W.Va. backlash emerging over education standards
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia is sticking with new standards for math, reading and writing in public schools, despite opposition fueled by the tea party movement, which believes the benchmarks are part of an attempted federal takeover of local education authority.
The state Board of Education continues to pursue what are known as the Common Core State Standards, with a goal of phasing them in by the 2014-2015 school year. Adopted by 45 states so far, they attempt to set detailed benchmarks for students that are clear to parents and uniform across the differing school systems and districts.
For eighth-grade geometry, for instance, the standards call for students to solve real-world math problems involving the volume of cylinders, cones and spheres. By the end of high school, meanwhile, students should be able to analyze a Shakespeare play, among other works of literature. The standards envision first-graders writing book reports that explain the student's opinion while also featuring a beginning and an end.
West Virginia is calling its version the Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives. Aided by the state Department of Education, the 55 county school systems already have adapted them to kindergarten coursework as well as to the first, fourth, fifth and ninth grades.
The state board voted at its meeting last week to open a 30-day public comment period for some of the policies changed as a result of the emerging standards. One policy change revamps math benchmarks, while the other updates standards for second-grade reading and writing.
But the board also heard from a delegation led by state Sen. Donna Boley that wants the standards scrapped. Among other concerns, the opponents alleged that Common Core strips schools and counties of local oversight while handing over more control to the federal government. They also object to the collecting of student data in the name of assessing the standards' performance.
"We're turning our education system into a national education system," Boley said Friday.
Backed by tea party and conservative groups, such critics have emerged throughout the states that have adopted the standards. Besides trying to repeal the benchmarks, Common Core opponents have sought to have them de-funded or delayed. A Pleasants County Republican, Boley led fellow GOP senators during this year's session in seeking legislative scrutiny of the Common Core standards. She expects the topic to be studied during the Legislature's monthly interim meetings.
Gayle Manchin, vice president of the Board of Education, was not swayed.
"We believe that West Virginia's Next Gen Content Standards are both clear and straight forward," Manchin said at the board meeting. "They were developed by West Virginia teachers, will allow for more innovation in the classroom, less regulation and will equip students to compete with their peers from across the globe."
Supporters of the Next Generation benchmarks include a veteran teacher from Boley's district. Kriss Bodnar taught in Pleasants County schools for 36 years, and explains the standards in a video posted on the state Department of Education website. She helped develop the standards through an effort headed by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers that began before President Barack Obama took office.
"The standards themselves are a state-based initiative. (The multistate groups) were the driving force to gather the people to write the standards," Bodnar told The Associated Press. "Nationwide, all students would be striving for the same goals as they go through their education."
Now retired, Bodnar said the intent was to have concise, explicit and easy-to-understand goals of what the students should achieve by the end of each grade year, from kindergarten through high school. Unaware of Boley's objections, Bodnar said the biggest hurdle may be helping teachers adjust their classroom approach to standards-based learning.
"The changes aren't really that dramatic," Bodnar said. "There are perhaps more expectations of kids, and more focus on what students need to do to improve achievement."
Associate State Superintendent Robert Hull said the opponents may be confusing standards with curriculum.
"That's still locally driven," Hull said. "The curriculum is all about how we are going to get there and what materials we are going to use."
Angie Summers, of the group WV Against Common Core, spoke against the standards at the Board of Education meeting.
"We believe this whole thing is about data mining, are these educators or profiteers? They are all waiting in line for our kids data," Summers said. "This sounds very sci-fi but it's really happening."
Hull said he's heard all manner of rumors about the data collection, very little of it true.
"The information we're talking about is nothing more than what we've always collected from students," Hull said. "The schools and the district own the data, and it is not shared outside of them. We'll know on a state level how schools and districts perform."
Critics of Common Core have had some successes elsewhere. Indiana has blocked the Common Core phase-in from continuing there for one year, pending a review. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order last month barring the collection of such information as religious and political affiliations of students and their families. The Republican governor noted that such personal information is not currently being collected, but said he wanted to guard individual rights.
Common Core State Standards Initiative: http://www.corestandards.org
W.Va. Dept. of Education resource pages: http://wvde.state.wv.us/next-generation
WV Against Common Core: http://on.fb.me/178hhNS
Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina
Gazette staff writer David Gutman contributed to this story