By Joseph Rogan, Ed.D.
As we prepare to start a new academic year, the specter of a new presidential campaign season looms. Its issues are numerous, but one that just about all candidates have addressed is the future of the Common Core.
The Common Core identifies what students should learn about reading and mathematics from kindergarten through high school in order to better prepare them for college and careers. It does not provide enough detail to allow teachers to use it in planning instruction, but it does provide a foundation districts can use to create standards-aligned curriculum – planned course documents for each course and grade. If they are provided with training, and new books and materials that match their curricula, our teachers can create their units and lessons.
The Common Core is not necessarily an improvement, because previously there were no national standards to improve upon. However, researchers, such as Stanford University’s James Milgram, suggest that the new standards are an enormous improvement over the patchwork most states had in place. Some states like California, Florida Massachusetts, Tennessee and Minnesota had rigorous standards before the onset of the Common Core, but most had weak standards or none at all.
Despite what some presidential candidates claim, the Common Core was not developed by the federal government, and certainly was not the creation of President Barak Obama. In 2007 and 2008 – well before his election – the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers proposed the development of standards. The federal government played no role in their development. In fact, several national laws forbid such involvement.
Support came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It sprinkled about $150 million around the country to dozens of groups, such as the American Federation of Teachers ($4.4 million) and the National Education Association ($1 million), and organizations such as the Khan Academy ($4 million) to gain support for the Common Core.
The federal government did not mandate its adoption. Via the American Recovery and Restoration Act, it made $4.35 billion available to the states. To qualify for a share, states had to agree to develop rigorous college- and career-ready standards, but not necessarily the Common Core. Because it was available, most, like Pennsylvania, opted for the Common Core.
In 2013, 44 states and the District of Columbia did likewise. Twenty did so with modifications, thus evidencing that the federal government allowed flexibility. Minnesota, for example, adopted only the English standards.
Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia rejected it. Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina adopted it, but later withdrew. Missouri and North Carolina are in the process of withdrawing. In New Jersey, presidential candidate and Gov. Chris Christie wants to abandon the Common Core, but intends to keep its test. That should be fun.
Pennsylvania adopted the Common Core, and thus qualified for a $51 million federal grant. In 2014, after a mixed message that slowed curriculum development, the state replaced the Common Core with the Pennsylvania Academic Standards, mostly by changing the name on the cover of the document.
Despite all the noise, all of the states that rejected “Obamacore,” which they claimed was federal overreach, have adopted Common Core-like standards. In 2012, Alaska adopted standards that are almost identical to the Common Core. Nebraska rewrote its standards, of which about three quarters match the Common Core. According to research by Randy Boomer of the University of Texas, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills largely match the Common Core. Virginia’s standards are very similar. The New York Times determined that South Carolina’s new standards are 92 percent aligned with the Common Core.
In 2014, Indiana adopted new standards for English/Language Arts and Mathematics. Observers in that state see the Indiana Standards as the Common Core rebranded. Oklahoma adopted and then repealed and then allowed districts to use the Common Core if they met the state’s old standards. In three years, that state’s very frustrated teachers faced three sets of standards.
Now that they are presidential candidates, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have backed away from supporting the standards, thus underscoring that their positions have more to do with elections than education.
Demonstrating that the Common Core will be with us for the long run, the College Board is rewriting the Scholastic Aptitude Test to address it. Publishers of educational materials shifted to producing standards-aligned textbooks and materials, including those used in states like Texas. Even the very popular Khan Academy, which provides free online tutorials, is now focused on the Common Core.
According to an analysis completed by the Washington Post, except for Jeb Bush, all GOP candidates oppose the Common Core. However, if any of them win, he or she will have difficulty eliminating it, because, unlike the Affordable Care Act, it is not based in federal law. If a new president opts instead to close the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), the Common Core, which one way or another has been solidly ensconced in every state, will be unaffected because it is not a USDE sponsored program.
Instead, closing the department will eliminate special education, remedial reading and math programs for the poor and Pell grants for college students.
Joseph Rogan, Ed.D., is a professor of teacher education at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. Misericordia University ranks in the top tier of the Best Regional Universities – North category of U.S. News and World Report’s 2015 edition of Best Colleges and was designated a 2015 Best Northeastern College by the Princeton Review.