The New Great Debate

The New Great Debate: Common Core Standards

Many conservatives throughout the state of Kansas were hoping for and expecting a favorable passage of HB 2289 in the House Committee on Education in March. Contrary to the preconceived belief that the bill would pass the dominantly Republican committee, the bill failed the vote with 7 in favor, 11 opposed, and 1 abstention. HB 2289 specifically states:

No school district, nor the department of education, nor the state board of education shall expend any moneys to implement the set of educational curriculum standards for grades kindergarten through 12 established by the common core state standards initiative.

Common Core is a hot topic with informed citizens on both sides of the issue. I was intrigued by the fiery determination of both those for and against the Common Core Standards. Legislators, as well as many average citizens, argue their point with a passion that is often absent in American political culture. Both sides have a vast amount of studies, data, and testimonials that support their stance on the issue. In an effort to better understand the effect the Common Core Standards will have on Kansas and to ascertain the exact reasons why House Education Committee members voted either for or against HB 2289, I had the opportunity to interview several representatives who sit on the committee, as well as hear from an expert on education in Kansas.

Dr. Walt Chappell, a former member of the Kansas Board of Education and President of Educational Management Consultants, became an advocate of HB 2289 when he noticed some alarming trends among Kansas students’ statewide and nationwide testing scores. Dr. Chappell, who describes the Common Core Standards as a “stealth takeover” by the federal government, scrutinized President Barack Obama’s goal to have 100% of students “proficient” in the subjects of reading and math by 2014 using the Common Core curriculum. “It isn’t possible,” Chappell said in regard to the statistical impossibility of having 100% of students proficient in the Common Core subject areas. Dr. Chappell believes that statewide testing standards in Kansas have been altered, and ultimately lowered, to make it appear as if our students are approaching President Obama’s 100% goal. According to Dr. Chappell, the most recent State Assessment scores show that 87-90% of students in Kansas are proficient in the areas of reading and math. However, only 29% of those seemingly “proficient” Kansas students scored a 21 or above on the ACT, the minimum score for admittance into one of our state’s four-year universities, such as the University of Kansas or Kansas State University. Dr. Chappell went on to explain that this illusion of proficiency among Kansas students developed from a lowering of the bar for what is considered proficient. “We’ve got the bar so low that the kids can step over it,” Chappell said, adding that “if you get 40% of your questions right as a high school student in science, you are supposedly proficient. That is a failing grade.”

I also heard from several of the legislators who were in favor of the bill, including the sponsor of HB 2289, Representative John Bradford (R-Lansing), and Representative Jerry Lunn (R-Overland Park). Both legislators shared very valid and convincing points in opposition to the Common Core Standards. Representative Bradford warned of the federal government’s overstep into the education of Kansas’s children. “Parents have a God given right to be directly involved in their children’s education,” Bradford stated. A fear among conservatives is that with the implementation of the Common Core Standards, the curriculum taught in public schools will be handed down from the federal government, with little input from parents as to what their children are being taught. Rep. Bradford went on to warn that even if parents choose to home-school their children, the nationwide implementation of Common Core will result in the alignment of the ACT and SAT tests to suit the Common Core curriculum, which will put home-schooled youth at a severe disadvantage in the unending battle for scholarships and college admittance.

For Representative Jerry Lunn, the issue is one of a monetary nature. In my discussion with the representative, he expressed concern with the current education system in Kansas, explaining to me that while we have continuously devoted more and more funds to education within the state, the scores of Kansas students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have not increased in recent years. The NAEP, which is described by its website as “the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas,” has long been a good measure of general knowledge and understanding among students. Representative Lunn explained that while the input of funding into the education system has increased over the years, the output of knowledge, as judged by NAEP scores, has remained the same. According to Representative Lunn, school administration is to blame. Lunn was quick to help me understand the disproportion of funds spent on the administration of Kansas school districts in comparison to the funds spent on the faculty and students. “I love Kansas’ teachers,” Lunn said with a grin as he continued to explain his idea for a change in how money is spent within the education system in Kansas. Accepting the Common Core Standards will only limit Kansas’ ability to make changes within the hierarchy of the educational system, which, Lunn fears, will lead us further down the road of unnecessary spending on already overgrown school administrations.

After hearing from this many credible individuals, I was almost completely convinced of the doom and gloom that surrounded the Common Core Standards. Only a small doubt still lingered, as I had not yet had the opportunity to converse with a committeeperson who had voted against HB 2289. The task of swaying my opinion is no easy endeavor, and in this case it fell to my own district’s representative, Sue Boldra (R-Hays).

I sat down for a lengthy conversation with Representative Boldra, a former educator who was among those Republican committee members to vote against HB 2289, in an attempt to understand the reasoning behind her choice to vote against the GOP platform. Boldra was quick to point out that the Common Core Standards are just that, a set of standards, not a curriculum. According to Representative Boldra, no all-encompassing curriculum will be handed down from the federal government, rather, a select group of qualified Kansas educators will write the curriculum for each subject to be used in Kansas. She made sure that I understood that Kansans will continue to control education in Kansas. From Representative Boldra’s perspective, the Common Core Standards are nothing more than a set of guidelines that each state must follow when producing their respective curriculums. Representative Boldra has first-hand experience in this process; she helped write the Social Studies curriculum for Kansas schools. With her experience, she was able to give me some insight as to how the process works. When crafting the curriculum, Representative Boldra said that 15% changes from the Common Core Standards were allowed. Even after the allowed percentage of changes was spent, Representative Boldra and her fellow educators continued to alter the curriculum until they felt it was worthy of being taught in Kansas schools. The curriculum was accepted by the federal government, even with its unsanctioned changes. Representative Boldra used this personal example to demonstrate that there is some flexibility in the Common Core Standards, a fact which I previously was unaware of. “Anything can be used and misused,” Boldra stated in regard to the standards. Representative Boldra intends to use them the right way. “If we could adopt Common Core Standards nationwide, we could ease the transition of transfer students from military families,” Boldra claimed, referencing the Fort Riley military base within our state. Throughout our discussion, the representative was very sincere in her belief that Common Core is a step in the right direction for not only Kansas, but the nation as a whole.
So, what are the Common Core Standards, really? Are they an overreach of the federal government’s power in an effort to standardize and control the education of our nation’s youth? Or are they simply a harmless attempt to conform American students to uniform achievement goals, thus making them more competitive in the global marketplace? The answer is not finite. It is up to you, the reader, to get educated, draw conclusions, and eventually decide for yourself whether Common Core is right for our country. The only thing that is certain is that the Common Core Standards will continue to be the source of heavy debate in both the upcoming legislative offseason in Kansas, as well as the 2014 legislative session. Perhaps the Speaker Pro Tempore of the Kansas House of Representatives, Peggy Mast (R-Emporia), best described the struggle against Common Core that faces Republican legislators when she said, “When you are voting against the status quo in Topeka, you are voting against the sacred cow.”

— Matthew Applequist