Consensus on Common Core school standards evaporating

Seven years ago, Michigan's Democratic and Republican lawmakers arrived at a rare moment of consensus: They agreed to dramatically raise the bar for high school graduation. A two-bill package passed the Senate without dissent, and there was just a smattering of no votes in the 110-member House.

Michigan abruptly went from having the fewest state requirements (a semester of civics) to having among the most rigorous.

In 2010, the State Board of Education took the next step. Members voted unanimously to join with nearly all of the other states  to adopt the Common Core State Standards, an approach to teaching math and reading that educational experts say will better prepare students for college, training programs and skilled jobs.  Along with the standards come measurements. Beginning in 2014-15, a national test will compare state students' performance and show more clearly than ever how Michigan's children  stack up against those from other states.

That's if we get there. But today, both the graduation requirements and the national standards are being challenged in the Legislature. Several bills have been introduced to soften the graduation requirements to varying degrees, most often dealing with requirements for algebra and foreign languages. Of more concern to some is legislation to block the state from participating in the Common Core standards. Similar anti-core efforts are taking place in several other states – and the Republican National Committee late last week labeled Common Core “an inappropriate overreach” in an official resolution.

The sponsor of House Bill 4276, Rep. Tom McMillin, says the common standards turn over control of what's being taught from states and local school districts to national organizations and that the Obama administration is using federal funds to prod states in to adopting them.  "This is a centralization that will dumb down the curriculum and stifle creativity," the Rochester Hills Republican said.

But many education experts say the core standards, created under the direction of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and voluntarily agreed to by at least 45 states, are vital in helping American students close the achievement gap with their peers in many other countries.

Michigan Schools Superintendent Michael Flanagan the opposition to common core is being driven either by "a genuine misunderstanding that these are federally driven" or by an effort to make people believe that's the case.

He said the impact of implementing the core standards will be less dramatic in Michigan because there are already high standards in place with the Michigan Merit Curriculum (graduation requirements).  At the same time, he said the state could end up "looking like Neanderthals to possibly a lot of the business community and to colleges" if it withdraws. "What message are we sending if we are bailing out of common core," he asked.

State Board of Education President John Austin noted that the push for higher, national standards has been supported by Democrats like Bill Clinton to Republicans like John Engler and Jeb Bush. "I think it would be beneficial to all of the students in America to have the same high expectations and platform of skills that are what they need to be well-prepared for post-secondary education without remediation or for the workforce," Austin said.

The road to national standards

International tests have shown for years that United States students are so-so in reading and far behind students in other countries in math. Students in South Korea, Finland, and Canada, for example, routinely fare better on international tests than our students -- and even the best American students are outshined by top performers in other countries. Michigan, meanwhile is, generally speaking, average to a little below average compared with other states.

Seeking to reverse these trends in the late 1990s, the associations of state governors and school superintendents began looking at what other countries were doing that we weren't.  Those efforts led to the new standards. In math, for instance, the A-plus countries, as they are sometimes called, have better focus (establishing a deep understanding of a few concepts rather than a shallow understanding of many); coherence (teaching things in the right order so that they make sense and build off each other),  and rigor in their courses.

Research at Michigan State University led by William Schmidt, co-director of MSU's Education Policy Center, was highly influential in the development of the common core state standards for math. He testified in support of the standards at a March 20 meeting of the state House Education Committee.

"There is a progression in mathematics that is logical. Topics are taught in a certain order," Schmidt told Bridge Magazine.  When topics are taught in the right sequence, he said, "what happened yesterday (in class) makes more sense today, and what is happening today is feeding into what is going to happen tomorrow. If you broaden that scenario to across the grades, you have a sense of what one of the big differences would be."

The committee has not acted on HB 4276.

Research shows that students in the United States are exposed to more concepts but in less depth, with the effect of delaying mastery. By eighth grade, U.S. students are still by and large working on arithmetic, while students in the high-achieving countries have moved on to algebra and geometry, he said.

But Sandra Stotsky, a retired University of Arkansas education professor, has asserted in hearings across the country that the new standards will make students less, not more, prepared.  "Leave while the leaving is still possible," she advised lawmakers in Lansing. "Common core will make us the janitors of the world," she said in Missouri. We are moving down a couple of grades by accepting it."

Schmidt counters that if the new standards have brought outstanding results in other countries, they should be effective here. "I think it's reasonably safe that are new common core standards are world-class," he said. Research also shows that students in states with curricula most similar to the new standards generally do better on standardized tests than those in other states.

Making the transition

Some districts are far ahead of others in revamping their standards, Schmidt said. The East Lansing School District is working with him to make the transition for math.  Its teachers input data on what they teach each day and get feedback on how it aligns with the common core standards.

John Brandenburg, a former math teacher who is now the East Lansing High School principal, says the new standards "are not a mile wide and an inch deep. We have more focus, and the standards themselves are coherent within a grade so that there is a progression of learning."

Implementing the standards  to bring about deep conceptual understanding by students represents a major undertaking for teachers, Brandenburg said. "It's tough. It's a change," he said.  "It's not just turning the page in a textbook, it's to think about what I'm going to teach. Now I'm going to teach less (fewer concepts), so I have to have some activities and some strategies for teaching it deeper."

Critics argue that fewer students will be ready for algebra by eighth grade, and therefore fewer will take calculus in high school. Brandenburg said that may happen in other districts, but it hasn't been the case in East Lansing, where about one-third of the students still take calculus.

Harbor Springs Superintendent Mark Tompkins said the common core is designed to think more deeply. For instance, the middle school recently held an "Inventor's Convention," where a "Level 2" presentation involved research, analysis and public speaking in building a mock elevator and explaining its history. "A Level 4 would have been making your own invention -- come up with your own invention, even if it's fanciful.  "That's the kind of teaching and learning we want to encourage," he said.

He said the common core standards should also lead to improvements for teachers and administrators.

"Everybody in the country will have common standards, common language," he said.  "You can go to training at conferences, and we will all be thinking the same way, having the same content we are focusing on. ... Instead of talking about what we teach, we can talk about how we teach to a greater extent."

While the changes in education may be less in Michigan than in many other states, it would be a mistake to think that they are easy, MSU's Schmidt said.  To overhaul classes so that concepts are taught in different order, in different ways, and in greater depth will be a major challenge. He said it's important for teachers to get the professional development support they need to be successful.

"It will be a challenge to get teachers to move beyond what they have done. Just because something is called fractions, doesn't mean it is the same exact content and way of presenting things," he said.  "Without proper implementation, these are just pieces of paper that describe what might be, not what is."

The future of the bills remains unclear. Gov. Rick Snyder is reviewing the bills and hasn't taken a position, spokesman Ken Silfven said via email.

Schmidt, the MSU professor, said the state would be a big mistake to pull out of the common core standards consortium or water down graduation requirements. "This is not about local control. It's about making our kids have a better education," he said.  "Why would we want to go back to something that we know has not worked well for us."

Chris Andrews is senior editor at Public Policy Associates, Inc. In addition to working as a freelance writer and editor, he teaches journalism at Michigan State University. Andrews was an editor at the Lansing State Journal and a reporter at the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.

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David Waymire
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 8:47am
Now is the time for leadership. This is a key issue; your article shows there is a consensus except from the helicopter right. The most disturbing statement here: "The future of the bills remains unclear. Gov. Rick Snyder is reviewing the bills and hasn’t taken a position, spokesman Ken Silfven said via email." How can that be?
Charles Richards
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 12:55pm
The quality of education research is so poor that it is like quoting Bible verses. You can find research to support or undercut practically anything. I do think we should have a national test that would provide an unambiguous, concrete measure of how a school or school district ranked. That would give people an opportunity to gauge the quality of their schools and give them an opportunity to make adjustments.
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 2:49pm
The problem is that 85% of the stated curriculum CAN NOT BE AMENDED. "You get what you get and you don't pitch a fit". If a teacher has a better way, they are not allowed, by definition (read the criteria for accepting the system).
Chuck Jordan
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 9:31pm
Until we have a better way to assess student progress/success, stop using largely meaningless high-stakes test scores to compare and punish school districts, especially economically poor districts, and have the will to fail students who do not meet the criteria for passing a subject (not grade), all the talk about the common core standards and graduation requirements is meaningless.
Scott Baker
Thu, 04/18/2013 - 10:13pm
I was in a graduate level student law class at Grand Valley State University when the new graduation requirements were being put into place. As a project for the class I tracked down the origins of the proposed requirements. It all led back to the National Business Roundtable and their education action are Achieve, Inc.. Here is part of the article I wrote: "A centerpiece of the Michigan Merit Core is the inclusion of Algebra 2 as a requirement for graduation for everyone (though students may opt out by chopping down the largest tree in the forest with a herring). And where did this masterstroke come from? If you can't guess by now, you haven't been paying attention (and you're not going to do very well on the quiz either). Achieve, Inc. of course. Pointing to a 1999 study by Department of Education researcher Clifford Adelman (, Achieve, Inc. claimed that students who took math classes beyond Algebra 2 were more successful at earning college degrees. On paper this appears to be true. What the data does not show is whether or not it was the higher math they had taken that caused these students to be more successful. Stop and think for a moment. In my experience, Algebra 2 and the math beyond it are generally elective classes. Students who voluntarily enroll in these challenging courses, I have observed, tend to be stronger, more motivated students to begin with and likely to do well in college because of innate qualities they already possess (e.g intelligence, perseverance) prior to taking trigonometry or calculus. Both Adelman and Achieve were careful not to make the claim that higher math caused students to be more successful in college. They didn't have to. All they had to do was point to the (simplified) numbers and imply that such was the case, then let the easily fooled stumble to the desired, but unfounded, conclusion. Of course, there's also the allure of requiring Algebra 2 for everyone. It just sounds so rigorous, doesn't it?" The entire article is titled "In Michigan, It's All Business, As Usual" and you can find it here: of note: Governor Snyder's proposed education budget includes $10 million for Michigan Virtual University. The CEO of Michigan Virtual University is Jamey Fitzpatrick. He was on the 2006 grad. requirement task force. Lo and behold, the new requirements included one credit of online learning. Who proposed the requirement according to the task force's meeting notes? Jamey Fitzpatrick! Where can you fulfill the online learning requirement? Michigan Virtual University! I believe that's referred to as "feathering one's nest" and it seems to be paying off handsomely for Mr. Fitzpatrick.
Wed, 04/24/2013 - 10:20pm
Data Mining Under Common Core the federal government requires the states to build a database that will track students from kindergarten through the workforce. In addition, the federal government has amended the privacy laws (FERPA) to legalize the sharing of individualized, personal data across government agencies and with corporations. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education over the changes to FERPA. documents From the Achieve, Inc website:"States must collect, coordinate, and use K-12 and postsecondary data to track and improve the readiness of graduates to succeed in college and the workplace. Longitudinal data systems should follow individual students from grade to grade and school to school, all the way from kindergarten through postsecondary education and into the workplace."
Fri, 04/19/2013 - 10:48am
Anyone who's been paying attention knows by now that Common Core is just another money-raking scheme for the sole benefit of the test-and-textbook corporations who own our public oaficials.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 11:33am
Diane Ravitch is correct. But it doesn't have to be that way. There are goals in the Common Core that are very good. It all depends on how those goals are implemented, taught, and assessed. If schools depend on the high stakes testing I mentioned above, then they will be a failure. If they allow teachers collaborate and find creative ways to teach the standards, there can be benefits. If students are assessed using district generated multiple measures, there can be benefits. If the teaching is scripted, teaching to the test, and students assessed by only high-stakes multiple choice, computer generated tests and these scores used to punish teachers and poor districts, there will be less learning, less critical reading and thinking, and more drop outs and a wider divergence of quality education between rich and poor school districts. Allowing politicians and corporations to dictate education policies continues to harm education. Continuing to move the goal posts and changing the rules every 2-3 years assures that we will never have a clear measure of student success.
Paul Babladelis
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 8:22am
Please separate the discussion of the Common Core from graduation requirements. Secondly, let's discuss the issue more objectively and leave out comments like the one found above, "Common core will make us the janitors of the world.” When the State of Michigan created grade level content expectations, and instituted the MEAP, I objected (as a teacher) to the loss of creativity and control in my classroom. These grade level content expectations expanded into a huge list of items that must be taught at each grade level yet offer little cohesion or depth. The Common Core has fewer items that must be covered, introduces them is a logical sequential order, and looks for mastery and depth of concepts. It will allow teachers more freedom to deliver meaningful content in creative ways once it is adopted. Please take a deeper look at the Common Core and try to objectively weigh benefits and detriments without the lens of political bias.
Scott Baker
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 9:41pm
Implementation of the Common Core is a political issue. The origins of the Common Core are little different than those of the graduation requirements. The graduation requirements were an early attempt at standardizing instruction within the state while the Common Core seeks to make that standardization nationwide. Both efforts originated with the National Business Roundtable, were/are funded by billionaires, and the endgame is the same - the destruction of public education in favor of for-profit education. Both state and federal law recognize the right of parents to guide the education of their children, yet parents were never asked about the Common Core. We were simply told that it had been adopted. This is a grievous overreach by both the state and federal government, Thankfully, some legislators are beginning to question these efforts. Read Diane Ravitch's "Death and Life of the Great American School System" to fully understand what "education reform" has meant during the past 12 years. It isn't about "student achievement," no matter what Bill Gates or Michelle Rhee (corrupt poster child for corporate ed reform) say. It is about money and power.
W dotD
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 9:42am
The problem is that the wrong people are being measured. We should measure the effectiveness of the District Superintendent, the District School Board, and the School Principals they choose to run the schools. Educational achievement is important, but cannot be reached without top notch leadership.
Sun, 04/21/2013 - 3:08pm
Do the promoters of Common Core really think that one size fits all? Do they not realize that there are significant numbers of students who have lower IQ's, significant learning disabilities, even environmental circumstances that mean that Algebra 2 and foriegn languages are likely to be a waste of time and even counter productive in their education experience. I know students that have not mastered multiplication and fractions and when I talk with teachers about this they say we are under such pressure to move at a faster rate to prepare the majority of students for Algebra 2 that they can't wait for those that need more time to master the basics. Common Core perhaps may help a few students but certainly is not in the best interest of all students. And the best students generally do well no matter what the program. Even for the good students can you imagine how difficult it will be to implement the next great step forward in learning if Common Core is implemented? And finally few jobs are based on test results; most require working with others in a synergistic way. Project based learning (e.g. STEM) is really the step forward we should be working on. My concern is that Common Core will block real progress in education.