Some states rebrand controversial Common Core education standards


Florida Gov. Rick Scott talks to a group of students before he outlines his education budget recommendations on Jan. 27 during a stop in Delray Beach, Fla. He wants more money for public schools in the coming year, but he's not asking for as big of an increase as he did last year. (J Pat Carter/AP)

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) used an executive order to strip the name “Common Core” from the state’s new math and reading standards for public schools. In the Hawkeye State, the same standards are now called “The Iowa Core.” And in Florida, lawmakers want to delete “Common Core” from official documents and replace it with the cheerier-sounding “Next Generation Sunshine State Standards.”

In the face of growing opposition to the Common Core State Standards — a set of K-12 educational guidelines adopted by most of the country — officials in a handful of states are worried that the brand is already tainted. They’re keeping the standards but slapping on fresh names they hope will have greater public appeal.

At a recent meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the organizations that helped create the standards, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) urged state education leaders to ditch the “Common Core” name, noting that it had become “toxic.”

“Rebrand it, refocus it, but don’t retreat,” said Huckabee, now the host of a Fox News talk show and a supporter of the standards.

The changes are largely superficial, giving new labels to national standards that are taking hold in classrooms across the country. But the desire to market them differently shows how precarious the push for the Common Core has grown, even though the standards were established by state officials with bipartisan support and quickly earned widespread approval, including the endorsement of the Obama administration.

Supporters say the standards emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills, as opposed to rote learning, and will enable American students to better compete in the global marketplace.

But the wholesale changes in K-12 education that have come with the standards have provoked a raft of critics. Opponents include tea party activists who say the Common Core standards amount to a federal takeover of local education and progressives who bristle at the emphasis on testing and the role of the Gates Foundation, which has funded the development and promotion of the standards. Some academics say the math and reading standards are too weak; others say they are too demanding, particularly for young students.

Across the country, teachers are struggling to revamp their lessons; states are hastily working to adopt standardized tests tailored to the Common Core; and parents are left to wonder about all the changes taking place in the classroom.

Now, with new names, the idea that the standards are “common” might not be apparent.

“You got a whole bunch of politicians, increasingly cross-pressured between activists who don’t want this and the obvious imperative that we have to improve our public schools,” said Andrew Rotherham, a former Clinton White House aide and a co-founder of Bellwether Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving education for low-income students. “The anti-Common Core folks clearly have the momentum right now, so politicians are trying to figure out ways to address the politics of this without tossing it out the window.”

In each case, the new name is designed to impart a local flavor to the standards. One of the main criticisms of the Common Core is that national standards are replacing homegrown benchmarks.

“Here’s what we’re going to ensure: These are Florida standards,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) told a gathering of state GOP officials this month. “They’re not some national standards; they’re going to be Florida standards. This is our state. We’re not going to have the federal government telling us how to do our education system.”

Also this month, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who is facing reelection, told a gathering of Republican women: “We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children. We want to educate South Carolina children on South Carolina standards, not anyone else’s standards.”

Christopher Johnson, a branding expert, doubts that new names will quell opposition to the Common Core.

“It’s something that might be politically expedient in the short term,” said Johnson, who writes the Name Inspector blog. “They might succeed in bamboozling people who are opposed to the idea of nationwide standards by giving them local names. . . . But I think it’s skirting around the issue.”

Sponsored by a group of governors and state education officials — with the endorsement of the federal government and funding from the Gates Foundation — the Common Core standards are designed to prepare students for careers or college at a time when many high school graduates lack the necessary skills. Recent studies have found that as many as 40 percent of first-time undergraduates need at least one remedial course in English or math when they arrive at college.

In a country with a long tradition of local control over education, the Common Core standards are a sharp departure. They mark the first time that nearly every state has agreed to a common set of skills and knowledge.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have fully adopted the standards, which are being implemented in classrooms across the country. Maryland is one of the states that have adopted the standards, while Virginia is one of the few that have not. The Common Core standards are not a curriculum; it is up to each state to decide what and how to teach.

The goal is for all students to possess certain “common” skills by the end of each grade so that a first-grader in Maryland will acquire the same skills as a first-grader in Maine or Montana. New standardized tests, which all participating states will be giving by next school year, are intended to offer a way to compare student performance across state lines so that parents, students and public officials can better measure how their school systems are performing relative to the rest of the country.

The pushback in Florida illustrates how quickly opposition developed. The state adopted the standards in 2010, in no small part because of the influence of former governor Jeb Bush (R), one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of the Common Core. Florida became a leader in the effort by two groups of states to develop tests aligned with the standards — work funded by the Obama administration — and Florida classrooms have already made the shift to the new benchmarks.

But Bush’s successor, Scott, has faced growing pressure from conservatives within his party to abandon the standards. In November, Scott, who is facing reelection this year, pulled Florida from the group of states writing the Common Core tests. He said Florida will prepare its own tests instead. Then he directed state education officials to hold hearings on the standards and suggest revisions.

Florida’s Education Department recently unveiled 98 proposed changes to the way the state will implement the Common Core standards, such as requiring that cursive writing be taught in elementary school. Most of the changes appear to be on the margins, leaving the standards largely intact.

State Rep. Janet Adkins (R), who chairs a K-12 subcommittee in the Florida House of Representatives, proposed deleting “Common Core” from official references to the standards. She said she wants to drop “Common Core” because it refers only to math and reading standards and the state also has requirements for science, social studies, fine arts and other subjects.

“We simply are saying we don’t need to have a different name for a subset for our standards,” Adkins said. “We will refer to all our standards under one name.”

She declined to say whether she thinks the Common Core standards are good for Florida students, but she did say the revisions proposed by state education officials will be an improvement.

Debbie Higginbotham, a Jacksonville mother of six and co-founder of Florida Parents Against Common Core, said no amount of rebranding will ease her concerns.

“What they’re trying to do is pull the wool over the eyes of regular parents who are not as engaged,” said Higginbotham, who is home-schooling three of her children to avoid the Common Core. “They’re trying to say these are Florida standards when they’re not.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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