Part 1 of 4
By Ben Velderman
INDIANAPOLIS – In late April, the Indiana General Assembly voted to hit the pause button on the state’s implementation of Common Core, a set of national K-12 learning standards in math and English.
If Gov. Mike Pence signs the bill, it will give taxpayers and lawmakers about 14 months to re-examine the academic quality and the overall financial costs of the Common Core standards.
While the final decision rests with members of Indiana’s State Board of Education – most of whom support the national standards – taxpayers have a chance of stopping Common Core and keeping control of Indiana’s schools at the local and state level, and away from politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.
The resistance coming from the Hoosier State is a complete reversal from three years ago. Back then, Gov. Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett were two of the most prominent – and conservative – advocates for the national learning standards.
Indiana’s change of heart is indicative of the growing amount of resistance Common Core supporters are running up against all across the country.
To date, only Alaska, Virginia, Texas and Nebraska have refused to swap their math, reading and writing standards for the national ones. Minnesota kept its own math standards, but is using the Common Core benchmarks for English.
But the list of Common Core holdouts could be growing.
“Bills to repeal the Common Core have been filed in Oklahoma, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Alabama, South Dakota and Georgia,” the Washington Post recently reported.
Resistance has even spread to the nation’s capital, where U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R – Iowa) is leading the effort to prevent federal K-12 funds from being linked to the adoption of Common Core “or other specific standards.”
Despite all the pushback, Joy Pullman of the Heartland Institute notes the national standards are already taking root in “87 percent of public school classrooms, and [are] reshaping textbooks and tests,” even for states and schools that refused to climb aboard the Common Core bandwagon.
Unless something dramatic occurs, Common Core will be in full effect for most states beginning with the 2014-15 school year.
The ABCs of Common Core
Common Core’s origins date back to 2008, when two private associations representing some of the nation’s governors and state superintendents decided that a uniform set of “rigorous” learning expectations was the best way to improve America’s struggling public education system.
Since the federal government is legally prohibited from dictating what students learn in school, the two private groups with official-sounding names – the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers – decided that national learning standards could only be achieved by getting individual states to voluntarily adopt them.
That was easier said than done, as most Americans still favor the idea of keeping education decisions at the local and state level.
That resistance required the federal government to spearhead the Common Core movement, which it began doing in the beginning weeks of President Barack Obama’s first term.
The president’s 2009 economic stimulus bill contained $4.35 billion for the Race to the Top initiative, which allowed financially desperate states to apply for extra K-12 funds in return for promises of education reforms.
It was understood that if states signed on to Common Core – or an equivalent set of learning standards – they stood a better chance of winning Race to the Top dollars.
The Obama administration also made adoption of Common Core a consideration when it awarded No Child Left Behind waivers to states, thus freeing them from some of the federal law’s most burdensome requirements.
That carrot-and-stick approach worked its magic. Not only did 45 states and the District of Columbia agree to exchange their own math and English standards for Common Core standards, but it allowed the NGA and CCSSO to claim the effort is entirely voluntary and state-led.
Critics from the left and right reject that idea.
As Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation writes, “For an undertaking that claims to be largely free of federal involvement, Common Core has quite a few federal fingerprints on it.”
A federal takeover of public education?
The federal government’s involvement with Common Core has many Americans worried that control of the curriculum in their neighborhood public school will eventually be decided by ideologically driven bureaucrats and politicians in Washington D.C.
Common Core’s defenders – a bipartisan group that includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten – strongly deny that a set of national learning standards in two subject areas constitutes a federal takeover of public education.
They add that state and local education leaders will still have control over their curriculum – the lesson plans and classroom activities that are used to teach standards.
But critics aren’t buying those arguments.
Their concerns revolve around the forthcoming state tests that will align with the new learning standards.
The tests are being developed by two companies – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) – that were selected by the federal government and are being paid with stimulus funds.
That presents federal officials with an opportunity to influence the content of the test questions – which will directly impact what gets taught in the classroom, critics say.
Those concerns were given new life recently when Education Week reported that U.S. Department of Education officials are conducting a “technical review” of the tests that focuses on the “item design and validation” of questions that will be given to students.
In an email provided to EAGnews, a U.S. Department of Education official confirmed that the agency is reviewing a “sample” of the test questions to make sure the assessments “are on track to meeting the intended goals of the Race to the Top assessment grant program.”
‘A de-facto federal curricula’
Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, has been trying to get details about the review process, but has come away with few answers because the process is shrouded in secrecy.
McCluskey says the lack of transparency is “very concerning for those who don’t think the federal government should be setting curricula,” but adds that there’s no indication that education officials are doing anything improper.
According to McCluskey, test questions can lead to a “de facto federal curricula” if certain types of questions regularly appear on the tests.
For example, if the English portion of a Common Core-related test consistently asks one question about Shakespeare but four questions about an Environmental Protection Agency document, it won’t be long before schools tailor their curriculum to include the EPA document.
“Year after year, questions become curricula,” McCluskey says.
In their more candid moments, Common Core proponents have acknowledged that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, one of the driving forces behind Common Core, said in a 2009 speech that “identifying common standards is not enough. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards.”
In a 2010 speech, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged that “the new assessments will help drive the development of a rich curriculum.”
Because state leaders signed on to the Common Core standards so quickly and with so little discussion, many taxpayers are only now grasping just how national standards will change the nature of their neighborhood schools.
That’s why Indiana lawmakers think it’s crucial that the process be put on hold until taxpayers’ questions and concerns are heard by the state education officials who will make the final decision about Common Core.
“Once they see how much it will cost and how poor the standards actually are, Hoosiers will understand the reasons why this thing called Common Core must be stopped,” said state Rep. Rhonda Rhoads in a press release. “There is no way a federalized set of standards will be acceptable as a replacement for the high standards we already have for our children.”
Tuesday: Parents and experts worry that Common Core’s unproven standards will lead to less learning.