Nebraska's refusal to adopt the Common Core academic standards in math and language arts could cost students, teachers and taxpayers as 45 other states press full steam ahead to implement them, some educators say.
However, critics, including a prominent education historian, are more skeptical than ever of the nationwide movement they believe amounts to forfeiting education decisions to Washington.
Amid this debate, members of the Nebraska Board of Education want more information. Members voted 7-1 last week to pay a national education consultant $47,000 to compare Nebraska's standards to the Common Core.
Standards spell out what students should learn and know in school.
The consultant, Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, will compare the two line-by-line for how they match up in scope, specificity, emphasis and phrasing.
“I think it's a very important benchmark for us to take a look at,” board member Rachel Wise said. “How do we stand up to those standards? Are there gaps within the alignment? Are our standards more rigorous? Less rigorous?”
The Common Core is designed to raise academic standards nationwide through a comprehensive set of curriculum standards. For example, Common Core says that K-5 students will know and apply grade-level phonics and word-decoding skills. Nebraska's standards make no mention of phonics.
The Common Core was developed by two state organizations: the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Nebraska's go-it-alone stance has left educators in some local school districts anxious as they see the rest of the nation ramping up to teach the Common Core. Some educators are trying to incorporate elements of the Common Core, while also teaching the state's standards, on which students are tested each year.
Kristi Gibbs, assistant superintendent for learning in the Ralston Public Schools, said districts are “kind of in limbo.”
Educators anticipate that when Congress finally rewrites the federal No Child Left Behind law, states may be required to adopt national assessments based on the Common Core in order to receive certain federal aid, she said.
Many states initially adopted the Common Core after the Obama administration linked federal Race to the Top grants to adoption of the standards.
Only Nebraska, Alaska, Texas, Virginia and Minnesota did not. Minnesota adopted the language arts standards but kept its own math standards.
The Iowa Board of Education voted in 2010 to adopt the Common Core standards, with full implementation in the 2014-15 school year.
At one time, as many as 47 states had committed to adoption.
Judy Walker, chairman of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln math department, said the desire for preserving local control should be balanced with the advantages of being part of a larger system.
“I don't look at the Common Core as 'top down' control from Washington,” Walker said, “Rather, I see it as a pooling of resources so as to more efficiently and effectively give the best possible education to our children.”
Jim Lewis, a math professor at UNL, said that by going it alone, Nebraska misses out on the national momentum to improve student learning.
Lewis directs UNL's Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education, which aims to improve teaching at the K-12 and collegiate levels.
For him, Nebraska's stance wastes tax dollars. It's costly for Nebraska to write its own assessments, he said, and those tests are likely to be of lesser quality than the two national assessments backed by millions of dollars and the nation's best minds.
In the future, Nebraska could find that teaching materials will be designed for Common Core states, he said.
“Who's going to write books that people in Nebraska purchase to use in their school system?” he asked.
Despite advocating for a national curriculum, education historian Diane Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education who is popular with many educators, blasted the Common Core last month.
Ravitch wrote that the standards have never been field-tested. “We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time,” Ravitch wrote in her blog.
In 2010, when the question of whether Nebraska should join other states arose, members of the State Board of Education were reluctant, citing concerns about a potential federal power grab. At the time, a committee of Nebraska educators was in the process of writing new Nebraska standards.
State officials assured board members that Nebraska's new standards would be comparable to the core standards.
Jim Scheer, a former member of the Nebraska Board of Education now serving in the Legislature, introduced a bill this session that would give board members the option to adopt the Common Core standards.
LB 512 also would allow the state to adopt the national assessments to gauge whether students were meeting the standards.
Board member John Sieler was alone this week in opposing the comparison study.
“Not all educators, but many of them I talk to, are in favor of us adopting the Common Core,” Sieler said. “But many of the — for lack of a better word, civilians, or noneducators — still have many questions and a reluctance to adopt the Common Core.”
The state's language arts standards were adopted in 2008 and in 2009. Both are coming up for a state-mandated five-year review.
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