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Indiana's air ball on national education standards

Posted by Jim Stergios  November 3, 2012 01:31 AM

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Basketball fans will remember the scene from the epic 1986 Gene Hackman movie, Hoosiers , where Coach Norman Dale (Hackman) is taking his small-town high school team, Hickory, on the road to the Indiana state championships. As they peer into their opponent’s massive gymnasium, his players grow understandably nervous. Taking out a measuring tape, Coach Dale has them measure the distance to the free throw line and size up the height of the rim, and says: “I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory.”

I’ve often thought about that scene when interacting with Indiana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, himself a basketball coach, which is clear to anybody who meets him. He talks like a coach, acts like a coach and tries to convince like a coach – less interested in reason, much more in tools like exhortation and motivation. Those are good political skills to have when you’re trying to get stuff done, and as a result Bennett is among the better, more reform-minded state commissioners of education in the country. He has, with Governor Mitch Daniels, gotten some important things done in the Hoosier state like expanding school choice, charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and focusing on accountability mechanisms for the Indiana public school system.

Full disclosure: My organization (Pioneer Institute) thinks well enough of Bennett that we featured him, together with Rhode Island’s Deborah Gist and Texas’ Robert Scott, at a Boston event highlighting dynamic state education commissioners from around the country. (Here’s a video of the keynote speeches by Bennett, Gist, and Scott at our event last fall.)

Over the last year, however, as Bennett has been running for reelection as the state’s superintendent of schools, he has been facing increasingly heated opposition from across the state for discarding Indiana’s K-12 state education standards for the qualitatively weaker national “Common Core” standards. (In addition to strong debates here in Massachusetts and Indiana, there are debates underway on the adoption of Common Core in California, New Hampshire, Idaho, Maine, South Carolina, Utah, etc.)

Parents, the press, and commentators across Indiana have questioned the reasoning for changing the Indiana state standards. Let me share a few examples of the public debate. On WIBC 93.1 FM’s Greg Garrison Show, Indiana parent Heather Crossin didn’t mince words, saying that:

…Indiana did have standards that were higher, that, in fact, there are a lot of problems with the Common Core standards…The validation committee for the Common Core for math and English language arts, some of the content experts would not sign off on them. These are people who got on board, to be on the validation committee, because they believed in the idea of national standards, they were not opposed to them, they simply wanted them to be good national standards that would allow us to compete internationally with other countries…

On that same show, Erin Tuttle, another concerned Indiana parent spoke, as well as Emmett McGroarty of The American Principles Project and Jamie Gass from Pioneer. (The full podcast can be heard by clicking here and scrolling down to June 11, 2012.)

Columnist Russ Pulliam of the The Indianapolis Star then argued that:

Republican incumbent Tony Bennett is officially running against Democrat Glenda Ritz, a teacher at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis, for state superintendent of public instruction. Yet he also seems to be running against critics of the national Common Core standards. Critics see the Common Core as part of a federal effort to command a larger role in education, which historically has been the responsibility of state and local government. They also argue that previous Indiana standards were excellent and should not have been tossed aside.

Followed by The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, which recently editorialized that

…arguments are growing among some Indiana residents, who are questioning the state’s enthusiastic embrace of the standards. Rather than basing participation on the Common Core’s political supporters, Hoosiers should view the new academic requirements in terms of how they will affect Indiana students. By that measure, the Common Core and the national test that will support it are a step backward…Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction, pushed adoption of the standards in 2010. He defended the Common Core before a skeptical audience at an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting last year. In June, he insisted the state hasn’t given up control of its academic standards, but as Election Day looms, his position appears to be shifting. In August he told an angry tea party gathering that the Obama administration nationalized the standards and forced them on the states.

Fabio Augusto Milner, a professor and director of Arizona State University’s Math for STEM Education, offered Indiana lawmakers a comparison of the math standards. “I can unequivocally recommend that Indiana not adopt the (Common Core math standards) if the state wants to require high school graduates to excel by design to a higher level than average,” he testified in January…

…“It is not clear why Indiana’s board of education chose to trade in a silk purse for a sow’s ear – that is to give its secondary English teachers an inferior set of standards to aim for,” testified Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, in remarks to the Senate Education Committee in January.

A local school board candidate, Glenna Jehl, also recently published an op-ed piece in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:

When President Obama touts “education reform in 46 states” as one of his accomplishments, most people haven’t yet realized that Obama is referring to the new Common Core State Standards being implemented nationwide, including in Indiana…

Surprisingly, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett helped wheel this Trojan horse into our midst…Unfortunately, they never took time to consider what sort of standards they agreed to adopt; no longer in a Race to the Top and higher standards, we are in a race to mediocrity. We are voluntarily relinquishing Indiana’s superior, acclaimed standards for those that are inferior to our current standards in math and language arts…Are we going to place our children’s futures in the hands of Washington bureaucrats? We need to send ObamaCore back….we must join the four states that have already rejected it. Our next governor and state legislature must understand that Indiana needs to opt out of Common Core. That is the only way states, local school boards, and parents will retain the ability to choose the curriculum and the standards for the education of the students in their community.

An op-ed by Joy Pullmann in The South Bend Tribune:

Bennett was briefly surprised in July when local residents asked him about federal control over what children learn through the Common Core, a set of K-12 lists for what every student should know in math and English and, soon, history, science and the arts…

More of that fury is coming. Indiana parents and teachers are becoming more nervous as Common Core mechanisms fall into place, and ignoring them will create a strong backlash among the very supporters Bennett needs to further his pro-school-choice agenda. Local networks of concerned residents are right now holding meetings on the Common Core throughout Indiana, at an astonishing rate. State representatives and local school board members are showing up….

I've attended several. The energy in the room is electric, in contrast to typical school board meetings. Teachers report reluctance to speak up about the unwieldy standards and corresponding curriculum and teaching requirements, for fear they will lose their jobs. Parents bring examples of needlessly complicated multiplication homework their child's own teachers cannot explain. These are motivated grassroots activists no leader should ignore. Two words for Bennett: Dick Lugar.

Those are tough words -- and highly political words, which matter more in Indiana than in, say, Massachusetts where Commissioner Chester (who holds the equivalent position) is appointed by the state's Board of Education and does not face the voters. And, while I think Bennett will get reelected on Tuesday, I'm not sure he is going to be able to temper the reactions he is getting. Here are a few reasons:

  1. He will no longer have Governor Daniels as a boss. Daniels is at the end of his second term and is prohibited (because of term limits) from running for reelection. The likely winner of the election is Congressman Mike Pence, who has a strong record of not liking Washington mandates. It would be a remarkable about-face if he were to support national standards.
  2. Bennett has put his best game-face on in trying to rally public support for Common Core. He has not used reason. Consider the Fordham Institute's 2010 view of the Indiana standards before Bennett pushed for adoption of the national standards:
The Bottom Line: ELA -- Indiana’s standards are clearer, more thorough, and easier to read than the Common Core standards. Essential content is grouped more logically, so that standards addressing inextricably linked characteristics, such as themes in literary texts, can be found together rather than spread across strands. Indiana also frequently uses standard-specific examples to clarify expectations. Furthermore, Indiana’s standards treat both literary and non-literary texts in systematic detail throughout the document, addressing the specific genres, sub-genres, and characteristics of both text types. (my italics)

The Bottom Line: Math -- With some minor differences, Common Core and Indiana both cover the essential content for a rigorous, K-12 mathematics program. That said, Indiana’s standards are exceptionally clear and well presented. Standards are briefly stated and often further clarified with the use of examples, so they are considerably easier to read and follow than Common Core. In addition, the high school content is organized so that the standards addressing specific topics, such as quadratic functions, are grouped together in a mathematically coherent way. By contrast, the organization of the Common Core is more difficult to navigate, in part because standards on related topics sometimes appear separately rather than together.

(It's no longer 2010 and as has now become routine at Fordham, they have engaged in a wonderful display of gymnastics to justify their reputation-be-damned support of Common Core, including rewriting their views on Indiana's state standards. It's the equivalent of a double back layout, followed by a giant swing and single layout flip with two twists. Basketball players they are not, and Coach Bennett should not attempt that on a basketball court.)

Another baton-holder in the Common Core parade, Achieve, Inc. had this to say to the Indiana Business Roundtable regarding the previous Indiana state standards:

Achieve has completed the final review of the proposed Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics for K-8 and high school. The primary purpose of this review is to ensure that the state’s proposed revised academic standards for K-12 align with the expectations for success in college and career. The following national frameworks served as the “exemplary standards” to which the proposed Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics were compared: the Achieve American Diploma Project (ADP) Benchmarks for Mathematics, the National Mathematic Advisory Panel Foundations for Success (NMAP), the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Mathematics Framework 2009, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Curriculum Focal Points for Prekindergarten through Grade 8 Mathematics…

The Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics for K-8 and high school present student learning expectations that are intellectually demanding and well aligned with the ADP Benchmarks in mathematics. If Indiana’s students master the state standards, they will likely be well prepared for success in college and in their career…

In conclusion, the proposed Indiana Academic Standards for Mathematics for K-8 and high school generally address the essential content at the level of rigor that is consistent with that of national exemplars.

Achieve said that in 2009. But like, Fordham, they don't say that anymore. And in 2009, University of Wisconsin mathematician, Dr. Richard Askey said this about the previous Indiana state standards:

For about two years I have been reviewing the new Indiana Mathematics Standards… The earlier Mathematics Standards were among the best in the United States, and the current draft improves on the previous one, so clearly they are at the top of the Math Standards in the United States. It provides a backbone which, when fleshed out by teachers, will help students learn the mathematics they will need either in college or in more direct preparation for a job.

Contrast the views of Fordham, Achieve and Dr. Laskey to the analysis of Stanford University mathematician, Dr. R. James Milgram, regarding the quality of Common Core's math standards:

The above standards illustrate many serious flaws in the Core Standards. Also among these difficulties are that a large number of the arithmetic and operations, as well as the place value standards are one, two or even more years behind the corresponding standards for many if not all the high achieving countries. Consequently, I was not able to certify that the Core Mathematics Standards are benchmarked at the same level as the standards of the high achieving countries in mathematics…Overall, only the very best state mathematics standards, those of California, Massachusetts, Indiana and Minnesota are stronger than these [Common Core] standards…California, and the other states with top standards would almost certainly be better off keeping their current standards.

As I've noted before, the fact is that the Common Core standards (whether in math or English Language Arts) were not internationally benchmarked against the highest standards in the world, they lacked a true research base, and there is no reason to think that such a process could lead to standards close to those achieved in Indiana, Massachusetts or any number of states who took high-quality classroom content as a real objective.

The criticism coming from academic experts, Indiana parents, and local media is clearly growing in intensity. To go back to Hoosiers, they all feel that Coach Bennett’s decision to adopt Common Core shortened the free throw line on expectations for the kids in Indiana’s traditional public schools.

The impacts don’t stop there. He’s, in essence, lowered the rim for all the kids and parents who have turned to alternatives, whether public charter schools or private school choice. As public schools, charters have had to focus their work on Common Core’s objectives and therefore they are aiming for a much lower academic standard.

As regards school choice, it’s just as bad. Unlike Massachusetts, Indiana has a voucher program. And that voucher program came with the requirement that private, including Catholic, schools had to take state-sanctioned tests. With the transfer over to national standards and tests, private schools now frame their curricula on Common Core and must take the (not yet finished and never field tested!) national tests.

The fact is that Coach Dale’s gambit of using the tape measure worked because it was common sense, it was factual, and he was making the point that his players could compete if they set the highest expectations possible. Advocacy for and adoption of inferior quality national standards by Indiana’s Tony Bennett has landed with a thud, seen by the Hoosier State as a big airball for the children of the state.

The clock is winding down on Tuesday. Coach Bennett may eke out a victory and remain as superintendent of public instruction, but the game has changed and no amount of motivational talk is going to make his original game plan work.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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