Indiana is one of 45 states that have joined the Common Core State Standards initiative, an effort to create guidelines for what students should learn at each grade level in math and English. It’s not like we’ve gone out on a limb here.
But some lawmakers want Indiana to become the first state to leave the fold. Senate Bill 193, sponsored by Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, would overturn the State Board of Education’s 2010 endorsement of Common Core and prohibit Indiana from rejoining. The Senate Education and Career Development Committee will consider the bill Wednesday.
The politics of the issue are very odd, bringing together tea-party types and some liberals. Critics on the right – and some are very far to the right — argue that Common Core is a federal takeover of education. They don’t like it because President Obama supports it. Critics on the left conflate the standards with excessive testing and accountability. They are suspicious of anything backed Tony Bennett, Jeb Bush and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
All this makes for a fun side show, but the real question should be: Will students be helped or hurt if Indiana jettisons the standards? This time, Bennett and Bush are on the right side.
First, Common Core isn’t a federal takeover. It has from the start been an initiative of the states, working through the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They came together around the idea that it made little sense, if education is a national priority, to have 50 different sets of standards that vary widely in strength and clarity.
As Terry Spradlin of the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, told me: “Are the learning needs of children in Indiana really different from what children are learning in Massachusetts or California? With our mobile society, children who moved from state to state often found themselves way behind or way ahead of what was being taught in their new school … Why shouldn’t every state set the bar high with rigorous, clear, concise and jargon-free standards by grade level and subject?”
Some opponents take aim at the state-led and federally supported consortia that are creating assessments based on the Common Core, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (which includes Indiana) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Well, yes, if we have standards, there will probably be tests, and testing companies will make money.
But that’s happening now – times 50. Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institute argues the economies of scale associated with Common Core assessments will enable states to reduce their spending on standardized tests by 25 percent or more. (And Indiana is a big spender).
There are academics who say that the Common Core Standards are weak, or at least weaker than Indiana’s, which were rated by the Fordham Foundation as being among the best. A leading critic is Sandra Stotsky, a retired professor at Arkansas’s Walton-funded Department of Education Reform. Fabio Milner at Arizona State University has written that Indiana’s math standards were in some ways better but argues that Indiana should nonetheless remain part of the initiative. The Common Core responds on its website to these criticisms and others.
But it’s a good bet that the people who sing the praises of Indiana’s old standards haven’t tried to teach them all. The standards may look great sitting on a shelf, but they are so extensive that, in practice, teachers are likely to pick and choose which ones to emphasize.
“That’s one of the biggest concerns, and here in the U.S. it’s one of our problems,” said Cameron Rains, an administrator with Indiana’s Clark-Pleasant Schools who until recently was with Monroe County Community Schools. “Our standards are a mile wide and an inch deep. I don’t think that’s any secret.” He said Common Core improves the focus but may not go far enough.
Rains said his biggest concern is that teachers have already done a lot of work to prepare for Common Core and to develop curriculum and lessons that reflect the standards. The kindergarten and first-grade standards are being implemented this year. For state officials to say, never mind, we’re going back to Indiana’s old standards and sticking with ISTEP-Plus exams, would be a slap in the face.
“We run the risk of losing, at the state level, any credibility that was left,” Rains said.
In another twist, some conservatives have convinced themselves that Democrat Glenda Ritz was elected Indiana superintendent of public instruction in November because of Tony Bennett’s support for Common Core. Ritz won because teachers and their supporters thought Bennett had run roughshod with his agenda of vouchers, charters and merit pay – none of which are likely to be curbed by the legislature.
It would be a cruel irony if the lesson that lawmakers take from Bennett’s defeat is that they should jerk Indiana’s classroom teachers around once again.