News: CJ Exclusives

Education Officials Abandon State-Based Curriculum, Embrace Feds

N.C. officials insist money spent on developing state standards not wasted

North Carolina has become one of the first states officially to adopt a newly developed set of national curriculum standards for use in the state’s public schools. When fully implemented, the “Common Core State Standards” will guide the development of everything from teachers’ lesson plans to final exams, and make it easier to compare North Carolina’s progress in education to that of other states.

Critics warn that the move may cost state officials the ability to determine what North Carolina school children should be learning. They also question the wisdom of jumping onto the national standards bandwagon in the middle of a five-year state initiative to develop new curriculum standards of our own.

That project, known as the Accountability and Curriculum Reform Effort, grew out of a 2008 study recommending a complete overhaul of the standard course of study for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. State education officials had completed work on the new standards for mathematics, and were putting the finishing touches on those for English language arts, when the U.S. Department of Education announced that states using the common core standards would receive extra points in the Race to the Top education reform initiative.

Although the ACRE project is described on the Department of Public Instruction’s website as “the most important and significant work of the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction in a generation,” education officials warmed quickly to the idea of adopting the national standards instead. DPI could not say how much has been spent on the ACRE project to date.

DPI’s Chief Academic Officer Rebecca Garland credits the federal reform initiative with helping spur action on national standards. Noting that states had been considering the idea of developing a common set of curriculum standards for years, she said, “It’s not like Race to the Top initiated the conversation, but it may have caused folks across the states to say it’s time to stop talking and start doing.”

In an interview, Garland rejected the idea that the two years DPI spent working on new mathematics and English language arts via the ACRE project were wasted. She pointed out that the new common core standards for both subjects are very similar to those developed by ACRE. In the case of the math standards, she said that one of the key contributors to the national standards project (a North Carolina State University mathematics professor) was also working with DPI’s ACRE project.

“The English language arts [national standards] were actually being developed at the same time that our standards were,” Garland said, “so we had our groups looking at what they thought were important.”

But not all educators are comfortable with the move to national standards. Some think that “national standards” could eventually spell “national control.”

“I don’t think it’s the right way to go,” says John Locke Foundation director of education studies Terry Stoops. He cited the recent controversy over the State Board of Education’s attempt to adopt new social studies standards — which some felt slighted U.S. history. “There’s always a potential for ideological manipulation on a national scale,” Stoops said, “and that’s a concern.”

Garland says that should not be a problem. “A state can sign on or a state can pull out if anything goes in a direction that makes them uncomfortable.” She said that the standards are flexible enough to allow states to add things that they feel are particularly important to them.

DPI plans to start using the new standards in the 2012-13 school year. But before that can happen, new tests aligned with the curriculum will have to be designed. Garland says that those tests will be designed by a consortium of states to be chosen by the U.S. Department of Education later this year. “In essence it will give us a national assessment, but it will be an assessment controlled by the states,” she said. “None of us are interested in a federally mandated assessment.”

Stoops says the assessments bear close watching. “It’s no good to have great standards and horrible assessments,” he said. Referring to North Carolina’s history of problems with standardized testing, he said, “We have seen what poor assessments can do.”

Jim Stegall is a contributor to Carolina Journal.