And now we come full circle in the academic standards debate.
A committee in the Michigan Senate has approved a bill that would require the state to drop the Common Core state standards, a move that a number of other states have already made. What’s different with this legislation is what comes next: It requires that the state adopt the standards that Massachusetts used to implement before it adopted the Common Core in 2010. Those old standards were widely considered the best in the country at the time.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Core critics are scrambling to get a referendum on the 2016 ballot asking voters to return to the standards that used to be in place.
This isn’t what Common Core supporters expected when the initiative was gaining steam years ago and 45 states and the District of Columbia approved the math and English standards with bipartisan support. In the past five years, the standards and aligned assessments have become hugely controversial, with critics from both ends of the political spectrum coming out against it for different reasons.
Some educators and researchers questioned the way the standards were written (whether, for example, there was any or enough input from working teachers). Some criticized the content of the standards, especially for young children. Some critics said standards-based education has never been shown to be effective, and others felt the administration’s involvement usurped local authority. Tea party members and even the Republican National Committee jumped onto the anti-Core bandwagon, accusing the Obama administration of a federal takeover of public education, extreme right-wing rhetoric that clouded a real discussion about the Core.
The Core is one of the few education issues raised in the presidential campaigns, with Republican candidates, including front-runner Donald Trump, saying that if they become president, they would get rid of the Core. Such a statement reveals a misunderstanding of the initiative, given that each state individually adopted the standards — albeit with some coercion in the form of federal funding by the Obama administration.
After problems with implementation, some states have dropped the standards and replaced them, often with Core-like standards. Some have also dumped Core tests that were created with federal funds.
The Obama administration’s support for the Core was one of the issues that propelled critics to accuse the U.S. Education Department of micromanaging local education issues and pushed Congress to finally move last December to pass a successor bill to the widely disliked K-12 No Child Left Behind law. The new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, shifts back a good deal of education policy-making power from the federal government to the states.
The former Massachusetts standards were widely regarded as excellent, often appearing at the top of rankings, and the public school system in the state has long been seen as one of the nation’s best. Massachusetts joined with others to adopt the Core after the Obama administration offered millions of dollars to states that agreed to adopt reforms it approved, including common standards.
Along with the Core standards, Massachusetts began piloting the PARCC test, one of the two federally funded Core assessments, which was intended to replace the MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Some districts gave the test while others continued to give the MCAS. Amid controversy surrounding the PARCC, state officials agreed late last year to adopt a hybrid test that incorporates elements of both PARCC and MCAS. This happened despite the fact that Mitchell Chester, Massachusett’s education commissioner, served as chairman of the governing board of the PARCC consortium.
At the time that Massachusetts adopted the Core standards, some critics said they were not as strong as the standards already in use. Now some legislators in Michigan want to go back to those standards. The Michigan legislation says in part:
Within 90 days after the effective date of this section, adopt and implement state academic content standards for each of grades kindergarten to 12 in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. the state academic content standards shall be the same as the academic standards in effect in Massachusetts during the 2008-2009 school year, except that any reference in those standards to “Massachusetts” shall be changed in all appropriate instances to a reference to “Michigan” and any state history or government content standards shall be changed to reflect the history and government of this state. within 10 days after the state academic content standards are adopted, the department shall distribute the standards to all public schools in this state and make the standards available to the public on the department website.
Clarification: An earlier version said Massachusetts adopted PARCC. It began to pilot the test but ultimately adopted a hybrid PARCC-MCAS test.