One of the hottest issues in State Houses this year was Common Core, national math and language arts standards released in 2010 and adopted by most states. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, this year more than 730 Common Core bills were introduced across the country — including 21 state proposals for repeal.
This week, we examine why these public school standards are still so controversial in the South. Today Sherrel Wheeler Stewart from WBHM in Birmingham explains the roots of the opposition and the challenges the standards face.
Legislative sessions have just ended in many states but mention the phrase “Common Core” in some circles and you’ll strike up a debate.
Some say the national standards control too much of what happens in a classroom. Others balk at the fact that in some states the standards are linked to federal grants. And some just find the national math and language arts standards released in 2010 too expensive and confusing.
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, this year more than 730 Common Core bills were introduced across the country — including 21 state proposals for repeal.
“If we’re spending millions and millions of dollars on commissions and standards, why can’t we just go back to the basics and say to the folks doing this stuff, just teach them how to read with comprehension. Teach them how to add and subtract,” says Omeria Scott, a Laurel, Miss. Democrat. In a spirited debate in the Mississippi Legislature, she encouraged lawmakers and educators to stay focused on learning.
A total of 31 Common Core bills were introduced in the Mississippi Legislature this year, including proposals to repeal the standards. Gov. Phil Bryant vetoed a repeal of the standard because he says they didn’t go far enough in ensuring the standards were not used in Mississippi Schools.
Southern historian Chriss Doss of Birmingham isn’t surprised by the anti-government sentiment.
“You will find the Southern region consistently being anti because of a national leader and also there is a general feeling that we don’t need that federal government involved in our local situation,” he says.
Alabama State School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice thinks it’s more than just federal involvement stirring opposition.
“I think that there is this fear that the federal government, under the current president, has a mission to do something sinister through education to change the minds and the values of children across the South,” says Bice.
This issue, he says, should be about improving education.
“We’re talking about mathematics. How do you take the variable X and politicize it? It’s a political agenda that is not just unique to Alabama.
So why is Common Core a flashpoint when formal assessments for education have been around for years? UAB Education Dean Debbie Voltz says it’s about perceptions and fear of setting a baseline of expectations.
“I think there is a fear among some that this could be a national takeover of the schools,” says Voltz. “People have concerns with the possible or what is perceived to be the loss of autonomy or local control.”
She says standards set as part of Common Core provide national consistency in education expectations.
“So if I moved from Alabama to California, I could expect at a minimum, the school system there would be attempting, at the baseline to meet these commonly accepted notions of what a student should be able to do,” says Voltz.
The Common Core grew out of a bi-partisan effort to make sure students graduated ready for college or career. Even some leaders involved in its creation have changed their minds or found themselves in heated debates. The National Council of Chief State School Officers is one of the organizations behind the standards. The group’s Executive Director Chris Minnich hears the concerns says he and encourages dialogue.
“The Common Core standards just say what kids should learn, not how they are taught,” Minnich says. “ Some of the legislative battles have been hard, but they’ve been good to make sure we’re having the right conversations about standards.”
The most important factor in the debate, Minnich says, is the students and their future.
Hear part two of our series: "Mississippi's Changes to Common Core"
“Whether it’s Common Core or any set of standards a state would have, I think the idea of making sure our kids graduate and are ready to go on to college or ready to go on to a career training program is really what we are about,” he says.
Excited students filed into the auditorium of Birmingham’s Bill Harris Arena for the graduation of the Woodlawn High School Class of 2015. Valedictorian Trey Hawkins and his classmates completed the Alabama College and Career Readiness Standards. State leaders say Alabama’s standards are even tougher than the Common Core. Trey said he’s ready for the future.
“It prepared me for more than just my academia and how I can stand in a classroom. It prepared me for a global economy,” he says, acknowledging what he learned in classrooms and school experiences.
Trey will attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. He plans to become a doctor, return to Birmingham and open up clinics in low-income neighborhoods. In his commencement address, he used the words of Dr. Seuss to set the stage for what lies ahead.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction. In a simple statement, Seuss has captured the fact that here we are today graduation, so from now on we will make our own choices and we will be the controllers of our own destinies,” he says.
And that’s exactly what supporters of Common Core want.
This report is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.