Special Report

Resistance to the Common Core Mounts

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 21, 2014 11 min read
Ray Harney of Rockville, Ind., lets his feelings be known about the common core while attending a public hearing recently at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis.
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After more than a year of high-profile and contentious debate over the Common Core State Standards in Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation last month to formally reverse the state’s adoption of the standards. The legislation set the state on course to replace those standards with ones “written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers,” the Republican governor proclaimed.

The same month, the Democratic-controlled New York Assembly approved a measure that would require a two-year delay in using assessments aligned with the common core for teacher and principal evaluations.

In some sense, the measures in Indiana and New York represent two dominant poles of the growing—and evolving—resistance to the standards. The common core has drawn criticism from both the political left and right, though much of it seems aimed not so much at what the standards say, but rather who drove their adoption or the tests and accountability policies connected with them.

In some respects, the environment bears similarities to what happened roughly 20 years ago, when a national push to update standards with federal and corporate backing ran into political opposition.

Lawmakers in roughly 15 states, wary of what they see as federal pressure to adopt the common core and of other problems they associate with the standards, have introduced legislation during their current sessions to repeal the standards or replace them with other standards. Such measures have cleared at least one legislative chamber in states such as Georgia and Tennessee. A bill to require Oklahoma to adopt a new set of standards was approved by both chambers as of this writing, although it wouldn’t prohibit the state from incorporating at least portions of the common core.

At the same time, union leaders and other progressives in education in places like Maryland and New York state have been decrying what they see as a lack of preparation and resources for teachers as the standards are carried out. These critics say states should delay the full impact of common-core standards and tests on educators, students, and schools.

Still, the tangible success of both sides has been questionable so far. Most of the bills have not become law. Even in Indiana, the standards the state appears on track to adopt bear some striking similarities to the common core.

Meanwhile, prominent friends of the standards, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, have set up “mythbusting” sites and new public-relations campaigns to support the common standards.

During one public appearance to support the standards in March, Gov. Markell said he and others would continue to push back against what he said was a false “mythology” about the standards: “It’s not about some malicious thing coming from Washington, D.C.”

But many common-core foes appear to be animated in part by the idea that they are lined up against powerful forces supporting the standards.

“We’re really seeing some momentum. But this is really a David-versus-Goliath kind of battle,” said Shane Vander Hart, a conservative anti-common-core activist who writes a blog for Christian conservatives.

Making it Work

The newer strain of resistance to the common core coming from teachers’ unions isn’t necessarily opposition to the standards themselves. Rather, it’s based on the notion that teachers and schools haven’t received adequate time, the proper training, financial resources, curricula, and other support from state governments, districts, and others to successfully bring the standards into their classrooms.

Without a significant shift, so the argument goes, using new state tests based on the standards to evaluate both educators and schools will destroy any benefits the standards might have otherwise provided, while damaging both teachers and the teaching profession.

That position was crystallized in the legislation approved in March by the New York Assembly. The measure would require a two-year delay in using common-core test scores for teacher and principal evaluations—assuming the U.S. Department of Education allows it—and also calls for a review of standardized testing to eliminate unnecessary exams. In addition, it would ban the test scores from being the primary factor in student promotions and from being placed on students’ permanent records, a proposal that ultimately found its way into the state budget plan New York lawmakers recently finalized.

The Assembly bill on teacher evaluations followed months of recriminations in the Empire State over a drop in test scores on new common-core exams given last year and what some critics said was inadequate teacher training and delayed curriculum. The New York State United Teachers, the 600,000-member state affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, announced early in 2014 that it no longer supported common core as it stood in the state.

In addition, legislation in Maryland backed by the NEA’s state affiliate to impose a delay in using common-core test scores in professional evaluations when making personnel decisions has also passed both chambers in the state legislature.

Addressing a conference hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers last month, Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.5 million-member AFT, criticized state K-12 leaders for not sufficiently responding to concerns from parents as well as educators about the common core’s effects.

If teachers don’t trust where education policy leaders are taking them with the common core, Ms. Weingarten said, the standards will fail to fulfill their promise. “What you essentially see is immobilization,” she said.

A growing number of parents and others in New York are stepping up and demanding that the state rethink what the standards are demanding from schools and teachers, in particular the testing regimen, said Chris Cerrone, a teacher and founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, a group that is critical of the effects of common-core-aligned tests on teachers and students.

Crucially, teachers are changing their approach for the worse because of the hurried, frantic push to get common core online, he added: “It’s not the same passion that’s going on because the teacher’s in such a rush to learn this new curriculum.”

Stymied in Statehouses

Common-core opposition in tea party groups and from other conservatives remains rooted in the idea that the federal government is ultimately behind the standards and twisted arms to have them adopted as a means to quash local decisionmaking.

Although the Education Department did not require states to adopt the standards, it did offer financial incentives through the federal Race to the Top competition. And it has provided $360 million to two state consortia to develop assessments aligned with the standards.

Opponents also claim that through the common core, the federal government is forcing states and districts to provide individual student-level data that represent an invasion of privacy. But such claims are without merit, state education officials and others have said consistently, and the standards themselves make no new data demands.

Additional anger from conservatives has been directed at curricular materials associated with the standards, such as certain books they view as offensive, even though they are not part of the standards themselves and are not required. Such books include In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

Although some, like Mr. Vander Hart, the activist, don’t like the standards themselves, distrust among conservative and liberal common-core foes is often directed at what they say is the nexus of mainstream politicians and corporate groups pushing the common core to reduce local control over schools.

Acting on those and other concerns, conservative Republican lawmakers have energetically sought the repeal or halt of the common core, though as of mid-April, Indiana remained the only state where such a measure had actually become law.

In March, Georgia Sen. William Ligon, a Republican, failed for the second time in as many years to get a bill to repeal the common core through the legislature. The Senate passed the bill, but it died in the House. The same week as that vote, a move to prohibit any state dollars from being spent on the standards in the Mississippi legislature also fell flat. And a bill in Alabama to allow districts to opt out of the standards seems to have stalled.

Even in South Carolina, where GOP Gov. Nikki Haley has been one of the few Republican chief executives to voice outright opposition to the common standards, a piece of legislation initially written to scrap the standards was amended to eliminate that repeal provision before it was approved by a Senate committee.

Despite the obvious appetite among some conservative activists for repealing the common core, Mr. Vander Hart attributed some of the failure to drop the standards to an obligation felt by some Republican lawmakers to maintain partisan unity in a year featuring dozens of gubernatorial elections.

“There’s just not a lot of will for some legislators to go up against incumbent governors in their own party,” he said.

‘Do They Think We’re Dumb?’

But Heather Crossin, an activist with the Indiana group Hoosiers Against Common Core, said that if Gov. Pence decided to stick with the common core in any form, he would face the wrath of standards opponents in 2016, when he’s up for re-election.

Although the common-core backlash has arguably been most successful in Indiana, the actual effectiveness of that opposition might be well short of what many common-core opponents might hope for when they envision a broad collapse for the standards.

As of press time in mid-April, the Indiana state board of education—which voted unanimously to adopt the common core in 2010—was close to adopting new content standards in English/language arts and mathematics.

The legislation signed in Indiana to repeal the common core, however, does not mean the standards will disappear from the state altogether. On the contrary, the new standards on track to adoption by the board combine previous content standards in Indiana with hefty doses of the common core. Many state officials say the new standards are being created the right way.

But common-core opponents in Indiana have reacted angrily, and the backlash to the new standards has merged with the pre-existing resistance to the common core. Hoosiers Against Common Core produced a report, for example, that said the state’s effort to craft new standards was a farce, since many common-core standards would remain.

At a public hearing in February on the draft version of Indiana’s standards, parent Jill Olecki testified that state officials were still clinging to the common core to satisfy the federal Education Department.

“Do they think we’re dumb?” she asked.

Taking a different path, the Florida state school board earlier this year approved additions to the common-core standards after taking suggestions from the public. The additions covered such topics as cursive handwriting and calculus. Florida and other states, including Georgia and Oklahoma, have also dropped out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of two state consortia developing common-core-aligned assessments.

Manning the Barricades

The spate of activity and interest, however, doesn’t mean common-core opponents should take heart, said Michael Brickman, the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, a think tank that backs the standards. The main energy behind the resistance, he contends, comes from “a small group on the left and the right of very passionate people” who often don’t address the issue of what constitutes good standards versus bad standards.

“The facts have not always aligned with some of the things you’re seeing out there in social media and elsewhere,” Mr. Brickman said.

What’s more, although there may be some political convergence on the right and left in opposing the common core, specific messages from conservatives about problems with the standards aren’t always warmly welcomed by liberals and vice versa. The lack of alignment in their agendas may hamstring efforts to build a more effective push against the common core.

High-profile friends of the common core, meanwhile, are manning the barricades to defend the standards against the ongoing pushback and open new fronts in the battle for public attention.

For example, the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and the Hunt Institute, a think tank in Durham, N.C., recently announced a new partnership to firm up support for the common core while battling what Delaware Gov. Markell said was a politicized movement against the standards.

“What we didn’t expect was a lot of misinformation that would be spread around the country about what these standards are,” Gov. Markell said at a recent public event. “We have to invest the time and we have to invest the effort to make sure that the value of these standards is communicated to people across the country.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as Resistance to Common Core Mounts


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