Nontraditional Schools Chart the Waters of Common Core

Published December 6, 2013

Since the inception of national Common Core curriculum and testing standards, how they would affect charter schools has been unclear. Some charter schools are finding a growing rift between their unique missions and government-imposed accountability measures such as state tests that will soon be replaced by those from one of two national testing consortia, SBAC (Smarter Balanced) or PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).

“Charter schools are independent schools by definition,” said Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute in Arizona. “The Common Core is driving the idea of uniformity.”

Forty-five states traded their state standards and tests for Common Core in 2010. The national standards govern math and English Language Arts, the two subjects the federal government requires states to test in order to receive federal funds.

Losing Autonomy?
Several classical charter schools in Colorado signed a resolution against Common Core in October 2013.

“Our most significant issue with the Common Core and PARCC exams is that we feel we will lose the autonomy and other protections granted to us when Colorado adopted its Charter Schools Act in 1994,” Ridgeview Classical School Principal Derek Anderson recently told columnist Michelle Malkin. Ridgeview signed the resolution. It consistently ranks among the top schools in Colorado and the country.

“The Common Core State Standards run contrary to the idea of education being either a private or a local matter, and are contrary to the idea of the states as ‘laboratories of democracy,'” the resolution says.

Anderson says what the national standards intend schools to do would destroy Ridgeview’s successful classical curriculum.

Lisa Frank agrees. She’s the cofounder and board president of another classical school, Adams Traditional Academy in Phoenix.

“We think Common Core is a violation of federalism and a violation of localism,” she said. “Education should happen locally. Anything beyond that is a set up for failure because it does not follow correct principles.”

Diluted Curriculum
This school year an Adams parent committee evaluated Common Core-aligned textbooks teachers collected. They concluded many did not promote the school’s values. Also, the second- and third-grade reading books were a grade or two below the reading levels of Adams students, and the math was typically a full year behind—especially in middle school, where Adams students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade.

Though the Arizona legislature has provided no funding for PARCC’s technology requirements, the state designated Adams as a test site for Common Core tests, leaving Frank to wonder how the new tests will force changes at her school.

For now, Adams will continue its traditional approach to education, employing the same curriculum but modifying parts—particularly in math—to meet the Common Core standards more closely.

“We will abide by the law in accordance with our charter, mission, and philosophies, but we are making our voices heard with legislators and others of influence, hoping there will be changes,” Frank said. “Educational choice should reside with the parent, not bureaucrats.”

Are Tests a Side Issue?
Standardized tests are often a specter, says Phillip Kilgore, director of the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College in Michigan. The initiative helps develop classical charter schools.

“Well-educated students should be able to do well on tests,” he said. “For weeks, schools will abort their curricula to prep students to take tests due to fear of repercussions from the state level. A good school, with sound traditional teaching methods, doesn’t view state tests as a specter. They don’t abort their curricula, but instead continue to instruct their students as they’re obliged.”

A testing track record, however, is important, he said. If high-performing schools suddenly become low-performing on a new test, “a reasonable person would believe the explanation is the test.”

“The whole idea of a charter school is that it has freedom; it can demonstrate a better way to educate students,” Kilgore said. “When Common Core overreaches as it is, it undermines and nullifies the charter schools legislation legislators worked so hard to pass.”

Image by Per Arne Slotte.