Scars from NC Common Core fight shadow rewrite

N.C. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson
N.C. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

The official guideposts that determine what English and language arts skills students should acquire as they move through the grades are poised to change next year as the state moves away from the controversial Common Core standards.

But on the eve of a vote to approve the new state standards, a few members of the State Board of Education pushed for an outside review. The disagreement was a reminder of the conflict over Common Core that has rippled through political, business and education spheres over the last five years.

If the board approves, teachers would begin using the new standards in 2018.

The standards do not demand schools use a set curriculum. The school districts choose the curricula. Standards, set by the state, are grade-by-grade guides for what students should know and be able to do.

Common Core standards were developed under the sponsorship of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and were presented as the way to better prepare students for college and jobs. Common Core critics, many of them conservative, argued that the federal government effectively bribed the states into adopting it by making acceptance a condition for getting a big federal Race to the Top grant. Many complained that the state rushed Common Core into classrooms without getting input from teachers or advising them adequately on how to teach it.

Board Vice Chairman A.L. Collins said Wednesday that an outside review of the new standards could help avoid “a very political, ugly tug-of-war.”

“It seems to me we need to make sure we are addressing the potential problems,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and state Superintendent Mark Johnson, both elected Republicans, also want an outside review. Johnson said he had “a number of third parties” in mind, but he would not identify them during the public meeting. “Let’s delay the vote tomorrow,” he said. “I want to collaborate with others to make sure we’re doing the best we can.”

Board member Eric Davis emphasized the months the state Department of Public Instruction spent conducting surveys, collecting comments from parents and teachers, and revising their drafts, suggesting the department had done well seeking input.

Chairman Bill Cobey said during a break that the board welcomes “anybody commenting,” but he intended to have the board vote Thursday.

Cobey said one of the reviewers Johnson recommended to the board was Sandra Stotsky, a Common Core critic who has traveled the country denouncing the standards. She visited North Carolina in 2015.

Common Core math had the most vociferous critics, but the standards for English/ language arts also had their detractors. Critics said standards expected younger students to analyze writing in ways they are not ready to do.

Common Core triggered a backlash in the state that had some parents protesting and some legislators looking to get rid of it. The legislature created a commission to recommend a replacement, but its work resulted in no immediate changes. Most education and business leaders stood behind the standards, and the established five-year cycle for revisions was allowed to continue.

More than a half-dozen business and education groups sent the board a letter applauding the steps DPI took in writing the new standards. “The standards review has been the most scrutinized and inclusive process ever undertaken,” they wrote.

The board should move forward with the new standards as planned, Gary Salamido, vice president for governmental affairs for the N.C. Chamber, said in an interview.

“It’s time to get on with the education of our children so they can be as competitive as they can be,” he said. “You agree or you don’t agree at this point. Fundamentally, another review is not going to change that. We support high standards going forward. The time is now.”

On Wednesday, DPI staff described the journey toward creating the proposed standards that started more than 18 months ago and involved soliciting comments from teachers, parents and others, and local district reviews. The changes incorporate recommendations from the Academic Standards Review Commission, the group the legislature created. In the rewrite, 284 of 463 standards were revised, with 125 of the standards undergoing major changes.

The rewrite addresses developmental appropriateness, improves clarity and flow from grade to grade, and emphasizes planning and revision in writing, said Julie Joslin, English/language arts section chief at DPI.

Board member Olivia Oxendine said the standards for high school English lacked differentiation, and it was unclear how students should progress from grade to grade.

Oxendine suggested the state create a suggested reading list for each grade.

Bobbie Cavnar, the N.C. teacher of the year, said a mandatory state reading list “terrifies me.”

Teachers need flexibility, said Cavnar, an Gaston County English teacher and an adviser to the board. “Each community is different. Each child is different.” A state reading list “would be far more political than standards would ever be,” he said.