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The Common Core State Standards: Not Yet In Place, Already Controversial

Sam Evans-Brown

As this school year comes to a close, teachers are preparing for next fall, when a massive transition will begin. Starting next year, schools are expected to align their teaching to the Common Core State Standards. Those standards are a set of learning goals for public school students that have been adopted in 45 states and the District of Colombia. Released in 2010, they lay out what students should know when they finish each grade.

All this week NHPR is taking a closer look at the Common Core. We begin today with a look at how as the deadline for the implementation of the standards nears, the public is just starting to take note.

When Senator Kelley Ayotte stopped by Tilton for a Town Hall meeting this past May gun control grabbed all the headlines.  But some constituents also brought up a less familiar topic.

“I’m very concerned about this Common Core. It takes all the rights away from the states and put it smack dab into Washington, how do we get rid of this thing?” asked a woman from the crowd and got ringing applause in response.

That concern is part of a growing conservative backlash to the Common Core Standards, which are being phased into New Hampshire schools right now.

New Hampshire was an early adopter back in 2010, but many parents are just hearing about the standards.

What is the Common Core?

“The standards themselves, they’re not subversive,” says David Pook. He has been teaching for twenty years, and currently heads the history department at the Derryfield School. When the call went out for folks interested in helping write the standards, he answered.

“Reading Standard number 4, explain how word choice contributes to tone. I think we can get behind that, guys,” Pook says, trying to understand the complaints, “Reading standard 2, summarize a text. I think that’s an important skill for folks to have.”

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR, Data: NH Department of Education
NHPR, Data: NH Department of Education
New Hampshire signed on to the Common Core in 2010, but has been incrementally implementing the standards since then. Next year is the "transition year" when the state will stop giving NECAP tests. The first of the new standardized tests based on the Common Core will be given in Spring of 2015

Pook explains the standards are really just a set of goal posts that students are meant to get to each year, skills they are expected to master. For example, by the end of sixth grade students should be able to quote “solve real world mathematical problems involving area, surface area, and volume.”

This is basically what the common core is, a big list of skills like that only for English and Math.

Roots of the Backlash

For many opponents, the Common Core Initiative is a direct descendent of liberal efforts to enact a national curriculum in decades past.

A national conservative group – the American Principles Project – put out a video called Stop The Common Core. The video declares, “They tried and failed to impose a national curriculum in the past, for example with the national history standards in the 1990s, which were so politically correct and anti-American that they were rejected by the US Senate 99 to 1.

In New Hampshire, a small, focused group has been trying to bring attention to what they call an infringement on local control.

“The longer this goes on the more you’re going to see a backlash,” says Ann Marie Banfield is the education liaison for Cornerstone Action, a conservative advocacy group. “This is a top-down approach, and whenever you take a top-down approach in anything you didn’t get the people at the bottom, you didn’t get the grassroots, you didn’t get the parents supporting this.”

Where Did The Common Core Come From?

The Common Core comes from a collaboration between a number of organizations: the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is made up of the commissioners of education from every state, the National Governor’s Association, and Achieve, a national group that works to raise academic standards. The federal government was not directly involved.

The effort has received a lot of funding from the Gates Foundation, which has also pushed for tougher teacher evaluations that are based in part on their students’ standardized test scores.

"I just have to say that in high school I worked as a meat-cutter and I saw how the sausage was made, and this was a process very similar to how the sausage was made."

But David Pook, the teacher who himself helped to write part of the English standards, says the idea that the Common Core is a top down reform misses the mark.

“So when I hear the conspiracy message, I just have to say that in high school I worked as a meat-cutter and I saw how the sausage was made,” he says, “and this was a process very similar to how the sausage was made.”

That process included combing through more than 10,000 public comments. Pook says he thinks the final document represents the hashing-out of a consensus from educators of what good teaching should do, “and it reflects both the strengths of that vision and at times the weaknesses of those possibilities.”

And while the creators of the standards couldn’t reach out to every teacher in the country, they did ask many key stakeholders. For example, teachers’ unions.

“Because we had a high level of engagement in the development of these standards really made a difference,” Laura Hainey – the New Hampshire chapter of American Federation – recently told NHPR’s the Exchange. “We were brought to the table, we were part of the table, involved in those conversations, whereas a lot of these other reforms we weren’t part of the conversation. It was top-down, it was a here, this is what you’re going to do.”

And that outreach didn’t only include teachers. Many in the business community have expressed frustration with the education American students are getting. Exxon-mobile even ran ads broadcasting their support for the Common Core.

Why Were The Standards Created?

The impetus for the Common Core was that because every state had its own standards and its own tests, there tended to be some dramatic discrepancies.

“A state might say that for example 70 percent of their students were achieving at high levels, but then you would look at the National Assessment of Education Process, the NAEP test, and students might be at actually the 30 percent proficiency level on that,” says Carrie Heath Phillips, program director for the DC-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

In fact a 2009 report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that a score of “proficient” on any state test, was the equivalent of a “basic” or lower on the NAEP, the test that’s referred to as the “nation’s report card.” In other words, data indicate that states were setting the bar too low. And Phillips says those who studied countries with better education outcomes believe this is because American standards are a mile wide and an inch deep.

That shapes what has become something of a mantra when it comes to the common core: the standards should be fewer, clearer, higher. If you ask educators to explain the Common Core to you, you’ll hear this a lot, and some variations.

Donna Palley, Heather Gage, and David Pook interpret the credo of the Common Core

As the name implies, the Common Core is supposed to ensure that students get the core of what they are supposed to know, but they are supposed to know that core stuff and know it cold. Those who designed the standards hope that by shortening the list, teachers won’t be in the same mad rush to cover everything, and can focus on learning the essential concept more deeply and fully.

But there’s another idea behind the Common Core.

For anyone who moved between states as a kid, they can remember how little fun that was, socially. And on top of that maybe teachers are expecting you to have learned, say fractions, the year before and you didn’t.

“Right now I actually had somebody move from New York and they had a completely different math program,” says Trish-Marie Ziakas a first grade teacher at the Abbot-Downing School in Concord, “and it’s frustrating for him because he feels all over the place now.”

The Department of Education says students are ten times more likely to drop out if they move between schools, and the odds are worse for those moving between states.

Schools have already done a lot of work to implement these standards. For many schools next year, the transition to them will begin in earnest next year. And as the standards increasingly come into the public eye, they are coming under increasing scrutiny as well.

That’s tomorrow: the backlash against the Common Core.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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