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What will sink and what will survive as states test Common Core?

December 25, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
In 2008, a set of academic standards for U.S. public schools called the Common Core was created for states to voluntarily implement. Intended to raise the bar for American students and teachers, many states that originally signed on are now rewriting the standards or opting out altogether. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Public schools across the country are transitioning to the Common Core, a set of new academic standards in math and language arts. But, increasingly, protests to them have gotten louder this year, and some states are even rethinking their decisions.

With a little help from Hollywood, special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters helps break down where things stand at year’s end.

JOHN TULENKO: A 1950s’ Hollywood drama tells a story of a lifeboat full of survivors of a shipwreck, too full, as it turns out.

ACTOR: We can’t save all your lives. There are too many people in this boat.

JOHN TULENKO: To keep the overcrowded lifeboat from sinking, some have to get tossed overboard.

ACTOR: I have to let you go, boy.

ACTOR: Not me. Not me. Let me stay.

JOHN TULENKO: The dilemma of that old film, who stays on board, who gets thrown over, that’s a great way to think about the Common Core these days.

It was launched in 2008, a lifeboat full of big ideas to save public schools. But, out on open seas, it’s had to toss aside key parts of the plan just to stay afloat. And the water is getting rougher.

PROTESTERS: No more Common Core!

JOHN TULENKO: According to a recent survey, 60 percent of Americans don’t want their teachers to follow the Common Core, among them comedian Louis C.K.

LOUIS C.K., Comedian: And then I look at the problems, and it’s like, you know, Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London?


JOHN TULENKO: To help us navigate these troubled waters, we have turned to three experts.

Neal McCluskey of the conservative Cato Institute:

NEAL MCCLUSKEY, Cato Institute: Clearly, the opinion, the public opinion of the Common Core has moved against it, especially if you use the term Common Core.

JOHN TULENKO: Chris Minnich, who leads the Council of Chief State School Officers, a group that helped write the Common Core.

CHRIS MINNICH, Council of Chief State School Officers: Given the amount of attention that we have received on the negative side, it is amazing to me that we’re — that we’re at a place where we still have all of these states being willing to work together. I think it’s a sign of the strength of these standards.

JOHN TULENKO: And Catherine Gewertz of Education Week, who has been following this journey from the start.

CATHERINE GEWERTZ, Education Week: There’s different stripes of criticism, though. And much of it has been not about the content of the standards, but about how the standards came about.

JOHN TULENKO: Common Core state standards were created to raise the bar for everyone. They were developed by the state’s governors and others, not the feds. And the expectation was that states would adopt them voluntarily. That idea was the first to go when states were slow to sign on.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have got the act now.

JOHN TULENKO: In 2009, Washington grabbed the helm through what it called the Race to the Top. States that agreed to a list of reforms, including high standards, could win a share of $4.3 billion in federal education funds, this at the height of the great recession.

WOMAN: First, let’s start with the big picture.

JOHN TULENKO: Forty-five states quickly signed on to the Common Core.

NEAL MCCLUSKEY: And then the backlash came because, suddenly, in 2011, 2012, districts get confronted with these new standards, and they say, what are these? Where did they come from? I’m looking at the math. It doesn’t make any sense. How come I’m hearing that good literature is being thrown out?

And so we moved to a system of national standards without ever having had a meaningful national debate about doing that.

JOHN TULENKO: And then, when the standards reached schools, the boat was rocked by the sudden challenge of getting teachers equipped and ready.

CATHERINE GEWERTZ: There’s incredible work going out there. I have seen some of it. But, in a lot of places, we see this showing up in the polls. Teachers are not getting what they need at all.

JOHN TULENKO: That includes books and curriculum aligned with the Common Core, and it’s why large numbers of public school teachers have already jumped ship.

I saw a recent poll, 41 percent of teachers in favor, 44 percent opposed.

CHRIS MINNICH: So it’s been mixed. Depending on which state you’re in, there are states that have had — have great implementation stories, where their teachers are polling much higher than the polls that you mentioned earlier.

In the places where it’s not, we need to make sure that we tweak that and we solve those problems. But, quite frankly, this is going well across the country right now.

JOHN TULENKO: But there is one thing teachers almost unanimously oppose.

NEAL MCCLUSKEY: Where we have seen a big change in opposition to Common Core is not to the standards itself. It’s to the testing and accountability that’s connected to it.

CATHERINE GEWERTZ: And the tests are being given this spring. And a lot of teachers feel like, we’re barely getting our arms around the curriculum and you’re giving tests?

NEAL MCCLUSKEY: You will evaluate teachers based on it. You will reward teachers based on it. You will evaluate schools based on it.

And so a lot of teachers and especially state-level unions have said, we don’t like the Common Core because of all the ramifications attached to it.

JOHN TULENKO: Sharp criticism from teachers forced U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, arguably the ship’s captain, to alter course.

ARNE DUNCAN, U.S. Education Secretary: We think many states want to take the pressure off of teachers, teachers who are working extraordinarily hard this year.

JOHN TULENKO: At the start of this change year, the secretary belatedly offered states a one-year reprieve from using Common Core test scores to evaluate teachers.

Even states are backing away. Of the 45 who started, 14 have thrown Common Core tests overboard in favor of developing their own.

NEAL MCCLUSKEY: Many cited the cost of the test. The ultimate goal is to have them be online. And that’s expensive.

You have got to get the bandwidth. You have got to get the computers. And, also, a lot are concerned with, what happens when something goes wrong on test day? The other part of this, though, it’s possible that they have dropped out of the test because they knew if you leave the test, you’re essentially leaving Common Core, and if you control your own test, you can set your own proficiency scores again.

CATHERINE GEWERTZ: The states are nervous. Any time more kids don’t meet the proficiency mark, it’s a politically very difficult position for states. They have to tell people, are our kids getting dumber? Why are our kids not performing well? We’re raising expectations? It’s harder, but it’s tough, tough politically.

JOHN TULENKO: There’s one move that many states have used to help the Common Core stay afloat in politically treacherously waters.

ACTRESS: Common in, darling. Last one in is a rotten egg.

ACTOR: Counterbalance. Counterbalance!

JOHN TULENKO: Twenty-five have dropped the name.

Ever heard of the Next Generation content standards and objectives?

CATHERINE GEWERTZ: No, but I’m not surprised that someone came up with that name.

JOHN TULENKO: Is this rebranding?

CATHERINE GEWERTZ: Sure, it is. States recognize that this is tricky stuff. So, yes, some states have renamed. Some have rewritten. Some have bailed.

JOHN TULENKO: Of the 45 states and the District of Columbia that originally signed on, North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia are rewriting Common Core standards. Indiana and Oklahoma have opted out, with South Carolina to follow next year. But that still leaves 38 states more or less on course.

CHRIS MINNICH: This blip was to be expected because, as you raise the expectations on any system, there will be — there will be pain points. But I think we have weathered the storm.

ACTOR: We’re alive.

JOHN TULENKO: But the boat hasn’t landed safely yet, and this spring’s Common Core tests could produce another storm.

I’m John Tulenko in New York reporting for the “NewsHour.”