Common core consequences

Few bandwagons were jumped on so quickly by so many, and with such voluminous fanfare, than the one bearing the banner of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative. Nine years ago this month, nearly every “crat” from every governmental and civic bureau united in leaping ovation behind “new standards” that would revolutionize and modernize American education.

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, dove completely off the deep end in rabid support, claiming the Common Core standards could wind up being “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education.”

Well, not quite.

Following a seven-year federal study, the national data are in and the “Race to the Top” funding that drove Common Core adoption wound up creating a Twist toward the Bottom effect on student achievement.

“Contrary to our expectation” is how researchers at the Center of Standards, Alignment, Instruction and Learning (C-SAIL) described the CCSS’s derailing of an upward trend in observed fourth-grade reading scores from 2005 to 2010. Between 2010 and 2017, “[t]he table reveals significant negative effects for grade 4 reading,” the study noted.

The findings got even worse: the C-SAIL authors calculated a “counterfactual,” predicting what the National Assessment of Educational Progress composite scores would have been had states not adopted CCSS.

The reading achievement “would have improved significantly more after the adoption of the new standards had the states continued with their old standards,” they concluded. In layman’s language, students would have been better off had critics of Common Core (and there were many) been listened to.

Karen Lamoreaux’s 2014 viral video lampooning the CCSS “critical thinking” solution to a simple math problem has been viewed more than 3.5 million times—and comments are still being posted on it as recently as this week. She called her example, in which students were expected to draw circles and count hash marks rather than employ simple division, as “not rigorous.” I called it ridiculous.

It turns out the C-SAIL study validates us both: Eighth-grade math scores also suffered a “significant negative effect,” with observed scores in the wake of Common Core interference actually dropping below where they were in 2006—four years before adoption.

And if that’s not bad enough, researchers found it “troubling” that the achievement declines got worse over time.

Common Core is the disaster that just keeps on damaging. But the billions in lost funding and countless wasted hours pale against the colossal opportunity costs inflicted, as indicated by a 2016 Harvard University study linking student performance on math tests to state GDP growth per person.

Besides demonstrating that raising all states’ math test scores to “basic” levels would add $32 trillion to the national economy, gains were estimated for each state. The positive economic impact of lifting student achievement would be greatest in states where achievement levels are lowest, like Arkansas.

If all states could improve math scores to the top-performing state’s level (Minnesota), the projected GDP gain in Arkansas would be nearly 700 percent, or somewhere around $800 billion.

Like other leviathans spawned by the national education-industrial complex, even opposite-of-desired effects aren’t enough to discredit the “experts” who foisted Common Core on schools, teachers and parents who all knew better.

True believers, like Duncan, remain unrepentant. The only lesson they learned is the same old bureaucrat’s blame-game excuse: They didn’t spend enough money.

If anything, the uncommonly awful Common Core spectacle should spark increasingly credible calls for the abolition of the federal Department of Education (a lamentable Jimmy Carter legacy).

Its focus was flawed from the start, looking at schools as a massive system to be tweaked, instead of individual students to be taught. And its lens forever skewed by the Washington tendency to use funding as a policy club to beat states into submission.

Federal money can be a blinder, as the C-SAIL study so clearly reveals. State education departments and schools all clamored for the Common Core financial reward, only to discover nine years later that not only did the standards fail to improve learning, but succeeded in impairing it.

Signed into law 40 years ago this fall, the federal education department has overseen more than $1.7 trillion in spending ostensibly to make schools better. Should continued funding be the consequence for instead making them worse?

It’s tough to name any laws, regulations or policies emanating from the Washington education bureaucracy that don’t prompt a disapproving head-shake among the real educators in our schools—teachers in the classrooms.

The department can’t even justify its existence with any evidence-based performance metrics. Ironically, the C-SAIL study was funded by the Obama administration for the purpose of proving Common Core’s effectiveness.

A bill to end the 4,000-bureaucrat education department was re-introduced by Kentucky Republican congressman Thomas Massie in February, mostly as a symbolic gesture since Democrats in control generally want the federal government to have an even heavier hand in education policy.

Four decades of failure is enough for any federal department, especially one that’s become demonstrably detrimental to its supposed constituency.

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Plugging the brain drain

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported last week that overall enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities was down for the seventh year in a row.

In the past three years, the national average has been down by 1.5 percent, 1.3 percent in 2018 and 1.7 percent respectively, for a total reduction of 4.5 percent.

Arkansas is already handicapped in college education, ranking low among states in percentage of population with bachelor’s degrees, and was tied for seventh-worst in this year’s enrollment drop at 3.7 percent. Over the three-year period since 2017, total higher education enrollment in Arkansas is down more than 8 percent.

Enrollment data aren’t the whole picture, however. An increase in retention and graduation rates can offset an enrollment decline in terms of degree productivity, which is just what the Arkansas Department of Higher Education reported in its most recent annual report.

Of the most recent four-year class studied (2018), 36.3 percent graduated college within four years. While still low on the national scale, that’s a big gain over the previous year’s rate of only 25.8 percent.

Arkansas community colleges saw an even larger leap, as the 2018 rate of 21.2 graduating within two years is more than half-again higher than the previous 15.5 percent figure.

Credentialed education translates directly into performance metrics across several lifestyle categorizations, including earning power, parenting, citizenship and lawfulness. Generally speaking, leaving a lot of room for exceptions, better-educated people do better overall. Brain power, as shaped and developed through higher education and skilled training, therefore becomes an important community asset.

Areas with a lot of it, presumably, will progress more than those with less.

That line of reasoning is the basis for a measurement scale developed by Bloomberg called its “Brain Concentration Index.” Using comprehensive Census Bureau information, with an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) employment statistics, Bloomberg issues a dual set of lists each year.

Each list ranks metropolitan areas with a population of 90,000 or more according to a set of scoring measures. The first list scores MSAs on STEM work-force concentration, percentage of population possessing advanced degrees or science and engineering credentials, and net business establishment formation. It’s dominated by major metro areas like Boulder, Colo.; Durham, N.C.; and Seattle.

The other, more dubious, list is for “Brain Drain.” It assesses metropolitan areas on the outflow of advanced-degree holders, negative changes in white-collar jobs and STEM pay, and net business closures. Bloomberg’s bottom 10 on the Brain Drain Index are all much smaller MSAs, and lamentably Arkansas is one of nine states represented.

The Jonesboro MSA, roughly 135,000 people, is one of 366 MSAs in the country with more than 90,000 population. Size-wise, Jonesboro is number 304 and improving, with population growth estimated to be more than 15 percent by the 2020 census.

Coming in at No. 7 in the nation on the 2018 Bloomberg Brain Drain Index, Jonesboro’s worst score was on pay changes for jobs in STEM fields.

Obviously, nobody wants to rank high on a list with a name like Brain Drain, and in other places such publicity has provided a sort of “kick in the pants” to refocus and improve. Arkansas in general, as a small and agricultural state, will never fare as well on a list like the Bloomberg index. But it can always improve, and there are a number of examples from other places on ways to do it.

Last year, the Muskegon, Mich., MSA was No. 1 on the Brain Drain Index; this year it fell to number 10 and residents likely hope to be off the list altogether in the next round.

Muskegon used a free two-year tuition scholarship program for area high school seniors with high (3.5+) grade point averages to encourage bright local students to continue their education close to home. Historically, many of the highest GPA students had headed off to larger universities. The tuition incentive resulted in about half of the eligible seniors accepting local scholarships in 2018.

Another brain power attraction strategy focuses not on college selection for high schoolers, but debt reduction for college graduates.

At least 35 states, including Arkansas, have some form of student-loan forgiveness programs in place. But these typically are industry-specific, such as programs for teachers, veterinarians and public service.

Maybe individual communities should warm to the idea that debt forgiveness can be a powerful incentive for highly educated adults (who often have high student-loan balances) to locate in their area.

In a study by the American Institute of CPAs, millennial job seekers burdened by student loans named repayment of loan debt as the job benefit they valued most—ahead of health insurance, paid time off and matching retirement. Coupled with a scholarship program prioritizing local colleges and universities, an MSA-specific debt-forgiveness measure—based on location rather than field of work—might be a way to rapidly plug any community’s brain drain.

It’s new ground, for sure. But worth pioneering.

Locality & liberty

Saturday marks the date back in 1787 that a quorum was reached at the Philadelphia State House, and George Washington dropped gavel to open deliberations at the constitutional convention.

Students of the founding era are familiar with Joseph Ellis, who has written biographies and histories of the characters and events that produced the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution.

I recently finished The Quartet, which is subtitled “Orchestrating the Second American Revolution 1783-1789.” Ellis’ “Fantastic Four” (as one reviewer put it) are legendary names: Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. These titans of thought regarding self-government made priceless contributions to the national charter document. But a trio of the quartet—Madison, Hamilton and Jay—was perhaps most crucial in their persuasive work at the state and local level during the debate over ratification.

Constitution Article VII required approval by nine states for adoption, and proponents knew that was far from a done deal. Indeed, a key part of the orchestration Ellis chronicles is the successful behind-the-scenes maneuvering to keep the testy Virginia and New York legislatures from rejecting ratification too early. Neither wound up voting until after New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, and even then the vote was close in both states.

History underplays the education campaign among the citizens that was necessary to convince them to support and authorize a centralized power structure that seemed reminiscent of British Parliament. What happened was what we would call today an incredibly effective content marketing campaign, with The Federalist Papers in the anchoring blog role as citizens searched for answers amid rampant misinformation, fear-mongering and fake news.

In the end, there would have been no national achievement in constitutional government had there not been vibrant and contentious discussion and discourse in local town halls, pubs and newspapers.

Locality is where liberty is most fully experienced.

Ellis’ quartet and its substantial supporting cast well understood that, and the ratification campaign capitalized on it. Nearly a quarter-millennium later, in a time of instant and far-flung connectivity, we are quicker to forget.

Three separate events in two days this week helped me to remember and refocus. Each involved a foundational feature of a free society: education, culture and local governance.

First, I attended a small school sixth-grade graduation ceremony, where my nephew attends.

Even though education has a Cabinet position in the federal government, and is administered through a state agency, learning is still dispensed and obtained at the classroom level. The main actors on that all-important stage are parents, children and teachers—all of which were gathered on Monday night to celebrate the completion of elementary school for a small group of sixth-graders.

The students marched in, sat on the stage, sang a couple of songs, and then excitedly accepted their “diplomas.” Families took photos of kids with classmates and teachers. It was educational achievement at its granular, grass-roots best.

Want to improve education? Get involved at a school near you. On the board or a committee or as a volunteer.

After the graduation ceremony, I went to see a community theatrical production titled The Music Show, which showcased local vocalists and musicians in a well-conceived, superbly presented and excellently choreographed performance.

I had friends in the show, including some that surprised me. I knew one of my buddies could strum a guitar, but I had no idea he could pull off a Brian May riff solo and send The Forum Theatre crowd wild.

From classic covers of Elvis, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash to Bon Jovi, Billy Joel and the Eagles to OneRepublic and Taylor Swift, kids and adults passionately sang and danced. Audience members enthusiastically cheered and applauded. A Broadway tribute portion featured the Foundation of Arts’ cast members from Les Miserables singing “One Day More,” which pushed the bravo decibel level to the max. It was inspiring live entertainment delivering enjoyment as only it can.

Tired of R-rated, F-bomb-laced movies defining down entertainment in your community? Get involved in local arts as a performer or teacher or production member or volunteer.

The next night I sat in on the local city council meeting in support of a sales tax to fund growth in public safety and quality of life to match the city’s rising population trajectory.

The council opened with the pledge of allegiance. Some councils in other places don’t, which gives fulfilling meaning to our prized federalist freedoms.

Watching people weigh ideas and consider concepts for attainment of a future beyond themselves is energizing. Observing dissenters freely voice their reservations is uplifting, in that it reminds us that since the very start Americans celebrate debate as a distilling process for civic progress.

National political conflicts abound and it’s easy to get sucked in to those mostly academic arguments, but self-government truly begins in your own backyard.

Local issues usually need more education among the populace. Get involved in giving good local governance ideas the public hearing they need, and you’ll do more than experience a small glimmer of how the founding generation felt.

You’ll be a better citizen. And that makes a better nation.

Electoral dunces

Eleven members of the gaggle comprising the Democratic presidential primary field are on record in favor of abolishing the electoral college.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet says it’s “antiquated.” New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand calls it a “distorted system.” Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee labels it an “artifact of the 13 colonies.” For California’s Marianne Williamson it represents “a risk to our democracy.”

None of those people who would be president have even cracked 1 percent in 2020 polling to date, so their tough talk on the issue may merely be an attempt to grab a headline.

But some real contenders support the idea of dumping the electoral college for a direct presidential election, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts).

Basing opposition to any time-tested 232-year-old method on short-term discontent appears foolish at best. It calls into doubt the fitness to pass one of those civics exams that regularly remind us how ignorant We the People are about our form of government.

Barely one in five Americans can name James Madison as the “father of our Constitution.” Narrowed to college-graduated respondents, the number rises only slightly to 28 percent. Madison was instrumental not only in drafting the Constitution in convention at Philadelphia, but also securing its ratification as one of the authors of The Federalist Papers.

If it seems appalling that so few recognize Madison’s role in the founding, consider the tinier number who might be able to properly identify Publius, the pseudonym Madison and cohorts John Jay and Alexander Hamilton used in writing the Federalist essays.

Then consider the infinitesimal minority of Americans who know the name of Gabriel de Mably.

Thomas Jefferson was in Paris on diplomatic duty during the time the constitutional convention was being orchestrated, but sent two trunkloads of books to Madison to review in preparation (true to form, he itemized the list and cost in a letter). Many of the works of de Mably, an 18th century philosopher with expertise in Roman history, were included in the shipment–and repeatedly referenced in the founders’ voluminous correspondence.

Rare are the Americans today who can accurately place the Roman Republic or the Athenian Democracy on a timeline; the founders studied writings and histories on each extensively. Their collective examination and analysis of ancient democracies is what shaped their wisdom and decisions involving the creation of a representative republic, and the method of electing its president.

“Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob,” Madison wrote to help explain the recurring constitutional theme of cooling destructive populist passions with deliberative decision-making.

Admittedly, it’s tough for any modern-day politician of either party to not appear dunce-like against the exceptional brilliance and education of the luminous minds that influenced the nation’s constitutional framing.

But before opinions on ditching the electoral college can carry real weight, critics need to study up on lessons from classical civilizations. Once enlightened on the subject as the erudite founders were, Democrats might well arrive at the same conclusions and find new affection for the electoral college.

Because they don’t want to come to those conclusions, Sanders and Warren, et al., don’t really want to bother with the information, facts and knowledge that produced them in the founders’ minds.

John Adams spent the last 25 years of his life writing essays, books and thousands of letters in which he discussed political theory, government, the nature of men and the American experiment at length.

One of his famously quoted epistles is a colossal correspondence from 1814 to John Taylor, in which Adams eviscerates popular democracy as being “more bloody” while it lasts than aristocracy or monarchy.

“Remember, democracy never lasts long,” he wrote. “It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Adams argued that the genius of the American Constitution is its mixing of the three primary forms of government to achieve restraining checks and balances, each in proper measure according to its role: a more democratic House, a more aristocratic Senate, a president with executive power, and an independent judiciary.

The letter exceeds 28,000 words, and is replete with prodigious examples of Adams’ amassed intellectual acuity over 79 years of life. For instance, in defending his own predilection toward natural aristocracy, he used quotes about beauty from Plato, Theophrastus, Diogenes, Carneades, Theocritus and Bion.

Having never read any except Plato from that list myself, all valuable knowledge from the others is lost on me. By sharing, Adams slightly elevated my understanding, and pricked my curiosity.

The overarching point is that there’s nothing simple about the ideas behind the electoral college, and it’s a dishonest public disservice to voice simplistic reasons for dissolving it.

If anything continually leaps from the leading founders’ writings in harmony, it’s their warning that there can never be liberty without learning. Education is to the republic what responsibility is to rights.

What those who flippantly dismiss the electoral college have forgotten (if they ever knew it to begin with) is that the founders’ purpose in forming the Constitution was never to deliver democracy—it was to protect us from it.

Downtown denominators

The Jonesboro Sun recently ran a curious guest column titled “Is downtown revitalization necessary after 16 years?”

Curious, because the whole piece read like a classic non sequitur. “Downtown” was narrowly defined in the very first sentence to only a couple of blocks, and the entire piece then focused on labeling “revitalization” a failure based exclusively on retail and restaurant turnover in that two-block space.

As a resident of downtown Jonesboro for two decades, and a business owner in the area for even longer, I can unequivocally say that the proper definition encompasses a much larger area. And constant revitalization isn’t merely necessary—it’s imperative.

If there’s a single indicator that is a common denominator among all up-and-coming cities and towns, it’s the shape of the local historic “business district.”

Places with downtowns undergoing continuous revitalization are enjoying more population growth, accelerated economic development, rising property values and a host of other intangible benefits. Places with downtowns in disrepair and dominated by vacant buildings are losing population, struggling financially, suffering depressed property values, and are plagued with other social ills.

Consider the five fastest-growing cities in Arkansas with populations larger than 50,000: Rogers, Springdale, Conway, Fayetteville and Jonesboro.

Revitalization is alive, well and thriving in every single downtown on that list, each of which enjoyed double-digit population growth, ranging from 13 to 19 percent, since the 2010 Census.

In looking across all cities and towns that grew by 10 percent or more, they each have active, energetic downtown organizations that promote dining, arts, entertainment, shopping and other lifestyle enhancements like parks and recreation. There’s not a lethargic, boarded-up downtown in the bunch.

The posed op-ed question resonated even more oddly at this particular point in time, when downtown Jonesboro revitalization is highly visible and conspicuously vibrant.

“Can someone inform me,” the guest columnist wrote, “what exactly there is ‘downtown’ to draw people other than the hype and misleading information perpetuated through the media …”

To borrow from E. Barrett Browning, let us count the ways.

For starters, several hundred Jonesboro business leaders and residents gathered to attend and support “The Main Event” fundraiser in February, hosted by the Downtown Jonesboro Association. The occasion presented a dual purpose: celebrating DJA successes of 2018 and highlighting coming events and developments in 2019.

The function was held in the Glass Factory, an impressive, newly remodeled industrial-themed event venue built as part of a downtown redevelopment project. Its schedule stays full with weddings, receptions, corporate meetings and other gatherings.

Local downtown restaurants collaborated on the catering (the banana pudding from Addie’s Soul Food was some of the best I ever tasted), and independent eateries are prime attractions downtown.

St. Bernards Healthcare was one of the event sponsors, and its $100 million hospital tower project is literally changing the landscape of downtown. The 245,000-square-foot addition will also change the scope of community medical care by immediately adding 14 new surgical suites and a 46-bed critical-care unit, with the ability to expand to 20 suites and 60 CCU beds.

Patients, families and friends flock daily to St. Bernards, one of the city’s largest employers, which in addition to occupying numerous buildings downtown also serves as a medical magnet for clinics, specialists, diagnostic facilities, pharmacies and more.

The Forum is a municipally owned theater building which houses the Foundation of Arts. FOA community theatrical productions bring thousands of people downtown during show times, and its complement of dance, acting, drawing and other classes in the Art Center draw hundreds more every week.

Just across from The Forum, The Rotary Club of Jonesboro is dedicating its new Centennial Plaza today in honor of the club’s 100th birthday.

The $750,000 project involved a collaboration of multiple local partnerships, and transformed an outdated, unattractive area into a stylistic public outdoor gathering space designed for art shows, small concerts and other well -attended events downtown.

You can barely stroll the wide sidewalks of downtown Jonesboro without bumping into a major project like the St. Bernards tower, a new public space like Centennial Plaza, a new restaurant, a new residential development, a renovated office or structure, or a new facelift on old, classic building facades.

Just up from St. Bernards, a large church is building a big addition. Just over from there some old houses are being fixed up. A couple of blocks and a few more weeks further, and the public library will be kicking off its annual Summer Concert Series, which packs crowds on the front lawn for local bands and musicians.

Giving the Sun guest columnist the broadest benefit of the doubt, it might be time to alter the verbiage slightly about what’s happening in downtown Jonesboro. Maybe “revitalization” is no longer the right word, since that suggests vitality is in need of being regained. I suggest ditching the “re-” prefix and using the present participle of the root word. “Vitalizing Downtown” is more active-tense, and implies a perpetual effort to give strength and energy to the historic area in the heart of Jonesboro.

And when downtown is booming, here and elsewhere, the entire city benefits.

The joy of audiobooks

Once upon a time, I was a stalwart purist about printed books.

I applauded the development of audiobooks and ebooks in general because I support anything that promotes and expands reading. They were great for others, just not for me.

The act of reading is still at its apex for me when I am turning the pages, the scent of the acid-free paper enhanced by the fragrance of fine leather binding. I hear the characters’ dialogue or thoughts or the narrator with my mind’s voice. I see all the scenes, landscapes and events with my mind’s eye.

Though I do my share of online reading, I’ve never liked ebooks, and their appeal is waning nationwide. Much of the research I do involves my computer or tablet screen, but I have never read a book for pleasure that way.

Audiobooks are another story.

It would be a stretch to say I was an early adopter for the medium, which predates anything digital—there were books on records and cassettes and even CDs long before Internet popularity and smartphone access exploded.

Typically, free audiobooks have only been those in the public domain, many of which are read by Librivox volunteers, whom I applaud for freely giving their time to make literature available. My first experiences were with such titles.

You typically get what you pay for with anything, and that is the rule as well with audiobook narrators. Like all rules, however, there are exceptions among no-cost Librivox volunteers, as the following examples indicate.

Known only as “Chip,” this Librivox volunteer lends his distinctive silky voice to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which I listen to every Halloween season. His supple recitations are like the brook that glides through the valley not far from the village of Tarry Town, “with just enough murmur to lull one to repose.”

Another favorite holiday Librivox recording is A Christmas Carol, read by volunteer Glen Hallstrom, aka “Smokestack” Jones. His pace, accent and character nuances make listening a wonderful gift to give yourself.

Fans of Sherlock Holmes have no problem finding free Librivox editions to listen to, and a number of volunteers do the Conan Doyle stories justice. But one—Simon Evers—is simply brilliant.

In The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Holmes scolds Watson for bungling a fact-finding mission.

“You really have done remarkably badly,” Evers-as-Holmes declares dryly in summation, with just the right cadence and condescension.

Still, few free audiobooks live up to the exquisite performances routinely delivered by professionals for the major publishing houses.

Edoardo Ballerini is an Italian American actor who has now recorded some 250 audiobooks, including the latest one I “read,” The Cutting Edge by Jeffrey Deaver. It’s the 14th book in the quadriplegic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme series, and the third I have listened to by Ballerini.

His power to subtly infuse each character with individualized “voices” is nothing short of superb.

My enthusiasm for audiobooks took off after I learned of the “Libby” app, which syncs to my local library card. With Libby, I’ve been able to check out all sorts of books for free—including recent editions—that I otherwise would probably never have read, from history and nonfiction to popular authors and pulp fiction.

After seven days, my borrowed audiobooks are electronically “returned” (unless renewed) to the library. Thus I’ve completed a lengthy string of audiobooks in a relatively short period.

I listened to Brian Kilmeade read both his Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, and Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. Tom Hanks was delightful reading his first book, a short-story anthology called Uncommon Type.

The narrator of Mindhunter, the chronicled career and adventures of psychological profiling pioneer John Douglas, perfectly executed the text, sounding like a seasoned FBI investigator himself.

A John Grisham fan, I knocked out a trio more of his novels: Gray MountainCamino Island and The Reckoning, read by accomplished narrators Catherine Taber, January LaVoy and Michael Beck respectively.

Narrators Will Patton and Ann Marie Lee eloquently delivered all the twists and turns in The Outsider (Stephen King) and The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn).

Autobiography authors often choose to read their own audiobooks. For Michael Caine in Blowing the Bloody Doors Off, it was an audible feast. For Hillary Clinton in What Happened, it wasn’t. Andrew Lloyd Weber wisely cast British narrator Derek Perkins, with 270 recorded audiobooks on his resume, to read Unmasked.

Janet Evanovich best-sellers abound in any bookstore, but I’d never read anything by her until I borrowed Visions of Sugar Plums on a whim last Christmas. Actress and award-winning audiobook narrator Lorelei King’s rendition was “vocal acting” at its best in conjuring up vivid imagery from the dialogue and dialect of the somewhat screwball characters.

The late American actor Ralph Cosham narrated my “re-reading” of Mere Christianity, and became the voice of C.S. Lewis forevermore in my ears.

Audiobook popularity has grown tenfold in less than a decade, and with smart speakers and other technology aids and improvements expanding, shows little sign of slowing down.

As a freshly minted devotee, I can fully see (and hear) why.

Value of Americanization

Americanization is an old word and an old concept, but it’s enjoying a welcome bit of revival.

Last year, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law requiring high school students to pass a citizenship test before they can graduate. In February, public school districts began administering the exam to students seeking a diploma or GED this May.

Also in February, a study of 41,000 Americans by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation underscored the need for such tests. In only one state—Vermont—did a majority of respondents pass the test.

In Arkansas, 70 percent failed.

I took a couple of sample tests that included 20-something of the 100 questions on the citizenship test. Given my personal love of history and penchant for reading, I fully expected to earn a perfect score, and I did on both.

Many of the questions were easy (first president, date of Independence Day, etc.), but there were a few that gave me pause, and made me think (the multiple-choice question that listed four sets of three states, and asked which grouping was from the original 13 colonies, for example).

Critics who argue that such exams only test rote memory miss the point. The whole point of any testing is to require study and preparation. To successfully answer the question about what Benjamin Franklin was famous for required some beneath-the-surface knowledge beyond the Pennsylvanian’s foul weather kite-flying and authorship of Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Obviously, it’s important for Americans to understand their country and citizenship as they come of voting age. That’s critical for any society that values freedom and hopes to retain it.

World history is replete with toppled democracies, and post-mortem lamentations by citizens looking back on what might have been. Indeed, more is often learned from failure, provided the lesson is taught. And the recurring theme for failed democratic societies is destruction from within; the lack of knowledge and active diligence in preserving democratic ideals leads to individual self-centeredness and moral rot which ultimately destroys them.

“Perils will befall democracy everywhere when it forgets that free men have duties as well as rights,” an elderly Frenchman is reported to have said following the downfall of the third French Republic in 1940. Two millennia prior, Thucydides blamed selfishness and blindly immoderate behavior for the Athenian democratic collapse.

Those two perspectives are featured in the opening section of The American Citizens Handbook, which was published by the National Education Association for 27 years, from 1941 to 1968.

Now, more than 50 years after the final edition was printed, it’s time for the NEA to reconsider resurrecting the concept of a citizenship anthology that explains the American creed and explores its development.

Today’s version needs to be digital, accessible through smartphone app technology, with multimedia dimensions: a podcast series on the Constitutional Convention, annotated audiobooks of the Federalist Papers, interactive infographics for aid in understanding the musical Hamilton.

Twenty states now require civics exams for graduating high school seniors; none did five years ago. The timing is right because one thing our hyper-consumerist age has drilled into our heads is that achieving successful brand loyalty requires cultural adherence to core company values.

The best, most revered and most prosperous organizations—from commercial to industrial to nonprofit—all spend substantial money, time and other resources educating employees about their vision, mission and culture. “Living the brand” is a proven method to building it. A successful America must do no less, and modern Americanization is important not only for children in school but also for immigrants.

Americanization doesn’t require immigrants to lose their ethnic heritage. What it should do is educate and enable them to maximize their opportunities here. Properly done, Americanization emphasizes the Unum in our national motto, because that’s where our strength lies.

What unites us is what propels the nation forward. But an immigrant won’t know what those unifying values, beliefs, rights and responsibilities are unless we teach her or him. And that is one of the great untold and unmeasured costs of illegal immigration.

Not only do immigrants who come here illegally circumvent our fundamental fidelity to the rule of law, they also sidestep all formal Americanization education processes in place to benefit them. They essentially start out on two wrong feet.

Today’s shrill politics constantly seeks to stake out dividing lines, but accusations of widespread anti-immigration sentiment are false. The mass majority of Americans realize and respect that we are and always have been a nation of immigrants; what they rightly oppose is illegal immigration.

The old NEA handbook featured “The Code of the Good American,” which listed 11 “laws” that the best citizens traditionally observed and obeyed: self-control, good health, kindness, sportsmanship, self-reliance, duty, reliability, truth, good workmanship, teamwork and loyalty.

It’s quite telling that those “laws” were all frameworks for individual behavior that only grow and get better when practiced over time. As guideposts for virtuous citizenship, each was followed by several “I will …” statements and paragraphs detailing their practical application.

That’s the focus that must be reclaimed for true Americanization across the board. And it’s the best legacy gift we can give to new immigrants.