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Despite Common-Core Politics, Chiefs Say Standards, Accountability Will Remain

Washington

Four state education chiefs said at a conference that in spite of heated politics surrounding the Common Core State Standards, they remain committed to using the standards and holding schools and teachers accountable for their progress.

But at an event hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers—one of two groups that oversaw the standards' development—the four directed frustration at critics who they say remain either ignorant of the standards themselves, or seek to render them toothless for political reasons.  

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, New Mexico Secretary-Designate Hanna Skandera, North Carolina Superintendent June Atkinson, and Maryland Superintendent Lillian Lowery all detailed the work their states have put in over multiple years to transition schools to the common core.

Huffman highlighted the $20 million his state used for training 40,000 teachers and creation of a state website for common-core resources. The results, he said, show that Tennessee teachers who've received in-depth training in the standards show a greater effect on student achievement through test scores than those who haven't gotten the training.

"Most importantly, it has helped our students learn more, and it has helped our teachers improve," he told the audience at the National Guard Memorial Building, where the CCSSO has its offices.

Other chiefs also detailed their outreach efforts to parents and how the standards have been different than other previous overhauls to content standards. In North Carolina, for example, the state revised all of its content standards in addition to adopting the common core back in 2010 Atkinson noted. Skandera said that she is working in New Mexico to ensure that the standards alone aren't expected to improve schools, but that they combine with other policy changes like new teacher evaluations and accountability systems to improve schools.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, much of the discussion focused on how the chiefs were dealing with pushback to the common core from a variety of sources.

Huffman, for example, focused much of his ire on the leadership of the teachers' union in his state, saying that it had "completely undermined" the state's shift to assessments from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) approached, and had essentially "quit" on the process. Tea party opposition to the common core has at least been straightforward, he said, while he views the union leadership as duplicitous, saying it has shifted its stance only after money has been spent on the transition to the standards and new assessments. (It's worth noting, however, that it's the Tennessee legislature, controlled by Republicans, that has approved a one-year delay in administering PARCC and a competitive bidding process for a new test after that for the 2015-16 school year.)

"There have been so many surprises over the last year," Huffman said, referring to political agitation against the standards on the left and right.

Skandera also trained fire on the unions, saying that they are simply following a historical pattern of expressing unease over a new set of standards or other changes once the time approaches for teachers to be judged on how the change has worked. And Lowery said she was confused by reports in the media of "bedlam" over the common core.

"It is not what we see when we go into classrooms," she said.

And despite it all, the chiefs said, teachers still like the common core.

In terms of regrets? Lowery said in a subsequent interview that she wished the state had exercised more oversight over how common core was being implemented, while Atkinson said the department has tried to get a better handle on dealing with how discussions of the common core are playing out in social media. 

Lowery and others pledged that the rough political sailing for common core in some cases would not lead them to call a halt to the accountability measures they have set in motion. (Both Maryland and North Carolina, however, have sought to delay the use of scores from the common-core-aligned assessments when determining consequences for teachers, with North Carolina doing so successfully and Maryland on the verge of doing so.)

"We would still have testing, accountability, and evaluation" even if the new standards came "from Siberia," Atkinson said.

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