A couple of hundred people, including legislators who are members of the House and Senate Education committees and many who are not, gathered in a large conference room behind the Capitol Monday and Tuesday. They were there to discuss – you might even say "reconsider" – the Common Core State Standards.
Originally crafted by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the Common Core is a set of standards for English and math. They have been adopted by 45 states, including by Arkansas in 2010. There was not a lot of controversy at the time.
The goal is to provide a common set of expectations for most students in English and math, with states and schools maintaining the freedom to create curricula to meet those standards. The idea is that, in a society where people move around and where students compete internationally, children everywhere should learn what two plus two equals at about the same time. That way schools could be measured and compared.
Policymakers and schools in Arkansas have spent the past three years making the transition. Students in grades K-2 started using the Common Core year before last, while students in grades 3-8 did this past year. Next month, it moves to high school, and in 2014-15, students start testing.
That’s a big problem. It wasn’t until this year that the Department of Education, which has had its hands full recently, realized that few schools in Arkansas have enough internet bandwidth to administer the tests online, as they’re supposed to be done. There’s a workaround — including, if need be, paper and pencil — but Gov. Beebe has scrambled leaders in education and business to create a real solution. They say we need to increase the bandwidth for other reasons, which is true, but Common Core makes the problem urgent.
Testing is causing problems in other states, too. Arkansas is part of a consortium of states known as PARCC that is preparing the online tests. Several states – most recently Georgia on Monday – have pulled out of PARCC.
It’s only been lately that Common Core has begun attracting organized opposition, which is why legislators spent most of two long days hearing testimony from both sides.
The group Arkansas Against Common Core — and some legislators — say most of the country is adopting a new set of standards that have never been pilot-tested anywhere. Moreover, they say Common Core was hatched by the NGA, CCSSO, and others in a closed-door fashion and soon will lead to more federal control of education. Through No Child Left Behind, passed under President George W. Bush’s administration, Washington already has taken an unprecedented role in schools. They say Common Core continues that momentum. President Obama’s administration, which should have stayed out of this, encouraged states to adopt the Common Core by providing Race to the Top grants. Those were carrots. Soon may come the sticks.
The Department of Education and educational organizations, including two representing the state’s teachers, are definitely for it. The general consensus of the room, even among some opponents, was that, academically, the standards are better than Arkansas’ current frameworks. A former Teacher of the Year, an elementary principal, and other educators told legislators they like the standards. Supporters say they’re narrower but deeper than the current state frameworks, which try to cover too much material too superficially. They’re also better connected as a student moves from kindergarten through high school and into higher education.
The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce supports it, too, arguing that Arkansas’ current frameworks are not creating a well-educated workforce. If taxpayers are asked to spend about $10,000 per student per year, then Arkansas students should be compared accurately with those from other states. Otherwise, as the Chamber’s Randy Zook testified, we’re just giving ourselves and our students meaningless little trophies.
Education Commissioner Dr. Tom Kimbrell said Arkansas can change the standards and make them its own, a fact opponents dispute. Supposedly, the state could later get out. Opponents fear it won’t be able to.
The Legislature is not in session, so Monday and Tuesday were simply informational meetings. Legislators probably will not vote on this issue until they meet in regular session in 2015. By then, all students in Arkansas will be taught based on the Common Core.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.