A day after hearing six hours of testimony from opponents of Common Core, members of the state House and Senate Education committees spent all day Tuesday hearing mostly from the other side.
Initiated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core was adopted by the Arkansas State Board of Education in July 2010. Forty-five states have enacted it.
Policymakers and schools across Arkansas have been undertaking the transition from Arkansas’ previous frameworks. The Common Core now forms the basis for English language arts and math in grades K-8 and will be incorporated in those subjects in grades 9-12 this school year.
During the all-day Tuesday hearing, legislators heard from educators and business interests that support the initiative – groups that weren’t always on the same side during the previous legislative session. Among them were policymakers with the Arkansas Department of Education; the Arkansas Educational Administrators Association; the Arkansas School Boards Association; and two teachers’ groups, the Arkansas Education Association and the Arkansas State Teachers Association. Kathy Smith with the Walton Family Foundation, the Northwest Arkansas Council economic development group, and Randy Zook with the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce also spoke in favor of Common Core.
“Today, thousands of jobs are going wanting, unfilled in Arkansas because we simply don’t have the educated, trained and drug-free workforce to fill them,” Zook said.
Arkansas will begin testing students in 2014-15 as a member of PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), a consortium of 18 states plus Washington, D.C. Several states have left that consortium, the latest being Georgia, which pulled out on Monday because of costs. Few schools in Arkansas have enough broadband access to administer Common Core tests online as will be required, but state officials are working to remedy that situation. A number of states received federal Race to the Top funds to implement the Common Core, but Arkansas was not one of them.
Witnesses who oppose Common Core had argued Monday that the Common Core represented a federal encroachment on state and local control of schools, that it’s never been tested, that it could lead to breaches of student privacy, and that the standards are not adequate. Today’s testimony included a phone call from Dr. Jim Milgram, a Stanford University emeritus professor of mathematics who had served on the committee that validated the standards but refused to agree to them. He said the standards are better than 90 percent of the states’ standards, including Arkansas’, but they are not good enough for American students to compete internationally.
“In too many ways, Common Core represents a massive experiment with our children, an experiment we think Arkansas would be wise to reconsider,” he said.
Most of the rest of today’s speakers argued that Common Core offers a narrower, deeper focus than Arkansas’ current frameworks, and that the standards are better aligned to help students move through their educational careers and into higher education. Kathy Powers, a fifth and sixth grade teacher at Conway and former Arkansas Teacher of the Year, said the standards were leading students to look deeper at reading material.
“Common Core encourages students to read like detectives and write like reporters,” she said.
Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville, who spoke against Common Core, said Tuesday, “I think we’re all convinced that Common Core standards are an improvement over what we have.” However, he said that recent American history showed that the state could lose autonomy as the Common Core becomes more embedded in American education. “I don’t want the federal government to have any control over our standards,” he said.
Dr. Tom Kimbrell, Arkansas education commissioner, insisted that Arkansas would have ownership over its standards and that he had been told that the state can pull out of the PARCC consortium at any time. “What we do today, we can change tomorrow,” he said.
Supporters argued that in a mobile society that is competing internationally, students should study common material in English language arts and math. Student Brandy Britton, a recent graduate of Lincoln High School, said that when she moved to Arkansas from Texas, she was so far ahead that it was hard to find classes to take.
Conway student Jace Motley told legislators that he had found his education lacking while participating in the United States Senate Youth Program, which brought outstanding students to Washington, D.C., to meet President Obama, members of Congress and the Supreme Court.
“There was no doubt in my mind when I was competing or speaking with delegates from California, Texas and especially New York, that wherever they were from, they were held to a higher standard than where I was from,” he said.