Core beliefs: NM education chief defends Common Core
HEARING IT FROM BOTH ENDS: Critics of Common Core come both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — As the Common Core Standards Initiative gets implemented across the country, complaints are piling up on both ends of the political spectrum.
In education circles, a sardonic joke is making the rounds: Conservatives hate the “common” and liberals hate the “core.”
New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera defends the initiative, saying it’s a vital tool to streamline K-12 standards and ensure that students are actually learning what they need to learn in a competitive 21st century environment.
“Right now we spend over $20 million (in New Mexico) for high school graduates who go on to college … and have to take remediation courses,” Skandera told New Mexico Watchdog in an interview at the PED offices in Santa Fe. “We’re not delivering on the promise of, ‘are you ready?’ We know half of our kids are not on grade level. So (Common Core) is an important step to say, let’s make sure we have high standards.”
Common Core was created in 2009 by governors, education secretaries and legislators across the country. It came largely in response to complaints about the No Child Left Behind Act that passed Congress with bi-partisan support during the administration of George W. Bush.
Some 44 states and the District of Columbia signed off on Common Core as a better way to measure student outcomes across the board, focusing on math and what’s called ELA — English language arts/literacy.
The criticisms about Common Core are relatively muted in New Mexico.
A poll of 157 New Mexico teachers conducted last summer showed that 81 percent believed “the standards will have a positive impact on students’ ability to think critically and use reasoning skills” and just 1 percent thought Common Core will have a negative impact.
But in other parts of the country, the rumbling has developed into a roar.
Two months ago, Indiana dropped out of Common Core, with a Republican state legislator calling it “a cookie-cutter education system.” Oklahoma is considering dropping out.
For some conservatives, Common Core represents a top-down edict coming from Washington that horns in on individual states.
“This is the thin end of an enormous wedge of federal power that will be wielded for the constant progressive purpose of concentrating power in Washington so that it can impose continental solutions to problems nationwide,” said columnist George Will earlier this week on Fox News.
DEFENDING THE CORE: New Mexico Public Education Department secretary-designate Hanna Skandera says Common Core helps to ensure students are learning what they need to learn.
“I disagree wholeheartedly about this idea that it’s a top-down decision,” Skandera said. “It’s a decision about what’s best for our kids and it’s made here, at the local level, in the state of New Mexico.”
“Sooner or later, you inevitably have a national curriculum,” Will said.
“When it comes to curriculum, it’s decided at the local level,” Skandera countered, adding, “There is nothing about Common Core that’s about curriculum. Common Core is about the standards.”
At the same time, some liberals complain that Common Core’s implementation has been botched and call it inflexible and too dependent on test-taking.
In a reflection of our celebrity culture, a Twitter rant against Common Core by comedian Louis C.K. was picked up last week by New Yorker magazine and has received wide distribution, especially on progressive media outlets.
“My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” the comedian posted.
“Since Gov. Martinez has come into office we’ve reduced testing time by an average of 30 minutes per grade,” Skandera said. “And we will maintain that commitment when we transition to Common Core. Increased testing is not the case, it’s not now and won’t be when we adopt Common Core.”
Some teachers unions, who liked Common Core when it was introduced, are now backtracking.
On Thursday, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to oppose Common Core standards.
“Common Core eliminates creativity in the classroom and impedes collaboration,” said CTU President Karen Lewis. “We also know that high-stakes standardized testing is designed to rank and sort our children and it contributes significantly to racial discrimination and the achievement gap among students in America’s schools.”
“Our unions are beginning to waver on that message,” Skandera said. “I think the flip-flop is coming because we’re bringing in accountability. You can’t have high standards and not measure whether or not you’re reaching them.”
The Obama administration has backed Common Core standards, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying last June, “I believe the Common Core State Standards may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education.”
Last November, Duncan had to apologize after he said some of Common Core’s criticism come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
To try to beat back the criticism, the Common Core website has a page devoted to countering what it says are the myths versus the facts of the program.
The Common Core debate has plenty of political ironies for Skandera.
ON BOARD: Hanna Skandera (back left) attending an announcement by Barack Obama in 2011 about waivers issued to states on No Child Left Behind.
New Mexico adopted Common Core in 2010, in the final months of the administration of Democrat Bill Richardson.
“Our commitment to Common Core state standards has bridged two administrations from different parties,” Skandera said.
Throughout her tenure at PED, she has been pilloried by unions and some teachers (at a rally last fall, a sign was displayed depicting Skandera and Martinez with fangs, dripping with blood) and lambasted by some Roundhouse Democrats (Skandera still has not received an up or down vote on her nomination in the full Senate).
Yet Skandera said she’s in full support of the Obama administration and Duncan’s backing of higher standards in general and Common Core in particular. In her office is a framed copy of a newspaper front page with a photo of President Obama announcing state waivers on No Child Left Behind with Skandera in the background.
“It’s not about politics, it’s about delivering on a promise for what’s in the best interests of our kids,” Skandera said. “We made that commitment, we’ll keep it.”
But the criticism isn’t letting up.
After Indiana backed out, a critic predicted other states will follow.
The “water is warm, come on in,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a free-market think tank that opposes Common Core.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski