Indiana became the first state to officially withdraw from the Common Core on Monday, despite reaffirming support for the education standards last year. The decision, sparked by a Tea Party backlash, comes as some schools in the state have already begun to transition to the Common Core, investing in books and learning materials in line with the standards.
The Hoosier state had enthusiastically championed the uniform standards just four years ago: The state’s Republican superintendent of public instruction helped review the Common Core in draft form in 2009, the Board of Education unanimously approved the guidelines, and former Gov. Mitch Daniels likened the Core to the “U.S. effort in the 1950s and 1960s to bolster education in math and science following the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite.” Businesses across the state — including Indiana giants like Eli Lily and Indiana University Health — strongly backed the Core, joining 70 national companies to argue that the standards would create “a more highly skilled workforce that is better equipped to meet the needs of local, state and national economies.”
But as schools began to adopt the guidelines, groups connected to national conservative organizations portrayed the Core as a Washington mandate propagated by the Obama administration. Common Core “takes control of educational content and standards away from parents, taxpayers, local school districts, and states,” according to a brochure from Hoosiers Against Common Core, the main opposition group claims, adding that implementation would strain local school budgets.
“Our biggest beef is that the common core standards were adopted wholesale by Indiana, adopted verbatim, and [the state] can add only 15 percent of its own standards,” Erin Tuttle, co-founder of the organization told Education Weekly. She, along with co-founder Heather Crossin, crisscrossed the state making their case against the standards. The two also felt that the Common Core was less challenging than the state’s current standards, though many teachers disagreed. They saw the guidelines as a skeleton, arguing that it was up to educators “to assemble the bones and flesh them out.”
The prior Indiana state standards were tough, but some teachers maintained that Common Core provided them with an opportunity to dig deeper and focus on students’ critical reasoning skills. Hannah Reinoehl, a kindergarten teacher, saw her students becoming “much better readers” and “better writers.” Lisa Coughanowr, another teacher, said, “Yeah, I think you could even go as far to say it’s made us better teachers,” adding, “It’s made us understand the learning process a lot better.” A 2013 Scholastic poll found that 61 percent of math, English language arts, science, and/or social studies teachers in Indiana were enthusiastic about the implementation of the Common Core.
But Tuttle and Crossin were busy organizing parents against the standards and began making inroads in the Republican-dominated state legislature. In 2013, Mike Pence, a former prominent member of Congress, replaced Daniels as governor. Pence himself had long advocated for “local control” of education, even voting against President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind.
Though he promised to “look for ways to continue to fund excellence in education by cutting federal red tape” during the campaign, Pence did not immediately speak out against the standards. After all, the idea behind the Core was the brainchild 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 leaders from Indiana’s K-12 and higher education communities engaged in the development of common, next-generation assessments.
Eventually 45 states and Washington D.C. adopted the Common Core with the same process used to adopt previous standards. The goal is to ensure that students all across the country have common skills at each grade level for language arts and mathematics and remain competitive with their international peers. 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.
In Indiana, officials calculated that the new Common Core-compliant tests could even save the state money. The Indiana Office of Management and Budget produced a fiscal impact study projecting that Indiana would spend $34.3 million to administer the annual Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus test. If the state adopted Common Core tests built by one of the consortia, the cost would be less — between $31.4 million and $33.2 million.
But without a powerful and visible advocate for the standards, and opponents consistently linking the Common Core to the Obama administration, the state house was ready to act.
In April, Pence signed legislation pausing Indiana’s implementation and prohibiting the state from participating in a state consortium established to develop exams in-line with the new standards. The law also mandated a review of education standards.
State officials predicted changes to the Core and supporters urged the Board of Education to “propose new standards that incorporated many of its elements.” After all, states have the opportunity to modify the standards in order to meet local needs. New Mexico adopted additional standards to “measure whether their students were knowledgeable about their unique New Mexican culture” in 2010 and four other states are considering adding additional state-specific content in the future.
But Pence, a potential 2016 presidential prospect, was ready to abandon the standards entirely. In his 2014 State of the State address, the governor called for “uncommonly high” standards that were “written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers,” signaling his support for the nullification bill then making its way through the state house.
The recently signed law tasks the Board of Education with establishing new standards by July 1, though critics are already charging that the new state guidelines rely too heavily on the Common Core.
That may be the ultimate irony of Indiana’s effort to abandon the Common Core: try as they might, the Indiana-specific education standards will still have to reflect the Common core in order to prepare students for college entry. As Warren Township Superintendent Dena Cushenberry explained to ChalkBeat, any standards the state adopts must reflect Common Core so students can perform well on college entrance tests like the SAT and ACT.
“If we are not careful, Indiana students will actually lose scholarship money because their standards are not aligned with Common Core,” she said.