Lawmakers Meet on Common Core – 3.5 Years Too Late

WHY NOW?

On Wednesday February 5, the Senate Education K-12 Subcommittee heard six short presentations on Common Core – three for and three against – in a packed room full of mainly Common Core detractors. What was peculiar about the meeting is two-fold, and has nothing to do with what actually happened at the meeting itself. First, the meeting’s timing. Common Core standards were approved by the State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee (EOC) in the summer of 2010, have been going into effect in schools across the state, and will be in full effect next year. Yet lawmakers are only debating the issue now.

Second, the meeting’s venue: a legislative subcommittee. (Although a Senate subcommittee, House members were present.) By current law, the legislative bodies have no say over academic standards and assessments. Instead, those decisions – in accordance with the Education Accountability Act – are made by the State Board and the EOC.

Timing and audience aside, the meeting provided a fair structure, giving the three anti-Common Core speakers around 30 minutes to present their case, and the same for the pro-Common Core presenters. We’ve argued extensively how Common Core is a national program as the federal government lured states to accept the standards through Race to the Top Funds, No Child Left Behind waivers, and federally funded standardized tests. We’ve also discussed some questionable Common Core-aligned lesson plans and test questions, as well as workable strategies for stopping its implementation in South Carolina. The anti-Common Core presenters touched on most of these and made other key points that we haven’t yet covered in detail.

Jane Robbins with the American Principles Project began her presentation stating that “what’s wrong with Common Core standards is that they embrace and exacerbate everything that has been bad about public education for the last 40 to 50 years.” She went on make many our same points regarding the loss of state control over its education standards by handing decision-making authority to a coalition of states. Moreover, she affirmed that the Common Core standards were created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, both of which are private trade associations in Washington that have no legislative authority.

We’ve noted too that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to push Common Core; Robbins went further to say that the Gates Foundation have donated large sums of money to the two aforementioned trade associations, the Chamber of Commerce (the South Carolina Chamber has endorsed Common Core); the National Parent Teacher Association; $6 million to the Fordham Institute, which has put out research favorable to Common Core; and even $1.6 million to the South Carolina Department of Education.

Robbins went on to argue (as we have) that despite notions that Common Core has nothing to do with curriculum, standards do ultimately drive curriculum inasmuch as the curriculum will be based on teaching to a test aligned to the standards. Mega textbook publisher Pearson, she noted, has been involved in writing the Common Core standards and tests, and South Carolina schools will essentially be left the option of choosing one Pearson Common Core-aligned text book over another Pearson Common Core-aligned textbook.

On the subject of federal tracking of student data, she said that SMARTER Balanced Consortium has an agreement with the federal government to share any data they collect.

The two other anti-Common Core presenters emphasized the poor quality of the standards themselves. Speaking on the math standards, Ted Rebarber of Accountability Works argued that the Common Core standards aren’t about advanced skills, but about pedagogy. He contended furthermore that student performance in math is in the middle of the pack worldwide, and that by failing to require students to learn Algebra I by ninth grade Common Core would put them at a disadvantage. And he argued that by having an “advanced” track and “default track,” Common Core will perpetuate social and racial inequality, since those without support at home will end up going on the default track. Common Core, he suggested, is about tracking the students.

Joan Almon with Alliance for Childhood took the podium saying she was speaking as a Democrat and that the issue over Common Core shouldn’t be a partisan issue. She went on to argue how Common Core’s additional teacher instruction time for Kindergarteners leaving less essential time for children to engage in creative activity.

Speaking in favor of Common Core, Russell Booker, Superintendent of Spartanburg School District 7, argued that Common Core is only a small part of the education system and has helped teachers achieve success in class. Moreover, he said Common Core is “not a curriculum.”  Assistant Superintendent Dr. Sheila Huckabee Quinn of the Clover School District claimed that the state and local school districts have already spent tens of millions of dollars to implement Common Core and that switching now would cost the state over $60 million. She went on to give several anecdotes from her teachers praising Common Core.

Similarly, Robby Barnett with the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce conceded that the debate on the federal involvement with Common Core will probably never end, but that the state shouldn’t turn back now since schools have already been implementing the standards.

A brief question-and-answer period was held after the presentations, and the overwhelmingly anti-Common Core crowd frequently corrected the answers of the pro-Common Core presenters when the latter answered questions put to them by lawmakers. Senator Mike Fair again stated that the legislature should take action on stopping the state from implementing SMARTER Balanced assessments. Maybe; but the decision is up to the EOC and State Board. It’s been two years since the State Board approved the assessments, and the EOC has yet to take a vote on them, while teachers have already been preparing their students to use these tests.

The subcommittee will meet again February 19 to discuss specific bills related to Common Core and academic standards and assessments.

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