Indiana’s Attempt to Replace Common Core Under Fire

Published March 11, 2014

The first draft of Indiana’s testing and curriculum standards meant to replace Common Core national standards has grassroots activists in arms and educators and business leaders complaining, which has caused Gov. Mike Pence and his staff to slightly delay the rewrite process.

Almost no one has praise for the new standards, which essentially overlay Common Core with so many more mandates from other standards that roughly 90 percent of Common Core inside constitutes half the draft, according to an analysis of the math standards by former U.S. Department of Education official Ze’ev Wurman. During three public hearings around the state on February 24-26, school administrators and teachers complained that the 98-page draft with more than 1,000 K-12 mandates would be virtually impossible to cover during the school year.

At the very end of the February 26 hearing in Plymouth, a second-grade teacher stood up.

“I sat here for hours and didn’t think I would speak, but I have to,” she said. She feared publicly speaking her mind, she said. Common Core went into place in her classroom in 2013-14, she said, and it’s so overwhelming she can’t “truly care” about her students and their families. “We just run all day long,” she said, her voice trembling. “I feel Common Core is really beating up our children.”

High-Energy Politics
In 2013, state lawmakers put Common Core’s national curriculum and testing mandates on hold, meaning they’d remain partially phased into K-3 classrooms while grades 4-12 would use Indiana’s previous standards until the state reviewed Common Core. Since then, Pence called for “uncommonly high” standards written “by Hoosiers for Hoosiers,” state Superintendent Glenda Ritz walked out of a state board of education meeting and sued the board when board member Brad Oliver moved that it follow the law by reviewing the standards, and the governor began a new education agency under his control, not Ritz’s.

Common Core has been besieged by parents and academics for approximately two years, leading to legislative challenges against it in approximately half of the states this spring alone. They’ve flagged a number of concerns, including the private process that created the standards, legally suspect Obama administration demands that states adopt them and corresponding national tests, the standards’ academic quality, loopholes that allow private entities to collect children’s personal data and give access to it to the federal government, and forcing the standards on teachers through test results that play into their job security.

More than 850 Hoosiers had submitted online comments on the draft standards as of Friday, said Lou Ann Baker, a spokeswoman for Pence’s education agency. “That’s a lot,” she said. Typically, few citizens comment on state standards proposals. Indiana also recently proposed new social studies standards, for example, which local media has not yet reported and even keyed-in grassroots activists just recently discovered, according to Heather Crossin of Hoosiers Against Common Core.

Storm of Criticism
State board of education member Andrea Neal, who criticized Common Core before Pence appointed her to the board, met with Pence to discuss the draft on March 5. Neal, a middle school English and history teacher, says she is deeply concerned that Indiana will approve subpar academic requirements and called the draft a “fiasco.”

Neal told the governor “this is more than federalism; it’s about the quality of the standards,” she wrote in an email to School Reform News. “He reiterated that he wants standards that are ‘uncommonly high.'”

That description doesn’t fit the current draft standards, she said, and even Common Core supporters agree.

The draft standards would lead to “the curriculum being too crowded, making it virtually impossible to properly teach or learn,” said Derek Redelman, a vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, in a press release announcing the chamber’s analysis of the draft. The chamber has opposed all efforts to replace Common Core until just recently.

“[T]his draft did not focus strongly enough on improving the glaring weaknesses of Common Core standards but instead made minor (and sometime negative) changes, and piled a whole lot of new content on top of already massive Common Core,” said Wurman’s review, which Hoosiers Against Common Core requested. He helped write California’s well-regarded former math standards. “To come up with a good, focused, and coherent set of standards will take much more effort than dump a pile of additional standards on top of the Common Core with little rhyme and reason.”

The draft English standards are also worse than Common Core and Indiana’s previous standards, said Kathleen Porter-Magee, who testified in favor of Common Core in Indiana and now works at College Board under Common Core lead writer David Coleman.

The draft is “less specific, less coherent, and harder to navigate than either Indiana’s previous standards or the Common Core,” she wrote in her review. It “fails even to address some of most vocal criticisms of the [Common Core] literacy standards.”

The draft, by repeating Common Core, entrenches “circumlocutory edu-speak,” said Terrence Moore, an Angola resident and Hillsdale College professor who previously ran one of the highest-ranked public schools in the nation. He gave as an example one standard that was in both: “Associate the long and short sounds with the common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.”

“[S]tudents are supposed to associate (know?) the long and short sounds when they see ‘the common spellings . . . for the five major vowels,'” he wrote. “Now ask yourself: How many ways are there to spell the letter A? I can only think of one, unless you mean to distinguish between capitals and lower case, which is not what is being said.”

When he asked state board members in a public meeting a basic question about teaching phonics, they never answered directly or gave any indication they understood how to teach kids to read, he said.

“Either the state school board and the committee they have appointed are in over their heads and unable to outline how students learn to read, write, and do math, or they are deliberately fighting a war of attrition in order to hold onto the Common Core, albeit without the name, hoping that the troublesome parents of Indiana will eventually lose interest in the issue and go away,” Moore concluded.

Foxes Guarding the Henhouse
Pence’s education agency, the Center for Education and Career Innovation (CECI), has been steering the Common Core rewrite, but with a large number of hands on the wheel from Common Core supporters. Crossin and fellow activist mom Erin Tuttle found that the state’s two panels to pick draft standards and evaluate those choices are half to a third comprised of people who publicly supported Common Core. That likely explains why the draft looks so much like Common Core. Further, eight people sit on both panels, meaning they would evaluate their own work.

“I know some of [the panel members] have testified in favor of Common Core not because of ideology but because they believed they were better standards,” Oliver said. “You have two very different competing philosophies about standards right now.”

The small army of grassroots Hoosiers who pushed the state to reconsider Common Core didn’t spend hours driving to legislative sessions, public hearings, and rallies to get Common Core back in classrooms, Crossin said.

“Most of us thought we’d moved beyond the debate of whether we in Indiana should reject Common Core, but those in positions of power clearly do not agree,” she said. “At every turn, academics have been matched one-for-one by highly politicized Common Core supporters regardless of whether they have the appropriate qualifications.”

State law requires the board to evaluate Common Core, Oliver noted, so it at least had to be on the table.

‘Violation of Their Professional Integrity’
To quell concerns over the people remaking the state’s standards, CECI’s Claire Fiddian-Green invited several nationally recognized evaluators to examine the draft, including several prominent Common Core supporters and two grassroots activists trust: Sandra Stotsky, who is responsible for Massachusetts’ top-of-the-nation English language arts standards, and R. James Milgram, a Stanford University mathematician who helped write California’s top-of-the-nation math standards. Both were the only content experts to sit on the final review panel for Common Core and both have publicly spoken against Common Core, charging it is of mediocre academic quality, at best. Stotsky also helped Indiana write its previous standards.

“There is no point in my evaluating the future work of a committee, bereft of a sufficient number of academically qualified high school English teachers, that cut-and-pasted Common Core’s ELA standards for grades 6-12 thinking they were better than Indiana’s own standards,” Stotsky wrote Fiddian-Green. Stotsky requested that she work with “academically qualified high school English teachers, assisted by one or two literary scholars in your colleges/universities (not education schools)” to write better standards.

Fiddian-Green refused. “[W]e remain confident in the qualifications of” the English language arts panels, she emailed back. “Therefore, we will not be reconstituting the panels.”

At that, Stotsky refused to participate. In an interview, she said the panels discredited themselves by putting out such shoddy work, which demonstrated they don’t know why Indiana’s standards were already better than Common Core or how to improve either.

“Do you know of a high school English teacher when told to come up with standards would cut and paste from anything?” she said. “They have their own words and own ideas even if they agree with the gist of it. They would never cut and paste from any source. It would be a violation of their professional integrity.”

A variety of state education agencies recommended panel members, first pulling from advisory teams the Department of Education assembled in fall 2013, then adding members primarily at the advice of board member Oliver, Baker said, because his PhD has a secondary concentration in curriculum studies. The panels primarily constitute professors from Indiana schools of education and representatives from “the workforce,” and must have had previous experience writing standards, say state board documents. Members also had to represent various groups including urban, rural, and suburban communities and “socioeconomic status.”

“You could have James Milgram and Sandra Stotsky write the standards,” Oliver said. “If we did that, the fight would not go away because the local districts would adopt whatever they want. It’s not just as simple as getting the standards right. This is one battle in the larger war for the hearts and minds of our children.”

Running Out the Clock
Because of the massive public comment and feedback from national experts, CECI staff will likely delay the rewrite process, Baker said. While waiting for those comments to come in, the panels are straightening up the draft to make sure each mandate is sequenced in order with earlier ones, she said.

“The goal in getting these standards out initially was to first and foremost to share with the public with what the evaluation teams had considered were the basic components of what students need to know and demonstrate,” Baker said. “We felt it was important to share those items knowing full well that they’re not perfect, and not finished.”

The original schedule had the state board voting on a final set of standards at its April 9 meeting. That isn’t going to happen anymore, Baker said, and while the various agencies have decided the vote will be later, they’re not sure when yet. Board members are volunteers who have day jobs.

Before the standards get to the board, they have to go to the Education Roundtable, another government committee comprised of people the governor, legislature, and state superintendent have appointed to represent various constituencies including a number of businesses, Catholic schools, teachers unions, state universities, minorities, and more.

“The only criticism I have of the process is I would have liked to wait on public comment, because when it’s fluid people think it’s final but it’s not,” Oliver said. “When the Roundtable gets it, they’ll change it again. We are not even halfway through this process.”

The Roundtable lists among its “partners” the central organizations that created Common Core, including Achieve, Inc., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“It is a massively complex process,” Baker said.

The online comment form closes March 12 at 11 p.m. That day, the Indiana legislature is scheduled to adjourn. Both houses have passed another bill to end Common Core. The law requires new standards to be in place by July 1. Some Indiana schools start in early August.

“The million dollar question is does [Pence] want standards that are uncommonly high, or did he want to run Common Core through an Indiana-run process?” Crossin asked. “All things are on track for the latter.” 

Image by the House GOP.