common core 4 photo

English teacher Lisa Rothbard talks one-on-one to a student. Rothbard is in her second year as a Common Core trainer.Pat Wingert/The Hechinger Report

Controversy is dogging the rollout of the rigorous, new national Common Core education standards in many of the 45 states that first embraced the bipartisan proposal. Critics demanding change claim the standards are a federal intrusion, an attack on local control or just too expensive.

In Pennsylvania, passionate protests prompted the state to replace the Common Core with a hybrid that includes much of the state’s current and less demanding standards. In Indiana, critics succeeded in cutting off funding for implementation of the Common Core. Michigan legislators took similar action before reversing themselves in late September. Variations of these fights have broken out in many other states, notably Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

But in California, home to more students than any other state, that push back is largely missing, even in the state’s more conservative and remote regions. 

“Once in a while, someone will raise the issue of ‘this horrible Common Core,’ ” said Kevin Ogden, a self-described conservative who is superintendent of the Julian Union Elementary School District, a rural district outside San Diego. “I ask if they’ve read it. After they chat with me, they change their minds, because their opinion is usually based on misperceptions. I would say I’m seeing no push back in my community.”

Deborah Sigman, the deputy state superintendent, said she’s seeing the same thing. “I don’t mean that we don’t have any controversy,” she said. “There are some naysayers. But I think it is fair to say that we have less at every level.”

California’s first standards, established in the late 1990s, were among the most ambitious in the nation. The new Common Core is not seen as a radical shift, said Gerardo Loera, who heads the curriculum office of the Los Angeles Unified School District. “We’re used to the idea of having standards that we have to teach toward,” Loera said. “We’re not questioning the philosophical ‘why,’ just the practical ‘how.’ ”

The Common Core’s political history in California also seems to be making a difference. Many governors agreed to adopt the new national standards in order to increase their state’s chances of winning extra money from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education reform competition.

“There is backlash in other states that didn’t get Race to the Top money and are now ticked off,” said Jeannette LaFors of Education TrustWest, an advocacy group. While California didn’t get any of that federal money either, the original decision to press ahead wasn’t motivated as much by money from Washington as “a more genuine commitment to improving standards,” she said. 

The fact that the new standards were approved by the state Senate also seems to have cut short critics who raise the issue of federal overreach. In rural Siskiyou County, a tea party stronghold and an area so conservative that some there are petitioning to secede from the rest of the state, Kermith Walters, county schools superintendent, says he occasionally hears from critics who claim the new standards are “illegal and were forced upon us.” But “when they hear there was a legislative vote when we had a Republican governor – (Arnold) Schwarzenegger was the governor then – they take a different perspective,” he said. 

Opponents who see the Common Core as an attack on local control have had a hard time getting heard here. California school boards have the right to opt out of the Common Core, said Barbara Murchison, who heads up the state’s implementation program. “There is nothing at the state level that requires them to do it.”

To date, no district has voted to reject the new standards, she said. That may be, in part, because all districts are required to take an annual test given by the state. Soon, that test will be the new Smarter Balanced online assessment, one of two national tests, developed with federal funding, that are pegged to the new standards. About 24 other states have indicated they will also be giving the Smarter Balanced tests.

The Common Core has also attracted fans because it’s viewed by teachers as “more realistic and smarter” than California’s 1997 standards, which are often criticized as a mile long and an inch thick, said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association.

“It was impossible for teachers to cover everything,” he said, adding that teachers view the new national standards as “a breath of fresh air” because they require much less regimentation than the earlier standards. Districts have more freedom, this time around, to choose their own curriculum, instructional materials and teacher training programs.

“The Common Core is a document that recognizes the educator as the expert and provides for the teacher to have an authoritative role in pedagogical decisions to make things better for kids,” Vogel said. “From our point of view, this is a powerful antidote to the increasingly obtrusive, top-down, ‘this is what you have to do’ view of reform.”

Worries about cost have been an issue in many states, including California, which currently ranks 49th in per-pupil funding. But some of the pressure came off in the past year. The state recently revamped its funding formula in ways that funnel additional money to schools with more students who are from low-income families or are English learners. In addition, last fall, California voters passed Proposition 30, which approved a temporary tax increase to raise more money for schools. Gov. Jerry Brown announced in the spring that each district would get a proportional slice of $1.25 billion in new state money over the next two years that could only be used to implement the Common Core.

The one criticism of California’s rollout of Common Core that seems to stick is a complaint that the pace of state implementation has been too slow and uneven. Groups like Education Trust-West have stressed that with California’s below-average scores on national tests, the state education department leaders shouldn’t be “dragging their feet” compared with other states. California officials deny that they are doing so. In any case, the relatively drawn-out pace of change and the low-key way educators are presenting it may help explain why there has been little opposition, at least so far.

“We talk about this as a remodeling effort,” said Sigman of the state education department. “This is an evolution of the system. The ’97 standards were good standards, but this set of college- and career-ready standards is better.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Pat Wingert, a recent Spencer Fellow at Columbia University Journalism School, has spent most of her career as a reporter at Newsweek magazine, specializing in education, health and investigative stories. Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., for Newsweek, Wingert worked for both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. Most recently, she has written for Scientific American.