RALEIGH, N.C. — Last week, a legislative committee recommended repealing and replacing Common Core — the set of academic standards North Carolina has used for the past two years — with new ones that a state commission would develop on its own.
Though it’s only the first step toward officially dropping Common Core, local officials said this week it looks as if the proposal has enough momentum to pass the General Assembly, which convenes its short session next week. The uncertainty is forcing Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools to pump the brakes on badly needed textbooks purchases.
Superintendent Beverly Emory said that planned textbook and instructional material purchases are on hold until the district knows what the state’s standards will look like for the foreseeable future. Because of state cuts to textbook spending, the district hasn’t adopted new math textbooks in nearly 10 years.
Until the new standards are adopted, Emory said the district will not purchase materials aligned to a specific set of standards.
“We don’t feel good about an investment to buy math books this summer if the curriculum is going to change,” she said.
Problem was implementation
While the district has put a spending freeze on anything tied to Common Core, it has already spent at least $300,000 of federal grant money on Common Core training. The state spent $22 million on the implementation and adoption of Common Core, and local districts across the state combined to spend $44 million. Forsyth County received more than $9 million in Race to the Top dollars, which Emory said was largely to be spent on training to help teachers prepare for Common Core. Teachers across the district have had anywhere from 18 to 60 hours of training.
“That doesn’t count the enormous amount of time they’ve spent preparing lessons, going online to find resources and supports,” Emory said. “I think the voice of the teacher really needs to be lifted up in this, when they’re the folks that have to deliver and they’re only in the second year of a brand new set of standards.”
Most teachers will readily admit that the implementation was not smooth for Common Core. All of the state’s standards were replaced at once, and it came during a period when the General Assembly was allocating little to local districts for new materials, texts or resources to match the new standards.
“I think the problem is not Common Core,” said Ann Petitjean, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators. “I think the problem was implementation. We had the opportunity to develop a curriculum around those standards that would really change the outcomes in public education. But we’ve decided to pull out because we didn’t see instant success, and now we have to start all over again.”
So, what’s next?
It’s hard to say what the new standards will look like. North Carolina is not the first state to move away from the standards after adopting them, but so far the action has involved either simply renaming the standards or adopting slightly amended standards under a different name.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, a member of the legislative committee that made the recommendation and author of an amendment to fast-track changes to Common Core standards, said that will not be the case in North Carolina.
“This bill puts education back where the Constitution says it belongs: in the hands of North Carolina,” Tillman said.
Indiana was the first state to officially back out of Common Core when Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill to get rid of the standards in March. The Indiana State Board of Education adopted new standards last month, but some critics are unsatisfied with new standards that they say are too similar to the Common Core standards they’re replacing.
It’s not entirely surprising, though, that Indiana’s standards would be similar to Common Core. It was one of the first states to adopt the standards and provided input in the standards’ development, under Pence’s predecessor, Gov. Mitch Daniels.
North Carolina had input in that process too, said Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer for North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction.
“We were in the middle of revising all of the standards in our state,” Garland said. “The (Common Core) standards were actually very close to what we were doing, anyway. It made good sense.”
Garland said the state was updating its standards to make them more rigorous after a study found that graduating students were not “college- and career-ready.” The State Board of Education directed DPI to update the standards, she said. The department was nearly finished with the math standards when the Common Core initiative came on line. Garland said the state compared its math standards to those of Common Core and found them very similar. The English and language arts standards weren’t as far along, she said, which gave North Carolina the opportunity to weigh in on various drafts.
“We felt like we did have input into the development of the Common Core standards,” Garland said. “We like the standards.”
Garland said it made sense, too, to have standards that were the same in many states, which would allow students consistency if they moved from one state to another. It would also allow states to compare academic performances.
But then, something began to change. And it wasn’t just in North Carolina.
Standards vs. Curriculum
Over the last year, hundreds of bills have cropped up in legislatures across the country opposing Common Core, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States’ rights advocates and conservative activists vocally opposed the Common Core standards, saying they were created without adequate local input.
The Common Core program, though, isn’t a federal mandate. It was developed by the National Governors Association, through a panel led by Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) and then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R).
While the discussion around Common Core became more politicized, the terms “standards” and “curriculum” were often used interchangeably. They are not the same, though.
Robin McCoy, the Department of Public Instruction’s director of K-12 curriculum and instruction, explained the difference.
“Standards are what we want students to know and be able to do by a specific period of time,” she said. “A curriculum is what teachers, schools and districts use to teach the standards.”
The Common Core State Standards outlined what students should be learning in each grade, but did not specify the ways in which those concepts and skills needed to be taught. It could vary by state, district, school and even classroom, McCoy said.
Standards were toughened
Still, the adoption of Common Core did change things for North Carolina students. The standards moved content forward, so students were learning certain concepts and skills earlier than in the past. The standards also encouraged broad understanding of concepts and critical thinking over learning specific skills.
For example, students are now expected to learn about the geometric principle of volume in fifth-grade math classes — a concept that was part of the sixth-grade standards under North Carolina’s Standard Course of Study.
But not everything was moved ahead.
Some concepts and skills remained in place, such as understanding place value. It was part of the fifth-grade standards under the Standard Course of Study as it is under Common Core. Other things were moved back, like converting different units within a measurement system. What used to be part of the third-grade math standards is now part of fifth grade.
Overall, standards were made more rigorous, and the teaching of concepts and skills were rearranged to make more sense and to build on each other.
McCoy said state policy mandates that academic standards be reviewed every five years, anyway. How much those standards change each year varies, though it’s uncommon for the entire set of standards to be tossed out and replaced.
Under the committee’s recommendations, a proposed advisory commission comprising 17 members — including parents of students, math and language-arts teachers, and experts in those subjects — would review the standards and recommend changes. Most of the members would be selected by the House Speaker, Thom Tillis, who is a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and the Senate president pro tempore, Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. Certain changes could come soon after, as the commission may suggest replacing specific elements of Common Core, under an amendment proposed by Tillman, the Randolph County senator. But the commission’s comprehensive report, with broader recommendations, would not be due until December 2015.
Until then, districts will have to watch and wait.