Stephanie Grace: Little common ground on Common Core

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

If there was any possibility of finding understanding between enthusiastic advocates and angry opponents of Louisiana’s adoption of the Common Core education standards, it likely would have happened at a Tuesday night town hall meeting in Jefferson Parish.

Unlike many such gatherings, the format was designed to produce light, not heat. It was hosted by two reliable conservatives, state Reps. Kirk Talbot and Nick Lorusso, who are not often the targets of the sort of ideological fervor swirling around the issue. Supporters on the panel were informative and respectful of audience concerns, and did as well as anyone could to answer questions, debunk myths and explain what Common Core does, and does not, mandate. Opponents were given equal time.

And none of that seemed to make a bit of difference.

The comments from the crowd were, by now, familiar. There were complaints that Common Core amounts to the federalization, corporatization or collectivization of local education and an assault on local control and state sovereignty; that it allows for collection of personal data about students and possibly even monitoring with the use of wristbands; that it supports teaching of what attendee Hy McEnery labeled the “extremely postmodern” idea that 3 plus 3 might equal 5; that it prohibits the teaching of cursive, perhaps in order to keep children from reading the writings of the Founding Fathers.

Some audience members went further, to the point where they flat out declared that they don’t trust the government to tell the truth.

The panelists had answers for, well, most of it.

They explained that Common Core, which has been adopted by nearly every state, was created by a consortium of states with active support from Gov. Bobby Jindal and participation by former state Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek — although the president supports it and has attached incentives to its adoptions. They described how it allows schools and districts to use their own curricula to meet the standards. In fact, several suggested, some of the unusual teaching methods parents blamed on Common Core may well have stemmed from exactly the sort of district and school-based variations in curriculum that opponents treasure.

They didn’t seem to know what to make of the wristband allegation, but assured residents that this would not happen in Louisiana. They guessed that McEnery’s anecdote about alternative math might have stemmed from Common Core’s focus not just on arriving at the right answer, but explaining how the student got there. They soundly rejected the idea that Common Core bans cursive.

Jim Garvey, a Metairie Republican who sits on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which first instituted Common Core, insisted he takes such concerns seriously and has researched about 40 specific concerns. “So far, I have not found one that has turned out to be true.”

Garvey kept his cool, but he and his fellow Common Core supporters have clearly been caught flatfooted by the opposition movement. Jindal has paid lip service to opponents’ concerns, even as his allies on BESE and in the Legislature, along with Pastorek’s successor, John White, have held firm. While Talbot and Lorusso’s House colleague, Cameron Henry, is calling for legislation to pull out of Common Core, few lawmakers have joined in.

Also holding firm are a long list of civic, corporate and education groups, from the Public Affairs Research Council to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, from the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools to chambers of commerce from every corner of the state. These groups are now, belatedly, playing offense, too, by arguing that without Common Core, the state’s kids will continue to fall behind. In a joint statement last week, the groups argued that, while current LEAP tests show that 74 percent of Louisiana fourth-graders read on grade level, “more rigorous state-by-state comparison tests” show that only 23 percent are proficient in reading.

The handful of supporters who showed up Tuesday echoed that concern, including several educators who lamented that they were teaching concepts here that students in other states learned several grades earlier.

If few of the parents, grandparents and others who attended heard anything that changed their minds, the same can be said for one of the hosts, although Talbot acknowledged that the program will need tweaking along the way.

“Look, we’re 49th, we’re still at the bottom. I don’t want to be 49th. I don’t want to be 40th. I want to be as high as we can be,” he said. “If Common Core is deleting cursive writing, then prove it, show me. That got a standing ovation, but everybody on the state side said it’s not true.”

After witnessing Tuesday night’s conversation, Talbot seemed resigned to a long battle rather than a quick fix. He confessed afterwards to being somewhat bothered by the depth of skepticism he’d witnessed toward government officials. Still, he admitted, “I can certainly understand it in today’s political climate.”

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.