Common Core education standards get legislative scrutiny

jprice@newsobserver.comDecember 17, 2013 

  • What’s expected under the Common Core standards?

    Mathematics

    • Instead of covering a laundry list of techniques, teachers will focus on fewer, more fundamental areas.

    • Students will be expected to master key concepts and operations and to understand how to apply them in real-life situations.

    • Elementary grades will feature problem solving in addition, subtraction, multiplication, division of whole numbers and fractions.

    • Middle school will focus on ratios and proportional relationships, early expressions and equations, building momentum toward linear algebra in the eighth grade.

    • In high school, students should be able to apply their skill to data, engineering and modeling problems.

    English language arts

    • In elementary school, half of reading should be nonfiction and informational texts. Nonfiction will grow to a 70 percent share by 12th grade.

    • Literacy is developed in other disciplines – history, science and social studies, through reading and analyzing documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.

    • Students should be able to dig into texts with the ability to answer questions, analyze information, cite evidence and defend a claim. Students must be able to collaborate respectfully with others on shared projects, to be partners in problem solving and to know how to communicate in both formal and informal settings.

    • Students should master several types of writing – argument, explanation and narrative.

    Sources: James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Policy, Orange County Schools

— A joint legislative committee charged with scrutinizing the new Common Core standards used in North Carolina schools for math and English held its first meeting Tuesday and the talk quickly turned to overhauling or dumping them.

“‘Common Core’ in my neck of the woods is poison language,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican and retired school administrator.

The standards, which were adopted in North Carolina in 2010, are supposed to set a clear, consistent blueprint for what students should learn from kindergarten through high school. The idea is to better prepare them for college and careers.

All but five states have adopted Common Core, but it has increasingly come under attack, particularly from conservatives, and some states are now considering dropping the standards.

The opposition led legislative leaders to create the committee.

Its first meeting was built around presentations explaining the standards. The national perspective came from Michael Brickman, a former education policy adviser to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. Brickman is now national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank.

The institute had evaluated standards used in North Carolina before Common Core, and gave it a grade of D in both math and English, putting it among the worst states in the nation, Brickman said. Common Core, meanwhile, rated an A- in math and a B+ for English.

There are real problems with Common Core, he said, but also plenty of Internet-nourished myth, and the new standards are a major improvement on what North Carolina had before.

“I’ve read plenty on blogs about how the Common Core is focusing on politics, or social issues, but you won’t find those things in the Common Core,” he said.

Some states had modified the standards to mitigate potential problems, he said, and suggested that North Carolina do the same, after the committee gets a chance to hear from other speakers and the public.

Creating a substantially new set of standards, he said, would force teachers to adapt to their third version in 10 years, which was asking too much.

“I think there are ways to make it better, but I would encourage you to start from where you are and learn from what other states have done to make this the best possible reform for kids,” he said.

Tillman said the standards needed to be retooled in ways that make sense for North Carolina, and renamed.

“We bought into a national movement that’s got some good standards, and some standards have rigor, and some are not great and age appropriate,” he said. “Take the bad ones and throw ’em out and add our own and there’s ‘North Carolina Standards.’”

He asked State Superintendent June Atkinson, one of Tuesday’s main speakers, if that were possible. The schools chief said that certainly the name could be changed and that the standards could be fine-tuned. Substantial changes, though, would require retraining teachers, which would be hard on them as well as the state’s budget, she said.

Since adopting the standards, the state has spent $27 million to train teachers, providing most of them 60 to 80 hours of professional development, she said.

That money came from a $400 million federal grant for which the state became eligible after adopting Common Core.

Several other committee members said they had been flooded with emails, Facebook postings and other contacts from people wanting to complain about Common Core.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, told the committee that he was aware of the opposition to the standards, and of problems with implementation, particularly with testing.

He also had received complaints that Common Core ceded control of the state’s schools to the federal government. If he thought that were true, though, Cobey said, he would oppose it himself.

But what he really believes is that the standards will help North Carolina students compete in the global economy.

Common Core has become a favorite target of tea party activists and talk radio personalities such as Glenn Beck, who calls them left-wing indoctrination.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who is a member of the N.C.Board of Education, has been a frequent and vocal critic of the standards. Gov. Pat McCrory, though, supports them, as does a long list of North Carolina business leaders, including Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS; and Harvey Schmitt, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

Red Hat President and CEO Jim Whitehurst said this week that he had seen widespread agreement among business leaders for Common Core’s higher standards and common performance measures.

“This is probably the single most vetted, talked about set of standards around education that’s ever been,” he said.

N.C. Chamber CEO Lew Ebert said North Carolinians should be thanking Texas, a major business competitor, for not adopting Common Core.

“If you had to pick something that could guarantee North Carolina gets left behind, it would be to miss this opportunity,” he said of the new standards. “We’d be left behind. There’s five states that have chosen not to be part of the modern world.”

The 16-member joint study committee was charged with studying the standards and making recommendations, which could include a draft bill. One of the committee’s co-chairmen Sen. Dan Soucek, a Watauga Republican, said he expected it to meet three more times.

Atkinson, Cobey and Brickman are all proponents of the standards. It’s likely, Soucek said, that experts who are opponents of Common Core will be asked to speak to the group, too.

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed to this report.

Price: 919-829-4526

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