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State Policymakers Talk Standards, Race to the Top, ESEA

Memo to Congress and the U.S. Department of Education: Stay out of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

At least that was the message at an Education Commission of the States forum session Friday from three state policymakers whose states have either won the Race to the Top competition (Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat from Tennessee) or are finalists (Dwight Jones, the state schools chief in Colorado, and Mitchell Chester, the state schools chief in Massachusetts.)

If the feds decide to take ownership of Common Core, they could inject an unwelcome note of partisanship, Bredesen said.

"The problem with Congress is they take any issue and it turns into a liberal-conservative" thing, he said.

The Obama administration has pledged to stay out of states' way on Common Core, which was developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. But President Obama has also introduced a proposal to tie Title I money to states' adoption of college- and-career ready standards (either through Common Core standards, or standards states create with colleges of education).

That's drawn a mixed response, particularly from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

And although lots of folks have made a big deal about Massachusetts' adoption of the Common Core, it was Chester who congratulated Bredesen on embracing them.

"I think the lift for Tennessee on Common Core is harder than for Massachusetts. For Massachusetts, I don't think the Common Core sets a different bar. I really respect [Gov. Bredesen] for taking on Common Core and biting the bullet on that," he said.

Meanwhile, Jones said that he has mixed feelings about the administration's penchant for competitive grants. The applications for Race to the Top were very labor intensive, and not every state education agency has the capacity to apply, he said.

"You gotta be careful that you don't create haves and have nots," he said.

Chester and Jones parted ways when it came to whether the No Child Left Behind Act is good policy.

"I'm someone who is somewhat of a fan of NCLB," Chester said. He's glad to see that the Obama administration is pressing on with some of the policies began in the landmark 2002 law. They are "on steroids [when it comes] to accountability and teacher policy and so forth," he said.

And he's glad to see that Race to the Top has given states a chance to push folks, including teachers' unions, "out of their comfort zone in ways that I think have promise."

But he's not so big on Adequate Yearly Progress—the main mechanism for gauging student outcomes under NCLB. "There's some deep flaws in NCLB," he said. "And AYP is one of them, no question about it."

Jones, on the other hand, said, "I have not really been a fan of NCLB." He said the law may have helped states create data systems, but said there hasn't been enough emphasis on actually helping to improve teacher quality and finding ways to intervene in low-performing schools.

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