Apodaca: Common Core facing stronger pushback

This is a dangerous time for Common Core.

The new educational standards are in the midst of a roll-out that began in earnest in California last year, and advocates of the reforms continue to express their excitement about the potential to improve classroom outcomes. If we stay the course and carry on with the implementation, they believe, we will make headway toward the goal of increasing students' readiness for college and jobs.

But just as Common Core proponents counsel patience and perseverance, the backlash is growing more vocal, organized and influential. What's more, as the opposition gains momentum, it is increasingly pushed along by an array of unlikely bedfellows — critics who are typically at odds politically and philosophically but are now joined by their skepticism and distaste for the new standards.

Media reports chronicling the perceived problems with Common Core and the mounting pushback have so far stopped short of predicting doom for the reform movement. But many backers of the new standards are increasingly worried that instead of allowing schools time for steady, methodical implementation and adjustment, critics will force a showdown during the upcoming school year.

As one local educator who favors Common Core recently told me, there has never been a time in public education that is at once so promising and so frightening.

Common Core, though still a new concept to much of the public, has actually been in the works for several years. It grew partly out of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education law that required testing and reporting of student performance but created no common standard for either.

Then in 2008, a task force led by Janet Napolitano — the former Arizona governor and Homeland Security secretary who is now president of the University of California — and made up of governors, educators and business leaders, created a report that became the basis for Common Core. Since adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, the standards lay out, grade by grade, the reading and math skills that students should have as they progress from kindergarten through high school.

California has embraced the changes, and districts throughout the state are in varying stages of transition. The state allocated $1.25 billion in one-time funding to help districts implement the changes last year, but left it up to local administrators to make their own choices about how to train teachers, and what materials to buy.

Field testing of the new standardized tests aligned with Common Core, designed by the multi-state Smarter Balanced Assessment consortium, was conducted last spring. But the standardized tests to be given in the spring of 2015 to grades 3 through 8 and 11 will "count," and many state officials and Common Core advocates are already working to dampen expectations, cautioning that scores are likely to be low during the adjustment period.

Despite those warnings, defenders of Common Core — there are many, and they are passionate — believe the new standards will usher in an era of rigorous education that will foster a deeper understanding of material, enhance critical thinking and ultimately make the United States more competitive internationally. What's more, they say, states that adhere to the same standards will be able to share information about what works and what doesn't, leading to continuing improvements over time.

Critics, who are equally passionate and motivated, see many reasons to dislike Common Core. Some teachers' groups say they didn't have enough input into the standards, and argue that they will feed a growing, wrong-headed reliance on testing. Criticism has also focused on reports that some Common Core programs call for a shift toward nonfiction reading at the expense of great works of literature.

But the biggest objections to Common Core come from those who see the standards as an improper federal intrusion into state and local authority over education. Although it's technically not a federal program, Common Core has received some encouragement through some Race to the Top funding made available to states that adopted the standards. And even though curriculum changes designed to accommodate the standards are entirely at the discretion of individual states and school districts, critics argue that the end result will still be rigid, one-size-fits-all education.

Meanwhile, parents by and large are just confused. Attempts by school officials to communicate the goals of the standards and details of curriculum changes haven't succeeded in calming nerves and inspiring confidence so far.

Their efforts haven't been helped by relentless bad publicity, including reports of poor test results in some early adopter states. Even comedian Louis C.K. has weighed in with a series of widely followed tweets ranting about the negative experiences of his children with Common Core in New York schools.

In many states, legislators have introduced bills to change, delay or even scrap the standards. So far, California remains committed, but forces against Common Core are gaining steam. Despite entreaties for patience and time to give the new standards a fair chance, the pressure is on.

And here in Newport-Mesa, we wait. Even those who welcome Common Core acknowledge that much is riding on the implementation. A botched roll-out, or even just the perception of problems at this early, vulnerable stage, could be fatal to a movement that so many believe in to their core.

Next week: Will Newport-Mesa be ready for Common Core?

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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