DENVER—The Common Core Standards haven’t received as much attention as other Obama administration initiatives, but Bob Schaffer is working to change that.
In his final weeks as chair of the Colorado State Board of Education, Schaffer has thrust a spotlight on the Common Core, holding hearings and taking testimony on the pros and cons of the sweeping federal education reform.
He’s doing so even though the Common Core is a done deal in Colorado, given that the state Board of Education voted 4-3 in 2010 to adopt it. Schaffer was one of the naysayers then, and after everything he’s learned over the past two years, he hasn’t changed his mind.
“This is a big-government crusade to leave a lasting light on the world,” said Schaffer, a former Republican congressman who now serves as principal of a Fort Collins charter school. “The most prudent thing we can do is shed light on the issue and begin talking and letting people fully understand what the state has committed itself to.”
Even if the board did have a change of heart, it’s unlikely that Gov. John Hickenlooper or the Democratic legislature would permit a U-turn at this late date. The standards are slated to be implemented in 2014.
“It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the state is seriously considering a change of course,” said Schaffer. “Some individuals would say that they are seriously considering a change of course, but the governor embraces the Common Core, and I would say both houses of the legislature do so, as well.”
All but four states—Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia–have chosen to adopt the Common Core, for reasons both philosophical and pecuniary. The Common Core establishes a set of academic benchmarks in math and English for students in grades K-12, federal standards that are expected to drive future textbook content, student testing, teacher assessment and even college admissions.
State Sen. Mike Johnston, incoming vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee and a strong supporter of the Common Core, says the program will improve student achievement by setting national standards and creating a more consistent approach to education.
“We have in education for 100 years had not two operating systems but 50,” said the Democrat Johnston in Dec. 6 testimony to the state board. “What you have now with the Common Core is a radically different template in the same way with the app system in your I-phone . . . Anyone can communicate, anyone can innovate, anyone can build new tools.”
Not incidentally, the states have a strong financial interest in signing on to the Common Core. Only states that adopt the federal program are eligible for Race to the Top stimulus funding or waivers from the No Child Left Behind “college and career-ready” standards.
Criticism of the Common Core has grown as more information becomes available. The biggest complaint: While the standards were advertised as a way to raise academic achievement, critics say they’re actually lower than the academic standards already in place in Colorado.
“The Common Core standards are indeed common—not ambitious, not high,” said Schaffer. “They may be high in some states, but not in Colorado, and not overall.”
Sandra Stotsky, a professor at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, said “nobody really knows yet how low it’s going to be,” given that so little of the curriculum has been released. The standards are being overseen by a Washington-based non-profit, Achieve Inc., in conjunction with the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.
“We are lowering the academic level of our public-school system by about two grades’ worth across the country,” said Stotsky at the hearing. “That was the intent of the Common Core standards.”
Matt Gianneschi, deputy executive director of the state Department of Higher Education, said at the hearing that the benchmarks would be set at a level designed to give students a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better in their first math or English course at a community college.
“Our attempt here is not to create a system of elite students—our elite students are doing quite well—the question is, ‘How do we create a system that allows all students to move through without creating artificial barriers [and] expectations that are unrealistic?’” said Gianneschi.
Margaret Crespo, executive director for secondary education at the Thompson School District, stressed that the Common Core standards are “a starting point, and certainly we can always improve.”
“But the Common Core is a benchmark, and personally I would be very excited if every student in the nation was ready to attend a community college at the start. That would be amazing,” said Crespo.
While many states have already begun implementing pieces of the Common Core, it’s likely to face a legal challenge. Critics argue that it violates the Constitution by instating a federal curriculum in violation of local education control laws.
The state board is accepting comments on the Common Core and related issues until Dec. 31.
“We’ve joined essentially a well-intentioned set of ideas, but as to what this means for Colorado, there are more questions than answers at this point,” said Schaffer.