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The conservative battle over Common Core Standards

Published: Thursday, Jan. 2 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

Newly named Utah Teacher of the Year, Foxboro Elementary's Allison P. Riddle talks with students Ethan West and Isabel Moriconi during class Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Newly named Utah Teacher of the Year, Foxboro Elementary's Allison P. Riddle talks with students Ethan West and Isabel Moriconi during class Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

This is the second in a four-article series exploring how teachers are incorporating Common Core State Standards. Read the first article here.

The controversy over Common Core State Standards for K-12 education adopted by 45 U.S. states and the District of Columbia divides both major political parties as well as faith communities and educators. Perhaps the fiercest battle over Common Core, though, is the tug-of-war between American conservatives, mostly Republican.

Conservative advocates for Common Core include former governors Jeb Bush, R-Fla., and Chris Christie, R-N.J., and many business leaders. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports the standards, as does Business Roundtable, a conservative group of CEOs whose companies make up more than a third of the total value of the U.S. stock market. The business leaders say Common Core will increase educational rigor, producing workers who can keep U.S. companies competitive in the global marketplace.

Teacher Stacey Johnsen works with her students at Daybreak Elementary Monday, Feb. 25, 2013. Common Core State Standards for education are causing controversy in schools. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Teacher Stacey Johnsen works with her students at Daybreak Elementary Monday, Feb. 25, 2013. Common Core State Standards for education are causing controversy in schools. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Within the conservative community, opponents of the Common Core cluster mainly at the right end of the political spectrum, among tea party supporters. Voices of opposition include U.S. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Tex., pundit Glenn Beck, and Eagle Forum founder and president Phyllis Schlafly. Their chief criticisms cast Common Core as a federal takeover of U.S. classrooms that could reshape the cultural values of the nation’s children.

The federal role

“First of all, it’s a national standard, which I strongly oppose,” said Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. “We shouldn’t have a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Next, all curriculums are subject to ideological manipulation, and from what I’ve seen of the proposed core, there is a rigorous left lean in what they are proposing.”

Common Core supporter and teacher Steven Harper speaks in favor of Common Core at the State Board of Education office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013. Common Core State Standards for education have created political rifts, especially among U.S. conservatives. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Common Core supporter and teacher Steven Harper speaks in favor of Common Core at the State Board of Education office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013. Common Core State Standards for education have created political rifts, especially among U.S. conservatives. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Carlson favors a “radical decentralization” of school systems, allowing each school to be controlled by its neighborhood. He favors homeschooling as the best answer to education, with neighborhood schools serving as a resource.

“Every school should be open to all students, but compel none,” he said. “Families who primarily educate children at home would be welcome to send students for certain classes, like sports teams and choir. But they would not be compelled to follow the whole curriculum.”

Michael Petrilli travels the nation speaking about Common Core and listening to concerns in his role as executive vice-president of Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education think tank.

“About 90 percent of the concerns I hear are about the federal role in incentivizing states to adopt the standards, especially since Barack Obama won the last election,” Petrilli said. “A lot of tea party people don’t trust him on other issues, and that has bled over to Common Core. We’d be seeing a different argument if Romney had won.”

Profesora Jo Carmiol gives a Profesora Jo Carmiol gives a "thumbs-up" during a Spanish III Honors class at Farmington Junior High School on Thursday, September 6, 2012. Common Core State Standards for education are causing controversy in schools. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Petrilli said incentives in the federal Race to the Top program for states to adopt Common Core led to mistaken ideas about genesis of the standards that are hard to shake. Race to the Top was a competitive federal grant to spur innovation in K-12 education that was included in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“This started out as a state-led effort by governors and school superintendents, with support from private citizens like [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates,” said Petrilli. “It had momentum long before Obama became president. For me, as a conservative, I don’t like the fact the Common Core was put into Race to the Top. I would prefer zero federal involvement.”

Nonetheless, his Fordham Institute is a staunch supporter of Common Core. The group did an exhaustive study of educational standards developed by each state before the launch of Common Core and found most to be “full of jargon, written by committee and completely unteachable.”

Quin Stewart, left, Mac Johnson and Hunter Davis prepare to launch a rocket Friday, April 19, 2013 at Centerville Junior High School. Common Core State Standards for education are causing controversy in schools. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Quin Stewart, left, Mac Johnson and Hunter Davis prepare to launch a rocket Friday, April 19, 2013 at Centerville Junior High School. Common Core State Standards for education are causing controversy in schools. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Petrilli considers Common Core “a higher and more rigorous standard” that will lead to improved college and career results that outweigh any negatives. The standards are educational goals. They are not a curriculum, he said.

An oft-repeated concern is that Common Core State Standards will force local schools and district to use a particular curriculum. Education Week writer Stu Silberman offers an analogy to help understand the distinction between educational standards and curriculum.

“Every field in the National Football League is the same length and width,” Silberman wrote last August. “No matter the location of the game, the field is exactly the same. So are the rules of the game. But the playbook for each team is significantly different. The field and rules are the standards while the vastly different playbooks make up the curriculum.”

Newly named Utah Teacher of the Year, Foxboro Elementary's Allison P. Riddle works with one of her students Ayla Honneywell in class Monday, Oct. 7, 2013.  (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Newly named Utah Teacher of the Year, Foxboro Elementary's Allison P. Riddle works with one of her students Ayla Honneywell in class Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

“Federal involvement has been pretty minimal,” Petrilli said. “This was a state-led effort, and implementation is left up to states. There is no federal involvement left in the project.”

But such groups as the citizen-led Truth in American Education and the Eagle Forum insist that the real drive for Common Core didn’t come from states, but from private interests such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and progressive education reformers on the coasts.

Business leaders’ push

Business groups say Common Core is essential to raising educational performance. A long list of major corporations — including Aetna, Boeing, Dell, GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, State Farm and Verizon Communications — signed a letter of support for the core.

Macie Smith, Makayla Walden and connor Klein work with their preschool teacher Aubrey Katyryniuk Monday, March 4, 2013 at Calvin Smith Elementary school in Taylorsville. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Macie Smith, Makayla Walden and connor Klein work with their preschool teacher Aubrey Katyryniuk Monday, March 4, 2013 at Calvin Smith Elementary school in Taylorsville. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The nation has “50 sets of inconsistent standards, even though the expectations of colleges and employers in math and English are nearly universal and are not bound by state lines,” read the letter. “The Common Core State Standards are an important opportunity to set consistent, focused, rigorous expectations for all students; a necessary foundation for making the changes needed to improve student achievement and ensure the United States’ educational and economic preeminence.”

Proficiency rates on the tests states developed to assess student achievement looked pretty good — until they were compared with data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test given in each state. That data shows low proficiency across the board, but especially for low-income and minority students.

"States have set mediocre, dare I say ‘attainable’ standards so that passage rates on assessments are acceptable to adults, and states, districts and schools can escape accountability," wrote Cheryl Oldham, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's vice president for education and the workforce, in an opinion piece for Huffington Post.

City Academy lead teacher Gareth 
Orr talks to students in class in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Common Core State Standards for education are causing controversy in schools. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) City Academy lead teacher Gareth Orr talks to students in class in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Common Core State Standards for education are causing controversy in schools. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Meanwhile, 50 percent of undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students must take at least one remedial course because they are underprepared, and the U.S. lags far behind other developed nations on international achievement tests, she wrote, referring to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Tests controlling values

But some conservatives aren’t convinced that a federally sanctioned push adequately reflects Americans’ core values.

“Common Core means federal control of school curriculum, i.e., control by Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats,” Schlafly wrote in a piece for townhall.com. “Federal control will replace all curriculum decisions by state and local school boards, state legislatures, parents and even Congress because Obama bypassed Congress by using $4 billion of stimulus money to promote Common Core.”

Tests will be the mechanism for controlling curriculum, Schlafly continued. “If [students] haven’t studied a curriculum based on Common Core, they won’t score well on the tests.”

The conservative Foundation for Excellence in Education, whose board of directors is chaired by Jeb Bush, addressed Schlafly’s argument in a written position piece. About the confusion between standards and curriculum, the group said, “Common Core State Standards define what students need to know; they do not dictate how teachers should teach or how students should learn. That decision is left to each state. Common Core does not dictate what lesson plans, programs or textbooks teachers will use for curriculum. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards will continue to make important decisions about curriculum and how their school systems are operated.”

Regarding testing, the foundation said that measuring students’ performance against standards is a cornerstone of accountability.

“States make the decision as to whether or not they require an exit exam to earn a high school diploma. Many states have had exit exam requirements in place for decades,” the foundation wrote. “The SAT and the ACT are the universally accepted college admissions tests. Scores on college entrance exams are set by the institution or the state.”

Curriculum concerns

Schlafly and other conservatives also dislike the reading lists in an appendix that debuted with Common Core. She criticized the increased emphasis on informational texts that could cut into study of literature. She cites non-fiction readings on global warming and suggested fiction that is “worthless and even pornographic.”

Petrilli points out that the reading lists are not part of Common Core, and were not adopted by states. “There are no requirements that those readings be assigned,” he said. “That remains the province of local school boards.”

Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education holds that increased focus on informational texts will better prepare students for college and real-world reading and writing. Informational texts could include Alexis de Tocqueville’s "Democracy in America," President Ronald Reagan’s “Address to Students at Moscow State University,” and “The Declaration of Independence.” Other examples of informational texts could include maps, charts, graphs and infographics.

Tests will be aligned to the standards themselves, and not to the appendix of reading lists and sample teaching materials, Petrilli said. The tests must include passages that are as rigorous and challenging as the standards require.

Another complaint about Common Core math is that it will discourage bright students by moving everyone through high school math concepts at the same mediocre rate.

The Common Core standards set the minimum level of math proficiency that all students must reach. Four model course pathways are included as suggestions for structuring high school math programs. One is the traditional U.S. model, which calls for two algebra courses and a geometry course. A compacted version of that model prepares students to take calculus or other college-level math courses in their senior year. Many U.S. public schools already offer both models.

Integrated course sequences based on those used in some European and Asian countries are also outlined. Decisions about which math classes to teach and how to structure them are made at state and local levels.

Are parents aware?

According to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll this fall, 52 percent of parents said they’d heard “only a little” or “nothing at all” about the standards. And according to summary of another recent poll, “of those who had heard of the Common Core, many were confused by or misunderstood the standards and their genesis.”

Perhaps the one thing that everyone can agree on is that the Common Core standards are controversial. They tap into older education battles over how math should be taught, what students should and shouldn’t read, and who should decide.

While corporations have published full-page advertisements to promote Common Core standards for enhancing college and career readiness in the United States, liberal and conservative critics say there are too many questions hanging in the air.

“Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster,” wrote education historian Diane Ravitch in a Washington Post opinion piece. “Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether. Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences?”

An important frontier for the debate is within state Legislatures, often dividing Democrat against Democrat, and, especially, Republican against Republican. State legislative bills to roll back the standards haven’t succeeded, but Common Core opponents continue to push. In 2014, bills to repeal or de-fund Common Core are expected to come up in Oklahoma, Kansas, Florida and other states.

Email: cbaker@deseretnews.com Twitter: @celiarbaker

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