|9-7-14 Education in the News - Common Core|
Star Ledger - Common Core controversy continues in N.J. and across nation…As the school year begins, the battle over the Common Core State Standards heats up
Star Ledger - Common Core controversy continues in N.J. and across nation
As the school year begins, the battle over the Common Core State Standards heats up. (Star-Ledger File Photo)
It was intended as a yardstick for the nation’s public schools.
The idea was to develop a national set of rigorous academic standards — known as the Common Core — outlining the math and language arts skills that students should be able to master to be ready for 21st-century college and careers.
But the education overhaul has stirred massive opposition in recent months, with critics on the left and right growing in size and volume. And as the new school year begins, parents, teachers, education advocates and state officials are sparring over the Common Core and its effect on students.
“It’s untested,” complained Seton Hall University education professor Christopher Tienken. “There’s no evidence that it is better than what New Jersey had before.”
Adding to the firestorm are the new computer-based tests that will measure student achievement of the standards. These exams will be given to New Jersey students in the spring and will be used to judge schools, students and teachers alike.
There was little hint to the controversy now sweeping the nation when the National Governors Association and the Chief Council of State School Officers first got together in 2008 to develop a set of common education standards for the states.
Teachers were part of the work groups assembled and state education associations — including the largest teachers unions — participated in the bipartisan process that shaped the final version of the standards, according to those who authored Common Core.
Once the new standards began landing in school districts, however, battle lines suddenly began forming. Angry parents rallied against the proposed changes, and political groups began marshalling resources against what they saw as an untested mandate fueled by private interests, developed without transparency, and pushed onto cash-strapped states through the promise of millions of federal dollars.
“There is great unrest about this,” declared Carolee Adams of the Eagle Forum, a conservative organization and national volunteer group led by Phyllis Schlafly. “The number of people opposed to it far outweighs those in favor.”
Several recent polls support her claim. According to a new Gallup Poll, almost two-thirds of Americans had never heard of the Common Core until last year. This year, 60 percent said they opposed them.
And a poll published by Stanford University last month shows teacher support waning, with 40 percent of teachers saying they oppose the standards, up from 12 percent last year. In addition, the poll reported only 53 percent of the general public give its support, down from 65 percent in 2013.
Lawmakers are taking up the charge. There are 25 state chapters of Stop the Common Core, and efforts in Indiana, Louisiana, New York, Georgia and Tennessee to repeal the Common Core. As the standards hit more classrooms this fall, opponents believe opposition will increase.
Here in New Jersey, grassroots opposition to the Common Core State Standards gained traction earlier this year with the launch of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers — the computer-based test that will be given in the spring to measure student mastery of the new material.
Opposition to the test, known as PARCC, has made allies of sometime enemies, with groups as varied as Save Our Schools — a national group whose New Jersey chapter formed in 2010, the Eagle Forum and the New Jersey Education Association joining to lobby lawmakers to delay PARCC.
In hearings and petitions, they have spoken out against the standards and the test and pleaded with lawmakers to slow down.
“Districts have had little time to identify instructional materials and get ready for this dramatic change,” Save Our Schools’ Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers professor, said. “There is a lot of waste involved.”
Lost in the controversy, however, is the fact that rigorous standards have been part of New Jersey’s education landscape for two decades, according to acting Education Commissioner David Hespe.
“We’ve been doing this for 25 years. We’ve always done well academically in New Jersey, and that’s not happenstance, it’s the result of our continuing to set aggressive academic standards for our students,” Hespe said. “These (standards) are real-world connected, focused on higher-order thinking skills.”
Many people don’t understand what the standards are, said New Jersey School Boards Association Executive Director Lawrence Feinsod. They are benchmarks, not curriculum, and as such they provide guidance but not direct lesson plans.
“The Common Core standards are akin to a blueprint for a quality education,” he said. “It’d be like an architect overseeing the construction of a building without blueprints.”
That means all New Jersey students will have some goal, but districts in Morristown, New Brunswick and Atlantic City will develop the curricula to meet those goals.
“The boards who are elected or appointed representatives of the community have the ultimate say on the curriculum,” Feinsod said. “The Common Core is a blueprint. The curriculum itself is written and developed locally.”
A shift in focus
Educators say the new standards are more rigorous because they are aimed at pushing students to think and reason more, changing the teaching and learning process.
Instead of having students memorize answers, the standards require students to give reasons as to how they came to a certain conclusion. Advocates say in a world that is becoming increasingly complex, it is better to ask students to analyze and interpret material rather than just repeat what they have been told.
Many critics don’t like the math standards’ emphasis on a deeper understanding of fewer concepts. Others complain the language arts standards focus too much on informational texts at the expense of classic literature.
“That’s one of the major complaints, that kids are going to miss out on the great works because they’ll read technical manuals and nonfiction texts,” said Tienken, the Seton Hall professor. “That’s problematic.”
Another criticism is the federal government’s role in the process. While the push for national standards started with the National Governor’s Association, the Obama administration linked federal Race to the Top grants to rigorous standards and assessments that would be used to measure teacher quality. Cash-starved states signed on.
Hespe says much of the national criticism — especially arguments about the speed of the implementation and federal bullying to get states to adopt them — doesn’t apply to New Jersey, where the state has spent four years helping districts and teachers roll out the new guidelines. High academic expectations are in the state’s DNA, he said, and the launch “has probably been the longest in setting and assessing that we have ever had.”
“Look at it as a continuous progression, to establish standards and measure the way kids have done,” Hespe said. “The next generation is going to be: Can we pool our resources, adapt them in a uniform way so there’s a way to compare? It’s a natural progression.”
Many educators, including the New Jersey Education Association, have backed the standards, Hespe noted.
“I think it’s good for the nation to have common standards, so that as we look to educating children for a global economy we are all coming from the same place,” Old Bridge Superintendent David Cittadino said. “It’s important that when a child is moving from state to state, that he or she is coming in with common expectations.”
Cittadino believes the recent backlash has grown out of other states’ experiences, especially New York, which is a year ahead in the cycle and saw its student test scores plummet in the first year of implementation. And New Jersey teachers have been bombarded with change this year. In addition to the Common Core, the new teacher tenure law went into effect and PARCC is on the horizon.
“Some people get anxiety,” he said.
And taxpayers are starting to question the cost.
“People are seeing how their taxes are adversely affected. Towns are spending $500,000 to $750,000 for Common Core and PARCC,” said Adams, of the Eagle Forum. Those costs cover technology and new course materials.
As the new school year begins, proponents are promising to improve communication with parents in order to dispel their fears, while critics pledge to continue their campaign.
“There will be more and more pressure to loosen the reins, and state departments of education will give districts more leeway, and slowly (the standards) will be eroded,” Tienken predicted. “And once the PARCC tests hit 20 states, you’ll see it see it accelerate greatly this year.”
Garden State Coalition of Schools