Sept. 29–MONTGOMERY — It is called Common Core. Yet despite the name, there is little common ground between those on opposite sides of the debate about Alabama’s new education standards.
The national benchmarks, designed to ensure Alabama students are learning the same concepts in the same grades as students anywhere else in the country, were adopted by the state’s elected Board of Education in 2010.
Since that time, and with increasing frequency, board members and state Superintendent Tommy Bice have had to defend the standards from those who say anything to do with Common Core amounts to a federal takeover of schools and is not good for students.
Implementation of the math standards started last year. English begins this year.
Alabama Board of Education member Charles Elliott, R-Decatur, said he has heard nothing but good things from educators in his district about Common Core.
“Everyone’s said they were an improvement, and even in the some of the best schools, they were going to have to do a better job of teaching students,” said Elliott, who does not plan to seek re-election in 2014. “I’ve spoken with a majority of the superintendents in the 6th District, and they’ve said we can’t go back. They say if we were forced to generate our own standards, we would seek out these Common Core standards.”
But opponents, including many tea party organizations, continue to demand change. Some lawmakers are listening. Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, promises to introduce a bill next year to repeal Common Core.
“It’s an unproven curriculum,” Beason said. “They can’t point to anywhere in the world that it’s been successful. You wouldn’t buy an electronic device no one had tried. Why would you buy an education system that no one’s tested?”
He disagrees with educators who say there still is local control of curriculum.
“If we’re still in such control, why don’t they just get out of it?” Beason said. “Why don’t they just take the parts they like and get out of it?”
Elliott said a lot of misinformation about Common Core continues to be circulated, and he’ll continue to listen to educators.
“With all due respect to the tea party, they are really good Americans, but am I going to listen to teachers and principals or am I going to listen to the tea party?” he said.
Here’s a look at Common Core in Alabama.
Common Core history
The state Board of Education, including then-Gov. Bob Riley, approved the adoption of Common Core State Standards along with selected Alabama standards in November 2010. They were not referred to as Common Core, though. Instead, they were approved under the name “Alabama College and Career Ready Initiative.”
In its literature, the U.S. Department of Education tries to make clear the standards always have been a state-led effort. It states the federal government did not play a role in the development of the standards, and it is not playing a role in implementation. It also is careful not to call the standards a curriculum. Curriculum still is up to local districts.
Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. Some federal grant money has been tied to it, but Alabama hasn’t received federal money related to the standards.
Yet, federal influence in local schools is high on opponents’ list of things they dislike about Common Core.
“I am opposed to federal control of our education system,” Gov. Robert Bentley said last week. “I’m opposed to Common Core because of the potential for federal intrusion. We want the absolute highest standards for Alabama, and I believe we can do this. I believe Alabama should set our own high standards, without intrusion from the federal government.”
Bentley was governor-elect when the board voted on Common Core, and he asked it to wait until he could have a say. Board members chose to proceed before the new governor took office.
Control, choices in debate
State school board member Mary Scott Hunter was not on the board when the standards were adopted, but she has been a vocal proponent of Common Core.
“The Alabama standards define what students should know at each grade level, and they are more rigorous and focused than our previous standards,” said Hunter, a Huntsville Republican. “The federal government does not govern or control the Alabama standards. Under the Alabama standards, curriculum, textbooks and required reading are determined at the local school district level, as they always have been.”
Opponents want standards that are 100 percent made in Alabama.
“Instead of subjecting students to this giant experiment, let’s write our own standards that are superior to Common Core,” said Elois Zeanah, president of the Alabama Federation of Republican Women. “You’re going to hear from people who want to force Common Core on schools and students say these are Alabama standards, not Common Core. That is disingenuous. Alabama did not write Common Core. It is copyrighted by outside organizations.”
The standards weren’t birthed here, but they were modified here, Bice said.
“If we go back to facts, stay with facts, which I’ve done all along, we had a group of Alabama teachers and Alabama administrators look at the Common Core and look at our current standards,” Bice said.
He said the group assembled the best standards from each and brought them to the state school board.
One of the things Elliott said he hears often about Common Core is that it takes away schools’ choice in what they put in front of their students and the message it tries to impart.
“I’ve had people tell me that schools are going to use “Three Little Pigs” to teach socialism,” Elliott said. “I said, ‘You’re killing me.’ ”
Local school systems are still deciding how students will be taught and from what materials. There are no mandated textbooks or reading lists, but there is a list of national “exemplars.”
What has changed?
Jeremy Zelkowski is a high school math teacher turned professor at the University of Alabama. Recently, he and two other professors have been reviewing the new standards with high school teachers in several west Alabama school systems.
“The difference is there is a higher level of expectation,” Zelkowski said. “That’s really what Common Core does: It raises expectations. The old course of study only expected student understanding at a basic skills level. The new course of study expects students to be at a proficient skills level and have a deeper understanding of the curriculum.”
Students can’t get by with just retaining information long enough to regurgitate it on an exam, proponents said.
“In the previous way, they could know enough to pass the test and move on, but not take any real knowledge with them,” Zelkowski said.
That could, in part, explain why 36 percent of Alabama public high school graduates in 2012 needed remedial math and/or English courses when they got to college.
“They’ve learned little at the high school level,” he said.
Zelkowski agrees education in the U.S. and Alabama has improved in the past 20 years without Common Core, but “just not at a rate that would make us internationally competitive.”
Beason said that’s not the fault of the state’s previous benchmarks.
“Our problem is not that we didn’t have standards. The problem is that we didn’t have a focus on meeting our standards,” Beason said.
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted Common Core standards. But many are having the same fight that is playing out in Alabama. Some recent examples reported by the Associated Press include:
–Last week, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature responded to pressure from tea party conservatives who have called for a “full and immediate investigation” into the standards. Gov. Scott Walker said he supports holding hearings and identifying more rigorous standards than those in Common Core.
–Similarly, in Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott said he wants the standards studied further, and his state will not participate in national testing related to Common Core.
–In Louisiana last week, a Republican lawmaker urged the governor to pull the state out of Common Core participation or he’d have a bill next year to do so.
–Earlier this month, lawmakers in Tennessee held a hearing to listen to concerns about the standards and hinted to legislation changing that state’s use of them in 2014.
–In Michigan on Thursday, the state House voted to move forward with the standards, which are backed by the Republican governor and the business community.
Common Core’s cost
The state Department of Education doesn’t have a total price tag for putting the Alabama Career and College Ready Initiative in every classroom in the state.
A 2012 chart shows the development of the standards cost less than previous years’ standards: $128,000 compared to $228,000 for the English standards.
The Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank, said in 2012 that Common Core would cost all 45 states about $15.8 billion during seven years. A large chunk of that came from technology improvements and professional development.
But Sen. Dick Brewbaker, chairman of the Senate education policy committee who opposed Common Core in the 2013 legislation session, said he hasn’t seen any cost estimates he trusts enough to repeat.
It’s hard to determine whether money used for technology or textbooks related to Common Core would be used for new technology or textbooks under a different course of study.
Info gathering, sharing
Privacy issues have been a major point of contention in Common Core. Earlier this year, at least seven states were sharing student data — including names, dates of birth and sometimes Social Security numbers — with third parties.
That’s not happening, and won’t happen, in Alabama, Bice said. He added nothing about student data collection has changed since 2010.
Zelkowski said data gathering, especially on students’ performances, has been going on for decades.
“We’ve been doing that since the ’70s,” he said. “That exists. I’ve analyzed that information. You don’t see names; you see 12-digit numbers.”
Two different groups are developing standardized tests to go along with Common Core. The Washington Post has reported $360 million in federal money is being spent on the tests.
While some states have signed on for the testing, Alabama did not. It won’t be doing additional testing related to the standards, officials said. The state, however, will use new Common Core-aligned tests from ACT Inc. to assess students.
Poppycock or good business?
Leaders at Redstone Arsenal have asked the state to keep the standards, saying they ensure military families they won’t have to deal with varying standards and expectations if they move to Alabama. They add the standards will help them attract the best possible workforce.
Business advocates, including the Business Council of Alabama, have said the standards make the state more attractive to prospective employers.
Beason and other opponents quickly dismiss that argument.
“That’s poppycock and they know it,” Beason said. “People who want to do business in your state care that you have an educated workforce, and we’ve done very well at recruiting business the last 20 years.”
The Battle Agaist Common Core standards
Quietly and almost without notice, an initiative which significantly erodes local and state control of school curriculum has passed in 46 states. The Common Core Standards Initiative sets Math and English curriculum in every participating state at the same level. In adopting this “common core” states are relinquishing their right to compose their own education requirements.
Only Alaska, Nebraska, Virginia, and the great state of Texas have refused adoption of the Common Core Standards. State legislators in Indiana, Georgia, Alabama, and South Dakota have introduced repeal measures, but it is so far unclear how successful these measures will be.
One state however has a very real chance to throw off the “one size fits all” standard and preserve a measure of independence in their curriculum. Which state would have the nerve, foresight, intelligence, and independent spirit required for such an effort? Michigan.
That’s right; the state responsible for the tragic disaster that is Detroit, we now find taking a stand in favor of responsible self-governance. The one-time bastion of progressive ideology has seemingly begun a slow policy shift. Tired of being embarrassed, its legislators may finally make true progress possible in the state beginning with reversal of the Common Core Standards Initiative.
Largely a product of the 2009 stimulus plan Democrats passed in congress, the Initiative is a bureaucratic, top-down program heavily influenced by special interests. The Obama administration encouraged the states’ adoption of this initiative by providing incentives through his Race to the Top program. The program was $4.35 billion dollars of carrots swinging in front of fifty hungry rabbits.
The new standards are indeed tougher than many currently in place, but there is also the danger of states being disincentivized from ever raising standards beyond the initiative.
More dangerous still is the misplaced emphasis on common mass learning. Children do not fully “learn” through memorization. Drilling children until they memorize the curriculum may help them pass a test but rarely results in true understanding. Furthermore each child is different, and strictly teaching the “common core” will only impede exceptional students from reaching beyond the mediocre.
In his article “Do We Need a Common Core?” Nicholas Tampio states the problem quite succinctly. “The class… has gone from one where teachers, aides, parents, and students work hard to create a rewarding educational experience, to one where the teachers and students use materials designed by a major publishing house.”
In short, responsibility has shifted from the classroom to educational bureaucrats. Incentives to be creative in the classroom have disappeared.
Putting a stop to implementation of the Common Core would preserve a measure of sovereignty for states to dictate their own, individualized requirements. The Michigan lawmaker introducing the bill, Republican Tom McMillin, put it best when he said, “We don’t want our kids to be common. We want our kids in Michigan to be exceptional.”
The Initiative narrowly focuses on the difficulties high school graduates were facing in college and the job market. Unaddressed is the fact that much of what is currently taught at universities was once considered standard teaching in high school. Instead of simply making high schools better at preparing students for college/careers (something these standards in no way guarantee) more attention should perhaps be given to why even college graduates are learning far less than they did even fifty years ago.
In its essence the Common Core cheapens our children’s education and further erodes the nation’s tradition of Federalism. The argument here is not against educational standards being raised at public schools. The problem is loss of state control in making those standards. Keeping standards under state control puts more power into the hands of parents as opposed to bureaucrats.
Lawmakers should keep in mind that simply changing standards is no guarantee students will actually learn any more than they do now. It may be time to think about a more fundamental shift in the way we educate our children.