For Common Core, doubts are growing

Published: Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A

The Common Core, a set of standards for kindergarten through high school that has been ardently supported by the Obama administration and many business leaders and state legislatures, is facing growing opposition from both the right and the left even before it has been properly introduced into classrooms.

Tea party conservatives, who reject the standards as an unwelcome edict from above, have called for them to be severely rolled back.

Indiana has already put a brake on them. The Michigan House of Representatives is holding hearings on whether to suspend them. And citing the cost of new tests requiring more writing and a significant online component, Georgia and Oklahoma have withdrawn from a consortium developing exams based on the standards.

California will begin using the Common Core testing in the 2014-15 school year.

At the same time, a group of parents and teachers argues that the standards – particularly the tests aligned with them – are too difficult.

Those concerns were underscored last week when New York state, an early adopter of the new standards, released results from reading and math exams showing that less than a third of students passed.

"I am worried that the Common Core is in jeopardy because of this," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "The shock value that has happened has been so traumatic in New York that you have a lot of people all throughout the state saying, 'Why are you experimenting on my kids?' "

Supporters worry that opposition could start to snowball as states face new exams in 2014-15.

"The danger here is that you have two kinds of problems going on," said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that works to close achievement gaps. "One is a tea party problem, which doesn't have deep roots but does have lots of political muscle behind it, and then you've got a bit of anti-test rebellion coming from the left."

The standards, which were written by a panel of experts convened by governors and state superintendents, focus on critical thinking and analysis rather than memorization and formulas. The idea is to help ensure that students generally learn the same things in public schools across the country.

One goal is to reduce high remediation rates at colleges and universities and help students compete for jobs that demand higher levels of skills than in previous generations.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repeatedly has emphasized that states, districts and teachers have broad flexibility to devise their own curriculums and lesson plans based on the standards. Speaking about the Common Core to the American Society of News Editors in June, Duncan said: "The federal government didn't write them, didn't approve them and doesn't mandate them. And we never will. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or willfully misleading."

Last year Kentucky became the first state to give new math and reading tests based on the Common Core, and as in New York, the levels of students deemed proficient fell sharply compared with a year earlier. Such results have spooked teachers watching from afar, particularly as more states are moving to evaluate teachers in part on student test scores.

"Looking at the types of questions on these tests, I'm scared for my kids," said Lisa Mims, a fifth-grade teacher at Pleasantville Elementary School in New Castle, Del. "It just seems to me that it's what they're asking us to do in such a little bit of time, and then saying we're going to test this."

In an interview, Duncan acknowledged that the transition would be difficult.

"It's easier to keep saying everything's looking great," he said, adding, "That's the easy way to do it, but I'm not quite sure that changes kids' lives or helps our country remain competitive economically."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Motoko Rich



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