FLORENCE, S.C. — Crusaders against Common Core Standards came to Florence this week to rally support during their tour of the state, which will culminate in what is poised to be a drag-out fight at the Statehouse during the second half of the legislative session next year.
Grassroots groups are hoping to overthrow the set of educational goals and standards adopted in 2010 by South Carolina, and by 44 other states.
It will be a fight about what’s best for thousands of school children.
It will be a fight about what overarching principals and minute details must be imparted to the next generation.
But mostly, it will be a fight about control.
Sheri Few, president of South Carolina Parents Involved in Education (SCPIE), said local control is especially important in South Carolina, where “we’ve always prided ourselves in autonomy form the federal government.”
Thursday night about 30 people crowded into an auto store serving as a meeting hall to hear what Few, along with state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, had to say.
Grooms has filed a Senate bill that will make it illegal for the state to use the Common Core Standard to guide the curricula or test students by overturning the decision made by the state education board and department three years ago.
Grooms said Common Core is a huge problem because it doesn’t allow the state and its families total control over what children learn.
“Don’t use the power and influence of the federal government to come down here and dictate to my family how we’re going to live, how we’re going to learn, what we’re going to learn, what we’re going to be taught,” he told the crowd Thursday.
Few is hoping pressure from concerned constituents and parents will get more legislators on board with the push and ultimately push the change through the Statehouse; so far the bill has seven sponsors in the Senate and a House version has 11.
But while the anti-federal intrusion crusaders suit up for battle, students are already hard at work learning according to the standards. And their teachers have been learning and planning for that for years.
Robyn Heffernan, who teaches English at Moore Middle School, has been working on professional development for CCS since 2009, and said the actual content lines up about 96 percent. Though she admits it has meant a lot of work and a lot more planning and collaboration for teachers, and she’s still worried that teachers don’t know what test they’re preparing students for, the standards, which are in their second year of implementation in Florence, are working. Students are getting smarter.
“It’s slow and it’s steady but it is slowly getting there,” Heffernan said. “We are seeing some great improvements, it just takes time to get there because it’s not just surface learning, they’re learning how to think and question, it’s not just a bunch of facts and figures.”
The road to Common Core
How South Carolina arrived at the Common Core is complicated, and while the motives behind the decision are debatable, the facts are not.
In 2001 the federal government reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The legislation set goals and gave incentives for performance but dictated an ever-raising bar, and eventually schools would be held accountable to have 100 percent of their students 100 percent proficient. That year would have been 2014.
Educators, administrators and people on every end of the political spectrum began to see that NCLB was inherently flawed. But with a gridlocked Washington coping with the impacts of a recession and all manner of controversial issues, a legislative remedy was not forthcoming.
President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan decided to act with two executive decisions.
First the federal education department offered states a chance at Race To The Top grant money in 2009 as part of the stimulus package, on the condition that they adopt “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace." The Common Core was being developed by an organization called Achieve, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (which now hold the copyright to CCS), with funding from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation.
So many states, including South Carolina, adopted the standards in order to compete for the funds.
But ultimately State Education Superintendent Dr. Mick Zais declined to put in a request for the money once he was in office in 2011, saying he was leery of the federal strings attached and putting the state on the hook for more money down the road.
But NCLB was still looming. Duncan created a waiver system by which states could submit their own plans for teacher, school and district accountability and progress so they would no longer have to labor under the dreaded, mostly unattainable “Adequate Yearly Progress.”
South Carolina’s two-year waiver was approved in July 2012. To date, 41 other states have had theirs approved, too.
But once again the waiver required states to adopt standards that “are common to a significant number of states,” so South Carolina’s previous adoption of CCS fit the bill.
Even though it wasn’t the federal government that created or directly demanded the adoption of CCS, many proponents of small government assert that because the U.S. Department of Education is prohibited from setting national curricula and standards, they dangled the carrots of money and a way out of bad legislation to strong arm states into adopting Common Core.
For people who want local control, that’s scary.
“We were in a corner, we were stuck, we were forced to do that, and the state board rushed in without their typical vetting process for a chance at federal money,” Few said. “We believe the federal government needs to back out of education. Constitutionally the federal government has no role in education. We need to maintain education in our state and naturally we wanted to have comparison data and things, but we want our own high standards, not these imposed mediocre-at-best standards.”
In addition to states having a say now, she’s worried about what the state is locked into with the standards being controlled by NGA and CCSSO, and said there’s no telling what changes may come in the future.
Connie Hudson, a grandmother and concerned citizen who attended the meeting, agreed.
“I’m just real concerned about government being real strong with making so many decision for individuals,” Hudson said. “I’m a big strong believer in the Constitution, and I just feel like that maybe love for the Constitution is not as strong as it used to be or taught the same way. I’d like for our young people to have a good, strong education and be able to do what they want and have choices.”
Within the anti-Common Core group, conservatives are vastly more outspoken. But for one local teacher Allicyn Steverson, a first-grade teacher in Society Hill and a past candidate for Florence School District 1 Board of Trustees, she said it isn’t political. She just doesn’t like teachers being told how to do their jobs.
“These standards make us teach in a box and when you’re teaching to just the standards, you’re not getting a well-rounded education. You’re basically teaching toward a test and you’re not preparing them for the real world,” Steverson said.
David Blackmon, the chairman of the South Carolina Board of Education, which has backed the implementation of CCS, said even for those who dislike the federal government’s impact on education, the rules of the game are set and South Carolina has to play ball.
“If the issue is federal intrusion, where was the outcry with No Child Left Behind?” Blackmon said. “I’ve looked at numbers and the thing is for every dollar we (South Carolina) send to Washington, we get $1.35 back, and I believe the federal funds associated with our state budget make up about $7 billion of our total $22 billion, so the federal government, whether we like that or not, already has significant influence in what we do in all services, across the board, cradle to grave.”
He knows Common Core will be a fight in South Carolina, but said if opponents succeed, the state won’t be able to renew its ESEA waiver, and hundreds of thousands of dollars plus loads of man hours spent securing the waiver and training teachers for years on CCS will be down the drain.
“I pose the question to them: If we opt out of Common Core, and legislatively the General Assembly can do that if they want, if we do, then what is their alternative? What way do they want to improve education? I haven’t heard any suggestions.”
The standards themselves
SCPIE takes issue with the actual standards themselves, too, not just how they came about and why.
Among the chief complaints, Few claims the standards will drastically reduce the amount of classic literature taught in classes because it increases the informational text requirements; the math standards for high school are too low, leaving students unprepared for the real world or four-year colleges; and most disturbingly she said the kindergarten through third grade standards are developmentally inappropriate, and psychologically scarring children who are unable to think like they’re asked to.
Proponents of Common Core, including Blackmon and many teachers themselves, all agree that the standards aren’t perfect and that it’ll take time to iron out the kinks. But they also agree that those assertions of SCPIE and other groups are inflammatory.
When it comes to literature, English teachers say it won’t take a hit. Though 50 percent of a student’s reading regimen is required to be nonfiction, informational text, South Florence English teacher Roslynn Elom said students get a lot of that in other subjects.
“Yes, we’re bringing in more informational texts and nonfiction writing, but there’s still room for both,” Elom said. “In social studies and science, they’re already getting a lot of that and we’re collaborating to get more. Common Core does not wipe out fiction.”
Plus that requirement is part of getting students to think critically and back up their assertions, a skill teachers say is a good thing for the real world.
That is the biggest change educators say is both taking time and will pay dividends: Common Core focuses on teaching students to think critically and problem solve, not just regurgitate information.
JoAnn Nance, a math teacher at McLaurin Elementary, said it’s not just English that requires critical thinking.
“It used to be that we were teaching ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’,” Nance said. “With the CCS, I feel like we're digging deeper into the math concepts, in the younger grades focusing on more of the number concepts and operations. It's no longer just a ‘right answer.’ It goes deeper into the thinking behind it. Students are learning multiple ways to solve problems while having to explain their answers.”
Few said parents of young children are concerned because their bright children are now depressed and frustrated with school because they’re being asked to think abstractly at too young an age. Those developmental assertions have been backed up by a number of psychologists and early education groups, many of whom have close ties to conservative issue-based organizations, like The American Principles Project.
Even some opponents of Common Core, though, say that’s not actually the case.
“I somewhat disagree,” Steverson said of her experience teaching the standards in first grade. “We are still teaching below what it should be, but they’re not ready for it because we have been teaching below. It’s not unattainable for these kids. We have stopped teaching children how to think and Common Core does do more of expecting them to think, and that is good.”
The fight continues
There are myriad other pros and cons to Common Core.
On cost, some say paying for the tests for CCS (South Carolina is moving toward the Smarter Balance test) and the technology upgrades required to administer the computer-based tests are huge. Proponents say technology upgrades are an investment that mirrors the world students will graduate into and that throwing money at reconfiguring a new set of standards would be a huge waste.
On quality, opponents say the standards actually dumb down the content, while proponents say they actually prepare South Carolina students much better for the real world and put us on par with other higher performing states.
Opponents say there will be no local control over what is covered in class, while proponents say CCS don’t set the details of the curricula, just the goals and that it provides for 15 percent latitude to add in information and goals important to local people.
Ultimately though, each side has made rebuttals to every argument, pamphlet and op-ed, to which their opponents have created counter-rebuttals.
At a recent education forum in Darlington the state Education Oversight Committee Executive Director Melanie Barton summed it up in telling teachers, “This will be played out in Washington and Columbia. Focus on learning those standards. Focus on those kids in your classroom and being the great teachers that you are.”