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States nervous about new Common Core curriculum standards

The standards are designed to be more rigorous and to encourage deeper critical thinking skills—but implementing them poses a challenge

“I don’t think people fully realize the challenges that will come when the reality sets in that so few of our kids are college and/or career ready,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said recently, speaking at an education conference in Washington, D.C. The conference was sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which Bush created to promote some of the ideas he backed as governor, including early reading tests, vouchers, and charter schools.

“Moms and dads are going to be mad,” Bush said. “The reality is going to create problems for elected officials across the spectrum.”

Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education, Terry Holliday, knew this year’s results might cause a backlash from parents and students, so his department partnered with the state’s Chamber of Commerce and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an education advocacy group in the state, to help get the message out to parents about what was in store.

“Everybody knew it was coming,” Holliday says.

In addition to the shock of the initial test results, there has been growing concern about whether implementation of the Common Core state standards will reduce local control of schools and make it easier for the federal government to dictate what schools teach.

Proponents of the standards maintain they were developed by states without federal involvement.

“When we started this discussion with the chiefs and the National Governors Association, there wasn’t anybody from the Department of Education in the room,” Holliday says.

But the Obama administration did provide incentives for states to adopt the standards through its competitive Race to the Top grant program and the waivers it granted to states seeking to avoid certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. In both cases, states had to adopt college- and career-ready standards, such as the Common Core curriculum standards, though they had the option to develop their own alternative. The federal government also provided support for the development of standardized tests pegged to the standards.

However, Minnich doesn’t think those federal incentives are the reason so many states have signed on for the standards.

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“If I was sitting in a commissioner’s position,” he says, “I wouldn’t have done anything to get federal money if it wasn’t the right thing for my state.”

But the perception of federal involvement in the Common Core has persisted, with political ramifications. Weeks before Bush spoke in Washington, an education chief he championed, Indiana Republican Tony Bennett, lost to a challenger, Democrat Glenda Ritz, who made it known she intended to raise questions about the state’s adoption of the standards.

While it’s unclear whether Ritz’s stance on the standards actually swayed the election, Bennett saw it as a ploy to attract the support of tea party Republicans who have been skeptical of the standards.

“She was fairly direct in trying to curry favor with the ultra-conservatives,” he said, speaking the day after the election.

Ritz, who had been backed by the state’s teachers union, defended her position, saying that teachers in the state felt as though they had not been asked for input on whether to adopt the standards.

“We’re going to have to look at the Common Core,” Ritz said. “We need to be sure that we’re on the right track for what Indiana wants.”

Two groups of states are working to develop competing sets of tests based on the Common Core state standards. Ritz says she’d like to reconsider Indiana’s participation in one of those groups and the terms under which it was issued a waiver for No Child Left Behind.

Political pressure already has led another state to pull out of one of the testing groups: In August, Utah announced that it would no longer be participating in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

(Next page: Concerns about what teachers must teach)

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