Common Core approaches crossroad

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson says it made sense for the state to adopt Common Core because the math standards the state was developing independently looked a lot like the national standards. .
Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson says it made sense for the state to adopt Common Core because the math standards the state was developing independently looked a lot like the national standards. .

A special commission created by the state legislature and directed to examine Common Core, the politically contentious national rewrite of education standards, is ready to show its work.

The commission is spending this year redrawing the state’s blueprint for English and mathematics education. On Monday, it is set to present drafts of its work – and early findings.

Officially, it is the Academic Standards Review Commission, charged with producing a report that could shape how students across the state are educated. It’s also the state’s most visible result of a backlash against Common Core that swept North Carolina and many other states two years ago.

Common Core was a national, and in many ways tectonic, shift in education that, once in place, was deeply felt in classrooms and homes, requiring adjustments by teachers, students and parents and others who help children learn.

Some consider the changes frustrating for students, confusing for adults – and wrong.

Others say the standards lead to students’ deeper understanding of academic subjects.

Kim Burke, owner of a tutoring company in Garner, said she’s seen the damage up close.

“There’s not a person alive who can read Common Core from page to page and understand it,” she said. The standards were rushed into classrooms unprepared to handle such deep changes, Burke said. Teachers weren’t ready and schools didn’t have the textbooks they needed.

Teachers “had to learn Common Core right along with the kids,” she said. “Then they were expected to teach it.”

There’s not a person alive who can read Common Core from page to page and understand it.

Kim Burke, owner of a tutoring company in Garner

Common Core does have fans, particularly among those teachers who say it encourages problem-solving.

Joanna Schimizzi, a part-time biology teacher from Matthews, said the new standards encourage teacher collaboration across subjects. She worked with a math teacher and an English teacher on an assignment that required students to read and analyze a published research paper that outlined how decisions teenagers make affect their adult lives.

The standards were built so students can see their understanding grow, she said.

“Previously, students didn’t see their own trajectory – how do I get better at things?” she said. “These standards were built to layer on top of each other.”

Calls to scrap it

A few of the 46 states that adopted Common Core have modified the guidelines or moved to throw them out. Thirty-nine states “rebranded” it, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. North Carolina is one of two states using Common Core standards while they’re under review.

The state law that created the review commission says it should move to “replace Common Core,” though the details of the legislation also outline plans for the panel to review and “propose modifications.”

How far-reaching the commission’s work will be depends on the reaction from the appointed State Board of Education, which is the ultimate authority on making any changes. Another factor is what the state’s Department of Public Instruction, which is overseen by a statewide elected superintendent, recommends. DPI is performing its own, separate review, which it does every five years.

The review commission is made up of current and former school employees, state and local board of education members, a retired professor and a retired business executive. They have received letters and heard from opponents who want the state to scrap Common Core. One group, the N.C. Education Coalition presented alternative English and math standards to the commission reviewing Common Core.

Andre Peek, a former IBM executive who lives in Raleigh and is one of the commission’s co-chairmen, said that the commission is not set up to write all new guidelines for the state’s school children.

“Our view is we need to identify the problems,” he said. “Once we identify the problems, the State Board of Education will engage appropriate expertise to solve the problems.”

Support from business

Common Core has drawn critics that represent a range of political views. Nationally, liberal detractors have criticized the lack of public debate that accompanied adoption and the diversion of attention from childhood poverty and inequality concerns. Conservatives denounce Common Core as a federal intrusion into state education.

In North Carolina, it was conservatives’ push for changes that led to the commission’s birth.

The state’s business community strongly backs the standards, putting it at odds with its usual Republican allies.

The N.C. Chamber of Commerce is one of the steadiest Common Core supporters and views the standards as essential to preparing the future workforce.

It is leading a coalition called Hire Standards, NC that supports Common Core. About 70 business and education groups and companies are members, including the Cary-based software giant SAS, Red Hat and GlaxoSmithKline. Like other Common Core backers, businesses argue that the standards are key to students receiving an education on par with the best-educated peers in the U.S. and across the world.

Business support for Common Core shows the importance of “doing everything we can do to raise the bar, raise the rigor and raise the standards” as the state competes for jobs, said N.C. Chamber President Lew Ebert.

Teachers are speaking up for the standards, too. A letter to the commission from 18 math teachers emphasized that critical thinking is encouraged under Common Core.

“If the mission of public education is to truly ensure students are equipped to think critically and problem solve as self-reliant community members, which also prepares them for global citizenship, then the Common Core does this better than any alternative,” they wrote.

Path to standards

Common Core is not a curriculum – that is, it isn’t the textbooks, activities, and worksheets teachers use in classrooms everyday.

Rather, it is a detailed guide to the reading, writing and math skills and knowledge students should have by the time they finish each grade. It’s up to districts and teachers to decide how to get students to meet those goals – or standards.

The guidelines were developed under the sponsorship of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and were presented as the way to better prepare students for college and jobs. Math under Common Core emphasizes real-world problems and usage, and in English there is a greater focus on non-fiction or “informational texts.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, now president of the state school officers council, was in on a conversation about the potential for developing national standards in 2007, more than a year before work on them started. A concern early on was keeping a distance from the federal government over worries that its involvement would spark a debate about states’ rights, she said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson talks about the concepts behind Common Core's formation. But Common Core did become politicized and governors who once praised the guidelines have since distanced themselves or denounced the

But Common Core did become politicized and governors who once praised the guidelines have since distanced themselves or denounced them.

In the past two years, Atkinson has spent hours defending the standards against arguments that they are a federal mandate, they’re responsible for more testing, and that they are connected to massive collection of student data for nefarious purposes.

The federal government did not require that the states adopt the standards, but it did offer states extra points in a competition for millions in grants as part of a federal Race to the Top program. The points went to states that adopted “college- and career-ready standards.” States adopted Common Core in response.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, an architect, is the state’s highest-profile Common Core opponent. Forest objects to what he calls the “one size fits all” national standards, and says the state can come up with something better. He points to Massachusetts, which he says has the best math standards in the nation, and questions why North Carolina opted instead to go with the untried Common Core.

Lt. Dan Forest talks about his early involvement in Common Core in NC. Video by Chuck Liddy,

Atkinson said it made sense for North Carolina to adopt Common Core because the math standards the state had been developing at the time, independently, looked a lot like the national standards.

Unfunded mandate

While Common Core was one of the most debated education issues in the General Assembly last year, the state has hit a pause button in setting up the review commission process.

The commission operated without money for months, stifled by a lack of funding from lawmakers. Ambitious plans to solicit and receive broad public input, including gathering feedback online, have been unfulfilled.

“We didn’t get off to a great start, partly because we had a mandate that wasn’t funded,” said Peek, the co-chairman.

DPI shared results of its own teacher survey with the commission, and those helped, Peek said.

Members also collected and read other states’ standards, he said, and looked for their strengths. They are combing the national standards for descriptions that are unclear and can be rewritten.

In May, the commission sent its own questionnaire to superintendents to forward to English and math teachers, but it went out so late in the school year that commission members worried that recipients didn’t see them. They sent another round out in July and will follow up again next month.

One of the commission’s two employees has already left for another job.

These days, the only legislators who routinely check in on commission meetings are Republican Reps. Michael Speciale of New Bern and Larry Pittman of Kinston, two of the most conservative members in the House.

A small group of conservative critics has remained attentive, sitting in the front row at meetings and applauding as anti-Common Core advocates speak. They grumble when supporters talk.

A “coalition manager” for Hire Standards is at almost every meeting.

Andrea Dillon, a Holly Springs parent, is one of those who faithfully attends the commission’s monthly meetings. She writes for anti-Common Core blogs, including one run by the Civitas Institute in Raleigh. She attended an anti-Common Core event in Texas sponsored by conservative radio commentator and prominent national critic Glenn Beck.

Dillon, who has a son entering third grade, faults the standards for pushing advanced math concepts into early elementary grades.

She told the legislature last year that Common Core was a “flawed experiment.”

In one blog post, Dillon published a math instruction sheet that had been sent home with a student. Its purpose was to show parents how to help children with their homework.

She questioned why schools would adopt a process that she said has made it hard for parents to help teaching “basic addition and math.”

“I think that speaks volumes,” she said.

The commission’s final charge is to send its recommendations to the legislature and State Board of Education by the end of this year.

Academic Standards Review Commission


Tammy Covil, member of the New Hanover Board of Education

Andre Peek, retired IBM executive


Jeffrey Isenhour, high school principal, Catawba

Katie Lemons, high school English teacher, Stokes County

Denise Watts, learning community superintendent at Project L.I.F.T. in Charlotte

Ann B. Clark, Charlotte-Mecklenburg superintendent

Laurie McCollum, middle school assistant principal, Rockingham County

Jeannie Metcalf, vice chairwoman, Winston-Salem/Forsyth Board of Education

John T. “Ted” Scheik, retired math professor

Bill Cobey, State Board of Education chairman

Olivia Oxendine, State Board of Education member

Test yourself

Standards are not the same as curriculum. Standards are goals for student learning. The curriculum and instruction are how students achieve those goals. Curriculum is determined locally, and teachers put together their own lesson plans and decide their own activities.

Here is one of the standards for third grade math and a related sample activity provided by the state Department of Public Instruction.

Standard: Fluently multiply and divide within 100, using strategies such as the relationship between multiplication and division (e.g., knowing that 8 × 5 = 40, one knows 40 ÷ 5 = 8) or properties of operations. By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.

Materials: Paper, pencils, square tiles or other counters, activity sheet or grid paper, or one inch grid white boards and dry-erase markers (optional).

Task: CC Elementary has 40 third-graders. They are taking a field trip to a museum and want to have students in even groups during the tour. What groups could they make?

Use your tiles or grid paper to show a model of how they could make the groups. Draw a picture of your solutions. For each solution, write an equation.

Write a sentence to explain how you solved the problem.

Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction