Mention Common Core, and a person who isn’t in education may get confused and think the reference is to the core subjects of English, math, science and social studies that form the basis of a college prep curriculum.

But mention Common Core to a Nebraska teacher or school administrator and they will immediately know what the phrase means.

Roger Breed, Nebraska commissioner of education, said that is likely because teachers and administrators are going to workshops and seminars where the Common Core is being discussed. They also may be receiving a steady stream of information about the Common Core via educational magazines and other publications.

All this might be a little surprising because Nebraska is one of only five states that have not yet adopted the so-called Common Core, whose full name is “Common Core State Standards Initiative.”

To translate that phrase into plain English, the Common Core State Standards Initiative refers to curriculum standards, specifically the standards for what America’s students should know in English language arts and in math. One of the curriculum standards goals is to ensure that all of America’s high school graduates are college or career ready.

Nebraska joins Alaska, Texas and Virginia as the only states that have not adopted the Common Core in both English language arts and math.

Setting standards

Breed said that people need to get some background information to understand why Nebraska is at least temporarily standing to one side when it comes to adopting the Common Core.

Developing common curriculum standards for English language arts and math began as a goal of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief States School Officers, said Breed, who noted that makes it more of a bottom-up school reform effort than a top-down effort originating in Washington, D.C.

The goal to develop common curriculum standards was announced in 2009.

Breed said there are several reasons why Nebraska has not “adopted” the Common Core. One is that Nebraska law requires the Nebraska Department of Education to work with the Nebraska educators to develop the state curriculum standards for K-12 education. Second, state law requires development of statewide tests based on those standards.

Third, the State Board of Education must give final approval over the state’s curriculum standards and assessments. Breed noted that no Nebraska educators have been involved in developing the Common Core, so it not seen as advisable for them to approve the Common Core.

Finally, the Common Core eventually will need to be revised. But Breed noted there has been no agreement on when that will happen and who will be responsible for it. That is a concern because it is expensive to adopt tests based on standards.

Because of all these factors, Nebraska has followed other states in developing curriculum standards for language arts, math, science and writing, with the State Board of Education most recently adopting the standards for social science or social studies.

Breed said state law also requires the Nebraska Department of Education to review and revise its curriculum standards every five years. The state’s language arts curriculum standards must be reviewed and revised in 2013.

As a result, it makes sense for Nebraska to compare its language arts curriculum standards with the English language arts standards that are part of the Common Core, Breed said. He said an earlier internal study showed that Nebraska’s language arts standards are already substantially aligned with the English language arts standards of the Common Core.

Breed said education officials will learn whether that conclusion is valid when it does its formal review and update of its language arts curriculum standards. He said that in the process, Nebraska can bring its language arts standards into even closer alignment with the Common Core English language arts standards.

Breed predicted that Nebraska not only will complete its review and update its language arts standards in 2013, it will also complete the review and update of the state math standards this calendar year. He also predicted that as this work is being done, many more Nebraska residents will become familiar with Common Core initiative.

He laughingly noted how much attention the recent adoption of Nebraska’s social studies standards received, which makes him confident that the state’s residents will be paying attention when the language arts and math standards are being revised.

Measuring progress

All of this is accompanied by some controversy.

Breed said he has heard from Nebraska educators who want nothing to do with the Common Core curriculum. He said he also has heard from other Nebraska educators who ask him, “Why is Nebraska so far behind the other states?” The commissioner said Nebraska is not behind.

Breed noted there have been no tests developed to assess whether students have mastered Common Core curriculum standards. However, No Child Left Behind continues to mandate that states test their students to measure academic progress. Each state continues to use its own tests to measure student achievement. That is why the commissioner does not believe Nebraska is far behind other states when it comes to the Common Core.

However, work is under way to create tests to see how well America’s students are mastering the Common Core standards in language arts and math.

Does that mean that the Common Core will result in a single national test? Breed said no.

“There are two consortia developing the assessments,” said Breed, who thinks the decision to have two groups work on assessments was made to avoid the charge that America’s teachers will be teaching a national curriculum.

Those two groups are Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Although Breed said the two consortia is designed to head off the charge that America is adopting a national curriculum, that is exactly what many critics — especially on the conservative spectrum — allege is being done.

There are other areas where most of the debate is being done by educators.

Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant U.S. secretary of education to current Tennessee senator and former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander during the President George H.W. Bush administration, has an online blog in which she shares some of her opinions about the Common Core and also lets others share their opinions on the Common Core, both pro and con.

In one blog post earlier this year, Ravitch said one of her reservations about the Common Core standards is that they are going to be “rolled out” in 45 states without first having a field trial in just four or five states. A field trial would allow for teacher feedback on what works and doesn’t work, which would lead to refinement of the curriculum standards

In that same post, Ravitch fretted about the cost of implementing the standards. She wrote: “The conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates that the cost of implementing them will be between $1 billion and $8.3 billion. The conservative Pioneer Institute estimates that the cost of implementation would be about $16 billion, and suggests this figure is a ‘mid-range’ estimate.”

A matter of cost

Ravitch wondered how cash-strapped schools and states could afford to implement standards in a fair and meaningful way.

Another concern expressed by Ravitch on her blog is that so much of the money for testing and “standards-based” curriculum materials will end up in the hands of private companies.

Breed said that for Nebraska to develop its own tests to measure student achievement on curriculum standards, it would cost about $11 per student per test. He estimated that to implement the Common Core assessments, it might cost $20 per student per test, which would be nearly double the cost.

Breed said one of his questions is whether the Common Core assessments will be fill-in-the-bubble, multiple choice tests or whether they might include at least some open-ended questions that would do a better job of determining whether a student has higher level critical thinking skills. The latter type of assessment is more expensive to develop and grade.

In another blog post, Ravitch links to educator, author and political scientist Rick Hess who writes that one likely effect of the Common Core assessment will be a huge drop in student test cores. Hess said that might cause parental dissatisfaction with public schools, providing an opening for proponents of charter schools and voucher programs. Hess said that is exactly what some people want.

When it was mentioned to Breed that there seems to be an entire industry that has sprung that supports school privatization, he replied privatization seems to be a “corporate strategy” for some people and groups. When it was added that there has never been a big push for charter schools in Nebraska, Breed said he would not be surprised to see a bill introduced in the upcoming legislative session to allow the creation of charter schools in the state.

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I have covered local education issues for The Independent since January 1990 and have worked for The independent since 1978.

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