On Monday, March 25, 2014, Indiana governor Mike Pence signed legislation that made Indiana the first state to abandon the nationally popular common core state standards. The debate about the implementation of these standards has been raging in many of the states that initially approved them. But what is really behind this change of heart in Indiana? The debate about how to reform Indiana’s schools is far from over, and the final results remain to be seen. But what implications does this action really have?
States began coming up with their own educational standards back in the 1980’s, largely in response to reports that our nation’s students did not measure up. Some states eventually did a good job of writing standards (like Indiana), and some didn’t. What resulted was a mish-mash of incoherency with no way to confirm that schools were adequately educating students. In 2007 the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief School Officers embarked on the task of coming up with standards that would be unified from state to state, these were finalized in 2010 and came to be known as the Common Core State Standards. Common Core State Standards were adopted by Indiana in 2010, one of the first states to do so.
Indiana originally adopted Common Core State Standards in 2010 as part of an overall effort to reform education in Indiana. The plan also included a voucher program, a teacher evaluation mandate, merit pay, and an A-F accountability grade for schools. The common core didn’t get a lot of attention at the time and the other aspects of the reforms were far more controversial. So why is common core a big deal now?
While there are many facets of the argument against adopting common core state standards, the main opposition in Indiana went as follows. Many families in already high performing schools felt common core standards were lower than the previous standards for their students. In Indiana, private schools that take vouchers have to abide by the same standards as public schools in the state. This means the students have to meet the same proficiency standards on the same standardized tests as students in public school. So by receiving vouchers, schools that were already successful were expected to abandon their standards in favor of common core state standards that were unproven, and agree to the standardized tests that are aligned with those standards, even though at the time those tests were still undeveloped. The opposition says it essentially amounts to a “bait and switch” for students receiving vouchers. Students can get a voucher to attend a better school if theirs is lousy, but when they get there they will find that we have lowered the standards and they aren’t really getting the same quality of education they signed up for.
This is a valid concern for parents– the oldest rule of contract negotiation applies here - “if you don’t get it in writing, it isn’t happening”. Parents can bet if your school is required to adopt specific standards, that is exactly what your child will be learning – not above and beyond – and that is a problem where standards were higher to begin with.
So many of Indiana’s parents were arguing that “we were performing well already, thank you very much, and don’t need common core”. And they have a point. In Indiana’s case the standards were really good. Good enough that they were adopted by schools in other places and used as a model when NGA and CCSS sat down and started to devise common core. Experts have even publically stated that Indiana’s standards overlapped with common core more than most, and the standards the state adopted under common core weren’t much different. In fact Indiana’s standards were actually rated as being better than the common core.
The problem with this argument is that Indiana has been spending around $34 million on math remediation every year, so clearly there is a problem somewhere. This means the state’s old standards don’t qualify as being “college and career ready”. So is the problem the standards, how they’re being taught, the way the students are assessed, or how schools are held accountable?
One thing is certain; education cannot be improved when both sides are busy accusing each other of partisan politics. The proponents for and adversaries against common core both have some very valid concerns that need to be addressed and changed if we want to improve our children’s education. So don’t be surprised if more states stop and take a good hard look at the common core standards they hurriedly accepted just a few years ago. Hopefully by having this argument in Indiana, we can effectively address the educational problems we are experiencing as a nation and work through them.