Common Core debate in Montgomery Wednesday
by Tim Lockette
MONTGOMERY — Supporters and opponents of Common Core academic standards will face off in Montgomery on Wednesday, as lawmakers consider a plan to pull Alabama out of the multi-state academic program.

"We didn't gain any rigor by adopting these standards," said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery. "Alabama's standards were just as good."

Brewbaker is the sponsor of a bill that would pull the state out of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a multi-state project that brought educators from around the country together to create a single set of academic standards for K-12 schools to follow in teaching core subjects such as English and mathematics. The bill would require approval of the Legislature and hearings in each of the state's Congressional districts before statewide academic standards could be put in place.

The project was the brainchild of the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. With 50 states each adopting their own standards, states at the time differed in their expectations of what students need to learn, which led to complaints that some graduates weren't ready for college or the workplace. Advocates of Common Core argued that a single, multi-state set of standards — at least in core subjects such as math and English — would help correct that, and would make a number of educational processes easier. Textbooks could be written for use in multiple states, students could transfer across state lines more easily and states could pool their resources to design standardized tests, the theory went.

So far, 45 states have adopted Common Core standards. Alabama signed on in 2010, incorporating Common Core standards for math and English into its curriculum. The move created a backlash from conservative activists, who saw it as an attempt to give the federal government control of what is taught in local school systems.

Stopping Common Core is "something that is absolutely imperative if we're going to keep our schools out of control of the feds and the left wing," said Lou Campomenosi, a Daphne resident and a leader of the Common Sense Campaign, a Tea Party group.

Even before notice of the Wednesday hearing was posted on the Legislature's website, Campomenosi and other anti-Common-Core activists had gotten word of it, and were urging like-minded people to show up for the hearing.

Supporters of Common Core say the criticisms of the standards have been overblown. Officials of the A-Plus Education Partnership, a nonprofit focused on education, say Common Core math standards have already been adopted in some grades, and seem to have boosted students' learning gains.

Alabama's old math standards were focused largely on calculation and memorization, said Cathy Gassenheimer, an executive vice president with A-Plus. The new standards, she said, ask kids to explain their answers and what they mean, helping students understand how math is useful in the real world.

"They're challenged and excited about what they're seeing," she said. "They're no longer getting those blank worksheets that are so numbing."

Brewbaker said he, too, thinks the new math and English standards are good. But he's not sure they're any better than what Alabama had before.

"It is not my goal to pull out of the standards we've already adopted," he said.

Brewbaker's bill says that "adoption and funding of the Common Core State Standards Initiative are hereby repealed," and that actions taken to implement Common Core "as of the date of this act are void." Brewbaker says the wording will likely change in committee.

Brewbaker said he's disturbed by what he sees as an open-ended commitment to adopt more Common Core standards as they come down from the multi-state consortium that created them.

Supporters of Common Core say that open-ended commitment simply isn't there.

"Alabama hasn't made a commitment to anybody to do anything,” said Thomas Rains, policy director for A-Plus. He said the state reviews its standards every six years, and no changes to the standards can be made without the approval of the state board of education. The website for the Common Core Initiative states that the group is not leading development of standards in other subject areas.

Brewbaker said the new system encourages collection of data on students, including personal information such as their family situation. Use of student data, at a local level, to diagnose problems with educational practices has been a growing practice in schools in recent years.

But Brewbaker said he's concerned that the data will be sent to the U.S. Department of Education — and sent in a form in which individual students can be identified.

"No one of good will would have a problem with giving the Department of Education the data they need to do their job," he said. "It's another thing if they want to know how Johnny Jones did and what his family situation is."

Caroline Novak, president of A-Plus, said students' personally-identifiable information is already protected by federal law.

"The purpose of following a child's learning gains is so you can identify children who need learning help," she said. "I'm not sure what he's talking about, in terms of data that has to be provided to Washington."

State schools Superintendent Tommy Bice is reserving his comments on the bill for the Wednesday hearing, said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, spokeswoman for the Alabama State Board of Education. Bice in the past has spoken in favor of Common Core, and he visited legislators last week to talk to them about the bill.

The Star's attempts to reach superintendents in local school systems — including Calhoun County, Anniston, Piedmont and Oxford — for comment were unsuccessful Monday afternoon.

As currently worded, the bill gives control over statewide standards to the Legislature. Brewbaker said that wording is very unlikely to make it through the political process. His bill, he said, was modeled on a similar measure in Indiana, and still needs some modifications to work in Alabama.

"That's not going to survive," said Brewbaker, a former teacher. "We don't have the expertise to micromanage standards for third-grade history."

Brewbaker's bill will come before the Senate Education Policy Committee on Wednesday. Passage by the committee would send the measure to the full Senate for a vote.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

© 2013