Common Core under fire by area’s reps

State and federal legislation aims to put the brakes on the Common Core curriculum standards even as Ohio schools are getting ready to start their first year under the recently controversial program.

The Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the stated goal of clearly establishing what is expected of students in math and English language arts at each grade level. In the works for a couple of years, the standards have started to draw criticism from people who question their effectiveness and the federal government’s role in the process, among other issues.

“This feels more like not just a Race to the Top, but a governing down from the top and a cookie-cutter approach to education,” said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta.

Thompson is working on a bill that would declare void any actions taken to adopt or implement the Common Core math and English language arts standards the Ohio Department of Education approved in 2010. Meanwhile, Congressman Bill Johnson, R-Ohio and a fellow Marietta resident, co-sponsored the Defending State Authority Over Education Act of 2013, which would have barred the federal Education Department from encouraging states to enact the curriculum.

“How can people sitting inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C. know what our students need?” Johnson said.

Ohio’s Board of Education agreed to the standards in 2010 by unanimous vote. But Thompson said the standards weren’t completed at that time and the decision was made to adopt them because of the large amount of federal funding attached through the Race to the Top program.

“It was a real, kind of poorly handled rush job,” he said. “The goal of my bill is to provoke this conversation that was never had.”

John Charlton, associate director of communications for the Ohio Department of Education, said the standards were still being developed at that time, but state officials were involved with that development. The department conducted studies and held regional meetings to get feedback from stakeholders to make sure the Common Core standards were a good fit for the state, he said.

“It’s not like (they) just said, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea. Let’s adopt them,'” Charlton said.

Thompson also questioned whether the standards really represent an improvement over what is in place now. A mathematician on the Common Core validation committee is among those who have said at least some of the standards are a step back.

Charlton said the new standards are more rigorous than the current ones.

“There are fewer standards, but that allows teachers to … go more in-depth into certain topics and areas and allows them to encourage critical thinking,” he said.

Charlton said he could not comment on the legislation, since it has not been introduced, but the Department of Education is moving forward with the implementation of the curriculum standards this year and new assessments for 2014-15.

Asked for Gov. John Kasich’s position on the bill, spokesman Rob Nichols said in an email Wednesday that “over the course of a General Assembly session, there are roughly a thousand bills that are introduced, and we don’t take a public position on each and every one of them.”

As for the governor’s thoughts on Common Core, Nichols said raising standards is essential to preparing “our children for brighter futures, just as we must always stand up for Ohio’s tradition of local, independent, sovereign schools and the rights of parents and students.”

A recent article in The Newark Advocate quoted Kasich as saying he does not expect the bill to make it to his desk.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core standards, but resistance to them has grown in recent months. Indiana passed legislation to “pause” implementation for public hearings and lawmakers in Michigan blocking funding for the implementation there.

In Congress, the Student Success Act was approved last week by the House with all Democrats and 12 Republicans opposed. It would dismantle the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law and eliminate federally required testing of students. Language from the bill co-sponsored by Johnson was also included to prohibit the education secretary from imposing conditions on states in exchange for waivers of federal law, like No Child Left Behind, or encouraging states to put Common Core in place.

“We should not be tying funding to standards that are forced upon our states and local school boards,” Johnson said. “The legislation provides the states with the flexibility they’re going to need to develop (the curriculum) students need.”

The Democratic-controlled Senate is working on its own bill. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, continues to support Common Core, a spokesman said.

“The Common Core represents a common-sense, bipartisan and state-based approach to ensuring that all children succeed in school,” said Yianni Varonis, with Brown’s office. “After careful consideration, the Ohio Department of Education decided to join the overwhelming majority of states in adopting this curriculum which helps ensure that all children can meet the challenges of a competitive, global economy.”

Wolf Creek Local Superintendent Bob Caldwell said he’s had concerns about Common Core since it was first introduced and some of those remain. However, he questioned the timing of the push to stop it now that schools are ready to move forward.

“We’re going to lose a pretty substantial tax base to Wolf Creek,” he said, referring to the impending closure of the last generator at AEP’s Muskingum River Power Plant. “Change Common Core mid-stream, and you’re going to add another expense.”

While Caldwell questions the federal government’s denial of its role in pushing Common Core, he said it does not restrict what can be taught in the classroom, as some critics suggest.

“There is absolutely nothing that’s in Common Core that requires you to not teach something,” he said. “You just have to teach certain things.”

Dion Prunty, a sixth-grade science and language arts teacher at Marietta Middle School and president of the Marietta City Education Association, said many topics can be matched with Common Core requirements. However, if it comes down to a time crunch, teachers would likely drop components that aren’t part of the standards because 50 percent of their evaluations will be based on students’ performance on standardized tests based on Common Core requirements.

“I think most teachers probably will (teach additional content), but basically your job depends on how well they know the Common Core,” she said.

Caldwell said those tests aren’t intended to be the deciding factor in whether a teacher keeps a job.

“It’s not supposed to be for employment. It’s supposed to be for improvement,” he said.

Another criticism leveled at the Common Core is that the related testing will require students to submit excessive information about themselves and their families.

“How is it going to be used against us?” asked Johnson, referring to recent scandals involving information-gathering by the IRS and National Security Agency.

But Charlton said Ohio does not and will not provide data to the federal government that allows students to be identified and won’t sell such data to businesses either.

“We don’t even have student names at the Department of Education,” he said.

Johnson is holding a series of education town halls in the district, with one scheduled for 10 a.m.Aug. 6, at the Washington County Career Center. He expects Common Core will be one of the topics residents wish to discuss.