A proposal approved April 24 by the Legislative Research Commission that would do away with the Common Core initiative in North Carolina classrooms is the latest in a long line of controversies surrounding the educational standards.
Focusing on English and math, the standards were approved by North Carolina in 2010 and implemented in state classrooms during the 2012-13 school year. Opponents have been vocal in their criticism from the start, saying that Common Core might be the gateway to allowing objectionable content into classrooms and that it could adversely impact private Christian schools and home schoolers.
Those certainly aren’t the only objections. Others are adamant that Common Core objectives are too difficult for those with no plans to go to college and too easy for those hoping to get into elite universities.
Some do not approve of the increased emphasis on informational texts as opposed to more classical literature, and others worry about the information that is collected on students and how it might be used.
After it was originally sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and enacted by 45 states, there is also the perception that Common Core is a national attempt at taking education out of the hands of local school systems.
A number of anti-Common Core movements have sprung up on the Internet, including Fight Common Core and Stop Common Core NC. The Home School Legal Defense Association produced a 40-minute film on the subject entitled, “Building the Machine.”
North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Sen. Jerry Tillman, both Republicans, applauded the possible removal of the standards. “Today is a great day for education in North Carolina,” Forest said in a prepared statement. “The General Assembly listened to the voices of thousands of parents, teachers, administrators and concerned citizens about the issues with Common Core. I would like to thank the senators and representatives who had the courage to do what is right for our children and our state in the face of opposition. This legislative action allows North Carolina to develop its own rigorous standards, created by its own teachers, school administrators, business leaders and parents.”
Tillman, a retired school administrator from Archdale, told, “Common Core is gone July 1 if this passes. This bill puts education back where the constitution says it belongs – in the hands of North Carolina.”
There was no response from Forest or Tillman concerning requests for further comment.
Common Core has plenty of advocates, such as The College Board; the National Association of Secondary School Principals; the National Association of State Boards of Education; the National Education Association; and the National Parent Teacher Association.
June Atkinson has served as the state superintendent of public schools in North Carolina since August 2005, and she wondered if doing away with Common Core in North Carolina might do more harm than good.
“I am concerned that the bill will create, yet again, uncertainty for our teachers when they have endured many uncertainties and challenges such as frozen salaries, loss of master’s pay for those getting a master’s degree after May 2014, accusations about schools being broken and the list continues,” she said in an April 24 e-mail.
According to Atkinson, at least part of the problem stems from the fact that disputes have always arisen over state educational standards. Noting that both the University of North Carolina General Administration and the state’s community college system have given Common Core their stamp of approval, she said, “Saying that [Common Core] doesn’t prepare students for elite universities, that criticism could be given to the standards we had in 1950, 1960, 1970, 2000, 2005. You cannot write a standard that would address every issue. The student has responsibility to go beyond the standards. The teacher has responsibility to go beyond.”
One appendix to the Common Core standards includes text exemplars from books, plays, poetry and informational texts such as George Washington’s farewell and Abraham’s second inaugural addresses for various grade levels. The book House of the Spirits by author Isabel Allende has recently been the subject of intense scrutiny in Watauga County, and passages from the work do not appear in the appendix.
The appendix is not a mandatory reading list, but instead gives examples of the level of complexity expected out of each grade level. It is the responsibility of the individual teacher to develop a specific curriculum that meets state standards.
“It has been the position of the Department of Public Instruction that we identify what students should know and be able to do as the result of being in school,” said Atkinson, the first female state superintendent in North Carolina history. “It is a local decision which textbooks, pieces of literature and what informational texts will be used in our schools. It is a local issue.”
When asked if private schools and those who instruct their children at home were required to adhere to Common Core standards, Atkinson had a simple response.
“No,” she stated, and then added, “State legislation indicates that home schools and private schools have total authority and leeway to teach that which they want to teach.”
The Bible is specifically mentioned in the Common Core standards themselves, and in speeches delivered by President Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass that are included in text exemplars. For integration of knowledge and ideas in grades nine and 10, for example, students are expected to “analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible, or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).”
Another occurrence, also for high school freshman and sophomores, states that they should be able to “analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.”
Some may find it troubling to see scripture included in the same sentence with a “work of fiction” or “myths.” Atkinson pointed out that it is a matter of punctuation. “The phrase referencing the Bible is offset by commas, and therefore, it should not be referenced back to words preceding the comma,” she said. “Another important word in this sentence is ‘or’ – another indicator that the intention for the phrase ‘religious works such as the Bible’ not to be grouped with the other items.”
What would Atkinson like for people to know about Common Core?
“The big idea that I would like for people to grasp is, ‘Read the standards,’” she said. “I’ve never seen a perfect set of standards. We’ll never have that. We’re always open to how standards can become better and how they can become clearer. So much is being piled on the Common Core standards, which really muddies the water. Standards are just simple statements of what students should be able to do. I would encourage people to read the standards.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Rick Houston is a freelance writer living in Yadkinville, N.C., with his wife, Jeanie, a district court judge, and their twin sons, Adam and Jesse.)