Maybe the problem is in the name: something that sounds so bland just has to be sinister. From Michigan to Tennessee, conservative groups are mobilizing against Common Core, the new K-12 education standards that spell out what students at each grade level should know in math and English. Until earlier this year, all but four states had agreed to adopt these new achievement goals. Now, in the face of a grassroots backlash against the standards, Michigan and Indiana have paused implementation of Common Core, Ohio is considering a halt, and efforts are afoot in other states to do the same. Arkansas is one of them.
The first thing to understand about Common Core is that it is not a curriculum. The standards dictate to states and school districts not what material to teach but rather the skills students should be able to demonstrate — for example, a fifth grade student should be able to multiply fractions, and an eighth grader should be able to identify gerunds and infinitives. If we imagine a teacher as a chef and the week's lessons as a menu, Common Core would be the equivalent of the food pyramid. The standards don't tell teachers what meals to serve; they just describe the outline of a healthy diet.
Arkansas already has a set of such guidelines, which the state Department of Education (ADE) calls the "Curriculum Framework." But there's widespread bipartisan agreement that our standards need to be more rigorous. Standards should also be the same across state lines to allow for accurate comparison of student performance — if Algebra I end-of-course tests in Massachusetts and Arkansas shoot for different objectives, it's meaningless to compare data between the two states. This is the point of Common Core, which asks students of each grade to demonstrate more advanced skills than Arkansas currently demands. ADE began to replace the old Framework with Core standards in 2011-12 and the change will be complete across all K-12 classrooms by this fall. Teachers have been trained in the new standards statewide, but for most veteran educators this is less of a sea change than a shift in what to emphasize — not a new menu, simply an adjusted one.
So why are Michigan and Indiana now hesitating? And why, at the Education Committee's interim July meeting — normally a sleepy time of the year, legislatively speaking — was the Arkansas Capitol's largest committee room packed with dozens of parents and other activists wearing "STOP COMMON CORE" buttons?
There are valid concerns about the way Common Core is being rolled out. First, Arkansas faces logistical problems with administering new computer-based Core-aligned tests because many rural districts possess insufficient Internet bandwidth to administer online exams. Second, more rigorous targets in themselves do little to help those students already failing to meet the state's current Framework standards, who are overwhelmingly poor and minority children. At the July meeting, Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) argued the standards would "lift the bar higher for kids who can't meet the bar where it is now." Finally, and most importantly, Core standards are intimately tied to the martial regimen of exams required by No Child Left Behind and championed by education reformers. That's the "standardized" part in "standardized tests." However, Common Core itself does not increase the testing burden on students or affect how teachers are evaluated, which is one reason teachers' unions have supported the policy. "Evaluations are a different question than Common Core itself," said E.C. Walker, the interim director of the Arkansas Education Association (AEA).
But to explain the current wave of opposition, you have to look to Glenn Beck. The right wing entertainer is fighting his own slide into irrelevance by fostering a crusade demonizing Common Core as a federal takeover of public education. Common Core "nationalizes" what kids should know, he says, despite the fact that this is a state initiative, not a federal one. "Your kids are going to be poked and prodded like in '1984,' " Beck has told parents on his radio show, warning of iris scans, leftist indoctrination, and "computers monitoring their facial expressions." The claims are preposterous, but the message resonates with conservatives suspicious of big government.
On the first day of July's testimony, Arkansas seemed as if it might be the next front for this fear-driven campaign. Parents and anti-Core academics spoke for about six hours. There was plenty of ominous talk about federal authorities usurping local and state control, along with more sympathetic complaints of a public education system overwhelmed by testing requirements.
When testimony resumed the following morning, though, it became clear that the Core is safe in Arkansas. Teachers, high school students, and administrators told the committee that higher standards are needed. ADE officials assured lawmakers that nothing in Common Core shifts control of education away from the state and local levels. Other voices underscored the breadth of establishment support for the Core, among them the Chamber of Commerce, the AEA, and representatives from the Walton Family Foundation, which is one of the nation's leading advocates for school reform. The Committee's questions were nuanced and mostly friendly, and no member seemed especially interested in pursuing Monday's arguments. Though the room was still crowded with anti-Core activists, the mood was decidedly subdued.
Two weeks later, Education Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home) said that while discussion about the Core continued, he had not "heard from any member...saying 'we definitely we need to put a stop to this.' "
In retrospect, the legislature never had much of an appetite for the Common Core controversy. As one education official pointed out to me, the General Assembly barely mentioned the subject during the spring session. But why? One would think that if an isolationist push to assert state sovereignty could gain traction in purple states like Michigan and Ohio, it would positively bloom in Arkansas. Instead, it seems to have fizzled. What happened?
One speculative answer is that the Walton family happens to be deeply invested both in Common Core and the Republican party. In other states, the surprising traction gained by anti-Core activists is a testament to divisions within the GOP: While the party's rightward fringe reviles the standards as one more piece of a big government conspiracy, business-friendly Republicans such as Jeb Bush are among their loudest supporters. But Northwest Arkansas, home base of the state's Republican party, is also Walton territory. Maybe the family has counterbalanced the effort to dismantle a key piece of school reform in its home state.
Another, larger explanation lies in the past decade of Arkansas education policy and its bipartisan efforts to correct the failures of the school system spotlighted by the Supreme Court's Lakeview decision. As vice-chair of the Education Committee and a former teacher, Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) has long been on the front lines of debates over public schools. She pointed to the state's "history of investment in education" when asked why Common Core has fared better here than elsewhere. "Things came to a head in 2003 when we had to decide how to meet the dictates of Lakeview," said Elliott. "We raised taxes in a major way for the first time that I can remember in 2004 in the interest of education — which was Governor Huckabee's work. And there was not a big outcry about that because we knew it had to be done." Key echoed Elliott's assessment. "We've spent a lot of taxpayer dollars over the past 10 years on improving education," he said. "The thought has been 'Common Core will keep Arkansas from falling behind in education again.' People view this as another step Arkansas is taking towards being competitive."
Ironically, it may be Arkansas's deficiencies in public education that caused even the most right-wing lawmakers to hesitate before setting fire to the Common Core. Now it's up to the state to make sure the standards are implemented in a way that genuinely meets student needs and includes parents and teachers in the process. In New York, tougher exams based on Core standards recently caused student scores to drop. This decline was expected, but it worries parents and alarms teachers, who are often evaluated by student performance. Some unions have called for states to place a moratorium on teacher evaluations using Core-based exams, and observers worry that jitters on the left and paranoia on the right could join forces to derail the Core in more and more states. That seems less likely to happen here. Walker, the AEA director, said that his group considered pushing for a delay of the Core-based tests in Arkansas for another school year but decided against it because such a step "would have given too much credence to the detractors" of Common Core. He is also optimistic about the Core's implementation, citing "evidence of a tradition of collaboration here [on education]" that he hasn't seen in other states. Sen. Elliott said much the same thing. "We have a hardcore group of people who do not want to go backwards [on education]. They remember the struggles. They remember what it took to get Arkansas on this trajectory. And this shows why it's so important that even when we disagree, we should do it respectfully."