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A Conservative Kansas Board Member on Supporting Common Core

Arlington, Va.

Ken Willard, an elected member of the Kansas Board of Education, calls himself a conservative. He opposed the Next Generation Science Standards recently adopted by his state, and he worries about federal intrusion into education. When he first began reading up on new standards in English/language arts and math being discussed by states a few years ago, he was unsure what to think. He's not the most likely officeholder to support the Common Core State Standards. But he does. Why?

I had the chance to ask him during the recently concluded annual conference of the National Association of State Boards of Education, of which Willard used to be the president (he was first elected in 2003 to the Kansas state board, which is now controlled by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans). As an elected K-12 official in a state where anti-common-core legislation was introduced this year, and ultimately shot down, he can't consider himself immune from political pressures that surround the new standards in a right-leaning state. Kansas adopted the common core in 2010.

"I've had to part ways with some of my conservative friends," Willard said. "We can't say 'no' just because it's new."

Recently I've been wondering how state boards are feeling about some of the agitation against the standards. Specifically, I've wondered if state boards that adopted the standards a few years ago, and now see a push against the common core from activists and legislators, are somewhat upset that their decisions are causing an outcry, considering that when they initially considered the standards, there was much less—or perhaps zero—political interest.

I asked Willard that, and he replied, "I'm a little annoyed. ... It's also very difficult to [get people to pay attention] to what goes on at state board meetings."

But back to my original question: Why does Willard support the standards? He responded that he saw high school graduates in Kansas falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to their preparedness for the wider world of college and jobs, a trend he said others in his position had noticed across the U.S. That's the competitiveness argument common-core supporters often feature prominently in their remarks. The common core represents a "legitimate effort to try to address very real problems in education," Willard said. Research from state board staff, as well as educators, have convinced Willard that the standards are worth supporting. And note that Willard was not initially very pleased with what he saw regarding the standards, but that eventually he came to support the common core.

Interestingly, Willard said he wasn't sure if he would have formally voted to support the standards back in 2010—he wasn't present when the Kansas board formally adopted the standards, he said, and therefore didn't vote. He supports them now. But his confidence is "not particularly strong" in Kansas' role as a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, noting that, in his view, Kansas has a good relationship with the current testing vendor. It might prove politically necessary in the state to drop out of the assessments as a way to preserve some support for the standards, he said.

What about attacks he sees on the standards from Kansas conservatives? He said that virtually all the criticisms he sees are "not based in fact. They're based in fear." The most popular attack he sees, not surprisingly, are charges that the common core is really a Trojan horse for federal intrusion into education. And, he said, data collection practices under the No Child Left Behind Act that won't change "one iota" under common core are "suddenly being viewed as a product of common core."

Willard also remarked that in his experience, legislators he deals with are more likely to be motivated to attack the standards from political pressure they are feeling from constituents, rather than concerns they hold about the common core from their own research.

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