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The brewing battle over the Common Core

In the world of public school reform these days, the "Common Core" is about as popular as the common cold. The Common Core is the name given to academic standards adopted in 45 states (including Maryland) plus the District of Columbia that raise the bar significantly for what students are expected to know. And with the standards come, in another year or two, tests more rigorous than current state tests.

The Common Core movement "may be the most far-reaching experiment in American educational history," in the words of a recent New York Times op-ed. But there is no doubt that Common Core is now the fiercest political battlefield in the education wars, with an unusual bipartisan coalition of conservatives and liberals seeking to stall or kill implementation.

On the face of it, opposition to de facto national standards and tests makes no common sense. There's no justification for 50 different state versions of what students should learn in reading, math, science and history. Moreover, state standards have been far below "world class," and U.S. students score well below European and Asian peers in international rankings.

Common Core got underway about six years ago, led by the bipartisan National Governors Association and the nonpartisan Council of Chief State School Officers. President Barack Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proclaimed, "If we accomplish one thing in the coming years, it should be to eliminate the extreme variations in standards across America." Over the next four years, the great majority of states signed on, and world-class standards were drafted.

But that was then, and now a perfect storm of oppositional cross-currents is raging. Parents and teachers, already furious about high-stakes testing, see Common Core as more of the same. And in many states, new and controversial teacher evaluations are linked to student test scores that are expected to plunge in the short term following the new tests.

Educators are having panic attacks. Curricula must be revised and teachers trained. Maryland and many other states are making valiant efforts to get ready, but the time lines for implementation are short, and educators are notoriously weak administrators.

At the epicenter of the storm is political resistance. Some liberals and almost all conservatives are succumbing to objections to testing, educators' pleas for relief, and accusations that Common Core, while a voluntary action by the states, is a Trojan horse for federal encroachment. They cite the financial incentives and other sweeteners from the Obama administration to garner states' support. There is also an "if Obama's for it, we're against it" factor among conservatives. The tea party, according to a Washington Post front page story, is "mobilizing against Common Core education overhaul." Grassroots opposition is sprouting and succeeding in several states.

Some supporters are holding steadfast, including President Obama, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and Republican former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. And some governors from both parties are trying to hold the line.

Other supporters are trying to find middle ground. For example, Kati Haycock of the Education Trust, a policy and advocacy group, urges that the standards and testing move forward but that consequences like sanctions on low-performing schools and their impact on teacher evaluations be deferred. The Maryland State Department of Education is weighing delay in implementation of new teacher evaluations. (Maryland state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, recently argued in these pages against the delay.)

The dilemma is real, and my take is four-fold. First, I am an ardent fan of national standards and tests. They are necessary to hold educators accountable for higher student achievement. That said, my second point is that the standards are not as potentially revolutionary as proponents or opponents claim. They specify what students should know but not how students should be taught. They don't prescribe the instructional curricula, methods and programs that will enable students to meet the standards.

In that light, my third perspective is to side with those who say we should slow down the consequences of the new standards and tests to allow more time for classroom instruction to catch up to the advanced expectations.

But fourth, what I fear most is that instructional improvements will be delayed as well. That's the unhappy history of education reform in our country. Political storms, like the one over the Common Core, always seem to blow classroom instruction off course. Time and attention and resources are lost. Teachers don't get the support they need. And children, particularly from low-income families, are victimized. We must not let that continue to happen.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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