Brad Neuenswander, deputy commissioner of education in Kansas, spends a lot of time on the phone these days talking about the Common Core State Standards.
By JOE ROBERTSON
The Kansas City Star
“I had a one-hour conversation with a mother over lunch just today,” he said. Talking about what they are. And even more so, “what they are not.”
“I had someone tell me they heard that they were a way to eliminate local school boards. I’d never even heard that one.”
As all Kansas City area school districts and most systems nationwide put the standards into action, they are fending off 11th-hour accusations of a nationwide curriculum — that a federal agency will dictate lesson plans.
Certainly the standards are a dramatic creation for American schools. They propose a set of common expectations of the knowledge and skills that children should attain according to grade level in math and English language arts.
They aim to increase rigor and inspire deeper and creative thinking so seniors graduate ready for college or training for competitive careers.
They represent one of the most collaborative state-level enterprises imaginable in the political world of education.
But for educators, it’s as if this jumbo airliner they spent years designing is being chased down the runway just as it is lifting off.
They already had enough challenges going forward.
The assessments being designed to test student performance under the new standards will cost billions of dollars nationwide to implement.
The assessments’ computerized format will strain many districts’ technology and web accessibility.
Scores almost inevitably will dip at first, clouding the perception of public schools. And this is coinciding with nationwide pressure to make student performance data a bigger part of teacher and principal evaluations.
Forty-five states, including Kansas and Missouri, have adopted the standards, and Minnesota has adopted the reading half. But Missouri and Kansas also stand among as many as nine states that have had lawmakers attempt to repeal them or cut their funding.
Earlier this month, leaders of the Kansas Republican Party adopted a resolution calling on the state to withdraw.
The backlash interrupts what had been a surprisingly smooth ride for education’s grand proposal.
“It seemed like an idea whose time had come,” said Jim Dunn of Liberty, who is directing a National School Public Relations Association project to publicize the merits of Common Core.
Education think tanks had long bemoaned America’s lagging performance in international testing.
U.S. schools too often were loading students up with too much content and not enough applicable skills. Comparisons between states were difficult. Disparities in state test rigor confused any search for successful schools that might serve as models.
In the mid-2000s, Republican and Democratic governors joined with state education commissioners to work with Achieve Inc. to collaborate on a new set of standards.
The idea was the standards would be state-driven. They would set a higher bar to guide educators.
The curriculum and the classroom strategies used to teach to those standards would remain the unique contribution of schools and their teachers.
By the end of 2010, all but a few states had signed on.
“It was surprisingly successful,” Dunn said. “I think the people who backed it got complacent.”
The education community did not always effectively inform people outside its universe of what was in store, he said. A PDK/Gallup poll released in August found, even now, that 60 percent of Americans do not know what Common Core is.
“This was a vacuum,” he said.
Plenty of concerned national voices have filled that space.
Education writer Diane Ravitch, who has championed public schools, fears in her book, “Reign of Error,” that the difficult transition and likely drop in test scores will intensify reform movements championed by those opposed to public schools.
The states are making an expensive gamble, she said, without field-tested evidence that it will bring better student outcomes.
Conservative voices saw a bridge to nationalized schools.
The federal government weighed in heavily with offers of competitive grants for Race to the Top stimulus funds. States mostly thought they had better shots at winning funds if their school improvement proposals included fidelity to Common Core.
Through it all, local districts remain mostly unwavering in their support of the new standards. A survey by The Star in May found that 94 percent of area districts supported the Common Core and 6 percent were neutral. None opposed the standards.
Parents, for the most part, seem comfortable with the concept of common standards once they hear about them from their child’s teachers and principals, said Park Hill parent Michael Atchison.
“We would like to be able to compare how we’re doing with Shawnee Mission,” he said.
Julie Brewer’s family moved to the Blue Valley School District after moving first from Illinois to Nebraska. She likes the idea that with common standards, “You won’t have to worry after moving that your child is behind, or that he’ll be reviewing things he learned the year before.”
Parents want answers to important questions, said Blue Valley’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, Tonya Merrigan.
“They want to know what will look different in the classroom, and how can they support their child,” she said.
The lessons will be more project-driven. They will be more in-depth, more “hands-on.” They will see more emphasis on reading nonfiction texts in addition to literature.
“As long as we can answer those questions,” Merrigan said, “there is support.”
Among the biggest worries for teachers and administrators are the technology demands that the coming assessments — due in the spring of 2015 — will impose on schools.
A December survey by the Missouri Association of School Administrators found that less than half of the state’s superintendents think their technology is ready.
Most of the states that have adopted the standards have joined one of two organizations designing the assessments that states will use to measure student performance.
Missouri and Kansas are part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The computerized tests will be dynamic and adaptive to each student. The results will provide deeper, more nuanced information about what students have learned. But it comes at a cost.
Missouri has proposed in its 2014-2015 budget an increase of $18.5 million, from $15.8 million to $34.3 million, for the design and administration of its performance tests.
The state already was going to increase its test budget as it is adding more end-of-course exams, but the Smarter Balanced tests, contracted with CTB/McGraw Hill, have raised costs.
Kansas, which is contracting with the University of Kansas for its tests, will be increasing its test budget by $1.6 million, from $4.6 million to $6.2 million.
The Smarter Balanced website is providing samples of the test for schools to use in preparing for state tests to come.
Many students, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods, don’t have the same level of computer literacy as those in more affluent neighborhoods, so many schools are modeling their own tests after the Smarter Balanced tests.
“I want our kids to figure out the computer skills and learn constructive responses,” said Tamara Burns, the Common Core curriculum specialist for Banneker Academy charter school. “It’s a lot of work.”