Friday, September 19th, 2014

Fact-checking attacks on Common Core school standards

New standards for schools -- called the Common Core -- have been getting a lot of attention lately. (Tampa Bay Times photo)
New standards for schools -- called the Common Core -- have been getting a lot of attention lately. (Tampa Bay Times photo)

As states surge toward full implementation of Common Core State Standards for public schools, the din is rising from some fronts to pull back.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, whose tea party base offers perhaps the most strident opposition, is listening. In open forums Scott requested last week, people stepped forward to give their views. Criticism ranged from what’s taught in English class all the way to conspiracy theories involving iris scans.

PolitiFact Florida reviewed comments from the hearings and found that several of the most dramatic criticisms aren’t backed up by the facts. Here is a brief review of some of their findings. (See individual reports for more details.)

Common Core refers to a set of national education standards adopted by 45 states, including Florida. They came out of years of discussion between private nonprofit groups and state education departments.

The goal: to better prepare students for college and careers and ensure that students in different states learn the same academic concepts.

The Obama administration has used its education grant process, Race to the Top, to encourage states to use the new standards, but no state is required to adhere to Common Core.

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One frequent complaint at the hearings is that teachers were not involved in developing the standards.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, the official group that organizes the standards, says that’s not the case.

We wanted more evidence, so we talked to teachers who actually participated in the process.

Becky Pittard, a Volusia County elementary math teacher, served on a team that developed math standards. She said she was puzzled by any suggestion that teachers were left out.

"I can tell you the equal sign standard is there because I insisted," she said, referring to a first-grade guideline on understanding the meaning of the symbol. "There was impact."

Many states assembled teams of teachers to review the new standards, including Florida. Deputy chancellor Mary Jane Tappen sent an email to selected teachers in November 2009 expressly for that purpose.

"You are receiving this email because you are a trusted and respected expert in your field," Tappen wrote. "Florida must provide input on this very first drafty draft of the Common Core National Standards by December 4. … I will be collecting and compiling all our work into one Florida response."

PolitiFact Florida rated the claim that teachers weren’t involved in creating the standards as False.

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Another claim: Common Core standards will dramatically increase the amount of personal information the federal government collects.

"There are over 300 data elements the government is going to be collecting about your children and about you," Tim Curtis, an activist with the tea party group 9/12, said in Tampa.

His claim has a kernel of truth: Florida requires school districts to keep student information. Some of it is required by the state, while other elements are optional, or only kept at the local level, such as bus stop numbers. The list includes students’ race, test scores, attendance and many more factors.

But those requirements have existed for decades — long before Common Core came along. States collect the data to help them make decisions.

The U.S. Department of Education has routine access to some data, but that data is aggregated and stripped of personally identifiable information.

In fact, laws predating Common Core prohibit a federal database of personally identifiable information on students.

"Florida has no plans to change the data it collects that is linked to Common Core," said Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.

We told Curtis that multiple educational experts said Common Core doesn’t require new data collection.

"I can shoot that claim down with a single explanation," Curtis said. "The Polk County school district began to do iris screening on school children and they did so without notifying their parents. They did so as a result of the beginning of the implementation of Common Core."

According to the Florida Department of Education, the screening was intended to route children onto the proper bus and wasn’t related to Common Core.

We rated the claim that Common Core means 300 points of data being collected as Mostly False.

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Another criticism of Common Core is that it will reduce the reading of fiction and literature.

"Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least half of their reading instructional time at every grade level on informational texts," said Sandra Stotsky, an education professor at the University of Arkansas and staunch critic of the Common Core. Stotsky didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Common Core standards do emphasize informational texts, particularly in history, social studies, science, and other technical subjects.

And news reports suggest that English teachers are using more informational texts in their classrooms as they move to the Common Core. An Oct. 15 story in The Hechinger Report found one teacher replaced the novel The Great Gatsby, with a memoir, The Glass Castle.

However, the idea that English teachers must spend half their time on informational texts misreads the standards.

Common Core follows a framework that spells out percentages of literary versus informational texts by grade level. It calls for a 50 percent/50 percent split in grade four, with an increasing emphasis on informational texts in later grades. In grade 12, the split is 30 percent/70 percent.

But those percentages are meant to reflect the sum of student reading, not just in English.

To meet the 30 percent threshold for literary reading at grade 12, an English teacher would have to focus on stories, novels and plays, said Timothy Shanahan, a retired education professor and a member of the English Language Arts Work Team for the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

PolitiFact Florida rated the claim that English teachers must spend half their time on informational texts as False.

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One of the most dramatic claims we found against Common Core came from published materials from the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition. The standards aim "to instill federally determined attitudes and mindsets in students including political and religious beliefs," states a report on the group’s website.

We found nothing in the standards that suggested any level of government was telling students what political or religious beliefs they should personally hold.

So what evidence do the critics have for saying the Common Core will instill political and religious beliefs?

The coalition’s report zeroes in on lists of hundreds of data elements a school district might keep on its students. The report linked to a screen grab it created of data elements from the National Education Data Model.

The list shown includes "voting status" and "religious consideration" and "religious affiliation."

But this is not a required list of data for all states or school districts to collect.

So why are the fields on voting and religion even there?

We interviewed Alexander Jackl, chief architect of Choice Solutions, Inc., an education data software company. He’s also one of the original authors of the National Education Data Model.

The data fields are all optional, and the fields for religion are useful for private, religious schools, he said.

We contacted several Florida school districts to ask if they collect data on voting status, political affiliation or religious affiliations, or if they plan to start doing that with Common Core. They all said no.

The Florida Department of Education does not require school districts to ask about those subjects and has no plan to do so under Common Core, Etters said.

So the evidence — a computer model that has a data field for voting status or religion, typically used by a private school — is a far cry from the federal government attempting to instill particular religious or political beliefs. We rate this Pants on Fire!