Common Core: Overreach or the start of school improvement?

Students board a bus on the first day of school in Bates County, Mo., on Aug. 14, 2013.
TAMMY LJUNGBLAD | MCT
Students board a bus on the first day of school in Bates County, Mo., on Aug. 14, 2013.
By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff
Posted Sept. 13, 2013, at 4:02 p.m.

Just months after Republicans took control of the Maine Legislature in 2011, the House and Senate unanimously approved a bill allowing the state to implement a new set of math and English expectations for students in kindergarten through grade 12. The Republican governor who had taken office a few months earlier, Paul LePage, signed the Common Core State Standards into law.

Today, Maine is one of 45 states that have made the Common Core State Standards their own. It’s the first time the lion’s share of U.S. states have used a common set of expectations to guide student learning. In the next few years, it’s expected most states will test their students and hold schools accountable against those expectations.

But opposition in Republican circles, and from some on the left, has become louder since the start of the year. In April, the Republican National Committee adopted an anti-Common Core resolution calling the standards “an inappropriate overreach” and “a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.”

In the past year, Republican policymakers in Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have put off implementation of the new standards, Bloomberg News reported earlier this month. And anti-Common Core protests in Florida have gained steam.

In Maine, a petition drive is starting up in an effort to force a November 2014 ballot question that will ask voters whether Maine should dump the Common Core standards.

LePage has tried to strike a balance between continuing to implement the common standards and responding to concerns from his conservative base that the standards — developed as part of a state-led effort involving the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — represent a federal intrusion into local education.

He issued an executive order at the start of the month that makes it clear Maine won’t adopt any standards, curriculum or instructional methods required by the federal government. (The federal government hasn’t required Common Core and played no part in developing the standards.) At the same time, the order allows the state to continue transitioning Maine schools to the new standards.

“I don’t believe in Common Core,” LePage told Bloomberg. “I believe in raising the standards in education.”

Setting state standards

Academic standards lay out what students are expected to know and be able to do in a particular subject area at each grade level. The Common Core, for example, designates sixth grade as the time when students will learn about ratios and proportional relationships in math.

The standards lay out the order in which students should be taught certain skills so the knowledge builds on itself. Beyond that, the standards lay out little else.

In Maine, it’s up to local decision makers to choose a curriculum — a particular textbook or collection of classroom lessons — that addresses the needed skills, and it’s ultimately up to the teacher to figure out exactly how to teach the prescribed skills.

Academic standards took hold in the U.S. starting in the late 1980s. That’s when a national organization representing math teachers developed a document laying out what the group’s members thought should be taught in math classes.

Similar organizations in other subject areas followed suit soon after with funds from Republican President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

By the end of the 1990s, every state but Iowa had developed its own standards for instruction in the core academic areas; many built on the subject area teacher organizations’ guidelines. Maine adopted its Learning Results expectations in 1996.

Standards generated political tension just for the fact that they challenged convention in a country that emphasized local control of education. Specifically, standards for science and social studies instruction have fed state-level and local political controversies over the teaching of evolution in science and political topics in social studies.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002 by Republican President George W. Bush, let states keep their own standards in place, but required 100 percent proficiency among students everywhere in math and English by 2014.

With each state using its own standards and developing its own standardized test, the disparities among state standards became evident.

In Tennessee, for example, 87 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in math on the 2005 state test. However, just 28 percent were proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test given to a sample of students in every state.

In Maine, there was no such difference that year. Thirty-nine percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or better on both the state and national math tests.

An expanding federal role

While the federal government never has required states to adopt specific academic standards or curriculums, the federal role in education has progressively expanded over the past half-century.

Before the 1920s, the federal government had virtually no role in funding public schools. In the 1919-20 school year, the federal government supplied $2 million (in today’s dollars) of the $970 million in total spent on education. Local governments supplied more than 80 percent of the funds, $808 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

By the end of the 1970s, the federal government’s share had risen to 10 percent. In 1965, Congress, through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, started funneling more funds to districts with large portions of low-income students. And in 1975, the federal government started spending more on education of students with learning disabilities after it passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. That law later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, from federal fiscal year 2011, show federal spending on education was $73.7 billion, or 12.3 percent of all public education funding nationally. State governments chipped in 44.4 percent, and schools collected 43.3 percent of revenue from local sources.

Special education and Title I funding for low-income school districts accounted for the bulk of federal spending across the country: 19 percent and 23 percent respectively. In Maine, federal funds were more heavily weighted toward special education than Title I: 25 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively.

In Maine, schools received about the same portion of their funds from the federal government (12.2 percent) in 2011 as all U.S. schools. Meanwhile, local sources chipped in a greater share — 53.3 percent — while state funding accounted for 34.6 percent.

Is Common Core better?

Federal spending on education also surged after the 2008 recession as the federal government sent economic stimulus funds to the states.

Through the stimulus, the federal government offered states a major incentive to adopt Common Core in 2009. States that didn’t adopt the common standards were at a disadvantage in the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition meant to promote a range of education reforms.

States began adopting the standards before the final version was developed, and critics have pointed out a number of states already had standards in place that are more rigorous and clearly written than the Common Core.

The right-leaning Fordham Institute, which has supported Common Core, in 2010 rated every state’s standards against the new Common Core standards. It found the common standards to be more rigorous, clear and logically laid out than most states’ existing standards.

The group gave the Common Core English standards a B+ grade; Maine’s former standards got a C. In math, Common Core standards got an A- while Maine’s old math standards earned a C. The weakness of Maine’s standards, according to the group, largely had to do with the fact that expectations were grouped by grade ranges (Pre-kindergarten to grade two) rather than by specific grade level. Maine’s standards neglected much crucial content as well, especially in high school math, according to the analysis.

Fordham, however, awarded some standards in Massachusetts, California, Indiana and a handful of other states higher grades than the Common Core.

Kentucky, the first state to adopt the Common Core, became the first state last year to test its students against the new standards; New York followed suit this year. Test results, predictably, dropped when testing the more rigorous standards, showing the core challenge goes beyond developing and implementing new standards.

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/09/13/opinion/common-core-overreach-or-the-start-of-school-improvement/ printed on July 22, 2014