Is the Common Core on its way in — or out?
Proponents and opponents are so sharply divided that an assessment of the standards’ prospects depends on whom you ask.
The national academic standards have sparked such vehement disputes that it might seem many states have already pulled out. Republican politicians even if they once supported the standards now often insist that they are an unwelcome intrusion in local matters.
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In fact, only a handful of states have actually moved away from the Common Core. Indiana withdrew and replaced it with its own standards, North and South Carolina and Missouri are reviewing it but using it in the meantime and only Oklahoma has returned to its previous standards while developing alternatives.
As the new school year begins, most teachers across the country are implementing the Common Core, says Michael Brickman, the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
A think tank focusing on education policy, the institute supports the standards, meant to ensure that students meet minimum benchmarks regardless of where they go to school. By its score, 42 states still have the Common Core in effect (It counts Indiana as still on a board). So despite efforts by tea party groups and other conservatives, it argues, the pro-Common Core side is still leading.
Not for long, predicts Emmett McGroarty at the American Principles Project, a group that created the initiative, "Fight Common Core." The standards are on their way out, he said.
They increasingly are being exposed as a way to push an inferior curriculum and parents are rebelling, he said. Opponents are at the end of the first stage of their battle, to make politicians aware of just how bad they believe the standards are. Next up is a new discussion about what children should be learning and who should be responsible, he said.
“Unfortunately, now the Common Core has become a political football, and the focus really has shifted, I think, from the substance of what’s contained in the Common Core and the rationale for the strategy of having common, high standards across the country to a question of who can garner the most political points from victory in this battle,” said Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
The standards were developed with little controversy beginning in 2009 by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association’s Center of Best Practices, as goals for what students should learn in mathematics and English language literacy in the kindergarten through 12th grade. The aim was to ensure that students already lagging behind international counterparts graduate from high school ready for college and careers.
At first the standards had bipartisan support -- and still have the backing of such disparate politicians as former Florida governor and possible Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and President Barack Obama. Only four states rejected them — Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia — while Minnesota accepted only the English language portion of the standards, not the math.
Since then, the standards have become a flashpoint both on the right and the left. Conservatives argue that they represent federal overreach into education, liberals object to more high-stake testing, integral to the Common Core, and both question the corporate profits from the tests.
Jane Maisel, a former New York City teacher who is part of a movement against such testing, said standards alone are not a problem.
But, said Maisel, a member of a group called Change the Stakes, “The Common Core is a creature, it is an invention of people who are interested in this quantification of everything in the school system. There is no such thing as a Common Core separate from the high stakes tests that are geared to it. It has no independent existence.”
A mother who belongs to the group, Janine Sopp of Brooklyn, said she was worried about the over-use of tests and their inappropriate application to punish teachers and schools.
"We've spent a huge amount of money that has actually come out of schools in order to pay for this," she said. "What we see in our schools is incredible budget cuts and a tremendous amount of inequality among schools."
Parents and teachers are in favor of high standards, she said, but do not want to see another failure like No Child Left Behind, the initiative under President George W. Bush.
"So who's to say this is not setting us up for another decade of failure," she said.
Groups opposing the Common Core have sprung up across the country from Arkansas to Utah, and both of the country’s national teachers unions have qualified their initial support. The unions object to how the standards are being put into practice and how teachers are being evaluated against a change in the classroom before they have had time to prepare. Seventy bills have been introduced that would slow or halt the standards’ implementation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But will the very vocal opposition make much difference in the end?
“If you think about the flurry of activity out there and what folks who have been opposing the standards would argue, that they’ve been making a lot of inroads, I would actually argue not much has changed,” said Jennifer Vranek, a founding partner of the Education First consulting firm and a supporter of the standards. “Forty some states still want their students to graduate from high school ready for college and careers."
RETHINKING THE STANDARDS
In March, Indiana became the first state to formally withdraw from the Common Core and to substitute local standards in its place.
“I believe our students are best served when decisions about education are made at the state and local level,” Republican Gov. Mike Pence said at the time.
Critics say that many of the new standards were taken directly from the Common Core and contend that the state did little more than tweak the results as other states have done.
North and South Carolina and Missouri are reviewing their standards with the aim of writing new local ones, but will continue to follow the Common Core in the meantime.
Only Oklahoma will revert to its earlier standards while it replaces the Common Core, which Republican Gov. Mary Fallon said had been tainted by federal overreach.
"What should have been a bipartisan policy is now widely regarded as the president's plan to establish federal control of curricula, testing and teaching strategies," she said in June.
Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said that as a result Oklahoma had lowered its standards.
“But they are in the process of rewriting their standards, so that’s a positive, and we’re hopeful that Oklahoma will get to a higher set of standards," he said.
A NEW FRONT OVER TESTING
In other states, the battle continues.
Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal is in the middle of a very public dispute with the state’s education officials over whether to keep the standards. Jindal, another Republican who might run for president in 2016, had supported the Common Core when his state adopted it in 2010 but now says he is alarmed by the loss of local control.
In Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker has urged the state legislature to overturn the standards when it returns in January.
Elsewhere a front has opened on the tests being designed to measure students progress in the Common Core. Two testing consortiums, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, formed, but some states have since pulled out or put their participation on hold. Florida for example has selected its own test.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that the standards looked good on paper but were not working well in early childhood and special education. The debate should be focused not on whether the federal government was overstepping its bounds but on the Common Core's imperfect implementation. Testing should be not be linked to its implementation
Vranek said she thought the Common Core standards would remain a blueprint for many states even as they get caught up in the 2016 presidential elections.
“Most of the opposition both from the left and the right is highly politically motivated,” she said.
Legislatures in many states will not be in session again until January, and that is when the next round of opposition will bubble up, McGroarty said.
"It really gets back to that dynamic of a governor or a speaker being confronted by a mom, who just takes them to school on the Common Core and why it's bad," he said. "When that happens, I think legislators and governors who are Common Core proponents, when they realize how bad this is, they tend to flip to the other side."