A growing storm over establishing nationwide Common Core academic standards gives tea partyers and progressives a common foe; corporate school reformers and Ivy League-educated pols a common goal.
Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have supported tying federal education dollars to high standards and testing, but pressure from conservatives has prompted the Republican challenger to distance himself from the Common Core plan.
To financially reward states based on accepting the federal governments idea of a curriculum is a mistake, Romney said last week, noting there may be a time when the federal government has an agenda it wants to promote.
The same arguments are growing among some Indiana residents, who are questioning the states enthusiastic embrace of the standards. Rather than basing participation on the Common Cores political supporters, Hoosiers should view the new academic requirements in terms of how they will affect Indiana students. By that measure, the Common Core and the national test that will support it are a step backward.
The Indiana State Board of Education, an appointed panel, unanimously adopted the standards in August 2010. Implementation is under way, but the new standards have caught the attention of parents like Heather Crossin, whose son came home from school with worksheets she quickly pegged as fuzzy concepts.
When administrators at her sons parochial school boasted they were ahead of the curve in using curriculum based on the Common Core, Crossin researched the standards and their provenance.
Now Crossin, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, is rallying opposition, finding support among tea party members and the General Assemblys most conservative members in what is increasingly an intra-party squabble. Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, authored a bill in the last session to void adoption of the standards, but his bill died in committee.
Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction, pushed adoption of the standards in 2010. He defended the Common Core before a skeptical audience at an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting last year. In June, he insisted the state hasnt given up control of its academic standards, but as Election Day looms, his position appears to be shifting. In August he told an angry tea party gathering that the Obama administration nationalized the standards and forced them on the states.
But Bennetts deep involvement in Common Core makes it hard for him to point fingers at the White House. He is a board member for, and Indiana is a governing state in, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the group creating a national test to support the academic standards.
Indianas Common Core implementation schedule phases out ISTEP+ in 2015, replaced by the new national assessment.
In the meantime, the real question for Indiana voters is how the Common Core holds up to the states previous, highly acclaimed standards.
Not well, by several accounts.
Fabio Augusto Milner, a professor and director of Arizona State Universitys Math for STEM Education, offered Indiana lawmakers a comparison of the math standards.
I can unequivocally recommend that Indiana not adopt the (Common Core math standards) if the state wants to require high school graduates to excel by design to a higher level than average, he testified in January.
The conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute also criticized the standards, giving Indianas language arts standards an A; the Common Core standards a B+.
It is not clear why Indianas board of education chose to trade in a silk purse for a sows ear – that is to give its secondary English teachers an inferior set of standards to aim for, testified Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, in remarks to the Senate Education Committee in January.
Why have Indiana teachers and administrators been mostly silent on the new standards? Because the pace and scope of education changes over the past four years has overtaken the capacity to study proposals and respond. They also cant compete against the millions of dollars in campaign contributions flowing to both Democratic and Republican politicians from for-profit companies and hedge fund managers seeking a piece of the Common Core action: textbooks, software, classroom materials, teacher training, assessments and more.
The amount of money to be made from national standards and testing is immense.
But the privatization forces have overreached with Common Core, rousing a conservative constituency vigilant against threats to state and local control and unmasking a relentless push to privatize public education.
Even those who endorse the concept of national standards should be uncomfortable with the pace of the implementation and the likelihood that a national assessment will advance efforts to assign students to college or vocational tracks and limit teachers capacity to inspire students.
With academic standards that exceed the Common Core benchmarks, Indiana is in a unique position to hold out for a wider discussion before millions in tax dollars are diverted from addressing poverty – the real threat to learning – and handed to companies looking to profit.