Ben Owens spent twenty years working as an engineer. During that time, he increasingly had a hard time filing jobs with properly skilled workers – so he chose to walk away from that career because he wanted to do something about it.
“When I was an engineer, I had a hard time finding graduates with skills that enabled them to collaborate, problem solve, communicate well, and think outside of the box – as cliché as that sounds,” said Owens, who now teaches high school physics and math in Cherokee County.
And for Owens, the Common Core State Standards represents a solution to that problem.
“The Common Core is very real world – students now truly understand numbers better than how they did in the past. By the time our kids get to high school, they have a better understanding of the number system and can translate it more quickly to Algebra,” explained Owens, who has been working long hours on Common Core implementation for the past three years.
“Yes, teachers have to go back and learn different approaches to teaching math. But in the long run, it’s about teaching fundamentals at a much richer and deeper level — and students can retain that information better,” he added.
Teachers and administrators across the state have been spending enormous amounts of time and money to implement the Common Core State Standards, which North Carolina adopted in 2010. But now the state is poised to replace the standards as a growing opposition movement to the CCSS has pushed lawmakers toward abandoning them in favor of home-grown alternatives – even though the state has already spent millions of dollars and resources on the Common Core’s implementation.
The cost of Common Core
North Carolina has had academic standards for as long as most people can remember, and revising those standards is something that the state typically does every five years. In 2008, the State Board of Education had a blue ribbon commission that mandated a rewrite of the academic standards in all subject areas.
At the same time, efforts to develop a set of academic standards had been taken on by governors and school administrators at a national level, leading to what is now known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which are guidelines for what students should be able to know and do in English and math.
According to a report published by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the state’s education stakeholders saw overlap between the new standards they were working on and the Common Core. They also saw additional benefits, were they to adopt the CCSS, that would allow the state’s teachers to exchange resources with other states, use common assessments to measure student achievement, and provide continuity for students moving from one state to another.
During that time frame, North Carolina also decided to compete for a federal Race to the Top grant, which the U.S. Department of Education offered for states that promised to engage in innovative education reforms. In order to qualify for a RTTT grant, states had to promise to adopt college and career ready academic standards – and the CCSS was one set of standards that qualified.
The state won a RTTT grant worth approximately $400 million – and a good chunk of that money has been used for Common Core. The state has spent nearly $72 million of the RTTT grant on transitioning to the new state standards, which includes CCSS, and an additional $68 million on building local districts’ technological capacity to deliver on the new standards.
Outside of RTTT funds, local school districts have also spent their own money on CCSS implementation – and it’s difficult to even put a figure on that cost.
“We have implemented new standards in the past, but we have never had the resources like this time, since we used Race to the Top to do a top notch job of implementation,” said Rebecca Garland, Chief Academic Officer for the NC Department of Public Instruction.
“We’ve [NC DPI] done literally thousands of regional training meetings during the last four years across the state for Common Core. The local school systems also conducted localized training programs to implement the Common Core as well,” said Garland.
Some teachers, like former engineer Ben Owens, have even spent their own personal funds and time on Common Core implementation.
“What do my students need? I will reach at any resource I can find, even at a personal cost,” explained Owens, who began spending time learning about the Common Core even before North Carolina officially adopted it. He says it also helps that he can draw on the resources of 44 other states.
“If I can google ‘common core quadratic equations,’ I have an infinite amount of resources at my fingertips. So I can pick and choose from resources that have been developed all across the country–whereas before, with just North Carolina-specific standards, my resource pool was limited to what the state had to offer,” said Owens.
Common Core repeal?
Not everyone is enamored of the Common Core. Last week, lawmakers concluded a months-long study of the Common Core State Standards by offering up draft legislation that would replace the CCSS with whatever standards a review commission, established by the proposed law, recommends.
While no sponsors were listed on the bill, Sen. Jerry Tillman was a driving force behind the legislation.
“If you adopt national standards, that triggers everything else. It triggers your test, it triggers your textbook, and it triggers your teaching methods,” Tillman told fellow lawmakers.
“If you believe in Common Core, they own it all, and North Carolina owns nothing…I’m more upset about taking education out of our hands and putting it in the hands of conglomerate states,” Tillman added.
Lindsay K. Furst, a high school English teacher in Buncombe County, says she likes the CCSS but takes issue with how the standards were developed.
“It wasn’t this democratic process in how it was formed,” said Furst. “The process should have included more input from teachers, parents and other stakeholders.”
The Common Core State Standards were commissioned by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO); however, education advocate Diane Ravitch says the process wasn’t transparent and didn’t include the right stakeholders.
“The standard-setting and writing of the standards included a significant number of people from the testing industry, but did not include a significant number of experienced teachers, subject-matter experts, and other educators from the outset, nor did it engage other informed and concerned interests, such as early childhood educators and educators of children with disabilities,” explained Ravitch.
“The process was dominated from start to finish by the Gates Foundation, which funded the standard-setting process,” said Ravitch.
Nonetheless, Furst says high standards are really important.
“I don’t have any problem with high standards in the state, and I don’t have any problem with adopting common standards either,” said Furst. “What people need to know is we’ve always had standards, and we’ve always had to teach to standards. My biggest gripe is tying so much of what we do to testing, and that has nothing to do with the Common Core – it has to do with rating teachers on the basis of their students’ performance on current state tests.”
Parents complained to the legislative Common Core study committee about the enormous amount of testing that their children have had to endure, and some parents have associated that testing with Common Core’s implementation.
“Common Core doesn’t increase the number of tests required,” explained NC DPI’s Garland. “By state and federal law, we have to test grades 3-8 in reading and math, annually, and in high school, we have to test reading and math at least once.”
Furst says that at the end of the day, there is no way she would ever be in favor of abandoning the Common Core.
“Having gone through so much training, all that struggle, and now we’re feeling better about what we’re teaching? Taking that away will push teachers over the edge,” said Furst.
It could also push the feds over the edge, too. Asked if the federal government will require North Carolina to give back some of its Race to the Top grant were it to abandon the Common Core State Standards, director of the state’s RTTT program, Adam Levinson, was hesitant to speculate.
“I will say the feds will hold us accountable for doing what we said we would do in our Race to the Top grant application,” said Levinson.
“We said we would have rigorous standards that would measure and lead to college and career readiness. And if the Common Core were to be dropped cold turkey, we’d have to have to come up with some standards to replace them – and the federal government would ask us how we will ensure that those standards are rigorous and college and career ready,” explained Levinson.
The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce is pushing hard to save the Common Core State Standards, which they see as a means toward creating a more highly skilled workforce capable of filling the demand for jobs that require higher order thinking skills.
“Abruptly abandoning the standards and implementation process adopted by state leaders in 2011 will jeopardize North Carolina’s economic and education progress in recent years,” reads the NC Chamber’s background statement that urges members to write to lawmakers who are seeking to rid the state of the Common Core standards.
But State Board of Education chair William Cobey says he isn’t concerned about the potential for a repeal of the Common Core.
“Common Core standards are I doubt perfect and should be subject to review – and if the legislature wants to set up a review commission to make recommendations to us, they are able to do it. But the State Board of Education will still set the standards,” added Cobey.
Gov. Pat McCrory has previously said he supports the Common Core, but his education advisor, Eric Guckian, stopped short of saying the words ‘Common Core’ to NC Policy Watch.
“We need high standards if our students will be able to compete at high levels and get real world jobs. The Governor has concerns about how Common Core has been implemented, and we need to have fewer and deeper tests,” said Guckian.
When pressed on whether or not Gov. McCrory still supports the Common Core State Standards, Guckian held back.
“We’re not interested in picking sides, we’re interested in high standards that will be useful for our communities and educators,” he said.
Joanna Schmizzi, a high school teacher in Mecklenberg County, says she’ll be very disappointed if the Common Core is repealed – and if it is, she has her own theory as to why lawmakers are moving in this direction.
“To me it says they are afraid,” said Schmizzi. “To pull out of the Common Core says we’re afraid of measuring our students against students across the country. The state legislature is afraid, and they should be – they haven’t supported education in a long time.”
“The whole reason I chose to walk away from an engineering career and become a teacher is to do something about not being able to find the right talent for jobs,” Cherokee County teacher Ben Owens reiterated.
“Our state will send the wrong message if we go back to a less rigorous set of standards. I, for one, want to do all I can to keep us from ceding our economic prosperity to China or India,” said Owens.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919.861.1460 or [email protected]