Eau Claire (WQOW) - Wisconsin's new educational standards have become the latest political football being tossed around. In fact, the language critics use reminds you of politics. They're concerned the new guidelines were not vetted properly enough.
Common Core State Standards are a set of 21st century skills and benchmarks... concepts students should grasp at every grade level. The point is to better prepare them to succeed in college and the workforce. Those standards have come under fire. "It is a big government takeover. I don't know how anybody in good conscience can look at what they're doing and say otherwise," said Ken Van Doren from Wisconsin Campaign for Liberty.
The standards, adopted by Wisconsin and 44 other states in 2010, provide benchmarks in math and language arts in every grade. The old standards were written only for grades 4, 8 and 12. "What's at stake is our individual rights and our economic prosperity," said Van Doren. The Tea Party has helped spark a movement to critique the Core. Wisconsin Campaign for Liberty and the Chippewa Valley Tea Party were among 38 groups that sent Governor Scott Walker a letter in August, expressing their concerns. At the top of the list was their belief that Common Core "federalizes education and grossly undermines state and local control."
"The federal government had nothing to do with the development of the content of the standards," said Dr. Billie Sparks, a retired UW-Eau Claire professor, one of a handful of Wisconsin educators selected to review the math standards. The standards were designed under the guidance of the National Governors Association. "Standards are not a curriculum. Standards are the what, not the why, not the how," said Dr. Sparks. One well-known Republican supporter of Common Core compared the benchmarks to the game of football. Jeb Bush says, "Football is played with a set of rules, but how you get into the end zone, how you win games is created when each team has a different approach."
Still, the federal government has played a role by tying grant funding to the Common Core. Billions of dollars in Race to the Top funding are allocated to states that meet several criteria, like developing and adopting common standards. "The federal government has basically bribed school districts," said Van Doren. Other criteria call for states to support charter schools and vigorous teacher evaluations. Those are two measures endorsed by the Tea Party.
Another concern is that the standards are not rigorous enough. In the aforementioned letter to Gov. Walker, the 38 groups said, "Common Core State Standards will under-challenge older children. In later grades, CCSS is often not challenging enough. The only mathematician to serve on the standards committee, Professor James Milgram, has stated that 'it is a joke to think CCSS will prepare students for college level math.'"
In September, Governor Walker told News 18, "We can say we want to have high standards and we think those standards should be Wisconsin standards... higher than those that others have set on a national basis." Later that month, he recommended legislative hearings about whether the state should pursue more aggressive standards. After he suggested Wisconsin raise the bar, News 18 asked his office to give us specific examples of Common Core benchmarks that fail to measure up. That was six weeks ago and his office has yet to respond.
"I do challenge anyone who wants to say, 'These standards are weaker' to bring one to me and show me which one is weaker. What I studied, probably through the first two years of high school, is in the standard by the 8th grade in the Common Core," said Dr. Sparks.
The Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, gave Wisconsin's old math standards an 'F,' but gave the new math benchmarks an 'A-' after a review. Michael Brickman, Fordham's national policy director said, "The Fordham Institute has supported rigorous and clear standards for many years and we were happy to see that the Common Core State Standards, which were developed by states including Wisconsin, ended up being exactly that." Brickman joined the Fordham Institute after serving as the education policy advisor for Governor Walker.
The River Falls School District says it's already seeing results from the Common Core. The district said it started implementing math standards a few years ago. This year, lower-income students at one school outperformed their peers on a 4th grade WKCE exam. The district says nothing has changed, except it aligned teaching methods and assessments to the Common Core State Standards.
Another critique of the Common Core is that the system has not been adequately field tested. "This has never been done before in the history of the United States of America," said Dr. Gary Thompson, a child psychologist from Utah. He recently flew into Eau Claire to testify before a bi-partisan legislative committee reviewing Common Core. "The proposed accommodations, they're lacking in rigor and depth and will our children be used as experimental guinea pigs? Absolutely, yes." Dr. Thompson is critical of the new testing piece. It's called the Smarter Balanced Assessment which will replace what Wisconsin has had for many years, the WKCE. Students in grades three through eight will take the exam online and it's an adaptive exam. In other words, your answer may determine the next question. He believes the test is too risky for certain groups, like those with autism. "There's a high risk for that population to have a complete emotional meltdown right in the middle of the testing," said Dr. Thompson.
Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, says the following on her blog, "Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether. Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences?"
News 18 spoke with a few local teachers who also expressed concerns, but not on camera. They're worried they don't have enough information yet about the impact Common Core will have on teaching and learning.
"This is going to be a massive change, not only for our school district, but across the state... so the thing that kind of keeps me up at night is how do we get everybody ready?" asks Eau Claire Area School District Superintendent Dr. Mary Ann Hardebeck.
Core preparation is now graduating into more teacher training, curriculum development and potentially, revisions of the standards. Legislative hearings have wrapped up and lawmakers are now meeting, coming up with their final recommendations about whether to amend the standards. A final report is expected in the next month.