going to read us a book and we’re going to talk about it?” The teacher’s answer: “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

As with his examination of textbooks, Moore is not saying that schools would necessarily be better off with their old standards – he is challenging the entire structure and culture, with Common Core as the vehicle.

And this brings up what is really new, especially from a more conservative perspective. One foundation of The Story-Killers is a sustained assault on the phrase “college and career readiness.” Moore considers this phrase to be a thin reed on which to hang the education of our children and the future of our society. As he puts it, the purpose of the Common Core

…was never to read complete works of literature written in beautiful language that speak straight
to the soul. That is, the reason for serving up a smattering of The Odyssey was not to give young people a view of the heroic and of the passions of men, but rather to introduce students to an epic. The reason for having them read Romeo and Juliet was not to unveil to hormonal adolescents the heights and dangers of love and passion and invite them to sympathize with the star-cross’d lovers but to get them to recognize a tragedy.

And,
What the Common Core promises is getting students into college and into a career. Assuming that the Common Core could actually accomplish that successfully, we are still left with the question, Then what?

Moore is not afraid to delve into the minute details to argue his points, which sets this book apart from much of the Common Core debate on both sides. One argument that did not make its way into the book, but might have been

helpful, is a discussion of whether a public school that wanted to be truly classical with its curriculum, could do
so in a Common Core environment. Could a charter school that wanted to follow some or all of Moore’s suggested curriculum even do that, in practice? Moore himself
seems to be attempting this in his efforts with the Atlanta Classical School, a new charter school in the city of Atlanta. The Common Core’s reading list is all supposed to be a suggestion; can enterprising school leaders in charters, or even in traditional public schools, not simply ignore the suggestions and include what they wish? Or is the pressure of the new tests, the piling on by the College Board and the federal government, and the inertia of the way things work simply too much for all but those most devoted to classical education? (The focus of The Story-Killers is literature; the problem of prescribed methods may be even more acute in Math). Every book has only so many pages, and is meant for particular audiences, but this discussion would help Common Core opponents in more concrete ways, especially those facing it directly (though private schools and home schools are not far behind, as Common Core works its way into the SAT and is considered in college curricula). Are Common Core opponents Hector, doomed to lose the fight, or are they Achilles, able to win the day if they can be roused to action?