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Editorial: Getting to the Core

The New Hampshire House spared the Common Core state education standards last week, but not before hearing from some lawmakers eager to amend or abolish them. Rep. Laura Jones, R-Rochester, said the standards promote mediocrity in the classroom. Rep. Ralph Boehm, R-Litchfield, objected to the mandate imposing them. And Rep. Patrick Bick, R-Salem, was pretty sure they represent a federal takeover of local education.

These legislators are long on fears but short on facts. Developed five years ago at the behest of chief state school officers and governors, the voluntary standards are intended to improve instruction in language, literature and math by defining what students should know and be able to do in grades K-12. The standards do not prescribe a curriculum; they articulate sets of skills. For instance, by eighth grade, students are supposed to learn, among other things, how to “write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.” The Common Core was devised to make standards in two major subjects not only more rigorous but also more uniform in a bid to raise overall achievement. States got on board: Forty-five adopted the standards in 2010, and teachers throughout the country, including the Twin States, are now incorporating them into their lesson plans — plans that remain under local control.

Like many reform initiatives, though, the Common Core has led to confusion and controversy. That’s odd, in a way, because its origins go back at least 30 years, to 1983 and the seminal report A Nation at Risk, which warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in public schools. In response to that report, governors and state school commissioners began pushing for higher standards, calling on curriculum groups to write them. State efforts were fitful and largely unsuccessful, however, until after the passage in 2001 of No Child Left Behind, the federal school accountability law that mandated tests in English and math. Because the law imposed sanctions on school districts that failed to meet state-defined proficiency targets, some states weakened their standards, thus ensuring that most students would succeed in making “adequate yearly progress.” As unintended consequences go, this was a doozy, because No Child Left Behind was supposed to raise standards, not lower them.

The Common Core standards were developed in 2009 as a fix, and the Obama administration endorsed them through its signature reform program, Race to the Top, which required states competing for federal funds to adopt “college and career ready standards.” The U.S. Department of Education is prohibited from exercising control over curriculum or instruction and could not contribute funds to the development of the standards — the Gates Foundation came through for that — but it used the financial leverage it did have to pull in state education departments.

Apparently the speed with which the standards were adopted and implemented caught a lot of state legislators by surprise, leading to a political backlash against the Common Core and, significantly, the tests associated with it. Bills to scrap the standards were introduced this year not only in New Hampshire but also in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and Missouri. So far, only Indiana has voted to reject them. But you can expect more attempts to scuttle the standards as state education departments prepare to drop current tests linked to No Child Left Behind and administer new ones aligned with the Common Core.

Indeed, the changes over the next year are likely to be disruptive for students, teachers and parents, who are threatening in some communities to have their children opt out of the tests. Education historian Diane Ravitch argues there’s distrust and suspicion surrounding the Common Core because the standards were written too hastily and without sufficient consultation. That may be true. But anyone who takes the time to read them will quickly realize that they are straightforward and have the potential to improve both instruction and achievement in a country that doesn’t have particularly high expectations for either.