The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 11, 2013

State education curriculum on brink of legislative control

College and Career Ready Standards focus on math, language arts

By Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com

— The Senate Education Policy Committee is expected to decide Wednesday whether to approve a polarizing bill that could give the Alabama Legislature final approval for curriculum and repeal the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards.

CCRS originated from the Common Core Standards Initiative, which was developed in 2010 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to improve college and career preparation, and to provide consistent state-to-state curriculum.

Forty-five states have adopted common core standards in math and English language arts for grades K-12. Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, Alaska and Nebraska have not joined the consortium, which provides basic standards many states have customized into specific math and English guidelines.

The Alabama Board of Education voted 7-2 in 2010 to adopt the common core standards, and re-adopted and renamed them as the CCRS in 2011 by a 6-3 decision. The new math coursework was implemented in August 2012, and the revamped English courses will take effect during the 2013-14 school year.

The Alabama standards are “designed to give our students a boost by connecting their math and reading in the classroom to real-word problem-solving and career application,” according to Dr. Eric G. Mackey, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama. “Standards for Alabama students are carefully crafted and selected by teams of educators and parents. (They) decided to combine the best of Alabama’s prior standards with the best of the common core standards.”

Bill debate

The committee will meet at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday in Montgomery to debate the six-page proposed legislation, which was introduced Feb. 12 as Senate Bill 190 and House Bill 254.

Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, sponsored SB 190 and patterned it after similar legislation in Indiana. Fourteen of the 35 members of the Republican-controlled Senate are co-sponsoring the bill, including Bill Holtzclaw of Madison and Shadrack McGill of Huntsville.

Brewbaker chairs the nine-member Senate Education Committee, which includes Holtzclaw and McGill, Republicans Trip Pittman and Gerald Allen and Democrats Vivian Figures, Hank Sanders and Quinton Ross.

The identical HB 254 is sponsored by Rep. Jim Barton, R-Mobile, and co-sponsored by Republicans Wes Long, David Sessions and Ed Henry.

If SB 190 passes out of committee, the bill would go to the Senate Rules Committee. The Rules Committee in the Senate and House determines which bills are brought to a vote in the Legislature.

All legislation has to be approved by both chambers before being sent to Gov. Robert Bentley, who as president of the state Board of Education voted against keeping CCRS during the November 2011 board meeting, along with longtime board members Stephanie Bell and Betty Peters.

Sticking points

Holtzclaw, who has two children and served 20 years in the active-duty Marine Corps, told the Legislative Open Forum audience at Athens State University in January the common core standards prevent children of military personnel from falling behind due to different state curriculum standards. He did not mention the possibility of repealing the Alabama standards.

Holtzclaw, who blogged Feb. 25 about his opposition to common core standards at District2.us.com, wrote his stance stems from “where we may be headed from a Federal perspective,” and SB 190 will keep the state from making “an agreement or joining a consortium that would cede any control to an entity outside the state.”

Unless the wording is modified, SB 190/HB 254 would allow the Legislature to be the final authority on state curriculum instead of the state Board of Education. The board is comprised of representatives elected from eight districts and Bentley, who took office in January 2011.

In addition to the ban on consortiums and the revocation of CCRS, the four-part bill also prohibits the “compiling or sharing data about students or teachers” in most instances, and requires the state BOE to give notice and hold public hearings before changing statewide standards.

The state board had three public meetings about changing curriculum standards prior to first approving them on Nov. 18, 2010, according to The Birmingham News.

State and local education officials repeatedly have said private data about students and teachers is not shared with the federal government. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is an existing federal law that protects student privacy.

Student privacy

Dr. Tom Sisk, superintendent of Limestone County Schools, said the debate about the state’s math and English standards should be focused on student learning instead of being embroiled in political rhetoric.

He said the proposed bill to repeal CCRS has caused confusion because it was written without input from state Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice.

“The confusion, as I’m seeing it, is because the Legislature didn’t involve the state superintendent, and they didn’t have the benefit of knowing what was true, and what wasn’t true,” said Sisk, who plans to attend Wednesday’s Senate meeting. “Data is shared between the federal government and state government only in the standpoint of rewarding federal dollars, and not to give individual student information. We are very limited by privacy laws in what we can share, and we don’t share private information.

“The only information we share is holistically, in terms of percentages and rations, so that we can qualify for federal funding. We do not share specific names when asked about graduation rates, foreign-language speaking students or students qualifying for free or reduced lunches through the Title I program.”

School feedback

Cindy Wales is a third-grade teacher at Elkmont High School, and the county’s Elementary Teacher of the Year in 2011. She is a member of the CCRS implementation team, which has two principals, four curriculum specialists from the Central Office and 21 teachers from a dozen schools in the Limestone County system.

“As an educator, I support the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards. The new standards will help to ensure we increase the rigor and prepare students to enter college without the burden of remedial classes, and have them prepared for the workforce or military,” said Wales, who has taught for 21 years. “The disagreement is whether the supremacy of the state is protected in the current language of SB190. While there is no bigger supporter of the Alabama (CCRS), I, too, am concerned about what could happen if state sovereignty is not maintained specifically.”

She said the new math curriculum has been an adjustment for parents because they were taught differently to solve math problems. Wales said the CCRS standards stress critical thinking rather than computation and memorization.

“I think the rigor is there with these standards. It’s not just computation, and it’s knowing the how and where and why behind a problem,” said Wales as her students rotated among different reading activities Thursday afternoon. “It’s just better understanding for the students, and I feel so much better about my math instruction this year because we have stepped up the curriculum.”

Elkmont third-grader Paige Robinson, 9, whose favorite subject is math, described the math problems this year as challenging but enjoyable. She said her math class always begins with a reading problem.

“We always start math class with ‘Unlock the Problem,’ and it’s hard but fun to try and figure out the answer,” Robinson said. “And if we see a sunshine (logo) by a problem, then we know it’s going to be a higher-order thinking problem.”

More feedback

The common core issue has attracted the interest from a wide range of organizations, including the Tea Party Common Sense Campaign, the Eagle Forum and Alabama Republican Women, as well as the Alabama Education Association and A-Plus Education Partnership.

Ken Freeman of the Alliance for Citizens’ Rights spoke at a Montgomery rally on Feb. 12, and said common core standards would brainwash and transform students, according to alreporter.com.

The Alabama political website reported Freeman told parents at the rally their children “won’t want to know you. They won’t know any mother but Mother Earth. They will know no father but the fatherland, and they will know no God but government.”

The site also quoted Brewbaker at the rally as saying, “Even if you thought the (state) standards are good, you should still oppose the common core if you support limited government.”

Athens resident Tony Llewellyn, who opposes federal government involvement as a coordinator of the local Tea Party Patriots, said he has spoken to state school board member Mary Scott Hunter of Huntsville and several state legislators. He said he does not believe the Alabama standards were formed with federal influence.

“(Hunter) has convinced me there is zero federal involvement in these standards, which I believe were set specifically for students in Alabama,” Llewellyn said.

He compared aligning the Alabama CCRS standards with the national common core curriculum to having an Alabama driver’s license or pistol permit recognized by other states.

“There is a difference between having a standard and being standardized,” he said. “We have a state school board, and they were elected to decide curriculum for our state. There is a lot of misconceptions and misunderstanding with this issue because this involves parents and their children.”

Limestone School Board President Bret McGill said curriculum should be decided at the local level. He said the state school board sets a minimum standard that is often surpassed by school systems.

“I think if people could forget about the idea that the federal government is intruding, they might realize the common core is not a mandate. It just sets a minimum standard for each state (to consider adopting) so if you move from one area to another, you don’t fall behind,” said McGill, who is a parent of a second-grader and third-grader at Blue Springs Elementary and a 10th-grader at Clements. “Alabama has already adopted above and beyond the common core, and locally we’re already ahead of what the state education department sets.”