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Local school leaders wary of proposed Common Core ban

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After years of debate, Alabama is close to dumping Common Core, the academic standards that have guided instruction in the state’s schools for the past eight years.

Some local school administrators say they wish educators had been consulted before the change was proposed.

“There has to be a better solution,” said Jon Paul Campbell, superintendent of Calhoun County Schools.

The Alabama Senate earlier this month voted 23-7, along party lines, to end the state’s use of the College and Career Ready Standards, a set of academic benchmarks the state school board adopted in November 2010.

Those standards were based on Common Core, created in the last decade by educators who wanted to make sure various states’ school systems were teaching basic subjects to K-12 students at more or less the same pace.

That seemingly bland goal met with a wall of opposition from activists, most of them social conservatives, who saw the standards as an under-the-table federal takeover of education. Much of the educational and political establishment —  state-level school administrators and business leaders — defended the standards change.

Chief among them was Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, who more than once opposed Senate efforts to ban the Common Core. When Marsh flipped on the issue earlier this month — announcing a new Common Core ban effort in a video from the Senate floor — the fate of the standards seemed to be sealed.

Keeping it simple

For opponents of the Core, returning to the state’s previous academic standards would take Alabama  back to a simpler time, when English courses were about the great novels and parents knew how to help their kids with math homework.

“You don’t really have to know why six times three is 18 in order to apply that rule,” said Eunie Smith, president of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group that was one of the most vocal opponents of Common Core.

Under Common Core, teachers began to emphasize mathematical concepts at earlier grades, teaching kids multiple methods for solving math problems at roughly the same age their parents were memorizing multiplication tables. That led to homework assignments that were sometimes as new to parents as they were to kids. Smith says the standards introduced kids to math concepts they weren’t ready for.

Common Core critics also drilled down hard into the Core’s suggested reading lists for English —  lists that weren’t adopted in Alabama, but included works such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which conservatives found objectionable because of vulgar language.

Smith, in a Friday interview, didn’t mention those objections. Instead, she took issue with another focus of the Core: a push to get kids to read nonfiction and fiction in more equal amounts.

“How does it help their advanced reading skills to read an instructional manual on insulation?” asked Smith, citing instructional manuals as an example of nonfiction. She said students need to read great works to “learn about the struggle between good and evil.”

Retraining anticipated

For administrators, though, a return to the past isn’t so simple. No matter which standards are better, Campbell said, throwing out the College and Career Ready Standards means dusting off old books and retraining a generation of teachers. Younger teachers, he noted, have never worked under anything but Common Core.

“There are costs. At some point, we’d have to replace textbooks,” he noted.

Talladega City Schools Superintendent Tony Ball said he doesn’t understand why anyone would oppose a nationwide set of standards.

“We have standards across the state,” Ball said. “The opposition, I think, is really tied more to a political movement that doesn’t really have anything to do with education.”

A jumble of tests

Pell City Schools Superintendent Michael Barber said he, too, wanted to see the College and Career Ready Standards stay in place.

“We’re seeing the fruits of our labors with higher test scores,” Barber said. “I know nothing is perfect, but what are we going back to, or where are we going?”

Campbell, the Calhoun superintendent, said he couldn’t really tell whether students in the county —  or in the Jacksonville school system he once ran — had seen growth over the entire Common Core era. The reason: the frequent changes to the state’s standardized tests.

During the No Child Left Behind era, Alabama used a test called the ARMT. Then it switched to a test created by the company that produced the ACT college entrance exam. And shortly afterward, another switch to a test by Scantron, the company best known for making fill-in-the-bubble sheets.

The switches make it difficult to track scores over the years, Campbell said.

Test scores are the very reason Marsh cited in announcing his opposition to Common Core. After nearly a decade with the standards, he said earlier this month, the state still ranked 49th in academic performance.

Proponents of the current standards say that’s not as simple as it sounds. Alabama still ranks in the bottom tier of states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, said Mark Dixon of the A-Plus Education Partnership, but raw test scores in most areas have seen slight improvement. The state’s improvement simply hasn’t kept pace with other states, he said.

Dixon noted that the NAEP, the best national measure of state-by-state progress, doesn’t include much information on students in higher grades —  though Alabama schools have seen a marked decrease in students in need of remediation when they get to college.

Asked if an end to Common Core would threaten college-readiness programs, Dixon said it wouldn’t help.

“If we keep changing the playbook, we’re not going to get students where they need to be,” he said.

Tim Lockette, Gary Hanner and David Atchison contributed reporting.