Maybe the problem is in the name: something that sounds so bland just has to be sinister. From Michigan to Tennessee, conservative groups are mobilizing against Common Core, the new K-12 education standards that spell out what students at each grade level should know in math and English. Until earlier this year, all but four states had agreed to adopt these new achievement goals. Now, in the face of a grassroots backlash against the standards, Michigan and Indiana have paused implementation of Common Core, Ohio is considering a halt, and efforts are afoot in other states to do the same. Arkansas is one of them.
The first thing to understand about Common Core is that it is not a curriculum. The standards dictate to states and school districts not what material to teach but rather the skills students should be able to demonstrate — for example, a fifth grade student should be able to multiply fractions, and an eighth grader should be able to identify gerunds and infinitives. If we imagine a teacher as a chef and the week's lessons as a menu, Common Core would be the equivalent of the food pyramid. The standards don't tell teachers what meals to serve; they just describe the outline of a healthy diet.
Arkansas already has a set of such guidelines, which the state Department of Education (ADE) calls the "Curriculum Framework." But there's widespread bipartisan agreement that our standards need to be more rigorous. Standards should also be the same across state lines to allow for accurate comparison of student performance — if Algebra I end-of-course tests in Massachusetts and Arkansas shoot for different objectives, it's meaningless to compare data between the two states. This is the point of Common Core, which asks students of each grade to demonstrate more advanced skills than Arkansas currently demands. ADE began to replace the old Framework with Core standards in 2011-12 and the change will be complete across all K-12 classrooms by this fall. Teachers have been trained in the new standards statewide, but for most veteran educators this is less of a sea change than a shift in what to emphasize — not a new menu, simply an adjusted one.
So why are Michigan and Indiana now hesitating? And why, at the Education Committee's interim July meeting — normally a sleepy time of the year, legislatively speaking — was the Arkansas Capitol's largest committee room packed with dozens of parents and other activists wearing "STOP COMMON CORE" buttons?
There are valid concerns about the way Common Core is being rolled out. First, Arkansas faces logistical problems with administering new computer-based Core-aligned tests because many rural districts possess insufficient Internet bandwidth to administer online exams. Second, more rigorous targets in themselves do little to help those students already failing to meet the state's current Framework standards, who are overwhelmingly poor and minority children. At the July meeting, Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) argued the standards would "lift the bar higher for kids who can't meet the bar where it is now." Finally, and most importantly, Core standards are intimately tied to the martial regimen of exams required by No Child Left Behind and championed by education reformers. That's the "standardized" part in "standardized tests." However, Common Core itself does not increase the testing burden on students or affect how teachers are evaluated, which is one reason teachers' unions have supported the policy. "Evaluations are a different question than Common Core itself," said E.C. Walker, the interim director of the Arkansas Education Association (AEA).
But to explain the current wave of opposition, you have to look to Glenn Beck. The right wing entertainer is fighting his own slide into irrelevance by fostering a crusade demonizing Common Core as a federal takeover of public education. Common Core "nationalizes" what kids should know, he says, despite the fact that this is a state initiative, not a federal one. "Your kids are going to be poked and prodded like in '1984,' " Beck has told parents on his radio show, warning of iris scans, leftist indoctrination, and "computers monitoring their facial expressions." The claims are preposterous, but the message resonates with conservatives suspicious of big government.