New federal school standards coming under attack

¦ Wisconsin and other states are second-guessing Common Core
by Nora G. Hertel Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

As Wisconsin schools begin a new year, many are tailoring their lessons around an increasingly controversial set of voluntary math and English standards for kindergarten through 12th grade.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, which sets new and often more rigorous goals for what the nation’s students should be learning at each grade level, is drawing flak from all sides, from Tea Party activists to educators.

“It’s kind of a monstrosity that’s spreading across the country without much input from the town boards, school boards,” said Kim Simac of the Northwoods Patriots, a Tea Party affiliate in Eagle River.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukeebased nonprofit publisher Rethinking Schools has chided, “Unfortunately, there’s been too little honest conversation and too little democracy in the development of the Common Core.”

Meant to prepare students for colleges and careers, the Common Core standards list specific expectations for academic mastery. For instance, students should recognize equivalent fractions by fourth grade and use precise vocabulary when writing about complex topics in grades nine and 10.

The standards also call on teachers to help students develop critical thinking and analysis skills, said Emilie Amundson, Common Core State Standards team director for the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

“For Wisconsin as a state, this is a huge shift. Our (previous) standards … were so incredibly general,” Amundson said.

Many educators around Wisconsin began implementing the standards when they were adopted by State Superintendent Tony Evers in 2010. But this year, the standards will be in place in virtually every public school in the state, and some private schools.

Tim Schell, director of curriculum and instruction for the Waunakee School District, said the transition to Common Core will be hard for elementary level teachers, who must overhaul both their math and literacy curricula.

“You’re beginning to see some of the actual impact, and these are big changes,” Schell said. “These are not easy changes.”

In May the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee amended the state budget to require a review of the standards and a study of the costs associated with them. It called for a series of public hearings on Common Core, which DPI plans to hold, and asked for a Legislative Council study committee to look into the issue.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau is expected to release its report soon on the cost of implementing Common Core, as well as the cost to halt implementation.

“DPI began to implement Common Core in 2010 without any public input or legislative action,” state Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, said in a statement. “My hope is that after public input is had and the study received by the Legislature, we can more precisely assess which standards are best for our state’s schools.”

Nationally, Republicans are split on whether the Common Core is a good idea. Walker was an early supporter of the standards, but last week his office declined to comment.

‘Orwellian control’

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers developed the standards with input from a panel of experts and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Currently, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the new standards. Minnesota has embraced the standards for English but not math.

But in some states, including Wisconsin, these standards are under fire.

In April, Indiana passed a law calling for an evaluation of the standards and their costs, while stalling their implementation. Michigan, in its new state budget, prohibits spending state money on Common Core.

And several states, including Georgia and Oklahoma, have withdrawn from one of the groups developing Common Core-aligned standardized tests.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers held a special legislative hearing in May on the new standards before an overflow crowd. Several speakers, including representatives from two Wisconsin school districts, the DPI, and the right-leaning Fordham Institute, testified in favor of the standards.

Committee members also heard from critics who painted Common Core as an exercise in federal overreach.

Joy Pullmann, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute -- a conservative think tank that weighs in on education, health care and promotes skepticism that climate change is manmade -- called the standards “unproven education theories, embedded in an Orwellian control system in which we have had no voice.”

The standards have been championed by Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary. And the administration offered Race to the Top grant money and No Child Left Behind waivers to some states that got on board.

Indeed, some critics of Common Core have dubbed it ObamaCore.

The Republican National Committee has condemned the standards as “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” It ripped “the collection of personal student data for any non-educational purpose without prior written consent.”

There is no mention in the standards about a national database for student information, and defenders of the initiative say there is no such intent.

“Common Core itself does not require any data collection,” said Jennifer Kammerud, legislative liaison for DPI, at the May hearing. She added that state and federal law already require some data gathering. However, Assistant State Superintendent Kurt Kiefer told the committee that data shared with the federal government cannot be traced to individual students.

Mike Bormett, DPI policy and budget director, said these new tests will cost the state an additional $8.3 million next year. The tests are more costly than previous assessments because more grades will be taking the tests, they are more complicated and they require expensive software.

DPI team director Amundson also notes that the new testing will almost certainly result in lower scores. “These are higher standards,” Amundson said. “It’ll be a harder test.”

State Rep. Mandy Wright, DWausau, supports the standards. A former middle and high school English teacher, Wright sees them as a way to bring continuity across classrooms on what students are taught.

“People have really developed their niche and what works for them as teachers,” she said. “We needed something like this to bring it all together, to pull together all those different pieces.”

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