Debate Over Common Core Needs Civility
by By Dr. Terry Stoops
Remember when debates over educational standards were “wonky” (read: boring) discussions of goals for student learning? Unfortunately, those days are long gone.
In just three years, the debate over Common Core State Standards has become remarkably contentious. One major reason is that traditional sources of information about public schools, specifically the mainstream media and state education agencies, have failed to disseminate critical information about Common Core in a timely and balanced way.
The Common Core State Standards are a series of grade-by-grade English and mathematics standards adopted by N.C. State Board of Education in 2010. To date, 45 states, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense Schools, and four U.S. territories have adopted Common Core standards for one or both subjects.
Months, even years, after their adoption, easily accessible information about the Common Core standards had been hard to come by. In general, North Carolina’s mainstream media has done a poor job of covering the adoption and implementation of the standards. For example, there was virtually no coverage of the SBE vote in major state newspapers, such as the News & Observer. The N&O did not begin to publish reports and opinion pieces about the standards, in earnest, until 2012.
In addition, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction has not been forthcoming with information about the Common Core Standards. DPI did not feature Common Core resources on its website until 2013 — three years after the SBE adopted the standards. And when Lt. Gov. Dan Forest asked DPI earlier this year to answer 67 basic questions about the costs and benefits of Common Core, superintendent June Atkinson contemptuously dumped 597 pages of material for each of the 67 questions in the original query.
Unfortunately, this negligence occasionally allowed misinformation to spread among citizens simply trying to understand how changes to state standards and tests will affect their public schools. Even so, the vast majority of those who object to the Common Core standards have legitimate concerns about the budgetary, educational, and administrative consequences of implementing common standards and tests fully.
But many Common Core proponents have little interest in engaging their critics in reasoned debate. Even the most substantive concerns will not escape the mudslinging fury of some local, state, and national pundits, who prefer to belittle and demean their detractors by depicting them as liars, conspiracy theorists, or crackpots. For example:
* In a June 2013 interview, Atkinson remarked, “I just find it distressing that people have chosen to believe people who are actually lying, and I don’t use that word very often.”
* A few days later, Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute wrote, “For some time now, outside groups have been vigorously spreading misinformation about the Common Core State Standards. The effort has been relentless, and North Carolina has not been immune to the falsehoods.”
* The editors of the News & Observer recently opined, “How do you respond to such baseless and paranoid objections to a sensible plan drawn up by two groups that are hardly radical: the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers?”
Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas warns that as opposition to Common Core grows in state legislatures and schools around the country, it would be a mistake for Common Core proponents to dismiss well-meaning critics as “crazies.” A renewed commitment to civil discourse, as well as greater transparency about the standards, will go a long way toward improving the tone of the debate.
Dr. Terry Stoops is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
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