A backlash against the Common Core educational standards for grade school has hit the radio talk shows and Internet blogs in recent weeks.
The tea party has taken it up as a new rallying cry against what it claims is a government takeover of educating our kids.
At a recent education hearing in Alaska, a state that didn’t adopt the standards, tea party critics charged that the Common Core was developed by “extreme leftists” and “a self-avowed Maoist.” The hearing also contained references to Nazi Germany.
Some prominent conservatives, including talk show host Glenn Beck and writer-activist Phyllis Schlafly, have been attacking the effort as a dangerous threat from the Obama administration. Other conservatives, such as former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, support it
The new standards have the backing of major business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Business Roundtable President John Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan, has argued that they’re necessary for students to keep up with the rest of the world. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving grants to support their implementation.
Q: What are the Common Core State Standards?
A: They spell out expectations of what students should know and be able to do at the end of every grade, from kindergarten through high school. They cover reading, writing, speaking and listening, vocabulary and mathematics. They are brief and deal with fundamentals.
For example, some of the expectations for first-graders in reading are that they’ll learn to ask and answer questions about details in what they’re reading, show they understand the main ideas and be able to describe characters, settings and events.
Q: Whose idea was it?
A: Not Washington’s, despite the insistence of the tea party and other critics. It bubbled up from the states, where the standards were developed by governors and state school officials. Discussions began in 2007, during the George W. Bush administration, before Barack Obama was even a candidate for president, at the annual meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers. The National Governors Association soon began to weigh in as well.
Both groups were concerned that states had different expectations for what high school graduates should know. The result is that a high number of students entering colleges and universities have to pay to take remedial math and English classes before they can take classes for college credit.
The governors and estate education officials started seeking advice from education experts in 2009. Business leaders and higher education officials provided feedback. The federal government wasn’t involved.
Q: Did Washington require the standards?
A: No. Forty-five states voluntarily adopted the math and English standards, beginning in 2010.
Q: Has Washington played a role?
A: Only to the extent that the Obama administration’s Race to the Top school grants competition gave points for having standards – any standards, not necessarily the Common Core – that showed that high school graduates were ready to do college work or get jobs. The Common Core wasn’t required, but the administration’s push for stronger standards gave it a boost.
Q: Critics claim that the Common Core would nationalize education and threaten state “sovereignty.” Is this true?
A: The standards are goals, not mandates. Teachers at individual schools will continue to decide what to teach and how to help children meet the basic goals. Noting that critics claim that the Common Core is a device for the federal government to take control of K-12 education, Huckabee, in a recent letter to Oklahoma lawmakers, wrote: “Speaking from one conservative to another, let me assure you that this simply is not true. State and local districts will determine how they want to teach kids, what curriculum to use and which textbooks to use.”
Q: Do the standards include required reading?
A: No. The English standards say that a few specific types of reading should be taught: classic myths and stories, America’s founding documents, American literature and Shakespeare.
Appendix B of the English standards gives examples of stories, books, poems, plays and nonfiction that the authors of the standards found to be of high quality and the right level of complexity for each grade. For kindergartners and first-graders, they include classics such as “Green Eggs and Ham,” by Dr. Seuss, and “Frog and Toad Together,” by Arnold Lobel.
But the examples aren’t requirements or even a suggested reading list. Teachers choose their own books.
Beck said “informational texts,” as the term is used in the Common Core English standards, include among the examples “handbooks from the EPA on how to make sure that your siding and your insulation is good in your house. Who in their right mind wants to read the government handbooks?”
An Environmental Protection Agency text on insulation is listed as one of the examples of reading appropriate for 10th-graders. So is “Elements” by Euclid, a work that’s influenced mathematicians and scientists for 2,000 years. Neither example, however, is required.
Q: Will the government collect data about students?
A: “There are no data requirements in the Common Core,” said Kate Dando, a spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Q: Has there been political fallout?
A: Some Republican governors who initially embraced Common Core but who face re-election next year have become cautious in the face of tea party and conservative anger. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal issued an executive order last month reaffirming that education is a state responsibility and that under the Constitution the federal government doesn’t have a role in deciding how the state’s children are educated. He spelled out that no data about students would be collected or shared with Washington.
Q: What do teachers think?
A: One indicator is a poll of American Federation of Teachers members that showed that 75 percent support the Common Core. AFT President Randi Weingarten called in April for a two-year moratorium on sanctions linked to test scores based on the new standards. She argued that schools need more time to understand the standards and get used to using them.
Q: What’s next?
A: Two state-led groups are preparing the annual assessments that will be matched to the Common Core State Standards. They aim to have them ready for the 2014-15 school year.