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Standards just part of battle for Common Core critics

MONTGOMERY — For more than three years, a fight over academic K-12 academic standards — normally the stuff of scholarly articles and faculty-lounge debates — has brought standing-room-only crowds to hearings in Alabama’s capital.

Supporters of Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards, a statewide list of things students should know and do at various grade levels, say those standards have already improved teaching in the state’s classrooms. But those standards are based on the Common Core, a nearly-nationwide set of standards adopted, in some form, by 45 states.

For critics of the Core, its near-universal adoption is a sign of the heavy hand of the federal government — and an insidious plan to introduce left-wing materials into the classroom.

Common Core supporters say there’s nothing in the standards to support that view. But the current leaders of the anti-Common-Core movement acknowledge that the standards debate is only part of the furor, and that they’re concerned about deeper trends that started long before the standards were adopted in 2010.

"It's part of a continuum," said Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, who sponsored a bill to allow school districts to opt out of Common Core-based standards. "That's what I'm trying to say. It's not just 'you use that standard.' It all comes as part of a package deal."

The Star asked Beason and other critics of the College and Career Ready Standards — tea party and Republican activists and a leader of the conservative Eagle Forum — to point out specific passages in the standards that they found objectionable.

Those who responded said it wasn’t that simple. While some claimed the standards overall weren’t as rigorous as Alabama’s old standards, most of their objections revolved around federal control of schools, collection and use of student data and the changing canon of literary work being taught in schools.

"The argument over standards is not necessarily the argument over standards," said Talladega County Republican Party Chairman Danny Hubbard, a Common Core opponent. "The standards have opened the door for testing companies and textbook companies to come in and do what they would like."

'What is the message?'

On a shelf in his Montgomery office, Beason keeps a copy of Prentice-Hall's "American Experience 1900 to Present," a high school literature textbook. On the front is a logo that shows the book is consistent with Alabama’s Common Core-based standards. The book bristles with sticky tabs, placed there by Beason and other Common Core critics to flag content that might be objectionable.

There's a flag on an essay by 19th century naturalist John Muir, which decries "those who are wealthy and steal timber wholesale." There's another on the poet Randall Jarrell, who documented the savagery of the air war over Europe in World War II. And another on a piece by Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien, in which the narrator speaks of his regret for killing a North Vietnamese soldier, and his reluctance to talk about the killing with his young daughter.

"What is the message that's being put across?" Beason said. "Is it that we were the bad guys in Vietnam, or was it that we were the good guys in Vietnam? I think we're the good guys. But I don't get that out of this argument, I mean, of this story."

Beason has the same problem with an excerpt from John Hersey's "Hiroshima," a story of the atomic bomb "told from the Japanese view," he said. There's a lack of balance, he said, that undermines American values.

"It doesn't sound like we're being very good folks, does it?" Beason said.

Beason put his own flag on "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials. The senator thinks it's unfair that the textbook attached a sidebar asking students about parallels between the witch trials and Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare of the early 1950s, in which numerous writers and others — including Arthur Miller — were accused of having communist sympathies.

McCarthy was right about most of the people he accused, Beason claims.

"So we're comparing the McCarthy investigations of the 1950s, in which he turned out to be right, with the Salem witch hunts," Beason said.

The best-known flag is on a full-page biography of Nobel Prizewinner Toni Morrison, whose first book, "The Bluest Eye," has somehow worked its way to the heart of Alabama's Common Core debate.

Wetumpka Tea Party leader Becky Gerritson read from the book at a Senate committee hearing on Common Core last week.

"A bulge of desire ran down his genitals and softened the lips of his anus," Gerritson read. After she read a sentence containing the "f-word," committee members asked her to stop.

"This is what they want our students to read," Gerritson replied.

'McCarthy didn't go far enough'

There was one problem with Gerritson's analogy. The passage from "The Bluest Eye" wasn't in the Prentice Hall textbook.

If the novel has been used at all in Alabama schools, there's no evidence any parent has objected recently. Every one of Alabama's 132 school systems allows parents to file a form to ask for a book to be pulled from school libraries. Last summer, The Star filed requests for five years' worth of those forms from every school system in the state. Only two-thirds of the districts responded, but the search found no challenges to "The Bluest Eye."

The book was, however, on a list of Common Core "exemplar texts." Common Core opponents call that a "reading list," implying that it's a canon of must-reads. State school officials say the "exemplar texts" were there just to give teachers a feel for the level of complexity required at different grade levels. Even so, the state school board erased the "exemplar text" list from Alabama’s state standards due to objections about Morrison's book.

In the standards themselves, there’s still mention of several long-established literary works and authors, including Shakespeare, Ovid, the Bible, the Gettysburg Address and the Bill of Rights.

For Beason, that's not enough. Morrison is still profiled in a Common Core-compliant text, and "The Bluest Eye" gets a mention in that book as well.

Still, the Prentice Hall textbook is hardly the first to mention Morrison, a Nobel winner. Other writers flagged in Beason’s book were widely anthologized long before Common Core. Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," for instance, appears in "Adventures in American Literature," a textbook used in Alabama in the 1980s.

Pressed to explain how Common Core changed the canon in Alabama schools — and what passages in the standards caused those changes — Common Core opponents say there are larger trends at work.

"These things have been coming in through the back door for a long time," said Hubbard, the Talladega GOP chairman. "Common Core just opens the door wider."

Asked to list his own objections to things specifically in the standards, Hubbard directed The Star to a document on the Talladega GOP's website. Among other objections, the document lists several books on the now-defunct "exemplar list" that are "highly controversial and in most cases contain vulgar language, explicit description of sex acts, incest, rape and host of other sexual perversions."

"To Kill A Mockingbird," by Monroeville native Harper Lee, is on the list. So is John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" and William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying."

In a conversation Friday, Hubbard walked the list back, saying his real concerns are about only two listed books: Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" and "Dreaming in Cuban" by Cristina Garcia.

"I don't think anybody's opposed to 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" he said. "It's a classic. I believe it's written by a fellow from Montgomery."

Hubbard put some of the flags in Beason's textbook. He said he didn't flag "The Crucible," but he thinks Beason was right to do so. Joe McCarthy, he said, was right.

"Now that all the records are out, it's clear that McCarthy didn't go far enough," he said.

'Obama initiative'

Like Beason and Hubbard, Alabama Eagle Forum president Eunie Smith didn't point to specific items in the standards that are objectionable.

"You can … recognize that if there were obviously objectionable passages in the standards themselves, they would not have been so blindly and widely adopted nationwide," she wrote in an email.

She also forwarded several documents, some of which criticize the way Common Core was implemented. Critics of the program have long complained that the federal government has forced a one-size-fits-all set of standards on the states.

"Common Core was an Obama initiative," Hubbard said.

In fact, the standards were created by the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — both state-based agencies. Critics of the standards, though, say the Obama administration strong-armed the states into adopting them through its Race to the Top program, in which states competed for large federal grants by adopting policies favored by Washington.

Alabama has never received any statewide grant money through the program. In fact, the state came in dead last in the first round of Race to the Top, which ended in mid-2010. At the time, state officials said the lack of a charter school system, combined with the state's failure to get buy-in on school reform from the Alabama Education Association, killed the application.

The state Board of Education approved its Common Core-based standards by a 7-2 vote later the same year.

Race to the Top isn't the only source of federal money tied to Common Core, critics of the standards say. Beason says states adopted the standards to help get other grants in the lean post-recession years, and can't drop them now because they're afraid of losing federal support, including the Title I program that shores up high-poverty districts.

"That's a myth," said Thomas Rains, a policy analyst for the A-Plus Education Partnership, a nonprofit education agency that supports Common Core.

"Look at the states that haven't adopted Common Core," he said. "They haven't lost Title I."

Moving on

Among the crowd of culture warriors, there are parents who say they've encountered true classroom problems as a result of Common Core. At last week's Common Core hearing, a Jefferson County parent told lawmakers that the state's new way of teaching math has increased the time she spends on her children's homework by two to three hours per night.

"It's devastated my life," said Staci Tawbush, a single mom. "It's ripped me to pieces."

Beason said more complaints about Common Core's math techniques are beginning to emerge now that the standards are in place.

"What's the one thing we always say is the problem in schools? Parent involvement," Beason said. "And here we are, teaching math in a way where parents can't help their children with homework because parent's don't know how to do it the way they're teaching it."

Rains, of the A-Plus Initiative, said it's not quite accurate to say that the Common Core has a new way of teaching math. He said teachers are indeed teaching a wider range of techniques for solving problems. He said the idea of a "Common Core math" that arrives at different answers than traditional math is another myth.

"Before, students may have learned one way of addition or subtraction," he said. "Now they're learning how numbers work and are being shown there are multiple ways to arrive at the same answer."

If parents and students are struggling with the new approach, Raines said, it is indeed a problem — and one that would be dealt with by teachers and parents at the school level.

Questions about math teaching techniques, and about Common Core's focus on encouraging students to read more nonfiction texts, have always lurked within the Common Core debate. Among the documents Eagle Forum president Eunie Smith forwarded to The Star are critiques from education professor Sandra Stotsky, who has long argued that Common Core's focus on nonfiction would crowd fiction classics out of the curriculum.

Rains said that, too, is a myth.

"The idea is to make sure students are reading in English language arts and other courses, too," he said. "The idea is to get them to read more as a whole."

The nonfiction-versus-fiction debate has brewed within the Common Core debate all along, but critics of the Core have rarely led with it. At last week's hearings, speakers criticized the collection of student data under the standards — another thing school officials say isn't happening — and took the standards to task as "anti-Christian" and "anti-American." In past State House hearings, speakers have claimed that Common Core involved tracking what students' families eat, or that Common Core-aligned textbooks taught students to "think like a terrorist."

"We've heard the complaints," Rains said. "And when we refute, they just move on to another."

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.