S.C. Public Education & the Common Core Zeitgeist

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A RECENT EDUCATION OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE MEETING SUGGESTS JUST HOW MUCH POWER WE’RE GIVING AWAY 

“Security has asked me to advise that they are in attendance. If there are any outbursts from the audience, they will be escorted out of the meeting.”

That’s how this week’s Education Oversight Committee (EOC) meeting was kicked off. In its way, it represents the Zeitgeist over Common Core in South Carolina and elsewhere in the country. The reason for holding this EOC meeting wasn’t, however, to get public input; it was to let test-making vendors lobby the EOC to purchase and use their Common Core-aligned assessment tools. And while speeches from these vendors’ representatives took up the most time, there were a few other relevant remarks by state officials and lawmakers.

Superintendent Mick Zais: “The General Assembly has prescribed that authority [over education standards and assessments] to the State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee.”

True enough, the State Superintendent by himself is powerless to reject the Common Core standards. In 1998, the General Assembly passed the Education Accountability Act, which – ironically – gave the authority to choose state education standards and assessments to two practically anonymous and highly unaccountable boards: the State Board of Education and the Education Oversight Committee. And since these boards voted to adopt Common Core math and English standards in 2010, our current superintendent, who did not support signing on to Common Core, must help administer its implementation.

Senator Mike Fair: “This is not a good time to be ducking and dodging when we’re on the edge of giving our sovereignty over.”

Spoken in reference to the Department of Education not having anyone speak for or against Common Core, Sen. Fair’s remark isn’t hyperbole. Implementing Common Core means giving away state power over the education of its children. South Carolina traded its educational sovereignty to the federal government in exchange for a few No Child Left Behind waivers. And although the state hasn’t yet taken Race to the Top funds in exchange for implementing Common Core as many other states have, local governments like the Charleston County School District have. Lesson plans, assessments, and the overall curriculum will be made to fit this one-size-fits-all set of standards that are being used by (at present count) 45 other states.

Superintendent Mick Zais: “Unless the Common Core standards are revoked by the General Assembly next year, The Department of Education must use an assessment that’s aligned to Common Core.”

While the ability of the General Assembly to revoke Common Core brings up a broader problem with accountability in our state’s education system (to be discussed in a forthcoming piece), the superintendent’s observation is factually correct. Regardless of how the superintendent or anyone else feels about Common Core, unless it’s revoked, it’s the EOC’s duty to choose a Common Core-aligned assessment to be used statewide for the following school year.

This leads us to the reason for the meeting: vendors presenting their case to the EOC to adopt their standardized tests. Two vendors had representatives speak on their behalf: The College Board, which administers the SAT, and ACT, Inc. – the nation’s two most widely used tests for college admission exams. While both groups’ plans vary, each vendor has plans for Common Core-aligned standardized tests in South Carolina. Both groups are redesigning their exams to be more aligned with the nationalized curriculum, as can be seen in the documents provided for the EOC meeting.

College Board (SAT) document: “The content, skills, and item formats included in the redesigned SAT deeply and comprehensively reflect the spirit and intent of the Common Core State Standards [CCSS] and do so efficiently.”

ACT document: “ACT is researching a new alignment methodology to address the complex challenge of aligning all ACT products to CCSS.”

The fact that both SAT and ACT are enthusiastically realigning their college entry exams to fit Common Core standards is another alarming example of just how much power is involved in this decision. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that, once Common Core is fully implemented, whoever controls it – and at this point it’s unclear who will decide what is or isn’t Common Core-aligned – will effectively decide what American school children learn or don’t learn.

And who could blame parents for falling into line? If students need to take the SAT or ACT to get into college, then parents are going to want their children’s education aimed at eventually doing well on those exams. If the SAT and ACT are aligned with Common Core, then parents are going to want their children to be in a school that teaches by Common Core standards, so they can eventually do well on the exam and get into a good college.

Where does that leave parents who want, for example, to home school their children? Or parents who have their children in a private school that doesn’t have Common Core standards? Even if better educated, their children would be at a severe disadvantage compared to other students because their K-12 education wasn’t Common Core-aligned.

It’s fair to ask: Is one of Common Core’s objectives to bring more students out of private and home school and into the public school system? It’s impossible to say, but it has that appearance.

SAT and ACT exams aside, the fact that Elizabeth Jones, Director of Assessment for the South Carolina Department of Education, spoke on behalf of Smarter Balanced consortium, the federally funded group that our State Board of Education has already approved to provide assessments, should be a sign that EOC is leaning towards choosing those assessments. But in the end, is one assessment going to be that much better than another? Whichever vendor the EOC and State Board chooses, our teachers will still be teaching our children to pass a Common-Core aligned test.

Unless anything changes, a test will be chosen, and South Carolina children will be tested to Common Core standards.

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