ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The federal No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2001, ushered in years of educational standards-setting, student testing, teacher evaluations and school grading. American kids’ academic standing in the world declined.
The nation’s governors and state school chiefs went back to the drawing board to develop a new set of standards known as Common Core. Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland has said Common Core is equivalent to the revolution in American education that followed the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 – an event that shook the nation out of complacency.
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers unveiled their proposal to have all states adopt the same educational standards for teaching English language arts and mathematics in a 2008 report titled “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education.”
“The United States is falling behind other countries in the resource that matters most in the new global economy: human capital,” the report said. “American 15-year-olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science achievement on the most recent international assessment conducted in 2006.”
The governors and school chiefs said American college graduation rates were first in the world in 1995 and had dropped to 14th in 2006. Around 40 percent of high school graduates entering college nationwide need remedial education to do college-level work. In New Mexico, about half of entering freshmen at the state’s universities now take remedial course work, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
“If the United States raised students’ math and science skills to globally competitive levels over the next two decades, its (gross domestic product) would be an additional 36 percent higher 75 years from now,” the report said.
The governors had other concerns.
A child who began her education in one state and then moved to another might be far ahead or far behind students in her new school.
No Child Left Behind imposed federal sanctions on schools that did not show improvement against benchmarks, but states were left to set their own standards and establish their own testing. That made it impossible to compare student achievement across states. It also gave states an incentive to dumb down their testing, because better test scores meant they could avoid federal sanctions.
The states’ school chiefs agreed the No Child Left Behind testing didn’t seem to measure whether kids were really learning anything.
The states came together to agree on the Common Core standards but did not propose either curricula or testing that would help students meet them. That was left to state education authorities and local schools. The state Public Education Department has directed Common Core will be implemented statewide next year.
The English standards were designed to encourage preparation for the real world. Students would study more complicated texts and less fiction. They would write more papers making a case supported by evidence and fewer about personal experience or points of view.
Math standards focus less on the processes and tools involved in solving a problem and more on understanding how numbers work.
Some opponents to Common Core charge the standards amount to a national takeover of schools. They say it is an attempt to indoctrinate students into some sort of ideology backed by the administration of President Barack Obama. A Facebook page maintained by New Mexico opponents compares Common Core to Mao-era education in China.
The federal government had nothing to do with developing Common Core – the states’ governors and school chiefs did – but the federal Education Department has embraced the standards and has provided grants to states that want to adopt Common Core or even more rigorous standards of their own.
Support for Common Core created some strange bedfellows. The liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council were in favor. Potential Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and President Obama are supporters. So are the American Federation of Teachers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Marjori Krebs, an associate professor of education at the University of New Mexico, calls Common Core “an important step in the right direction.” Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein said, “I have been personally and professionally a fan of the standards,” although some of her union’s members are not. Tony Monfiletto, executive director of the New Mexico Center for School Leadership, said, “It’s a great opportunity to make standards that are relevant to kids’ learning.”
They also have some reservations about Common Core. More on that in a bit.
Most states adopted Common Core standards. At one point, 45 states and the District of Columbia had committed to building curricula and testing programs in support of the standards.
New Mexico was an early and enthusiastic supporter. Gov. Bill Richardson applied for federal grants to implement Common Core in his last year in office. The Martinez administration has been working to implement Common Core statewide ever since. New Mexico is one 13 states collaborating to develop the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, designed to track how well students are meeting Common Core standards.
State support has been eroding, however. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, for one, who supported Common Core in the past, said he wants to end his state’s participation to retain more local control. Skeptics say Jindal’s change of heart has more to do with his presidential ambitions than education as conservative voters become more leery of the idea of a national standard for education.
South Carolina and Indiana also have withdrawn their support on grounds that local control of schools would be diminished.
At the other end of the political spectrum, opponents object that Common Core advances a business agenda more than an educational one. They point to the involvement of Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s foundation in supporting Common Core. Not only did the foundation help pay for development of the standards, but The Washington Post reported it spent more than $200 million building political support for Common Core.
A change of this magnitude creates a multibillion-dollar opportunity for vendors of testing systems, curricula, computers, software and textbooks. Albuquerque Public Schools two years ago estimated that implementing the PARCC testing system would require a $39 million computer system upgrade. Opponents say Common Core is a windfall for companies like Pearson, which designs standardized tests, and McGraw-Hill, which publishes textbooks.
Classroom teachers and education experts have legitimate concerns that the new standards are not an improvement. Some English language arts teachers disagree with Common Core’s entire approach, especially the reduced role that fiction plays in learning.
Much of the local objection concerns not the philosophy of Common Core but its implementation.
Krebs worries that because the new testing is computer-based, the approach will favor students who have computer skills and better experience using computers.
Teachers are being asked to take on a lot of big changes all at once, she said. They are going to need professional development opportunities to handle those changes. Local school districts may not be able to provide those opportunities, given the cost.
“The question is, are the standards esoteric, distant standards that are not relevant to what this community needs?” Monfiletto said. Curricula developed in New Mexico should tap “local wisdom here about what it means to transition into work.” Instead, he said, districts will likely buy curricula developed by national companies and miss the chance to understand what local employers need their future employees to know.
Bernstein said the whole process has been rushed. New curricula, new tests and new testing infrastructure are a lot to take on all at once. Then teachers and schools are going to be evaluated on students’ ability not only to learn a new curriculum but to take a new test in a new way, she said.
“No one is trying to shirk accountability,” she said. “You can’t change everything about the fabric of American education and attach it to automatic punishment (of teachers and schools) if you don’t get it right the first time.”
“You have to allow time for the system to learn and change,” Bernstein said.