“If you align yourself with other states,” said Stiefel, superintendent of Calhoun County Schools, “that means our students can compete with students in any other part of the country.”
Stiefel may get her wish today, when the State Board of Education convenes in Montgomery to consider discarding its old academic standards in math and reading in favor of the Common Core Standards — a set of academic standards that was created by a multi-state consortium of education experts and is already in place in 38 states.
Advocates of the new standards say the move would offer a number of advantages to Alabama schools — keeping Alabama students up to speed with their neighbors, making it easier for teachers to share ideas across state lines, and possibly helping states save money on textbooks and lesson plans.
The push for common standards is years in the making. Over the past decade, as schools have become more driven by test results, teachers have faced more pressure to show how their lessons meet state standards. With each state setting its own standards, sharing ideas across state lines became problematic — an issue that slowly worked its way up educators’ list of pet peeves.
“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel 50 times,” Stiefel noted.
In recent weeks, though, the idea of adopting Common Core Standards has faced growing opposition. Tea Party groups within the state have issued statements opposing the change as a federal power grab — a sentiment echoed by some members of the State Board of Education.
“I’m against giving up our Constitutional right to decide what is right for Alabama,” said Betty Peters, who holds the Place 2 seat on the board.
Yet the Common Core standards didn’t come from the U.S. Department of Education. They were created by the Common Core Standards Initiative, a project created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The Initiative’s publicity materials repeatedly stress that the standards are a joint effort of the states.
Peters isn’t buying it. She claims the standards constitute federal intrusion because the federal government funded some of the research. Peters also claimed that President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have pushed states to accept the standards by threatening to deny federal funding — including Title I funding for schools serving children in poverty — if they didn’t.
In February, Obama did propose that Congress consider tying Title I funds to the adoption of “college- and career-ready standards,” but documents from the White House and the U.S. Department of Education indicate that Common Core would be recommended — but not mandated — under that proposal.
“We’ve received no indication to indicate that would be a threat if we didn’t adopt these standards,” said Tommy Bice, deputy superintendent of the state school system.
Bice noted that if the president or Duncan wanted to cut Title I funds to Alabama, they’d likely have to go through Congress — and would hear from Alabama’s legislative delegation. But Bice said he’s never heard any such warning from Washington.
States are encouraged to adopt Common Core to compete in the federal Race to the Top program, a competitive grant program that gives federal funds to states that adopt policies favored by Washington. But Alabama’s most recent Race to the Top application fell far short of making the cut — so far short that adopting the standards alone wouldn’t qualify the state for funding.
Peters also claims the state would stuck with Common Core standards forever once they are passed.
“Yeah, we could change it, but only with Dr. (State Superintendent Joe) Morton’s endorsement,” she said. Peters claims the board can vote only on items introduced by Morton — whom she described as “a member of Obama’s transition team” — and are powerless to act otherwise.
Bice said that’s not true, either.
“I’ve been doing this work for 25 years, and I know how things work,” he said. “Any of these changes can be revisited.”
State school board member Stephanie Bell, also a critic of Common Core, said the states would be effectively locked in after passing Common Core because of the cost of shifting back to an Alabama-only standards set.
Bell said the standards were founded on a flawed idea — that every child across America will “be on the same page at the same time.”
“Every child is created, and I thank the Lord for this, we’re all created different,” she said.
Bice said the change need not have a cost initially, and could save the state money in the long run, by allowing Alabama to pool resources to create curriculum plans and tests — and to buy textbooks in bulk, driving down the price.
“Textbook companies have held smaller states captive,” Bice said. In the past, large states such as Texas and California have held sway over the content of textbooks, because they represent large chunks of the textbook market. If Common Core states bought books together, Bice suggested, the balance of power might shift.
Christy Goodwin, curriculum director of Oxford City Schools, agreed that the Common Core could save states money on test creation and curriculum design. Goodwin also praised the Common Core standards for the emphasis they place on high level thinking skills.
“I like the fact that they would shift us more toward problem-solving skills, and more toward technology integration,” she said. “They’re more in line with the skills of the workplace today.”
White Plains Middle School Principal Joe Dyar — who will soon succeed Stiefel as head of Calhoun County Schools — said he’d like to see the measure pass.
“I don’t see any drawbacks,” he said. “The higher the expectations and the higher the uniformity, the better it is for our children.”