Common Core goals come under fire

MARIETTA – Three years after Ohio adopted the Common Core educational standards and a little more than 15 months from the start of the first year in which students will be tested on them, the standards are coming under fire at the national, state and local levels.

“It’s basically a power grab by the federal government to take over the schools,” said Jay Owens, 46, of Waterford.

Developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers, the stated goal of the Common Core standards is to clearly establish what is expected of students in math and English language arts at each grade level. The Common Core Standards Initiative website, www.corestandards.org, disputes the assertion that it is a national curriculum.

“They are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed,” it says in a section labeled “Myth vs. Facts.” “Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms.”

The federal government does not require states to adopt the Common Core; however, adoption was tied to federal Race to the Top stimulus dollars and other funding sources.

“It’s kind of a leveraged buyout of your education standards,” said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta.

Concerns about the standards led to a vote in the Ohio House of Representatives to remove language in its recently passed biennial budget bill tying an earmark for school broadband capacity to the assessments set to be implemented as part of the transition to the Common Core. Thompson said the state agreed to the new standards to obtain federal funding before they were completely written and now the General Assembly “definitely is going to have a say about this.”

John Charlton, associate director of communications for the Ohio Department of Education, said schools are required to follow state-adopted standards of which the English and math Common Core standards are a part. Still, he said, “no local school district is required to follow the Common Core.”

But Glenn Newman, with the Marietta OH 9-12 Project, said forthcoming state tests will be based on the Common Core, and that means schools will be following a national curriculum of sorts, given the emphasis placed on that testing.

“You always have to teach to the test,” he said.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards, but there is some pushback among those that have signed on.

A bill to remove the standards recently moved forward in the Alabama Senate. And the Republican National Committee this month adopted a resolution against the Common Core.

Some people have attributed resistance to the standards as politically based. But education historian Diane Ravitch, seen as a more liberal voice on education, has also come out in opposition to the standards.

Local school officials contacted Monday said they see pros and cons to the new standards, but are now in the thick of implementing them rather than lobbying for change.

“It’s already passed,” Wolf Creek Local Superintendent Bob Caldwell said. “It’s in law, and we’re not fighting it.”

Caldwell said he has mixed feelings about portions of the Common Core.

“What it really is is to make sure that students that transfer in our mobile society are transferring into schools that are keeping up with other schools,” he said.

In that respect, Caldwell said, “it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a touch of federal regulations.”

The problem comes when there’s too much regulation, he said.

One area of the Common Core that has drawn a lot of criticism is the emphasis on nonfiction literature over fiction. By 12th grade, it calls for 70 percent of the text a student reads be nonfiction and 30 percent be fiction, as part of an emphasis on reading informational text to better prepare for college and the workplace.

“I believe that fiction and nonfiction both are a means of teaching our young people to think,” said Caldwell, a former English teacher. “That’s a battle we fought two years ago and lost. When we tried to get public support a couple years back, we could not get it.”

Some critics say the Common Core lowers standards for some states, with Owens dubbing it “a race to be common.”

But local officials contacted don’t see it that way in Ohio.

“We have been working on, in each subject area, a gap analysis,” said Ruth Kunze, director of curriculum and technology for Marietta City Schools. Asked if the Common Core represents a step down from previous state standards, she said, “Absolutely not.”

While there may be fewer standards required, there is an increased emphasis on complexity and critical thinking skills, Kunze said.

“No longer (are) students just asked to recall things,” she said.

Tom Gibbs, superintendent of the Fort Frye and Warren Local school districts, agreed.

“I don’t think it’s lowering expectations; it’s kind of changing the focus of your expectations,” he said.

As an example, Gibbs pointed to the periodic table. While in the past there may have been more emphasis on memorizing the entire table and the numbers related to each element, he said the newer standards might focus more on making sure students can access, read and use the information on it.

Gibbs, Kunze and Caldwell all said they believe there is space in the Common Core for local districts and individual teachers to tailor the curriculum to their students and communities.

“I hope so,” Caldwell said. “We believe that it will.”

Gibbs noted residents in the districts where he works will still have opportunities to review new texts before they are adopted and parents can continue to request different novels if they have an objection to a reading assignment.

Other criticism leveled at the Common Core include claims of “data mining,” gathering information on students that goes far beyond what one would think necessary to conduct a standardized test.

Charlton, with ODE, called that “totally false.”

“Ohio does not sell student level data and never will,” he said in an email Monday. “State law prohibits the release of personally identifiable data.”

As local schools work to prepare for full implementation of the standards, the Marietta OH 9-12 Project is working to educate its members about the issues, Newman said.

“It is to the family and education what Obamacare is to doctors and patients,” he said. “It would take at least a couple of hours to explain the depth and width.”

Monday night’s meeting at the Valley Harvest Church in Marietta was devoted to the topic, and future sessions will be as well, Newman said. Information about upcoming meetings can be found at www.mariettaoh9-12project.com