A battle is brewing on the education reform front over Indiana’s embrace of Common Core – a set of math and English standards being implemented across the country to govern what is taught and tested from kindergarten to Grade 12.
The debate is half policy, half politics. On both counts Indiana officials’ defense of the Core is perplexing.
Leading policy experts on standards and curriculum have questioned why Indiana would abandon its previous standards, which were ranked among the best in the country.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a champion of Common Core, has called Indiana’s English and Language Arts standards “clearly superior” and our math standards of comparable quality. Nationally known reform expert Sandra Stotsky says Indiana traded in a “silk purse for a sow’s ear” when education officials adopted the Core’s high-school English standards.
As for the politics, conservatives worry that the shift to national standards by 46 states – albeit voluntary – is a step toward centrally controlled curriculum. As evidence, they note that the Obama administration has used participation in Common Core as a condition for states seeking federal Race to the Top funds and waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act.
The Coalition of Central Indiana Tea Parties wants Indiana to withdraw from what it calls “the unconstitutional federal education takeover.”
And yet, Gov. Mitch Daniels and State School Superintendent Tony Bennett, themselves advocates of conservative principles, are among Common Core’s staunch supporters.
Bennett insists the new standards are an improvement over what Indiana previously had because they are “fewer, clearer, deeper.” He rejects the notion of a federal takeover calling the Core a collaborative effort by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. “We didn’t give up state control,” he says.
Further, Bennett says, Common Core finally makes it possible for Indiana to see how students stack up against peers from other states. Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, the English and math sections of ISTEP (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress) and End-of-Course Assessments in high school will be replaced by a new test called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) being developed by a consortium of 26 states.
“We have become a society of comparisons. How can we do that if we’re not all agreeing to speak the same language?” Bennett says.
To critics, this smacks of national curriculum. During the 2012 Legislature, Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, authored a bill that would have required Indiana to withdraw from the Common Core initiative. The bill was defeated 6-4 in the Senate Education Committee, but since then the Pioneer Institute and conservative American Principles Project released a major study opposing Common Core for “mediocre quality” and “vague and unaccountable governance.”
“All around the country backlash is occurring belatedly because of the speed and manner in which these were adopted,” says Heather Crossin, an Indianapolis citizen-activist involved in education issues. “It didn’t go through a legislature. The public was largely unaware. There wasn’t enough time to do a proper analysis the issues deserve.”
In a recent interview, Bennett held firm in his support of Common Core and blamed “people from outside our state” for fanning the opposition. The State Board of Education adopted the Common Core on Aug. 3, 2010, following the exact same process it used to enact the previous standards, he said. “We adopted them because, frankly, we liked them.”
All but four states have adopted Common Core. Alaska refused because of concerns about costs and federal mandates. Minnesota officials opted out because they felt their own math standards were superior. Virginia liked its standards better too. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry wouldn’t obligate taxpayers “to unfunded federal obligations or to the adoption of unproven, cost-prohibitive national standards and tests.”
That kind of rhetoric is catching on in Indiana now that folks are finding out the details of Common Core. Supporters can argue until they’re blue in the face, but they will not convince critics their initiative is anything but a one-size-fits-all national curriculum.
Also seen in Journal Review Online, Star Press, and Indianapolis Star.