Pressure Mounts in Some States Against Common Core

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 04, 2013 10 min read
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Opponents of the Common Core State Standards are ramping up legislative pressure and public relations efforts aimed at getting states to scale back—or even abandon—the high-profile initiative, even as implementation proceeds and tests aligned with the standards loom.

Critics of the common core have focused recent lobbying and media efforts on Colorado, Idaho, and Indiana, all of which have signed on to the standards. Forty-six states have adopted the standards in English/language arts, and 45 have done so in math.

And just last week, Alabama announced it was withdrawing from the two consortia developing tests aligned with the common core.

Opinion on the common core does not break down neatly along party lines, and critics cite a variety of reasons for their views.

Some see the new standards providing a pipeline for the private sector to access taxpayer dollars. Others say Washington is using the common core to lay the groundwork for a national curriculum, with an assist from such prominent supporters of the standards as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative’s emphasis on student testing also has prompted concern.

Opponents of the core have claimed some progress in Indiana and Utah. The latter state, for example, withdrew from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium last year, a move that anti-core advocates there counted as a small step forward.

Common-core supporters say the opposition is small, with a track record of failure. They point, for example, to the foes’ setback in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank in Washington that provides model legislation on a number of issues. In November, ALEC rejected an internal push against the standards and announced a policy of neutrality.

But opponents aren’t fazed.

“All of a sudden, I find myself in opposition to some of the most politically powerful people in our state,” said Stephanie Zimmerman, a public school parent in Boise, Idaho, who testified last month against the common core before state legislators. “My goal is to educate people.”

The common-core initiative was shepherded by two major organizations of state leaders, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Groups of experts were assembled to write the standards, which were issued in 2010 and are aimed at ensuring students’ readiness for college and careers.

But critics say the position of the NGA and the CCSSO as the public-sector face of the push masks what they assert is a strategy of coercion by the U.S. Department of Education. They note, for example, that the agency has tied federal Race to the Top grants to adoption of college- and career-ready standards.

State and federal officials deny charges that Washington is pulling the strings.

Time is short for opponents of the common core, as states get ready for assessments aligned with the standards starting in the 2014-15 school year.

“At least in some states with politically conservative voters or tea-party–influenced legislators, it’s more than just venting,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, who led the Education Department’s research agency during the George W. Bush administration.

Hoosier Hearing

Perhaps no state epitomizes the pushback better than Indiana.

When state schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican and a champion of the standards, lost his November re-election bid to a common-core skeptic, Democrat Glenda Ritz, opponents of the common core attributed his loss in part to his support for them.

Then, early last month, state Sen. Scott Schneider, a Republican member of the Senate education committee, introduced legislation that would require the state to drop the common standards.

Mr. Schneider said that the standards are inferior to Indiana’s prior academic-content standards, and that the common core has frustrated legislators because it was adopted behind a “veil of secrecy” and without good estimates of its financial costs.

“We really lose a lot of local input and a lot of local control,” Mr. Schneider said. “And there’s no parental input, there’s no teacher input.”

The Indiana Department of Education disputes such assertions. It says the state board of education discussed, provided input on, and received public feedback about the common core from February to August 2010, when the board adopted the standards.

Mr. Schneider argued, in addition, that the common core would corrode Indiana’s school choice program, because some private schools would eventually feel compelled to bend their curricula in order to prepare for the common-core-aligned tests, which they would have to administer to get state voucher money.

At a hearing on Jan. 16 on Mr. Schneider’s proposed Senate Bill 193, former Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott told Indiana lawmakers, “These standards have not been piloted anywhere to show that they lead to better student performance.” (Texas has not adopted the common core.)

Mr. Scott said parents and teachers have had little input on the common core.

Sandra Stotsky, a professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, told lawmakers the common core “makes it impossible for English teachers to construct a coherent literature curriculum.”

Ms. Stotsky, who helped develop highly regarded state content standards in Massachusetts, an adopter of the common core, has also testified against the new standards before state officials in Colorado and South Carolina.

Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who served as a federal education official under President George W. Bush, told the lawmakers that the U.S. government may have pushed for the standards inappropriately by what he called the “heavy handed” way it tied adoption of college- and career-ready standards—in effect, the common core—to grants for states. But he stressed that dropping the common core would be like reverting to rotary phones.

“Indiana has been this classic case of good standards not actually having an impact in the classroom,” Mr. Petrilli said, referring to what he said were the state’s relatively low score gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in recent decades.

Mr. Schneider said his committee was set to vote on his bill Feb. 13.

Private-Sector Role

Support for the standards from the private sector and higher education is clear, said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington nonprofit group that helped develop the standards and now helps state governments and others prepare for the common core and its assessments.

“These standards reflect the knowledge and skills needed to go on for higher education and careers,” said Mr. Cohen, who was an assistant education secretary during the Clinton administration.

But the private sector’s involvement and support are seen very differently by opponents of the standards.

Through the common core, public schools will be used to foster “economic fascism” in education, charged former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, a Republican from Colorado, who until the start of this year served as the chairman of the Colorado state school board before he left the board.

“This is a 100 percent government-regulated industry emerging before our eyes,” with potentially billions of dollars being sent in its direction, said Mr. Schaffer, who is the principal of Liberty Common High School, a charter school in Fort Collins, Colo.

Legislators previously desperate for federal cash attached to the standards, he said, are “just becoming alerted to what’s going on.”

In early December, anti-common-core advocates like Emmett McGroarty of the American Principles Project, a conservative Washington think tank, and Williamson Evers from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, were interviewed on Denver-area radio stations.

On Dec. 6, opponents also spoke at a discussion about the common core hosted by the state board with Mr. Schaffer presiding. On the same day, Mr. Schaffer participated in an event at the pro-free-market Independence Institute in Denver, where analysts criticized the standards.

Mr. Cohen dismissed those he called out-of-state advocates lecturing states that have already made their own decisions: “State legislatures have been no more cut out now than they were when the standards movements began in the ‘90s.”

Others applaud what they see as the common core’s ability to create a national marketplace for innovative K-12 technology.

“When there’s a potential market for high-quality digital instruction, it’s a game-changer,” said Arizona state Sen. Richard Crandall, a Republican who fought in support of the common core within ALEC.

Interstate Aid

In Idaho, the support of conservative officeholders hasn’t assuaged some fears.

Although Ms. Zimmerman, the Boise parent, was initially comforted that Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, both Republicans, supported the common core, she soon learned more that disturbed her.

In her view, the common core was conceived by Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who co-chairs the foundation that bears his and his wife’s names, to advance the agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

As evidence, she referred to an agreement Mr. Gates signed with UNESCO in Paris in 2004 to promote shared educational objectives. Mr. Gates, in turn, would benefit, she said, through “crony capitalism” benefiting Microsoft.

In response, the Gates Foundation said in a statement: “The Gates Foundation is a strong supporter of the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative focused on ensuring all students in U.S. public schools are taught to the same high standards. The foundation’s work has nothing to do with Microsoft’s efforts to support education in developing nations as part of the UNESCO plan.”

(The Gates Foundation helps support Education Week’s coverage of business and K-12 innovation.)

“Assessments drive curriculum. Standards drive curriculum. We are on the road to a national curriculum,” Ms. Zimmerman said.

Some common-core opponents say it is part of an intricate web of K-12 policy decisions designed by a few powerful groups in order to gain authority over public schools.

According to the group Restoring Oklahoma Public Education, which opposes federal involvement in public schools, those forces include Teach For America, the Civil Rights Data Collection program (maintained by the office for civil rights at the federal Education Department), and the international publishing and testing company Pearson, based domestically in New York City.

Ms. Zimmerman said she has relied on the Boston-based pro-free-market Pioneer Institute for information, as well as Hoosiers Against Common Core, a group run by two private school parents in Indiana, Erin Tuttle and Heather Crossin.

Ms. Tuttle said she and Ms. Crossin called Sen. Schneider’s attention to the common core in 2011 after seeing math material that matched the common core in her child’s textbook, published by Pearson, that in her view was not as rigorous as previous standards her children had learned. She said proponents of the standards are proclaiming a national crisis by saying that current standards don’t prepare students for college and careers, then exploiting that crisis.

“It’s like a snake-oil salesman standing up in the town center,” she said.

In response, Mike Evans, the senior vice president for mathematics at Pearson, said in a statement: “We realize that there are some who are opposed to the [common core], but we agree with the creators of the standards that these new, more rigorous requirements will set our U.S. students on the track to move ahead to college and career readiness so that they will be competitive with their global peers.”

Testing Concerns

In Indiana, Ms. Ritz, who drew strong teacher support in winning the state chief’s job, has made a case against the common core echoed by many self-described progressives. She bases much of her opposition on the additional—and in her view improper—emphasis on testing she believes the new standards will create. She told state lawmakers the common core should be studied further, though not yet voided in Indiana, because “so many concerns are coming up,” the Evansville Courier & Press reported.

The common core also is likely to negatively affect disadvantaged students as well as teacher evaluations, argued Robert A. Schaeffer the public education director of the Boston-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, which opposes basing high-stakes decisions on standardized tests.

An “elite-versus-grassroots” dynamic has evolved, he said, in which those closest to the classroom, like parents and teachers, are most skeptical about the increased amount of testing under the common core, while Washington think tanks and others are pushing for it.

“The amount of testing will increase, and the misuse of testing will be unchanged,” he said.

Contributing Writer Michele Molnar provided reporting for this article.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Standards Draw Heat in States


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