When the nation’s state education chiefs and the National Governors Association came together in 2009 to develop comprehensive education standards for America’s schoolchildren, they surely couldn’t have imagined that they would be compared to Nazis or accused of colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But today, in towns and cities across America, the once bipartisan goal of ensuring that a fifth grader in Georgia has the same skills as a fifth grader in California and that both will be able to compete in the global economy is under attack from all sides. Tea Party activists see the standards as a federal government takeover of the education system. Liberal critics charge that the goals were developed by education experts with little experience in the classroom who are obsessed with testing children and using those assessments in teacher evaluations and promotions. And on Thursday, the nation’s largest teachers union pulled back its strong endorsement of Common Core, arguing that while its members “supported the goals of the standards,” their implementation “has been completely botched.” The National Education Association is calling on state lawmakers to delay and possibly rewrite some of the standards, change the related assessments and better incorporate teacher input.
This is the story of how a program adopted by almost every state in the union and supported by prominent leaders from both political parties has become a rallying cry that’s united President Obama’s critics and allies. The controversy surrounding the standards threatens to undermine one of the administration’s most important priorities, build a powerful political alliance that could shape the nation’s politics for years to come, and significantly undermine the effort to raise the country’s education standards.
The messy American school system
Initially, things were easy. Almost everyone agrees that America’s education system is failing to keep up with the rest of the world. One out of four high school graduates requires remedial education to enroll in college courses. Less than one third of public school students is proficient in reading or math. U.S. high school students consistently rank behind much of the rest of the industrial world in math, science, and reading, unable to compete with students from Japan or Germany and hampered by the nation’s patchwork of varying standards and evaluation systems.
Given that a typical American will move more than 10 times during her lifetime, Bill Gates, whose foundation financed the development of the standards, argues, “Inconsistent standards like the ones we’ve had until now punish students who have to switch schools. Either they’re expected to know material they’ve never been taught, or they’re re-taught material they already know.”
No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s effort to raise standards in American schools, only adds to the problems. The law, which attracted bipartisan support in Congress, mandates that schools and school districts in each state meet that state’s self-designed standards and proficiency targets in order to avoid federally mandated sanctions dictating how funding should be spent. Not only did each state set its own goals, but the law encouraged as many as 19 states to lower their standards in order to receive the funds. As a result of these incentives, teachers and school administrators in one school district in Atlanta, Georgia were indicted for allegedly raising students’ scores by “erasing wrong answers and making them right.” Elsewhere, educators engaged in similar behavior. In El Paso, Texas, a superintendent went to prison for removing low-performing children from classes to improve the district’s test scores, the New York Times reports, while in Ohio, some urban districts “intentionally listed low-performing students as having withdrawn even though they were still in school.”
The system not only corrupted the education process, but it also alienated many teachers and educators, who resented teaching to exams they felt their students weren’t prepared for.
An educational standard is born
It was in this context that Common Core was born. Funded by grants from the Gates Foundation and other philanthropic organizations, the Common Core are math and language arts standards developed for grades K through 12. Though the idea for national education standards that would prepare all students for the workforce has been around since the mid-1990s, the state standards were a product of two governors — Sonny Perdue, a Republican from Georgia, and Jack Markell, a Democrat from Delaware — who, working through the National Governors’ Association, advocated for their adoption. Major teacher unions and 48 different states sent teams of educators and teachers to take part in writing and debating the goals and “[m]ore than 10,000 members of the general public commented on the standards during drafting.” Eventually 45 states and Washington D.C. adopted the Common Core with the same process used to adopt previous standards.
The standards themselves do not constitute a curriculum. Rather, they state what children should know at the end of each grade level and leave to school systems the responsibility of determining which academic content teachers will present. Students are tested using one of two common tests in order to compare performance across state lines, district to district, and statewide.
As the standards document for English Language Arts puts it: “While the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn.”
The goal is to ensure that students all across the country have common skills at each grade level for language arts and mathematics, with an emphasis on critical thinking and analytical skills rather than rote memorization. In math, the standards ask students to justify a particular mathematical concept and explain why it works. “There is a world of difference between a student who can summon a mnemonic device to expand a product such as (a + b)(x + y) and a student who can explain where the mnemonic comes from. The student who can explain the rule understands the mathematics, and may have a better chance to succeed at a less familiar task such as expanding (a + b + c)(x + y),” the Common Core Standards Initiative explains. Similarly, the English standards require students to “show a steadily growing ability to discern more from and make fuller use of text, including making an increasing number of connections among ideas and between texts, considering a wider range of textual evidence, and becoming more sensitive to inconsistencies, ambiguities, and poor reasoning in texts.”
The right-leaning Fordham Institute describes the standards as “conservative,” writing that they “expect students to know their math facts, to read the nation’s founding documents, and to evaluate evidence and come to independent judgments.”
The Obama administration embraces Common Core
In 2010, the Obama administration linked the implementation of Common Core to “Race to the Top,” a competitive grant program aimed at helping states and schools innovate and improve their teaching processes. It encouraged states to adopt the standards and assessment structure by giving compliant states extra points — 40 points out of 500 — on their applications.
Administration officials wanted states to accept the standards that the state education chiefs developed, but they weren’t about to dictate how local districts implement these goals. The federal government, after all, is limited in how it can impact state education policy. Federal law specifically prohibits “an officer or employee of the Federal Government to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s curriculum” and bans the federal use of funds to “endorse, approve, or sanction any curriculum designed to be used in an elementary school or secondary school.”
When the grants were distributed, “no one knew how many groups of states would come together to create their own set of common standards,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained during a speech in June of 2013. “It turned out to be one big group of 46—but it could have been several, or even many, groups of states uniting around different sets of standards.”
Still, the administration’s involvement allowed conservatives to paint the Common Core as a Obama Core: a federal takeover of the local and state governance. And as school districts across the country began building out their curriculums to fit the new standards, anxieties about the federal government’s role in education, and concerns about unrealistic expectations of both teachers and students, bubbled up and spilled over.
Conservatives paint Common Core as a federal takeover
Republicans’ decision to turn against Common Core as a party — after all, the standards are supported by prominent Republicans like Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Mitch Daniels — was the result of lengthy state-based campaigns financed by some of the most prominent conservative ideological billionaires in the country, including the Koch brothers, Sean Fieler, and the Scaife families. Conservative think tanks — institutions like the Heritage Foundation, CATO, FreedomWorks, Americans For Prosperity — seized on the frustrations in local communities and quickly developed talking points, organized petitions, and hosted seminars and conferences to grow the opposition.
Freedom Works explains that Common Core is a federal takeover of education that will remove parental input, force teachers to comply “with standards decided upon by [a] federal bureaucrat,” and impose a “one-size-fits-all education policy that assumes every students learns exactly the same.” The Eagle Forum warns that the assessments associated with the Common Core will allow the federal government to collect information about students’ “religious practices, political beliefs, ‘sex behaviors and attitudes’” and “indoctrinate them to accept the leftwing view of America and its history.” Glenn Beck warns about the “data mining that will take place from Microsoft, the biowristbands they want to use on our kids, the FCAT scans that are in the Department of Education’s own paperwork. The rest of the 1984 tight monitoring systems, all of it, all of it of course is simply going to be done to help your children.”
By April of 2013, the Republican National Committee (RNC) officially adopted a resolution denouncing the standards and called on states to “repeal the numerous federal regulations which interfere with State and local control of public schools.” A group of lawmakers who are up for re-election also weighed in. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) introduced a resolution clarifying that education is a state issue and prohibiting the federal government from coercing states into adopting common education standards or rewarding states that adopt common core with additional points or any other preference. Separate legislation offered by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who once highly praised Duncan, also up for re-election this year, explicitly prohibits the secretary from encouraging states to adopt national standards.
But the goal isn’t just to mobilize lawmakers on the state level to eliminate the Common Core standards. Conservatives are interested in using the Common Core as a vessel to implement their own education agenda: expand school vouchers to pay for private and religious schools, eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, and do away with teacher tenure. The following is a draft advocacy plan created by FreedomWorks, a Koch-backed group:
To push through conservative education ideals under the guise of Common Core opposition, FreedomWorks urges activists to build bridges with “those who are ‘with’ us but were not active on the other issues, especially minority communities.”
Teachers and parents object to poorly developed standards
Indeed, what’s most alarming to supporters of the Common Core is how quickly opposition is spreading in areas that had once supported the standards.
“As an educator, my colleagues and I are fully supportive of a deeper and richer curriculum, but we cannot support any of the State Education Department’s Common Core modules that are developmentally inappropriate for our students,” Kathleen Ferguson, the 2012 New York State Teacher of the Year, told a New York State Assembly committee last November. “The rush to implement the Common Core, alongside the push to begin testing before curriculum was fully developed, has had a serious negative effect on our children.” Teacher evaluations are also dependent on students performing well on tests, leading to unsatisfactory scores for some well-regarded ones. (Other factors are also part of the evaluation process, however, including instructional expertise measured by observations, how well teachers work together, and how professionally a teacher conducts him or herself.)
Ferguson, for instance, is the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions, yet her scores say that she’s “NOT highly effective.” She promised the state committee she’ll try harder, before noting, “According to my observations, I am already highly effective, with a perfect score. So if I am already the best I can be in my Teaching Standards, how do I improve to raise my test scores? This system doesn’t make sense. ” Under a new evaluation system implemented during the last school year, only “one out of every hundred public school teachers” were rated ineffective, the Buffalo News reported, while “49.7 percent were found to be highly effective, with 41.8 percent deemed effective.”
New York lawmakers, however, are putting the brakes on the Common Core. The state teacher union passed a “no confidence” resolution withdrawing its support for the Common Core as implemented and interpreted, and the Board of Regents, which oversees education policy, has voted to delay Common Core graduation requirements for five years. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) — a supporter of the standards — has termed the state’s implementation “flawed” and he has appointed a panel to recommend changes, the New York Times reports.
One big problem is that some states implemented the new Common Core standards before assessments became available. Under the mandates of No Child Left Behind, every state must administer an annual test in math and reading to every student in grades three through eight. The idea behind the Common Core is to replace states’ varying methods of assessment with fewer and smarter tests that are both more responsive to the needs of students. These new tests, Common Core advocates claim, will do away with filling in bubbles and offer students room for thoughtful, open-ended answers that demonstrate their critical thinking skills. The new language arts test, for instance, will feature “writing, speaking and listening components,” USA Today notes. The goal is to test student understanding of concepts — instead of just memorization — and provide schools with more refined results that can lead to educational growth and improvement.
But with the new Common Core exams still being field tested by two nonprofit consortia of states, those that have implemented Common Core must test students using outdated exams all the while investing in computer technology to administer the new ones. “Old tests are being given, but new and different standards are being taught,” National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said on Thursday. “How on earth does that give any teacher, student, or parent information that is relevant to what they need to know or how they can improve?”
Since 2011, the federal government has granted waivers from certain mandates in No Child Left Behind — including one that requires all students to achieve 100 percent proficiency on state reading and math exams — to 42 states, the District of Columbia, and eight California school districts, and last year scaled back the requirements states must meet to renew them. Still, the Department of Education isn’t backing down from the importance of testing. The administration has, however, worked with states to make testing better, fairer, and less frequent by allowing them to ask for a double testing waiver so they can use new field tests as the assessment for one year instead of the old outdated assessments.
Will the Common Core survive?
But some state lawmakers have other ideas. California, for instance, says it won’t administer this year’s tests since they’re no longer compatible with the Common Core academic standards, risking at least $3.5 billion in annual federal funding. Elsewhere, a combination of poor implementation and growing opposition is leading states to rebrand Common Core standards or abandon the Common Core entirely.
Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Georgia have dropped out of their test-writing consortia. The Indiana Senate passed a bill, with Gov. Mike Pence’s (R-IN) support, that would void Common Core standards altogether and Missouri has placed an initiative on the November ballot to repeal Common Core standards.
Still, not all states are jumping ship. In New Jersey, the State Board of Education backed a resolution supporting the standards, even as some teachers and parents called on officials to delay their implementation. In Tennessee, where most districts began implementing standards during the 2012-2013 school year, a recent poll has found that a majority of teachers think the implementation of the standards has “begun positively,” with 63 percent in subjects or grades that are directly affected feel they will “improve quality of their teaching.” An NEA poll released on Thursday, however, found that 70 percent of teachers believe implementation is going poorly in their schools, while two-thirds say they haven’t been asked about how to do it in their classrooms.
In November, Arne Duncan only fueled the fire when he attributed the national opposition to “white suburban moms” who discovered “all of a sudden, their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought.” Though he quickly apologized for the remarks, the comments cemented a notion that has united both conservative and liberal critics of the Common Core: that the standards were implemented in a terribly short transition period and forced students and teachers to adapt to the goals far too quickly. That is the glue that binds the broad-based opposition to Common Core.