Core Questions

As public schools prepare for new national standards, critics across the political spectrum raise alarms

Jul 2, 2014 at 9:04 am


ormer Florida Governor Jeb Bush on June 16 made a trip to Cincinnati to speak at a fundraiser for the Republican National Committee. As he entered the posh Cincinnati Club downtown, he was confronted by protesters.

They weren’t left-wingers decrying his Republican politics, though. They were conservative activists, clad in boat shoes and khakis, lambasting Bush’s continued support for Common Core, a new set of federal educational standards. Their signs read #stopjebnow and had clever touches like spelling “Common Core” with two Soviet flag-style scythes. While that design choice kind of made the words look like “gommon gore” and the effectiveness of hashtags outside the Internet is debatable, the message was clear: The protesters weren’t down with the government’s new standards.

Heidi Huber, a founder of Ohioans Against Common Core, told conservative blog The Blaze that Common Core amounts to a federal takeover of education.

“It’s fed ed,” she said, “and needs to be repealed.”

But it isn’t just small-government-obsessed conservatives who have problems with the standards. Some educators have also expressed concerns, questioning whether schools are ready for the transition or whether teachers will be blamed if the changes don’t go well. And activists see big money being made on the new testing and standards by a few well-positioned companies. They question whether America’s current obsession with testing and data-driven accountability in schools is appropriate.

The small questions from both sides add up to a big one: Who really benefits from the new standards, and are they being held accountable?

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch is a noted education expert and outspoken critic of corporate involvement in schools. To her, the standards are about dollar signs.

“The purpose of national standards was to build a national marketplace for entrepreneurs,” she wrote in a post on her blog in May. “Common Core is certainly creating a huge national marketplace for Pearson and McGraw-Hill,” she added, observing that expenditures on new standards and testing are “diverting billions of dollars from school budgets.”

Pearson is the largest educational conglomerate in the world. The company has been the beneficiary of billions of dollars in educational contracts in the United States in the past decade and a half.

The company recently won a lucrative deal with one of two multi-state organizations implementing Common Core, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The company will get federal money to develop tests, classroom materials, score analysis and other items related to the new standards. Ohio will use the PARCC tests, and though the exact dollar amount of the contract is not yet set, the contract will be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

While opponents on the right fear a federal takeover of education and those on the left decry a corporate coup, Common Core is moving forward. Forty-five states have adopted Common Core, though some conservative governors, including Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, have refused to take up the federal standards.

Supporters of the standards point out that they’re trying to raise the level to which students are educated, not trying to control how they’re taught. Under Common Core, the federal government is still prohibited from dictating curriculum — the methods teachers use in the classroom to reach those levels.

The bipartisan National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, a group made up of high-level school administrators, designed the standards in 2009 and 2010. The impetus behind the standards, touted by Republicans and Democrats alike, was to fix the wide disparity in educational quality from state to state.

Due to varying standards, students in some states end up being woefully unprepared to go head to head with students from other states when they get to college or the workforce. And as the United States lags behind other countries in terms of educational achievement, there aren’t any states educating students to the level lawmakers and the business community would like to see.

Students in the United States ranked 17th in reading and 27th in math in 2012 out of 34 developed nations, a report by the Program for International Student Assessment found. PISA is an effort by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global body dedicated to boosting economic conditions around the world.

Common Core intends to raise the bar for students by teaching thinking skills instead of simply encouraging rote memorization. The standards focus on a smaller number of key concepts and hope to hone students’ understanding of them on a deep, conceptual level.

Cincinnati Public Schools have been working to implement Common Core for the past few years. The district has been phasing in the standards at grade levels that did not have to take state-level standardized tests, and then gradually extending them to other grades. The preparation in the classroom accompanied extensive teacher training and distribution of information about the standards to parents, CPS spokeswoman Janet Walsh says.

According to Walsh, Common Core is being fully implemented at all grade levels in CPS this year. Next year, students will begin taking computer-based exams on the new standards. This is where some of the challenges come in, according to teachers and school officials.

“We support the overall rigor and depth of the standards and think they will better prepare students for success in a globally competitive world,” Walsh says. “However, the execution hasn’t been perfect and we question how ready states and districts will be to support online testing.”

Some teachers in other area districts have echoed this sentiment. Noah Waspe, who teaches sixth grade for Lebanon City Schools, says he welcomes the emphasis on critical thinking. But he says he’s not sure enough has been done to train teachers on the new approaches to teaching, especially when it comes to math, which has been a sticking point for many students, teachers and parents as they adjust to Common Core. During the turbulent transition, Waspe is worried about whether teachers will be held accountable for their students’ performance on the new tests.

In Ohio public schools, students’ performance on standardized tests can make up more than 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, which is used to make decisions about dismissals and promotions. A bill in the Ohio General Assembly this year lets districts decide whether they judge teachers on students’ performance as the new tests are rolled out. Some in the state have signaled they will, while others are still deciding. ©