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For Education Writers, Common Core is Topic A

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Nashville, Tenn.

For the nation's K-12 education reporters, the debate over the Common Core State Standards is probably the biggest story of the year.

So when more than 200 journalist members of the Education Writers Association gathered at Vanderbilt University here this week for their annual conference, it was a given that there would be sessions addressing the standards. In fact, a marathon four-hour session on the common core offered reporters the chance to hear from a range of policy experts.

"There are lots of myths out there" about the core, said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based school accountability organization and a veteran of the movement to boost educational standards.

Among the myths circulating among opponents of the common core, Cohen said, are that the standards were entirely a project of President Barack Obama's administration (they precede his tenure); that they are part of a conspiracy led by Bill Gates and other philanthropists active in education policy; and that they represent the beginnings of a federal K-12 curriculum.

"If federal money equaled a federal curriculum, we would have had a federal curriculum since about 1990," added Cohen, in reference to the origins of an expanded federal role in standards.

Terry Holliday, Kentucky's education commissioner, told the reporters that "everything was going smoothly" with state implementation of the standards "until the president and secretary of education took credit for common core." He was referring to Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The participants (the four-hour session was broken up into three panels) were heavy on common-core supporters. And while no strident critics of the standards appeared, scholar Tom Loveless, of the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, was the fly at the picnic.

"I'm a skeptic that the common core will have any effect on student achievement," he said.

He noted that social media chatter about the common core "has really accelerated," especially among critics.

Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of education and political science at Drew University in Madison, N.J., noted the growing opposition to the standards from both the right and the left. But, he said, "there's a lot of smoke, but relatively little fire" behind it.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, suggested that common-core opposition is a bit of a surrogate for larger agendas.

"On the left, [the common core] is an effort to relitigate No Child Left Behind," he said. "On the right, it's an effort to relitigate Obamacare."

The session didn't get much into how well the education writers are covering the common core. But Amber Northern, the vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, had one suggestion for the reporters, based on a discussion of how well curriculum materials were aligned with the common core standards.

"I'd love to see an article on the top five things curriculum developers are getting wrong," she said. 

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