Common Core Under Fire Again

... But Alaska, Kind of Doesn’t Use Common Core


Medium Grind – News and Analysis

A group of seven Republican legislators has requested a hearing to review whether or not Alaska’s Department of Education and Early Development has broken the law by expending funds related to Common Core education standards.

It’s the latest salvo in the battle against Common Core in Alaska. Forty-two states have adopted the standards, and Minnesota has adopted the literacy portion, leaving Alaska and six other states as the outliers against the system of standards. Several Alaska legislators have dug in deep against the standards, but as the written hearing request suggests, at least some of their rationale result from misunderstandings about the standards. The letter reads in part that the representatives are investigating expenditures for “ ... education curriculum standards established by the Common Core Standards Initiative.” That sentence is a conflation of two things that are not directly related. The Common Core established standards, but it contains no curriculum. Curriculum remains, as it always has been, in the hands of local districts and state boards of education. While it is true that curricula are in part driven by standards, it is up to each district and state to determine what curricula to use, and how to present them.

The greater confusion often centers around what the Common Core actually is, where it came from, and how it relates to education in Alaska. The initiative is actually the brainchild, and work product, of the National Governors Association, a bipartisan coalition of state governors. In the mid ‘90s states were moving toward standardized benchmarks for education. The NGA decided to pool the efforts of several states and develop a single set of standards to avoid duplication and to maximize efficiency and talent. The broad initiative was based on studies that demonstrated both universities and employers were not satisfied with the proficiency and basic knowledge of high school graduates.

The controversy began when the Obama administration reviewed the standards and found them useful enough to make them one of several requirements to receive certain federal education funds. From that moment on far right conservatives associated the standards with President Barack Obama, and declared that the standards are an effort to establish national curricula. Again, Common Core has no curriculum feature.

When the standards were rolled out then president of Alaska’s board of education Esther Cox attended an event where she said she was made to feel uncomfortable about the federal pressure to adopt Common Core. She came home and the board decided to go with Alaska’s own standards. A group of education professionals and others was assembled to tackle the task. The group looked for some good examples of standards to use as a starting point. The best they could find was Common Core. Ultimately the state’s standards ended up looking more than 90 percent like Common Core, and in the process Alaskans wasted hundreds of hours developing the state’s “own” standards, and Alaska passed on millions of federal education dollars – we’re still not receiving those funds.

Some Alaska legislators railed against the state’s standards as simply Common Core on different letterhead, which they essentially are. A provision was added to Gov. Sean Parnell’s education omnibus bill in 2014 that forbade DEED from spending money on “ ... education curriculum standards established by the Common Core Standards Initiative ... ” It inevitably set up the current trap. If the state’s own standards are very similar to the Common Core, and to the standards used by at least 43 other states, it’s virtually impossible for DEED to expend money for curriculum without (at least seemingly) breaking the law.

So, what’s so scary about the Common Core?

Here are a few examples taken from the standards:

For Second Grade, under Reading and Literature:

Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.

Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.

Describe the overall structure of a story, including describing how the beginning introduces the story and the ending concludes the action

For Third Grade Math:

Understand division as an unknown-factor problem. For example, find 32 ÷ 8 by finding the number that makes 32 when multiplied by 8.

Solve two-step word problems using the four operations. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

These are not alien or subversive concepts. What’s different is that when the NGA decided to work together to create standards, the benchmarking process was new, but the educational material, and the point of education remained the same. Nobody is arguing that kids shouldn’t be educated, but rather people are battling over how to measure whether or not education is working – and that’s all Common Core is. Former DEED commissioner Mike Hanley said it was hard for him to imagine how to write any set of standards that would differ significantly from Common Core. How do you rewrite a standard that requires the legible writing of lower and upper case letters, for instance?

Grinder News neither defends nor criticizes Common Core per se. Every measurement approach is going to have its benefits and drawbacks, but it makes sense to measure how well students are doing. The questions that matter most here are why do these legislators want to nail DEED for breaking the law? Do they have evidence that the curricula being used cause harm? Is it because they think Common Core is a federal strategy to interfere in local school districts? Do they have the support of educators around the state to move to some other curricula, based on some other standards? What are those standards, and how do they differ from Common Core?

In the end it seems like yet another political distraction from the monumental task at hand to close the state’s $3.8 billion fiscal gap. Useful or not, the hearing should prove to be entertaining.

The Legislators who signed the request are:

Rep. Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole), Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla), Rep. Lance Pruitt (R-Anchorage), Rep. Cathy Tilton (R-Wasilla), Rep. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer), Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux (R-Anchorage) and Rep. Jim Colver (R-Palmer).