Education controversy echoes in Caldwell

Apr. 27, 2014 @ 07:25 AM

The arguments being heard in Raleigh about whether North Carolina should replace the Common Core standards for math and language arts education are echoed in Caldwell County.

Common Core, a set of standards developed by the National Governors Association and now adopted by 40 states, has struck a chord largely among conservative activists who consider its adoption tantamount to giving up local control. That’s a complaint sounded strongly by Nicole Revels, a Lenoir mother who teaches her 6-year-old son at home because of Common Core.

“The main thing that I think is the problem with Caldwell County using the Common Core as its standards is that it’s not coming from the parents and teachers from Caldwell County,” Revels said. “It’s coming from the national levels. It’s being mandated on us. It’s taking away parents’ input in the education of their children. I think it’s a big issue of misrepresentation that we’re not being represented in our children’s education.”

But Common Core has supporters and opponents on both sides of the aisle. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the North Carolina Chamber have praised Common Core, and one of the most outspoken proponents nationally has been Jeb Bush, a Republican and former Florida governor.

The idea behind Common Core was to have state-to-state consistency in what students learn along with higher standards. North Carolina approved Common Core in 2010 and used Common Core for the first time in the 2012-13 school year.

Dr. Caryl Burns, associate superintendent for educational program services for Caldwell County Schools, said she believes in the quality of the standards, and quality should be what matters. The ultimate goal is to get students better prepared to independently apply what they are taught, Burns said.

“It’s moving away from memorization to thinking through the process, because the world we live in now, you have to be able to work collaboratively with other people, and you have to be able to think and reason for where you need to be,” she said.

“That’s harder to teach. It doesn’t come really fast like that,” Burns said. “You have to allow for time for children to absorb stuff and actually create. You’re trying to get them to synthesize and really be creative, because in the world we live in, look at how creativity is out there in the workplace.”

Like other critics of Common Core, Revels argues that a focus on abstract thinking is not developmentally appropriate for children in lower grade levels. According to her research, Revels said, children younger than 8 to 10 are not able to think in an abstract manner.

Revels teaches her son using what she calls a “classical Christian curriculum,” which uses memorization skills to create a foundation “so when they get to an age where their brain is ready for abstract thinking, they have a basis they can pull from.”

But some of the criticism of Common Core has much less to do with standards and education than with political ideology. Although the standards were developed by a group of states, some of the opponents see Common Core as a path to federal control of local schools.

The federal government has not required Common Core, but states approving it had a better chance to obtain federal Race to the Top grants.

Glenn Fink of New Bern and a leader of the Coastal Carolina Taxpayers Association said, "I care about protecting North Carolina's sovereignty and the people are not led down a path that the federal government wants to take us."

In Revels’ opinion, the government’s support of Common Core, and using Race to the Top funds as an inducement to encourage its adoption, means the federal government is controlling the state’s educational system.

However, Burns said this ignores how the standards were developed – by the states, with the federal government “just standing on the outside.”

The only thing negative about the Common Core standards that Burns had to say was about the name.

“I wish they had called it something else besides the Common Core. I think its name has a problem,” Burns said.

The legislators who have proposed ditching Common Core do not have an alternative in mind. The draft legislation that the General Assembly will consider after reconvening May 14 would direct the State Board of Education to halt further implementation of Common Core as of July 1. A 17-member Academic Standards Review Commission then would study the issue and present its recommendations by the end of 2015. The current Common Core standards would be used in the meantime, but the bill would allow the commission to make short-term findings earlier so the State Board of Education could make changes.

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, a Democrat, said the state should stick to its five-year cycle for academic standards, now in its second year. North Carolina already has spent $22 million on preparing teachers for Common Core.

"It is unnecessary to put uncertainty on the backs of teachers when there are already many challenges that our teachers would face," she said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.