New academic standards stir debate at Monroeville library
By Chris Foreman
Published: Thursday, July 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Skepticism about Pennsylvania's new academic standards continues to simmer locally while state officials debate whether — or how — to modify them.
Over the past few months, implementation of the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards has gone from a long-planned but little-noticed initiative to improve student performance in math and language arts to an under-the-microscope controversy about the creation of similar education goals across the United States.
Several of the frequent complaints about Common Core came up again last week during an Allegheny Intermediate Unit presentation on the new math standards at the Monroeville Public Library and the state Board of Education meeting in Harrisburg.
Critics charge that Common Core will lead to a nationalized curriculum; was developed with too much involvement by big businesses and private foundations; and came without a clear price tag for the states adopting the standards.
Defenders of Common Core say school districts will continue to develop their own curriculum and that new education research is enables Pennsylvania to adopt “more rigorous” standards than those first put in place in 1999.
In turn, supporters say, the adoption of near-uniform standards across states will ensure that students can earn a diploma indicating they have learned roughly the same skills whether they live in the Pittsburgh suburbs, New York City or Ames, Iowa.
In math, for example, the Common Core standards in kindergarten through 12th grade emphasize better critical-thinking skills instead of simply arriving at an answer, Nancy Bunt, director for the Allegheny IU's Math & Science Collaborative program, said at last week's meeting in Monroeville.
Through a more careful sequencing of math topics, the Common Core gives more coherence and clarity to what students need to know each year to be able to move to the next level, she said.
Bunt spent much of the question-and-answer portion of her presentation addressing what the state Department of Education describes as myths of Common Core — such as the claims from detractors that student data will be collected without parental consent and passed on to the federal government.
“It seems like Common Core is being painted with a brush for all the fears in the world,” Bunt said during an interview afterward.
The roots for common academic standards across the states date to the mid-1990s but gained traction when President George W. Bush was in office.
The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers claim authorship of Common Core, but critics question the involvement of Achieve — a nonprofit organization whose board of directors includes representatives of top American companies — and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Though the state Board of Education initially adopted Common Core in 2010 — and again in March — Gov. Tom Corbett in May directed the state Department of Education to recommend minor modifications because of some concerns by legislators and Pennsylvanians about the standards and the new Keystone assessment exams that students eventually will have to pass to graduate.
Last month, four House Republicans introduced a series of bills that would repeal the standards, prohibit the transfer of individual student data to the federal government and ban the implementation of a national standardized test.
One of the sponsors, state Rep. Stephen Bloom, a Cumberland County Republican, has blasted Common Core as “a vast, well-funded, professionally promoted beta test experiment of an unproven system on Pennsylvania's kids.”
Some senate Democrats, including Jim Brewster of McKeesport, have claimed that Common Core would add a $300 million unfunded mandate to the cost of state education.
Common Core critic Cheryl Boise contends that Pennsylvania shouldn't have adopted the Common Core without legislative approval.
The Monroeville woman, who formerly was director of the Cheswick-based Commonwealth Education Organization, said the opposition to Common Core by many Southwestern Pennsylvania parents isn't emotional and irrational; she said it's based on not being comfortable with the answers they're receiving about the new standards.
“This is about being an education consumer,” said Boise, who attended Bunt's presentation. “Do not tell us, ‘Give us your kids, give us tax dollars and shut up.' That day is done.”
Fran Bevan, a Westmoreland County Conservative Coalition member who served one term on the Norwin School Board, derides Common Core as “more intervention than we've ever seen before” on local control of schools.
“They didn't do any cost analysis on it,” Bevan said of the state Board of Education. “They just expected our legislators to go along with it.”
In Penn-Trafford, rumors about what the standards entailed led Superintendent Thomas Butler to write a blog entry in May to debunk that Common Core would have sex education taught to kindergarten students. Sex ed isn't taught at P-T until eighth grade, he said.
Michael Morocco, who centered his primary campaign for Penn-Trafford School Board on opposition to Common Core, has criticized an increased attention on reading informational texts.
But Penn-Trafford High School Principal Scott Inglese has said there isn't much of a difference in the content of Pennsylvania standardized testing under Common Core standards, which he described as more rigorous and thought-provoking for students.
“We have the freedom to pick whatever novel (or) passage that we want,” Inglese said when addressing the issue during a May school board meeting. “(Common Core standards) don't identify any novels or pieces that you have to read.
“ It's tone, setting, irony — those things are what we need to teach. Whatever passage or text that you use to teach it is up to the district.”
Though Common Core's foes say both Republicans and Democrats are suspicious of the standards, one supporter says the groundswell of mistrust really took hold in the spring after conservative commentator Glenn Beck began criticizing it.
As CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council, David Patti's credentials include a position in former Gov. Tom Ridge's administration and time as the communications director for the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee.
Patti said detractors are seizing on kernels about Common Core that scare people but have little links to the truth.
“What really confuses me and makes me laugh sometimes is, isn't it a conservative viewpoint to say,‘Hey, we're going to hold kids accountable?'”
Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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