The Common Core conundrum

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

A lot’s been happening with Common Core this past couple of weeks.

It started June 8, when a panel appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and led by Lt. Governor Tim Griffin recommended that the state dump the end-of-the-year PARCC exam, meant to compare Arkansas with a dwindling number of other states, and instead use one offered by the more familiar ACT. Hutchinson accepted the recommendation, and Education Commissioner Johnny Key and his Department of Education began moving in that direction. After a legislative session in which Hutchinson got almost everything he wanted, it seemed like a done deal.

Only it wasn’t. The actual decision maker, the State Board of Education, which five years ago approved Arkansas’ inclusion in the movement, said no on June 11. Board members said they needed more time and more data before they could approve such a change.

So was that it? No. Legislators, many of whom don’t like PARCC, can use the power of the purse to block future testing contracts. Then on June 22, Hutchinson directed the Department of Education to dump PARCC because Key had found a provision in a five-year-old memorandum which seemed to give him the ability to do that.

So now, we’re back where we started, which is stuck in the middle of a major societal change a lot of people oppose or at least like to complain about.

How did we get here? The Common Core is not a curriculum. It’s a set of common standards in math and English adopted by all but a handful of states – Texas, of course, being one of them. The thinking is that, in a mobile society competing in a global economy, students across America ought to know roughly the same things at roughly the same times.

Birthed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core partly was a reaction to No Child Left Behind. That’s the law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 requiring every single American student – regardless of mental ability or English fluency – to be at least average by now, with the federal government empowered to financially punish schools who don’t meet that goal.

Sounds crazy? There’s more. No Child Left Behind let states define their own standards, which resulted, not surprisingly, in a lot of easy ones. In Arkansas, 83 percent of fourth-graders in 2014 tested at least “proficient” on the state’s Benchmark exam, which PARCC replaced this year. But the National Assessment of Educational Progress, another test given to a sample of students nationwide and generally considered trustworthy, found that only 32 percent of Arkansas fourth-graders were proficient.

That’s a 51-point swing. When we test and grade ourselves knowing we have a financial interest at stake, we give ourselves high marks. When an outside source tests and grades us, we do poorly. That’s why we might need some form of common goals measured by an objective assessment.

The conundrum, of course, is how to do that while still maintaining local school district autonomy and independence. Common Core was supposed to be the answer, but people still distrusted it, and then of course the Obama administration started handing out grants, and with grants come rules, and with rules comes control. And that, understandably, concerns a lot of people.

Part of the problem is the way Common Core was adopted – by a little-noticed vote of the State Board of Education in 2010. This was a major change in the way students are educated, and yet few Arkansans had heard much about it until kids started bringing home math problems their parents couldn’t figure out. Some people got concerned and others got plain mad, and political leaders reacted accordingly. The PARCC test became a target, and ending Arkansas’ participation in it might help let off a little steam.

This country is such a mess right now that it can be a little discouraging, can’t it? Many problems are so obvious that we can hardly argue about their existence. We know our schools aren’t good enough. We know our immigration system is a failure. Our health care system has been on an unsustainable path for decades. We know it’s wrong to keep adding to the national debt. And yet we can’t ever seem to decide where we are going, make a plan and get the car in gear.

What gear is Arkansas in regarding Common Core? Stuck in PARCC, for now.

2 thoughts on “The Common Core conundrum

  1. A lot of us were hoping that Hutchinson would transcend the path of partisan conservative Republican politics. His crowd just doesn’t like anything that remotely has Obama’s name attached to it. This state has the third least educated citizens in the U.S. They have no aspiration to academic excellence. If the test is too hard, let’s find one that’s easier, then pat ourselves on the back. This is a hole that gets deeper all the time; there’s no climbing out of it ever.

  2. Well summarized, Steve. Especially the part about sub-standard state written curriculum and tests. It makes me ask myself the question, so who is the most damaged from sub-standard public education? Is it the wealthy or the poor?

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