The Governor’s Council on Common Core Review didn’t drop any bombshells when it announced its recommendations July 30. It had already made its mark when it pre-recommended in June that Arkansas join the many states exiting the year-end PARCC exam, which Arkansas has since done.
But while the Council may have calmed the waters, which was part of its purpose, the conflict will continue. That’s because the Common Core debate isn’t just about what schools teach, which would be important enough. It also reflects the country’s fundamental divisions.
The Common Core is a set of math and language standards adopted by most states – standards meaning “what students should know” but supposedly not “how teachers should teach.” It was originally proposed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers as a way to create consistency and comparability among the nation’s schools. The State Board of Education adopted the standards in Arkansas in 2010 without much public discussion, which is part of the problem.
The Common Core partly was a reaction to No Child Left Behind, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. That law gave the federal government the ability to punish schools if their students weren’t proficient but then let states create their own definitions of proficiency – and their own tests. Because states had a financial interest in their students being “proficient,” the result was a wide variety of standards that often weren’t very rigorous.
The 17-member Council, chaired by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, commendably held more than 40 hours of hearings and also hosted public meetings in nine cities. It eventually produced six pages of findings and recommendations. Among the council’s assertions is that “a significant majority of educators generally approve” of the Common Core and that educators “are almost unanimous” in the belief that the Common Core is better than Arkansas’ previous standards.
So what are the problems? Among them are a lack of communication between policymakers and the public, and uneven implementation among the state’s school districts. The Council reported that common criticisms of the standards ranged from “well-founded to completely baseless” and often pertained to issues not actually mandated by the Common Core. For example, those weird math problems that have frustrated so many parents are part of a teaching method that complies with Common Core but isn’t required by it.
Among the Council’s recommendations is that the Department of Education continue studying the issue, which it was already doing, that the standards remain under Arkansas’ control, and that they be fluid and changeable.
Will 40 hours of hearings, nine public meetings, and the slaying of PARCC turn down the heat on this issue? Probably some. A public discussion finally has been had. The longer these are the standards, the more entrenched they will become.
On the other hand, the Common Core controversy isn’t just about the Common Core. Instead, the controversy is really about the country’s division, dysfunction and distrust. These days, any national policy effort, even one originating outside the federal government, will be treated skeptically by many. That’s understandable because power tends to centralize. What begins as a voluntary effort by states could become a federal government mandate.
So the divide over Common Core is about educational standards, but it’s also about Obamacare and President Obama, who had little to do with the Common Core until he expressed support for it and his Department of Education unfortunately started handing out grants to encourage it. It’s about the Confederate flag and Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner and all the other things we’re fighting about. Really, if there’s been a federal school takeover, it happened when Bush signed No Child Left Behind. But that occurred early in his administration, a few months after the September 11 attacks, when the country was relatively unified and its attention focused on external enemies.
The Council has finished its work. We still have the Common Core standards, which are probably better than what we had. We have a less intrusive year-end test. We still have a lot of distrust.
And we still have educators trying to do their jobs in the midst of an ongoing education controversy that’s about a lot more than education. School starts this month.