Two years ago in September, Heather Crossin’s 8-year-old daughter Lucy came home from her Catholic school in Indianapolis with a math problem that seemed unusual.
“Bridge A is 407 feet long. Bridge B is 448 feet long,” the problem read. “Which bridge is longer? How do you know?”
“Bridge B is longer,” Crossin’s daughter had written. “I found this out by just looking at the number and seeing that 448 is greater than 407.”
The youngster’s answer was mostly wrong: According to her new textbook, enVisionMATH Common Core, she was supposed to compare the hundreds column, the tens column, and the ones column individually. The teacher gave her one point out of three.
“To me that was a reasonable answer for a third-grader,” says Crossin, 47, who complained to the school principal, along with other parents, about unfamiliar teaching techniques in the new math books. The principal said the school had no choice but to use them—the books were aligned with Common Core, a new set of mathematics and English language arts standards Indiana had recently adopted. The new standards would be reflected in state assessment tests many private-school students had to take.
That marked Crossin’s introduction to the Common Core State Standards, a uniform set of K-12 education standards 45 states have adopted. Ever since, Crossin and another mom from her school have led a grassroots fight against the standards in Indiana. This year they achieved a temporary victory when the state decided to pause Common Core adoption. Across the country, activists like Crossin have sparked state-by-state revolts against Common Core, threatening to cripple a broad movement toward universal education standards advocates say will improve American classrooms.
Although an August PDK-Gallup poll found two out of three Americans have never heard of Common Core, the debate has grown hot: Proponents and opponents accuse one another of misinformation or lying. Because Common Core is poised to transform statewide and nationwide assessment tests, public schools, private schools, and even homeschoolers will feel the impact.
The problem: American students lag internationally in math and reading skills, ranking 25th and 14th, respectively. The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 35 percent of eighth-graders performed at grade level or higher in math, and 34 percent did so in English.
The new standards are supposed to boost K-12 academics and produce college-ready graduates. Common Core standards are not curriculum: They don’t dictate what textbooks or resources teachers must use. Instead, they outline what students should know at each grade level.
For example, the Common Core math standards say third-grade students should be able to “fluently add and subtract within 1,000 using strategies and algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.” The English standards say they should “recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.”
High-school students should “prove theorems about triangles” and “demonstrate knowledge of ... foundational works of American literature,” among numerous other requirements for geometry, algebra, literature, reading comprehension, and writing. (Common Core does not cover science or history.)
Parents like Heather Crossin say the standards teach “fuzzy math” and conceptual techniques that confuse their children. One prominent mathematician has complained the standards don’t require students to learn algebra by eighth grade. Another, James Milgram, a member of the Core’s math validation committee, refused to sign off on the standards, saying they “reflect very low expectations.”
Others say the Core’s new emphasis on “informational texts,” or nonfiction works, means teachers must assign fewer classics like Treasure Island. They warn Common Core’s suggested reading list for high-school students includes The Bluest Eye, an arguably pornographic 1970 novel by Toni Morrison.
Common Core criticism isn’t universal, though. Top proponents include the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Both support school-choice reforms like charter schools and vouchers for low-income students.
“They’re not perfect, but they’re miles better than what most states had,” Michael Petrilli, the executive vice president of Fordham, says of the new standards. “We have studied state standards for 15 years. ... Over time they weren’t getting any better.” When Fordham analyzed Common Core, it determined the standards were superior to those in three-quarters of the states. “Even the opponents of the Common Core will admit that.”
In spite of the concerns some parents and experts have with Common Core addition and algebra, 15 member societies of the Washington, D.C.–based Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences have endorsed the new math standards.
And the English standard’s “informational texts” include important writings like the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Alongside Morrison and Ernest Hemingway, the suggested reading list still includes classical authors like Jane Austen and Shakespeare, in addition to newer works like David McCullough’s 1776.
Andrew Jones, an English teacher at a Christian school in Valparaiso, Ind., says there are good and bad elements in Common Core English (he’d edit the reading list). But, he said by email, “In a world that is telling kids that they make their own meaning, it’s encouraging to see Core standards encouraging methods like, ‘Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says.’”
Lane Walker, an evangelical who teaches math at a suburban public high school near St. Louis, thinks Common Core’s focus on conceptual thinking is urgently needed. “There’s a huge difference between getting kids to memorize a formula and getting them to understand a formula,” she said. If kids learn a formula—such as cross multiplication—without intuitively understanding why it works, they’ll misuse it later and struggle to apply it to real job situations, she said. Students don’t all think alike, so they need to hear different ways of solving the same problem.
Two private associations began writing the Core standards in 2009. (They were the National Governors Association, representing governors from across the United States, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, representing state education chiefs.) The effort involved dozens of teachers and experts in math, English, and international testing. Feedback during the drafting involved comments from over 10,000 stakeholders, including teachers and parents.
It would seem state education officials thought the drafts were looking good: While experts wrote the Core standards in 2009, 48 states and the District of Columbia signed on, agreeing to adopt them. The final standards were released in June 2010.
Critics say the state enthusiasm wasn’t about education: President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package contained $4.35 billion in funding through his Race to the Top education program for states that adopted common standards. Since only Common Core standards met the guidelines, states had the choice of adopting them or forfeiting millions of dollars.
As many conservatives see it, the financial carrot allowed the federal government to hijack Common Core.
“The federal government took those standards that were written by these two private organizations and imposed them on the states through the power of the purse,” says Jane Robbins, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, a conservative policy group. Federal involvement in education violates the Constitution because it shifts control away from states and local districts, she says.
“If a parent or a teacher in Georgia doesn’t like what they’re doing with geometry … there will be no one to call in the state of Georgia to complain about it … because no one in Georgia will have the power to change it.”
The Obama administration’s involvement has so tainted Common Core for many conservatives that in April the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning Common Core as “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.”
In addition, critics allege Core advocates are motivated by money from the co-founder of Microsoft. According to its website, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed $5.8 million in grants to the Fordham Institute since 2003, including an October 2009 grant “to review the common core standards and develop supportive materials.” The Gates Foundation is also a financial contributor to Jeb Bush’s Florida organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, another Common Core advocate. In all, the Gates Foundation has invested about $150 million in grants promoting Common Core, according to a tally by a Washington Post reporter.
A spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation, Deborah Veney Robinson, said she couldn’t confirm the $150 million figure since the foundation doesn’t track grants by specific topics. She said the foundation supports Common Core because it wants a more level playing field across the states, so kids from disadvantaged backgrounds have high expectations to aim for, and so kids who move from one state to another during a school year don’t encounter vastly different standards.
Indiana’s former governor and former education chief, Republicans Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett, were school-choice heroes. Under their watch, Indiana limited collective bargaining for teachers, expanded charters, revamped teacher and school evaluations, and gave away private-school vouchers to low-income students.
Daniels and Bennett liked Common Core, too. Indiana joined the effort to create the Core standards in mid-2009, and the State Board of Education voted a year later to begin adopting them. The state counts itself the first in the nation to align its teacher preparation standards with Common Core.
Heather Crossin didn’t hear about the new standards until her daughter brought home the math problem in 2011. She contacted state Sen. Scott Schneider, a Republican on the Senate education committee, but he also knew little about them. Today Schneider says, “Out of 150 legislators … in the statehouse in Indiana, there were very few that actually knew what Common Core was.” Exercising its legal authority, the education board had ushered in the new standards alone and begun implementation.
“Nobody was talking about it,” says Crossin. Appalled, she and another parent, Erin Tuttle, went to work, spreading information to friends and Tea Party leaders, and appearing on an Indianapolis radio show. Meanwhile, Schneider introduced a bill to the 2012 legislative session that would have banned Common Core. With Daniels and Bennett opposing it, the measure died.
But it was an election year. As Bennett campaigned, he found himself awkwardly defending his advocacy of Common Core at Indiana Tea Party meetings, while his challenger, Democrat Glenda Ritz, told parents she wanted to pause Core adoption.
When voters went to the polls that November, they sent Bennett packing in a widely watched upset. Schneider and others say Bennett’s position on Common Core was a key factor in his loss.
This year, when Schneider introduced a bill to pause adoption of Common Core, the Indiana General Assembly gave its approval. The state’s new governor, Republican Mike Pence, signed the bill in May.
The bill’s passage came even after the pro-Core (and Gates-funded) education group Stand for Children reportedly paid around $90,000 on Indiana TV and radio ads to oppose the bill.
Crossin and Tuttle, on the other hand, didn’t solicit funds and paid for their own gas when they traveled. “We’re just citizen activists,” Crossin says. “We care about our children’s education and their futures. … We feel like parents have been left out of the decision-making process entirely.”
Indiana’s new law puts Core implementation on hold while a legislative study committee compares Core standards with the state’s existing ones. (Incidentally, Indiana was one of just two states with English standards Fordham found to be superior to Common Core.) The law also requires an analysis of the cost to implement the new standards. The 11-member education board (with a few fresh Pence appointments) must make a final decision on the standards by next July.
The law marks a pause, not a ban, and some think Indiana will ultimately keep the Core standards. Dena Cushenberry, the superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township on the east side of Indianapolis, believes it’s too late to turn around now, after districts like hers have already purchased new curriculum. “The work has already started, and so a pause is very concerning to us,” she says. “We’ve already started providing professional development to our teachers to teach differently.”
The grassroots uproar in Indiana is paralleled elsewhere. Activists are pushing back against Common Core in Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Alabama, Kansas, Utah, Colorado, and other states. Groups like the American Principles Project (APP) have provided them with some national coordination and assistance, keeping in touch through a private email list. (Other policy organizations opposing Common Core include The Heritage Foundation and The Heartland Institute.)
For now, state involvement in two groups developing K-12 Core-aligned assessment tests is a good gauge of how deep Common Core skepticism is flowing. In July, Pence announced Indiana would withdraw from an assessment consortium known as PARCC. Georgia and Pennsylvania have also withdrawn, and Florida has signaled it may do so. (Alabama and Utah have withdrawn from the second consortium, known as Smarter Balanced.) As of mid-September, just 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, remained committed to PARCC. If the number drops below 15, the consortium will lose federal funding, dealing a major blow to the effort to develop uniform assessment tests.
Robbins of the APP says proponents of Common Core “did not anticipate there would ever be this pushback.”