The Wauwatosa School Board this week unanimously approved a resolution opposing state legislative action that would dismantle Common Core educational standards and replace them with standards created by a new state board.
The legislation, 2013 Senate Bill 619, would create a Model Academic Standards Board made up of political appointees that would develop new standards for educating students in four broad subject areas: English reading and language arts; mathematics; science; and social studies.
It would force the state superintendent of public instruction to write standards that conformed to the board's results, according to a reading of the bill.
Supporters and detractors
The bill is supported by conservative and tea party groups, including Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group controlled by brothers Charles and David Koch, and Wisconsin Family Action, an organization that fights for conservative social policy, according to a listing of lobbyists by the Government Accountability Board.
The same listing shows opposition from a broad array of school administrators, teachers, school districts and such organizations as Disability Rights Wisconsin and the Wisconsin League of Women Voters Education Network.
"I think, with Common Core, there's a lot of, obviously, items for or against; people on different sides with different beliefs," said Superintendent Phil Ertl, who attended a Senate hearing on the bill.
He noted that the school district had been developing standards and curriculum aligned with the Common Core for several years, and said, "I think it comes down to an issue of local control."
A senator at the hearing said that even if the new system was adopted, "the school board can still do whatever you want," Ertl reported.
"You can, but it wouldn't align with whatever assessment is going to be developed from the statewide system. So, it further disrupts that local control."
Issues of local control and state and regional differences underlie the debate.
An effort to create the Common Core State Standards began in 2009 in an attempt to regularize disparate definitions of proficiency at given grade levels and at graduation. Forty-eight states participated in the effort, and at the end of the development process, 45 states adopted the standards.
The five holdouts were Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Virginia. Wisconsin adopted the standards in June 2010 with a goal of full implementation in the 2014-15 school year. Other states, including Iowa, have experienced rebellion against the standards after adopting them.
The big goal
In broad terms, the Common Core is built upon strengths of existing state standards and informed by standards of other countries. It is designed to establish grade-by-grade mastery of concepts and skills in English language arts and literacy, and mathematics. A characteristic of the Common Core is an emphasis on critical thinking as opposed to rote memorization.
Its overarching goal is to "ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college, career and life," according to a Common Core summary.
While setting grade-specific goals, it does not define teaching methods, materials or curriculum to be used in reaching the goals.
As an example of a core skill, first-graders should be able to "write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion and provide some sense of closure."
In math, that same student should be capable of using "addition and subtraction within 20 to solve word problems involving situations of adding to, taking from, putting together, taking apart and comparing, with unknowns in all positions, e.g., by using objects, drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem."
The role of politics
The Wauwatosa resolution not only objects to the bill's perceived interference with local control but says the bill "would render useless locally-developed curriculum and instructional resources in the areas of Math and English Language Arts," as well as other resources.
Much discussion at the School Board meeting this week also was given to what local officials saw as the politicization of education.
The Model Academic Standards Board, for example, would be made up of the state superintendent of schools; four of his appointees; six appointees of the governor; one member each appointed by the Senate majority and minority leaders; one by the speaker of the Assembly; and one by the Assembly minority leader.
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