Common Core Grinds Along Amid Michigan Debate
Hearings, budget concerns seen raising local anxieties, but momentum continues
The high-volume argument in Michigan about whether to stick with the common core appears to have done little to slow the standards' momentum in most schools and districts, although at least a few officials are taking a cautious approach.
Lawmakers this month are holding a series of hearings on the fate of budget language enacted earlier this year freezing Michigan's financial support for the Common Core State Standards and associated assessments as of Oct. 1.
Backers of the common core worry, in particular, about the impact of the freeze on assessments being designed in conjunction with the standards. And opponents have taken heart from the hearings, which have drawn national attention and included many hours of testimony from both supporters and detractors.
In practice, however, work on common-core-aligned curricula and professional development hasn't been greatly troubled, according to many local K-12 officials.
"Almost every district in the state is moving ahead, from what I have heard and the people I have talked to," said Michael Yocum, the director of learning services for the Oakland Intermediate School District, which in turn oversees 28 smaller, local districts and has a total enrollment of about 192,300 full-time-equivalent students.
One district superintendent who is taking a relatively cautious path is Carlton Jenkins, head of Saginaw Public Schools, which has about 7,700 students enrolled.
The curricula being used in his district this year are, in practice, aligned to the common core, Mr. Jenkins said. But Saginaw schools won't purchase any new curricula explicitly aligned to the standards, spend additional money to train teachers specifically in the common core, or pay to send school personnel to conferences about the standards, until common core's standing in Michigan is resolved.
"I don't want to spend any money and find out that I can't use that," Mr. Jenkins said.
Despite heated opposition and calls in many states for the standards to be dropped, 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the common core. (One of those states, Minnesota, has adopted the standards for English/language arts but not for math.)
Aside from Michigan, Indiana is also reviewing the common core, having held similar legislative hearings about the standards this summer. Indiana's state school board ultimately will be asked to reconsider supporting the common core, which it adopted in 2010, the year the standards were released under the aegis of groups representing state governors and schools chiefs.
The Michigan House of Representatives' fourth and final hearing on the common core is slated for Aug. 28, and a joint House and Senate hearing was scheduled for Aug. 27, after Education Week went to press.
After that, the legislature could pass a supplemental budget bill addressing the spending freeze one way or another—or it could pass a resolution expressing support or opposition to the common core, said Don Wotruba, the deputy director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, which has drafted a model resolution supporting the standards for districts to consider.
Because of the Michigan state board's continuing support for the common core, Mr. Wotruba said, his members must proceed on the assumption that the standards will remain in place, regardless of political drama in Lansing, the state capital.
"Common core is going to be our standards," he said.
Among 57 ISDs in Michigan, Mr. Yocum said, he has yet to find one that has publicly acknowledged having schools that have suspended work on the standards.
Mr. Yocum, the Oakland ISD official, indicated that the only piece of testimony that really created a stir in schools came from the nationally known education historian Diane Ravitch, who has been critical of the common core. Her opposition carried weight, given her "credibility among politicians as well as educators," Mr. Yocum said.
As he spoke, Mr. Yocum said in a telephone interview, 150 math teachers were going through common-core training in the basement below him.
The Oakland ISD has developed a curriculum aligned to the standards, Mr. Yocum said, and the interest from other districts around the state in that work continues unabated: "We just get inundated with, 'When is this going to be up?' ... and 'I'm doing a training next week—I've got to have this.' "
One district that is considering the pro-common-core resolution by the school boards' association is the Plymouth-Canton system, which has about 17,500 students enrolled. Michael Meissen, its superintendent, said he anticipates that the school board will ultimately adopt it.
The district has spent $500,000 on an English/language arts curriculum explicitly aligned to the common core, he said, that will be used for the first time in the 2013-14 school year.
Mr. Meissen, referring to the standards in his district, said that "the train's on the tracks and it's left town."
"We see this as a way to ensure that our students are benchmarked against some international standards. We see it as ensuring equity across the district," he said.
But a teacher from the Plymouth-Canton district, Stephanie Keiles, criticized the standards during her Aug. 14 testimony before state lawmakers over its treatment of geometry, the Michigan Live news website reported.
Playing It Safe
Melanie Kurdys, the co-founder of Stop Common Core in Michigan and a former candidate for the Michigan state school board, said that while it was also her understanding that there was no significant pause in common-core implementation, it merely represented districts' choice of the "least risky strategy."
Districts are making the bet that keeping the common core is still less damaging than dropping it, she said, because of common-core aligned assessments from the Smarter Balanced testing consortium that Michigan is due to administer in the 2014-15 school year.
"It is important for us to really make a decision as quickly as we can so they have a clear idea of which way to go," Ms. Kurdys said.
Michigan is a governing member of Smarter Balanced, and its co-chairman, Joseph Martineau, is the executive director in the Michigan education department's bureau of assessment and accountability. If the Oct. 1 spending freeze remains in place, the state will be barred from purchasing the assessment, Mr. Wotruba noted.
Vol. 33, Issue 02, Pages 22-23Published in Print: August 28, 2013, as Common Core Grinds Along Amid Michigan Debate