States Seek to Calm Districts' Common-Core Jitters
State education leaders are moving to calm political tempests over the Common Core State Standards by adopting or reaffirming policies aimed at asserting local control over data, curriculum, and materials. But the classroom-level impact of those moves could be negligible as states forge ahead on common-core implementation.
On the one hand, officials' actions in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Michigan highlight anxieties over the privacy of information about individual students and what some see as state and federal intrusion into classrooms. At the same time, the specific steps, all in states run by Republicans, largely emphasize existing policy or practice.
"That might turn down the heat on a lot of these criticisms, ... but I don't think this stuff addresses the real issues with the implementation and actually making the common core work," said Michael Q. McShane, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who tracks the standards. "It doesn't really solve anything, because it doesn't really do anything."
Florida, which in September curtailed its relationship with a consortium developing common-core-aligned assessments, backed away from a controversial supplement to the standards when the state school board voted 5-1 on Oct. 15 not to adopt any of the standards' appendices, including a list of text "exemplars" or suggested reading.
The exemplars have angered conservative anti-common-core activists in other states like Alabama and Georgia for including books deemed controversial because of their treatment of sexuality (in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye) or radical politics (in Julia Alvarez's In the Time of Butterflies).
However, a spokeswoman for the Florida education department, Cheryl Etters, said the choice remains with local districts whether to use none, some, or all of the suggested reading when developing common-core-aligned curricula.
The day after the Florida board's vote, the Louisiana state school board announced that it had barred the state and the federal government from "forcing school systems to use a specific curriculum or course content." Six days before the Louisiana vote, the state's St. Tammany Parish school board had passed a resolution opposing the common core.
The state said it would also require the Louisiana education department to use student ID numbers that couldn't be traced back to individual students, and would require schools to notify parents about high school English reading lists and give parents an "opt out" option.
Several state school boards last month took steps intended to ease anxieties about how the Common Core State Standards would impact local education decisions and the privacy of student data.
Louisiana: Clarified that school districts maintain control over classroom content, and cannot have course materials forced on them. State that ID numbers used to track students couldn't be traced back to individual students.
Alabama: Adopted a policy that no data that can be traced to individual students is to be shared with the federal government. State Superintendent Tommy Bice has also offered a resolution rescinding a 2009 agreement between the state and two state-based organizations regarding the Common Core State Standards' development.
Florida: Refused to adopt appendices accompanying the common core that include suggested specific fiction and non-fiction selections. Some of the suggested literature has come under fire from conservative activists for how they portray radical politics and sexuality.
The president of the state board, Chas Roemer, said in a statement that all those moves allowed officials to "reaffirm that common core is not a federally mandated curriculum."
The policy about local control over curriculum had been implicit in the state, but not official, before the board's vote, Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White noted in an interview, while the parental-notification policy is new.
Mr. White argued that the policies in Louisiana deal with serious concerns, at the same time that they buttress the state board's common-core support.
"Parents, I think, are probably more concerned about knowing what their students are learning and the privacy of their children's information than they are about the intricacies of testing policies," Mr. White said.
None of the moves by the state board, he said, is solely related to the common core.
The Alabama state board recently tried to put to rest concerns about both privacy and the state's links to the two national groups that spearheaded development of the common standards in English/language arts and mathematics, which the vast majority of states have adopted. In addition to adopting a student-data-protection policy Oct. 10, state schools Superintendent Tommy Bice, a common-core supporter, offered a resolution Oct. 24 that would rescind a 2009 memorandum of agreement the state had with those groups, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Revoking an Agreement
Mr. Bice said in a statement that while the 2009 agreement only acknowledged that "internationally benchmarked" standards that could be shared across states were in development, ditching the memorandum allowed Alabama officials to show that the standards did in fact spring from "a state-initiated and a state-led effort."
Clearing up misconceptions over issues like data privacy is important as individual states deal with the common core in their own ways, said Carissa Miller, a deputy executive director of the CCSSO.
"I see state boards and legislators doing that as a way to say: 'These are state-owned standards,' " she said.
Ms. Miller added that the common core doesn't change how states have to handle student data.
But Mr. Bice's proposed Alabama resolution, in particular, should be viewed as a purely political move, said Shane Vander Hart, a consultant for the American Principles Project, a conservative free-market Washington advocacy group opposed to the common core.
In Mr. Bice's statement about revoking the agreement, the phrase "common core" is not used.
"It's an empty gesture," Mr. Vander Hart said. "It does nothing."
A resolution approved by Michigan lawmakers last month that allowed state spending on the common core to resume—after a state budget-mandated spending freeze on common-core activities that began at the start of October—also emphasized local school boards' control over curriculum and classroom materials, and districts' right not to provide lessons that compromise their communities' values.
John C. Austin, the president of the Michigan board of education, who consulted with lawmakers about the resolution's language, said it "reaffirmed" the power of districts, while shielding the board from political meddling in academic-content standards. The board adopted the common standards in 2010, the year of their release.
"We do not want the state legislature revising our standards every two years," Mr. Austin said. "It would whipsaw our standards and our educators without mercy."
The Michigan resolution deals with one other politically sensitive area for the standards: the aligned assessments. It requires the state to re-examine its options for those tests. Michigan is a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two multistate groups developing common-core tests.
For those who oppose the common standards, the recent state board actions, overall, are encouraging but small steps, Mr. Vander Hart said.
"I don't think anybody should be doing victory laps right now," he said.
Vol. 33, Issue 11, Pages 1, 23Published in Print: November 6, 2013, as Common-Core Hurdle: Calming Jittery Districts