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Common Core: Politics, Power and Public Debate

Jamie Woodson of Tennessee SCORE speaks at the 67th National Seminar.

At EWA’s 67th National Seminar, we brought together 18 speakers — each with a unique viewpoint — to discuss the rollout of the new Common Core State Standards. This post is Part 1. Parts 2 and 3 will follow. 

Is Common Core an evil monster to be slayed? Or, a beautiful butterfly to be cherished?

Patrick McGuinn of Drew University displayed a Rorschach test to reflect the widely varying perceptions of the Common Core State Standards. Speakers at the EWA National Seminar session, including McGuinn, focused on the history of the standards, what prompted the opposition, and what comes next. 

Even as political opposition to the Common Core has flared in many states, polling shows that many people still aren’t aware of the standards – creating both a challenge and an opportunity, said McGuinn, chair of the political science department at Drew.

McGuinn noted that only one state, Indiana, has dropped the standards. So far, he said, there’s more smoke than fire with the opposition to the standards themselves even as many states reconsider the Common Core-based assessments.

“Common Core has yet to be defined for a majority of Americans,” McGuinn said.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday blamed federal involvement with stirring the opposition pot. His state was an early adopter of the standards.

“Everything was going smoothly until the president and the secretary of education took credit for Common Core,” Holliday said.

His advice for success with Common Core? Get teachers invested early and go slow on teacher accountability.

Michael Cohen, president of Achieve – an early architect of the Common Core – emphasized that the standards were state led, and that the federal government has contributed funding for standards, but not content, going back to the early 1990s.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative was launched in 2009 when state leaders chose to address weaknesses collaboratively, he said. The results were supported by unions, business leaders and the higher education community, Cohen said.

He said it’s a myth that the standards represent overreach by the Obama administration and will lead to a federal curriculum. 

Cohen said some pushback to the standards was expected, but “not at the intensity we’re seeing.” He said he thought they’d done a good job avoiding federalism in the creation of the standards.

“The Common Core is the natural outgrowth of states working on their own, working with each other … finding out what’s working and what’s not and trying to incorporate that into their own work,” Cohen said.

Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution said if you look at No Child Left Behind, it was most popular the day before it passed, and Common Core will likely have the same dynamic since implementation is the tough part. In the past, he said it would take years before opposition to changes in education were apparent, but it happens today at a fast pace because of social media.

“The easy part of the diet is setting the standard, the goal, the aspiration … The hard part is actually doing it,” Loveless said.

Loveless questioned if the standards will do much to budge test scores in the right direction. He said there is not a statistical relationship between standards and whether students make progress.

“Common Core is unlikely to have a significant effect on student achievement,” Loveless said.

Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education, titled her presentation “From F to Fastest in Tennessee.” She noted that from 2011 to 2013 on NAEP, Tennessee students showed more growth than students in any other state.

Despite political opposition to the standards, she said the standards were not repealed in the last legislative session, but the rollout of Common Core-based assessments was delayed a year. She said Tennessee remains below the national average and there’s still “tremendous” work to do and they are not “resting easy.”

“So much of this is in the implementation and the diligence to get the job done well and thoughtfully,” Woodson said.



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