Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction wants to take the politics out of the Arizona Common Core Standards without loosening any requirements of the state’s tough new academic program.
On Tuesday, John Huppenthal said the term “Common Core” has become so politically charged it has become nearly impossible to explain the state’s new academic standards to parents and voters.
So, he will ask the State Board of Education to approve a name change, replacing Common Core with “Arizona College and Career Ready Standards.” He also wants the state to withdraw from a national coalition that developed the standards but has since become a political lightning rod for conservatives.
Huppenthal emphasized that nothing would change in Arizona classrooms. Teachers will stick with the new Common Core lessons rolled out at the start of this school year, and students will still take an annual assessment to measure what they have learned, he said.
Huppenthal, a Republican, is up for re-election in 2014, and many conservative voters are against Common Core, saying states, not the federal government, should be able to draft their own education standards.
Michelle Udall, a Common Core supporter and Mesa Public Schools governing board member, said that she frequently encounters Common Core opponents and contends that the “vast majority” of critics are misinformed.
She said she was not sure whether a name change would resolve the issue.
“If we keep the same standards, change the name and that makes people happier, I guess that is OK,” Udall said. “It seems to border on the absurd to do that, but it’s fine if it makes the standards more acceptable.”
Huppenthal and his staff say the need to make the change goes beyond politics. They say it has become “nearly impossible” to talk about academics and the needs of schoolchildren without anti-Common Core sentiment muddying issues.
“Arizona is declaring independence from the Common Core and from the federal government,” Huppenthal said Tuesday after participating in a panel discussion on education quality hosted by the Rodel Foundation of Arizona. “We want to make it clear that Arizona has taken possession of the standards,” he said. “Arizona is Arizona, and we are independent.”
Fueled with information from conservative blogs and talk shows, Common Core opponents have voiced unfounded fears that the new standards will force schools to replace locally selected textbooks and curricula with nationally chosen lessons and reading lists. The federal government does not have the power to force school districts to choose a certain book or teach a lesson in a certain way.
So many opponents mistakenly believe that Common Core will give the government license to collect personal data about students’ families that Huppenthal’s staff members have started carrying fact sheets that allow them to accurately respond.
The standards list broad math and language concepts and skills that students must master at each grade level. In some cases, course material is being introduced a year earlier than it has been in previous school years.
Under the standards, teachers are expected to lecture less and allow students to discuss, debate and experiment more.
In 2015, the state AIMS test, which measured student mastery of the state’s previous standards, is expected to be discontinued and replaced by a new Common Core assessment that will include fewer multiple-choice questions and more word problems and essays.
In recent months, states including Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Utah, and Pennsylvania, which were in varying stages of adopting Common Core, have backed away from the standards. In addition, Kansas has changed the name of its standards from “Common Core” to “College and Career Ready.”
Alaska, Minnesota, Texas and Virginia, meanwhile, are among the states that never adopted the standards. Reasons range from political opposition to the standards to views of educators that those states’ existing standards are better than Common Core.
Arizona’s State Board of Education would have to approve the name change and any modifications to the standards. Jaime Molera, a Board of Education member who was on the panel that adopted the academic plan known as the Arizona Common Core Standards in 2010, said he and other board members may be reluctant to support the change.
“(Common Core) has huge support from the business community and the education community,” Molera said. “I don’t want to overreact to a small group of extremists. The groups he (Huppenthal) has talked to are mainly ‘tea party’ groups.”
In June, Huppenthal faced down a large room of conservative members of the Arizona Liberty Revolution Meetup and said Common Core was here to stay.
He urged the audience not to focus on “overheated rhetoric” and said, “I do not think Common Core is a federal government initiative.”
But on Tuesday, Huppenthal said he realized he needed a new strategy after a recent trip around Arizona during which he met with 60 groups. People at the meetings said they disliked the standards or had not heard about them, he said.
A recent Gallup poll indicated that nearly two-thirds of people nationally have never heard of the Common Core Standards. And many of those who had heard the term were not sure what it meant.
While the standards were developed by representatives of the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and a Washington, D.C., non-profit group called Achieve, the state Education Board reviewed and made minor modifications before adopting them in 2010.
The efforts of national groups and the fact that the standards are supported by President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have raised suspicions of Arizona conservatives, who fear federal involvement in local education. Huppenthal now proposes severing the state’s formal ties with the national Common Core groups. But that does not mean Arizona can’t use materials produced by Achieve, he said.
Former state Sen. Rich Crandall, now director of the Wyoming Department of Education, also attended the Rodel Foundation event. He said the irony of the Common Core debate is that schools locally and nationally are already teaching the standards and doing well with them.