News Story

Examining The Issues Surrounding Common Core

Concerns over control, structure and parental involvement surround national education standards plan

Common Core, a set of education standards that reportedly would bring uniformity to school curriculums across the nation, passed the Michigan House on Thursday.

The “Common Core Concurrent Resolution,” (HCR 11) passed on an 85-21 vote. A Senate committee hearing on the measure is expected this week.

According to the state Legislative Service Bureau, HCR 11 would: "authorize the State Board of Education and the Michigan Department of Education to move forward to expend resources to implement the use of the Common Core State Standards so long as the conditions of this resolution can be met."

Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan Education Association and the pro-schools-of-choice Great Lakes Education Project, among others, support the Common Core standards. But the issue remains contentious for many.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and chairman of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, and Michael J. Petrelli, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who specializes in education, wrote recently in the Detroit Free Press that Common Core was good for conservatives. 

"We understand that many conservatives are justifiably angry about the inappropriate role the Obama administration has played in encouraging the adoption of the Common Core through its Race to the Top program," they wrote in the Free Press. "But the standards were developed by the states, and implementation is unquestionably a state effort, not a federal one."

Finn and Petrelli said there were six key reasons why conservatives should support Common Core: fiscal responsibility, accountability, school choice, competitiveness, innovation and traditional education values. 

In particular, they argued that Common Core is not a federal takeover and allows states to continue to control their own destiny.

"(I)nformation that comes from standards-based testing gives parents a common yardstick with which to judge schools," they wrote. "In the end, Common Core is not a national curriculum — the standards were written by governors and local education officials."

But not everyone agrees, including other conservatives in Michigan. 

Michigan Capitol Confidential asked four individuals who are engaged in the state's Common Core debate for their commentary on the issue. They are: former State Board of Education candidate Melanie Kurdys; Gary Naeyaert, Executive Director of GLEP; Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills; and Andy Solon, Michigan State Director of StudentsFirst.

The responses of Kurdys and Rep. McMillin, who have serious concerns about Common Core, are alternately listed with those of Naeyaert and Solon who support it.

Melanie Kurdys

What is Common Core?

"Simplistically, Common Core is a set of standards and assessments that define what students should know and be able to do at each grade level Kindergarten through 12th grade in Math and English Language Arts (ELA - reading and writing). The complexity comes in when you look at how the standards and assessments were developed, the content of the standards themselves, the aligned teacher supports and the control factor of the assessments.

"First, let's talk about how the standards were developed. All states were required to develop K-12 standards and assessments in the No Child Left Behind law. Some states did a better job than others as documented by The Fordham Institute in its 2010 analysis. Basically, as a country, we had a 10-plus year base of experience from 50 different states to look at to find standards and assessments that worked, which might be used to develop a national model.

"Instead, five people of questionable credentials got together and wrote standards pretty much from scratch with a bunch of new ideas that had never been used in practice to establish a base of evidence. They then set up a series of committees for 'validation and review,' using a process that has no published documentation, such as meeting minutes. Many qualified reviewers refused to approve the standards, including Dr. Sandra Stotsky and Dr. James Milgram. Although others have approved the standards, no one has yet made public any evidence that these new ideas will improve student achievement. At best, as MSU Prof. William Schmidt claims, they 'may' improve student achievement. No one has signed off on the assessments yet because they are still being developed. Bottom line: Common Core Standards are a massive education experiment."

Gary Naeyaert

What is Common Core?

"The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states, provide a national framework for organizing the basic standards and expectations all Americans have for their children's public education. You can think of it as an inventory list, and the list defines where certain content will be learned by students. For instance, students should learn addition and subtraction before they tackle division and multiplication. The standards provide consistent K-12 expectations about what students are expected to learn at each grade level to be on track for college or career after high school. It is important to note this was an effort that began and remained a work of the states and not a ‘top down’ federal overreach.

"In addition to setting the framework for expectations, we need to utilize ‘next generation’ testing assessments that are both aligned to the Common Core but also measure individual student growth. In between setting the standards and assessing their performance is the most important part of the equation, which is a focus on innovative teaching and learning that helps every student grow in proficiency to be ready for college or meaningful careers after high school. Which materials are used and how teaching is conducted is left to the local school district, teachers and parents."

Rep. Tom McMillin

What Is Common Core?

“Common Core Standards are a list, by grade level, of specific educational concepts for math and English language that each child is expected to understand and accomplish. Common Core is owned and copyrighted by a private trade association, the National Governors Association."

Andy Solon

What is Common Core?

"The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) represents a state-led effort to acknowledge and close learning gaps by holding students to academically challenging, rigorous expectations on par with their international peers.

"Developed by teachers and content experts, the standards cover career and college readiness expectations for all high school graduates and grade-level expectations for kindergarten through 12th grade. Common Core seeks to ensure that all students, regardless of the location or size of their district, will graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in an increasingly competitive global economy."

Andy Solon

Why is the Common Core good for Michigan?

"First of all, they create clear, rigorous expectations for students, teachers and schools. This year, Michigan will spend about $13 billion on education — the largest single state expenditure. If Common Core is implemented properly, it will help ensure that the investment of taxpayers and families generates a valuable return, a world-class education for all students in Michigan. Common standards will allow us to compare districts, schools, and classrooms and determine whether they are truly providing the education our kids deserve.

“Additionally, they will prepare our students to succeed against international competition. While other countries, particularly China, are getting stronger, the U.S. is sitting stagnant. This is largely due to the shortcomings of our education system. Common Core will hold our students to rigorous academic expectations that will prepare them to be successful against their peers around the globe. The enormously varied, inconsistent academic standards currently in place in Michigan make no such guarantee."

Rep. Tom McMillin

What are your concerns about Common Core?

"My biggest problem with [it] is that we, in Michigan, don't control the content of the standards. Back in 2010 when Common Core was finalized, the leaders of the effort declared the importance of deciding on a governing structure; how changes to the standards would be made. They purposefully have not decided, because when they do, it will be very clear that states are not in control of the standards taught in each of their schools. So at this point, Michigan and 44 other states have agreed to this nationalization of our education system.

"There are many other problems with Common Core. The standards are not age appropriate in earlier years, especially K-3. They are greatly reducing the amount of classical literature students will be expected to read. Parts of it, like geometry, are just very illogical and confusing. Also, the Common Core testing is financed and overseen by the federal government and is very much about data collection and data mining.

"The favorite mantra of Common Core supporters is that it isn't curriculum. If that were true, then why are school districts all buying new Common Core-aligned curriculum? Further, when you tie Common Core with the federally financed, national tests that are specifically aligned to the standards, then you clearly are dictating curriculum. Teaching to the test is a fact, especially when the stakes like the grading and evaluating of teachers, schools, districts and states are high."

Gary Naeyaert

Why is the Common Core good for Michigan?

"The results we're getting in public education are underwhelming, especially when you consider that roughly 60 percent of K-8 students are proficient and less than 20 percent of our high school graduates are prepared for success in college. We need to make some serious changes in public education to turn this ship in the right direction. Despite being in the top half of all states in terms of funding for public education, Michigan ranks near the bottom for academic performance. We're producing below average students, in a below average state, in a below average country. We have much work to do, and setting standards alone isn't going to improve our results.

"Adopting the Common Core is a good first step, but we need more. We need to utilize next generation testing and assessment to measure individual student growth and provide actionable information that informs classroom instruction. Michigan also needs a fair teacher evaluation system that rewards the highest flyers and removes chronically failing teachers from the classroom.

"We should also end the practice of 'social promotion' so that students do not go on to 4th grade unless they are reading at a 3rd grade level. With the right data we can scrap the 'Rainbow Report Card' used by the Michigan Department of Education to rate schools and replace it with a simple A-F letter grade that focused on student performance and growth. All of these reforms are necessary, and building off the foundation of the Common Core State Standards is a good place to start."

Melanie Kurdys

What are your concerns about Common Core?

"Common Core Standards and Assessments will not improve student achievement in Michigan and may be detrimental to our children. We are asked to defer to the 'educational experts,' but many of them disagree. We usually defer to the 'medical experts,' but we are familiar with the rigorous processes in medicine to test new ideas before they become widely used. Experiments involve control groups, patient options on whether or not to participate, carefully evaluated outcomes, and long-term studies. None of these are present in the implementation of Common Core.

"Research shows two things consistently overcome all hurdles to improve student achievement: engaged parents and excellent teachers. Common Core disengages parents. The new standards were approved without parental involvement. In fact, Achieve CEO Michael Cohen admitted in Michigan testimony that the standards were not written with parents in mind. The new teaching methods put parents in the awkward position of not even being able to help elementary students with their homework. Efforts to engage teachers and administrators in conversations about Common Core are responded to with icy stares, brick walls and an occasional expulsion of the parent. Excellent teachers who have been using effective educational strategies for years are being forced to change. Their professional judgment is disregarded, even ridiculed.

"Over 500 early childhood professionals have signed a letter indicating the Common Core K-3 standards are developmentally inappropriate.

"There are many other concerns with Common Core, including student data privacy, the move to measure student values, attitudes and beliefs, the increased role of the federal government in the education of Michigan children, the high cost of implementation and on-going support, the underlying political message in the new materials and the lack of transparency to the process are all valid (concerns) and must be addressed."

(Editor's note: This article has been edited since its original posting. More information about the Common Core debate was added.)

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.