Focus on the Fix!

Linda Retire CropOne of the concerns about Common Core Standards is that they move us further toward the federalism of public education.  The effort to provide Federal guidance for public education actually began in 1965 with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Then in 2001, President George W. Bush pushed through the bipartisan reauthorization, giving it the “catchy” name: “No Child Left Behind (NCLB).”  This law required schools with low-income students to meet annual goals, as determined by standardized tests, to qualify for federal money.  It was the result of a compromise between “federalists who argue that only Washington will be able to set high standards because they’re immune from state governors, versus a states’ rights (granted by the Constitution) perspective.[i] NCLB has been much criticized for creating a focus on “teaching to the test” and for unrealistic standards.[ii]  Both Democrats and Republicans agree it is broken and have been working for several years on a reauthorization of it, since 2007 but have been unable to agree on the fix.[iii]

In an effort to deal with the broken NCLB, the Department of Education (DOE) announced the Conditional NCLB Waiver Plan in September 2011 to exempt certain states from NCLB accountability requirement. As part of the deal, the DOE mandated additional requirements for states seeking a waiver. To qualify, states had to agree to adopt “college- and career-ready standards (either Common Core, or a set of standards certified by the state’s colleges and universities consistent with Common Core) and declare their membership in either PARCC or SBAC, or its intention to adopt those, or similar, assessments.[iv]

A troubling concern for many is that Common Core Standards were developed outside any sort of legislative body and some allege states were “bribed” (with stimulus funded Rate to the Top Grants for example) into accepting the standards prior to even seeing them.  Proponents point to the fact the nation’s governors and education commissioners (through their representative organizations) developed the standards.  They also point to the fact that teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country were involved in the effort.[v]  In fact, our very own Dr. McCallum, head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Arizona, was a lead author of the Common Core Math Standards.[vi]

I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist and believe the motivations for action on public education are pretty simple and fall into three categories.  They are:  1) desire to make political hay, 2) desire to make a profit, and 3) desire to have the children receive a truly high-quality education.

The motivation that concerns me most is those viewing public education as a profit center.  We saw what greed drove in the absence of regulation and transparency in the housing and banking industries.  In 1983, during the Reagan administration, a report called “A Nation at Risk” set the stage for big business to look to public education as a place to mine for profit.  Corporate influence, in the form of venture philanthropy (where giving is viewed s an entryway into the work versus supporting the work of others) now is the major driver of the education reform movement.  “The leading venture philanthropies are now pushing charter school growth, school choice, education privatization in general; alternative routes of teacher and administrator certification; and curriculum and test development.  Unfortunately, all this drives a transition from public deliberation by elected officials to decisions of individuals with no accountability to the public.”[vii]  Since 1999, the Gates Foundation (they are not the only players) has donated approximately $30 million to the National Governor’s Association and $70 million to the Council of Chief State School Officers.  It has also provided significant funding to a variety of other organizations (on both sides of the ideological spectrum) working to influence education policy, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators and others. [viii]

Ultimately though, all the controversy is a diversion that is just not helpful to the task at hand.  That is to ensure all of America’s children receive a quality public education and have a shot at the American Dream.  I believe the Common Core Standards are a valid attempt to improve the education system in the United States.  Are they perfect? No.  In most states though (other than California, Indiana and Massachusetts), they provide a higher goal than the current model.  If properly implemented, (a huge if), they will allow us to more realistically compare academic results across multiple states, provide an emphasis on the ability to think, read, and write critically across the curriculum, and provide an increased focus on classroom rigor and student expectations.  Opponents point to several concerns including that the standards were not field tested prior to a nation-wide rollout, show a lack of attention to students with special needs, and place too much emphasis on college-readiness without balanced preparation for career and technical education.[ix]

Rarely, are solutions to complex problems “plug and play.”  In a more ideal world though, we’d all put our energies fully behind the effort so we can figure out what needs to change.   In Arizona, (and many other states), the Common Core Standards are still an unfunded mandate.  In January 2013, the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials conducted a survey of Arizona school districts to determine the cost of implementing Arizona’s Common Core Standards.  Districts from urban, suburban and rural Arizona school districts statewide, representing 38 percent of the total K-12 district population, responded.  Based on the survey results, the estimated statewide costs for essential elements of Common Core implementation just for the 2013-2014 school year was $156.6 million.  On top of that is the $230 million cost of additional hardware, software and required upgrading of Internet capacity.  Zero additional monies have been appropriated by the state for the mandate to implement the standards.[x]

While the critics of the new standards are numerous and loud, I haven’t yet seen a better plan.  The Common Core Standards are the first educational reform that has the potential to hold students, teachers, and schools to the same standards nationwide. This will make it easier to understand what is working and hopefully, apply the lessons learned.  That can’t be a bad thing.[xi]


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