No education-related topic generates as much controversy these days as the Common Core standards adopted by nearly all states and the District of Columbia. The standards have been debated in York County, in the state legislature, and across the country.
Here’s a look at some of the key questions about the Common Core standards.
What is Common Core?
“Common Core” is the shortened term for the Common Core State Standards, a set of academic standards defining what students should learn in English language arts and mathematics from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The standards were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. They have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, including South Carolina, which since 1999 had been using a set of state standards.
Last month, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill to reverse that state’s adoption of Common Core.
Standards, whether from Common Core or the state, are like roadmaps, said Sheila Quinn, associate superintendent of the Clover School District. They provide benchmarks and an end goal for students.
But they’re broad enough to allow for teacher personality, said Kershena Dickey, an instructional specialist in Clover.
“(Standards) provide parameters,” Dickey said. “It’s tight enough that it doesn’t turn into a free-for-all.”
Common Core standards are more rigorous than South Carolina’s previous standards, and Common Core requires teaching for understanding, not just memorization, said Tammy White, principal at Sunset Park Center for Accelerated Studies in Rock Hill.
“It’s not enough to just know the facts,” White said. “We need to help students understand and we spend a lot of time on the ‘why.’”
Why is there controversy surrounding Common Core?
As with most education mandates, some people have serious concerns about Common Core and are lobbying for South Carolina to repeal its adoption of the standards. One of the most vocal of these groups is South Carolina Parents Involved in Education, an education advocacy group headed by Sheri Few, who is also a Republican candidate for state superintendent of education.
Among the biggest concerns is that the states are ceding control of education to the national government. “One of the bigger issues is the fact we’re losing local control of South Carolina education,” Few said.
The federal government has tied Title I funding, money that goes to schools with large percentages of economically disadvantaged children, to the adoption of Common Core. Many people, including Few, argue that taking away such funding is a threat used to indirectly mandate the adoption of these standards.
In January, Gov. Nikki Haley called on South Carolina lawmakers to scrap Common Core curriculum.
“We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children,” Haley said, according to the Anderson Independent-Mail. “We want to educate South Carolina children on South Carolina standards, not anyone else’s standards.”
The executive committee of the state Republican Party also passed a resolution calling on the state to walk away from Common Core.
Some parents and early childhood specialists have also expressed concerns about the standards for kindergarten through third-grade students.
“These standards are developmentally inappropriate,” Few said. “They can cause psychological damage to children.”
Sunset Park Center for Acclerated Studies principal Tammy White disagrees.
“We’re not seeing damage at all,” White said. She sees students “who are up to the challenge.”
A lot of concerns are about data mining in Common Core. Under current proposed testing contracts, Few said, the federal government will have access to data about students.
Some Common Core opponents say 400 data points can be collected on every student and his or her family.
That’s not true, said Harriet Jaworowski, an associate superintendent in the Rock Hill school district.
“No one can get data with names ever,” she said. “If (the government) got student-level information, they would get groups of students,” and no names would be attached, because that would be a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Has Common Core already been implemented and how is it being received?
All six school districts in York, Chester and Lancaster counties have already begun implementing Common Core. Some, like Fort Mill, Rock Hill and Clover, have been phasing in Common Core for the past three or four years, administrators said, while others, like York, just began this fall.
Teachers in Clover and Rock Hill report students are responding well to the increased level of difficulty in the classroom.
“If they put forth the effort, a kid can do anything he wants to,” said Karen Schmolze, a middle school math teacher at Oakridge Middle School in the Clover School District. “Just because we’ve raised the bar in terms of rigor with the standards doesn’t mean a kid can’t rise to that.”
At South Pointe High School in Rock Hill, teachers are seeing students perform at higher literacy levels, said English teacher Carlo Dawson, because of the heavy emphasis on text-based responses across all subject areas.
“It’s forcing (the students) to work harder because they’re having to go back to that text,” Dawson said. “It’s really causing them to think about the ‘why.’”
Many of the concerns districts are hearing from those against Common Core is simply a matter of misinformation or incomplete information, said Clover associate superintendent Shelia Quinn.
What is the future of Common Core in South Carolina?
For months, groups like South Carolina Parents Involved in Education and lawmakers across the state have called for the total repeal of Common Core in South Carolina.
But last month, the Senate Education Committee advanced a bill that did not call for a repeal, but instead made provisions to limit what some see as federal interference in education, limits schools from sharing student-level data, and require the General Assembly to approve changes to standards not written by the state Department of Education, in addition to removing current high school exit exam requirements.
South Carolina Parents Involved in Education has been actively campaigning for the repeal of Common Core. Few said her group hopes the option to completely repeal Common Core is added back to the bill when it’s debated by the full Senate.
For the last several months, though, local school board leaders have maintained that Common Core isn’t going anywhere, arguing that years of work and millions of dollars have gone into teacher training and other necessary expenses to transition to Common Core standards.
In February, in a letter to the Senate Education Committee, Fort Mill school board chair Patrick White said the district was already seeing “the positive results of our hard work” and cited a recent survey of Fort Mill teachers that showed “we are definitely headed in the right direction” with Common Core.