Set higher standards for N.C. schools

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 23, 2014

RALEIGH — Think that the quality of political debate is low and declining? I agree. For a recent, telling example of the problem, consider the debate about North Carolina’s participation in Common Core.
Some years ago, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers combined forces to release national standards for elementary and secondary education. The effort received significant assistance from the Gates Foundation and the federal government, among others. Washington also gave states strong financial incentives to sign onto the emerging standards and to join one of two testing consortia.
The result was Common Core State Standards in language arts and mathematics. For many states, including North Carolina, the language-arts standards were clearer and more rigorous than the state-developed standards they would replace. With regard to math, however, the verdict isn’t so clear. Some states, again including North Carolina, had such weak math standards that Common Core is an improvement. But other states, including high-performing Massachusetts, are taking a step down by adopting Common Core.
If you are with me so far, then you already know more about the Common Core debate than many politicians and editorial writers do.
You know that Common Core is not a black-helicopter conspiracy. You know that it wasn’t dictated to states by the federal government — but neither was its development and implementation accomplished without significant federal involvement. You know that North Carolina’s previous standards were flimsy. But you also know that Common Core is far from perfect, and that for the math standards in particular there are substantial design flaws that should be corrected before North Carolina permanently aligns its curriculum and accountability measures to the standards.
Now let me tell you something else: Common Core tests are going to be far more expensive than previous tests have been. As assessment tools, they are also largely unknown and unproven.
There are three options for proceeding from this point. One would be to stick with Common Core for the foreseeable future. This option has the advantage of avoiding disruption. But it has the disadvantages of chaining the state to some flawed standards, particularly in math, and obligating taxpayers to shoulder high costs for exams of uncertain value.
The second option would be simply to abolish Common Core and revert to the previous practice of having the N.C. Department of Public Instruction devise the standards, fashion the curriculum to implement them, and write the tests to evaluate student learning of that curriculum. This option is worse than the first one. North Carolina’s previous practice was unsuccessful. Our standards were a mess. Our tests were too easy to pass.
The third option would be to preserve the intent of Common Core — to set higher standards and adopt rigorous, informative assessments of student learning — while ensuring that North Carolina gets the details right and spends tax dollars economically. That’s what my colleague Terry Stoops proposed to state legislators earlier this year, and what the General Assembly is now considering.
The idea is to impanel practitioners and experts to review the Common Core standards for language arts and math as well as highly rigorous alternatives, including those already used by high-performing states. The panel would then recommend a revised set of standards for the State Board of Education to adopt in 2016 and from which DPI would then write a full-fledged, content-rich curriculum. The panel would also recommend national tests aligned to the new curriculum, less expensive than the Common Core exams, and yet outside the control of DPI.
There may be good reasons not to choose the third option. But it does not abandon academic rigor or the need for good, annual performance data. It recognizes that Common Core is neither a plot nor a panacea. Whether you are a business executive worried about high standards, an educator worried about curriculum design, or a taxpayer worried about excessive cost, I think you’ll find this option to your liking.
Will you find the coming political debate about this option to your liking? That’s another story entirely.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.