Volume 10 No 1 Fall 2013


The News & Observer
April 24, 2014

NC Committee Recommends Replacing Common Core with State Education Standards
by Jane Stancill

RALEIGH - A state legislative commission proposed Thursday that North Carolina drop the Common Core and replace it with a new set of learning standards for public schools.

A draft bill replaces the Common Core State Standards in reading and math with new education benchmarks to be created by the State Board of Education, in consultation with a new Academic Standards Review Commission, made up of political appointees. The bill is expected to come up in the legislative session that begins in May.

Republican lawmakers said the bill is not merely a renaming of the standards but a removal of the Common Core, to be replaced with standards that "meet North Carolina's needs." If it passes the legislature, the Common Core could be history by July, though it likely would have to remain in place until new standards are finalized.

"This bill puts education back where the Constitution says it belongs - in the hands of North Carolina," said Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican.

Several Democrats voted against dropping Common Core. Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Matthews Democrat, called the whole affair "political theater" that does a disservice to children and teachers.

The state has spent several years and millions of dollars to train teachers and implement the new standards, which hit classrooms in fall 2012. And while that process has been problematic, Cotham said, dumping Common Core now "will create classroom chaos."

She said a commission of political appointees should not be dictating North Carolina's classroom standards. "That is scary," she said, "because that is politicizing curriculum and school standards."

More critical thinking

Adopted by 45 states, the Common Core sets out consistent learning standards in reading and math aimed at better preparation for college and careers. Developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, the standards are fewer but deeper and attempt to promote more critical thinking and problem solving.

The standards caused little controversy when first introduced. Some of the current opponents originally sponsored bills in North Carolina that ushered in the standards. For example, Tillman was a primary sponsor on bills in 2011 and 2012 that called for teacher preparation and test development related to the Common Core.

More recently, though, a national fight erupted over the Common Core, with critics suggesting it was a federal overreach because the U.S. Department of Education offered incentives for states to adopt the standards in the Race to the Top grant competition. Critics also confused the standards with curriculum.

The Common Core has been a target primarily of the tea party wing of the Republican Party. But the new standards have also been criticized by some on the left, who worry about education decisions being driven by corporate interests, foundations and philanthropists such as Bill Gates. Some states are moving to abandon or rename the standards or bow out of consortia that are developing new tests.

Perhaps the biggest critic in North Carolina has been Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who said Thursday was a great day for education in North Carolina.

"The General Assembly listened to the voices of thousands of parents, teachers, administrators and concerned citizens about the issues with Common Core. ... This legislative action allows North Carolina to develop its own rigorous standards, created by its own teachers, school administrators, business leaders and parents," Forest said in a statement.

One of the voices was in the audience Thursday as the commission voted. "The federal overreach is the biggest problem," said Kim Fink, a member of the Coastal Carolina Taxpayers Association in New Bern. "I do not think there should be national standards at all."

Core support

There also are supporters all along the political spectrum. One of the biggest proponents is Republican former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. In North Carolina, the Common Core is backed by business leaders and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who has said consistent, rigorous education standards are key to a competitive business climate.

"Governor McCrory is a strong supporter of high standards," Eric Guckian, McCrory's senior education adviser, said in a statement Thursday. "He is working every day toward a singular goal, and that is to ensure that every student and every citizen of North Carolina, has the skills they need to get and keep a real world job. High standards and high expectations are the table stakes for that goal. We welcome the opportunity to improve upon these standards, but any attempt to lower them is not an acceptable option."

The North Carolina Chamber issued a statement saying Thursday's decision was a step backward "for our manufacturing floors to the research labs and garages where the next big ideas are being born."

Lew Ebert, president and CEO of the chamber, said, "Speaking on behalf of job creators, I can say with good authority that North Carolina's current standards are, in fact, a positive step toward preparing today's students for the jobs of tomorrow. Ultimately the decision we are making is whether we want to grow our talent locally or hire it from out of state. North Carolina employers would prefer to hire locally."

State school Superintendent June Atkinson said North Carolina should act cautiously before making changes to its standards. "The stakes - the competitive future of our young people and our state - are very high," she said in a statement.

Atkinson said she welcomes regular reviews of standards.

But she added, "I believe North Carolina needs to continue its five-year cycle for maintaining standards so that teachers have stability in their lesson planning and classroom operations."

Earlier this year, superintendents of North Carolina's 10 largest districts, including Wake County, wrote in a position paper that they wanted "assurance that North Carolina is committed to CCSS (Common Core State Standards) and that there will not be another change in standards for at least seven years."

Teacher support

Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said the arguments about Common Core have been largely based on the myth that the standards force a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching or content. He said 77 percent of the association's members support the standards.

"Teachers have had some frustrations too, but this does not mean we should throw everything out and start over," Ellis wrote in an opinion column circulated to media.

The draft legislation presented Thursday would call for the new standards commission to begin meeting no later than Sept. 1 and finish its work by the end of 2015. The commission would be made up of 17 members, including the lieutenant governor, the state superintendent, a Senate and House member and appointees that can include parents, teachers and curriculum experts. The governor and State Board of Education would also appoint members.

The draft bill says the commission would make recommendations for changes to standards and tests aligned to them, considering "the impact on teachers, including the need for professional development." The panel's recommendations would go to the State Board of Education for consideration or adoption, but lawmakers stressed Thursday that the legislature could supersede any action the State Board undertakes.

An amendment approved Thursday would fast track the effort, so the commission could suggest immediate changes to Common Core before another set of standards is adopted.

Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

Q&A about the Common Core

What exactly is the Common Core?

A set of common standards for K-12 education aimed at providing a consistent and rigorous road map for what students should learn in math and English language arts from kindergarten through high school. Proponents say the goal is to be able to compare performance from state to state and to ratchet up the difficulty level so that U.S. students can compete better globally.

What does that mean in the classroom?

In mathematics, teachers focus on fewer, more fundamental areas instead of on covering a laundry list of techniques. Students are expected to master key concepts and operations and to understand how to apply them in real-life situations. In language arts, half of reading should be nonfiction and informational texts in elementary school. Nonfiction will grow to a 70 percent share by 12th grade. Literacy should be developed in other disciplines such as history, science and social studies. Students should also show mastery of several types of writing - argument, explanation and narrative.

Is this a federal takeover of the education curriculum?

No. The Common Core actually was spearheaded by a bipartisan, state-led effort by the National Governors Association in 2010. The U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top grant competition did spur many states to reform curriculum and embrace the Common Core. "It's totally false that the Common Core is a product of the federal government or President Obama," North Carolina Superintendent June Atkinson told The News & Observer last year.

Then why are some conservatives opposed to it?

A.In the past year, the Common Core has become a target of tea party groups and conservative talk show hosts such as Glenn Beck. He has focused on what he calls "scary" and "insidious" data collection of scores and other information from children. "They now have control of your children," he warned his radio listeners. Others, such as GOP senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul call the Common Core an overreach by federal education officials.

Does everyone on the left like it?

Not necessarily. Some are wary of school reforms that focus on standardization. Others worry about the corporate interests, such as Bill Gates, who played a part in creating the Common Core.

Are all Republicans opposed to the Common Core?

Again, not necessarily. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in particular, has staunchly defended the Common Core. So has New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

How many states are using the Common Core?

Forty-four, plus the District of Columbia signed on. But Indiana has now opted out, and the governors of Wisconsin and Louisiana are considering ways around it.

What about North Carolina?

It was one of the first states to sign on to the Common Core, and it won a $400 million Race to the Top grant in 2010. That was used in part to train teachers for the new standards.

So teachers had special training for this?

Yes, teachers have attended summer training sessions leading up to the introduction of the standards last school year.

When did it actually show up in North Carolina classrooms?

Fall 2012, so we're coming up on the end of the second year.

What do teachers, parents and students think?

While most teachers seem to support the standards themselves, some have complained that their training was inadequate and the implementation was bumpy. Parents have been confused by the standards, in many cases, and have been concerned about the difficulty, especially in math. Some have complained that there is too little emphasis on literature as opposed to nonfiction texts.