Common Core is dead. Long live Common Core.
Written by Shay Maunz
The meeting was largely uneventful. The West Virginia Board of Education met on December 17, as they do every month, at the State Capitol Complex, Building 6. During the period devoted to public comment several people stepped up to the podium to complain about recent decisions made by the state School Building Authority regarding facilities in Fayette County. The state superintendent, Michael Martirano, gave a presentation about teacher shortages in the state.
And then a little before noon, Clayton Burch, the state’s chief academic officer, stepped to the podium, faced the board’s nine voting members, and asked them to approve the West Virginia College and Career Readiness Standards. He asked them, in short, to repeal the state’s Common Core-aligned Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives. In a voice vote, the yeas had it. Martirano would say later that, “Common Core has been repealed in West Virginia by the state Board of Education. To the parents in our households and to our teachers, we have listened.”
Implementation of the Next Generation Standards—often shortened to Next Gen—started just a few years ago, in 2011, with kindergarteners. First grade classrooms converted to the new standards the following year, and by 2014 all the state’s classrooms were supposed to be in line with the new objectives.
The Next Gen standards were developed by West Virginia but they aligned with the Common Core, a national set of education standards that lay out a template for what kids should learn in English and math class each year. Of course, education in America still falls under the purview of individual states. Common Core didn’t change that—states didn’t have to adopt Common Core, although those that did were eligible for big federal grants and most took the bait. When Common Core was first adopted in 2010, 45 states and the District of Columbia decided to follow the guidelines. West Virginia was one of them.
Before we move on, a few words about education standards, what they are, and what they aren’t. The Common Core is, in essence, a set of benchmarks. By the end of first grade, for example, all students should know how to count to ten. They learn to read in the second grade. You get the idea. Standards do not specify how exactly kids learn to do these things—those decisions still fall to individual teachers, schools, and school systems. Basically, the Common Core says all kids should learn roughly the same stuff at roughly the same time. The Common Core standards are more demanding than the benchmarks that came before—that was the major selling point, in fact. They were trying to raise the bar for America’s schoolchildren. Almost nowhere is that message more enticing than West Virginia, where the school system ranks 46th in the nation.
And at first, no one in West Virginia seemed to worry about the new standards. Hardly anyone even noticed that the state was adopting new education standards. It’s not that unusual a thing to do, after all—standards are generally updated every several years. But then, something changed.
Angie Summers first heard about West Virginia’s Next Gen standards, and about the Common Core, in early 2013. Summers lives in Washington, in Wood County, and is a member of a group called Constitutional Advocates. “We’re just a group of like-minded neighbors who like to learn about the constitution and that kind of stuff,” she says. One day, a few members brought up the Common Core—they didn’t know a lot about it, but they’d heard some rumblings from people in other states, and they were concerned.
Summers went home, started doing some research, and stumbled across a YouTube video of a woman walking through a textbook called Everyday Mathematics, which is aligned with the Common Core. She especially remembers one section where the teacher was walking through something called the “partial product method” for multiplication. “It takes like a whole page to do one problem,” she says. “When you watch the video you’re horrified this is the way they’re teaching math.” A few days later, Summers asked her granddaughter to bring home her fourth grade math book so she could take a look at it. “And it was Everyday Mathematics,” she says. “I could not believe it.”
Summers’ experience seems to have been pretty common around this time. The Internet is full of videos of educators walking through their teaching techniques—usually, they’re meant to be a resource for parents who want to help kids with their homework—and a lot of people were disturbed that the way their children and grandchildren were learning math was so different from the way they did as children. And some of the techniques, like the partial product method, do take a lot of paper to work out.
But Common Core proponents are quick to point out a few things. First, it’s unfair to assume the way you learned math 40 years ago is the best way. We understand more about how kids develop and learn all the time, and modern teaching methods reflect those advancements. Second, it’s probably not that different after all. The basic principles of math haven’t changed in the last 40 years, or the last thousand—this “Common Core math” is just a different way of having kids show their work, to ensure they understand what’s going on inside their multiplication problems. And finally—this is the most important point, supporters say—Common Core, or West Virginia’s Next Generation standards, do not dictate precisely how kids learn to do multiplication problems. Again, Common Core says kids should understand how multiplication works, but teaching is still up to individual school systems and teachers.
These arguments did little to deaden the drumbeat of anti-Common Core sentiments. Also around 2012 and 2013, when Summers first learned about Common Core, photos started circulating the Internet. You probably saw them—ridiculous worksheets or tests with headlines like “Dumb Common Core Questions.” Some asked questions that seemed impossible to answer. Some had instructions that made absolutely no sense. Many of them asked students to do something relatively simple, like subtract, through what looked like a comically convoluted method. These bad worksheets and tests weren’t created by the Common Core—again, the Common Core just supplies the benchmarks, it doesn’t prescribe how to get students there—but were created by teachers and by education companies.
That’s not to say these problems weren’t related to Common Core, of course. The new standards meant students were expected to have a deeper understanding of what they were learning, and teachers and testing companies were sometimes scrambling to put those requirements to work in the classroom. The result: sloppy worksheets, confused kids, and angry parents.
When Angie Summers took what she’d learned about Common Core and the Next Generation Standards to her Constitutional Advocates group, they were outraged. And it wasn’t just about confusing worksheets. They saw this as an infringement on states’ rights, a top-down approach to education that robbed West Virginia of its autonomy. Still, the whole thing might have stopped there if the Constitutional Advocates hadn’t included one high profile member: state senator Donna Boley.
When the group told Boley what they thought of Common Core, she offered to arrange a meeting with Senator Robert Plymale, then chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “Well, I had never been in any kind of meeting in the state Capitol building,” Summers says. “I had gone through maybe touring, just to walk through and say, ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ but I’d never been there for a meeting.” She wasn’t deterred, though. She put together a slide presentation on her iPad, bought a projector that was iPad-compatible, and took her complaints to the statehouse. The first slide of that presentation said simply, “Stop Common Core.” The second summarized her aim, beginning with, “We rise in opposition to the Common Core initiative that will nationalize education.”
After that meeting in Plymale’s office, Summers gave her presentation again, and again, and again—she figures she’s done it more than 100 times by now. She’s given it to lawmakers and county school boards. She’s done it in churches. She did it for the West Virginia GOP and for the West Virginia Farm Bureau—both groups later passed resolutions opposing Common Core. She made a website and created a Facebook group called “WV Against Common Core.” It’s been liked more than 2,700 times. Somewhere along the way Summers, with help from Donna Boley in the Senate, became the leader of a grassroots effort to repeal West Virginia’s Common Core-aligned education standards. When the 2015 regular legislative session began, Boley introduced a bill prohibiting the use of Common Core in West Virginia schools. There was so much support, the bill began to make its way through the legislative process, picking up steam along the way.
This was not good news for the state Department of Education. The agency had already spent years working to develop and implement the new standards, and the state stood to lose out on a lot of federal money if Next Gen were suddenly repealed, leaving the state without standards that passed muster. Martirano and state school board members begged the Legislature not to pass Boley’s bill. They wrote op-eds in Charleston newspapers, took a strong stance in interviews, and talked to lawmakers directly about what a repeal would do to the state. “In essence my strategy in all of this was to listen and to answer all the comments,” Martirano says. “I said to people, ‘I beg you, tell me your concerns, your specific concerns, so I can deal with them, so I’m not destabilizing the education system in West Virginia by repealing the standards entirely and inserting random standards that have no connection to West Virginia. This has to be done artfully and with a surgeon’s precision instead of a lumberjack’s hatchet.”
In the end, lawmakers agreed and the bill died. As soon as the session ended, the Department of Education teamed up with West Virginia University and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation to do a listening tour of sorts, traveling the state to explain the Next Generation Standards and hear the public’s complaints.
Then, in November, Martirano went to the state board and announced he wanted to get rid of the Next Generation standards. He wanted to replace them with new standards, which the department was calling the “West Virginia College and Career Readiness Standards.” Those standards had taken into account the feedback the school system had been collecting all year throughout the state on the listening tour. They included instruction in cursive writing. They were clear about the level of rigor in math and reading. They gave the public what it wanted. Martirano was saying, in essence, the department had fixed all the problems with Common Core. The fight was over. Put down your weapons, please.
Next Gen’s opponents are not all satisfied, however. They recognize “new” standards are only slightly different from the old ones. They take into account all the feedback provided during the public comment period on the new policy—they really, actually do. But the feedback did not make for a lot of changes in the policy because it wasn’t very specific and, surprisingly, most of the commenters were in favor of the Next Gen standards.
Most of the changes were only tweaks to the language, clarifications of language that was sometimes misunderstood. But board members can still technically say they repealed “Common Core” because they’re taking advantage of a common misunderstanding of how exactly Common Core works. West Virginia isn’t using Common Core in its classrooms, and never has been—it based its own standards, the Next Generation standards, on Common Core. By repealing the Next Gen standards the board effectively repealed Common Core—but that doesn’t mean these new standards won’t look similar. Martirano, for his part, is touting this as one of the benefits of the new standards. “This builds upon the existing standards to make them even better,” he says. “I’m glad people are realizing that.”
But will that be enough to appease Common Core critics? Angie Summers says no. “Repealing means you get rid of the standards completely,” Summers says. “And all these parents, all of us spreading the word, we know that the only way we’ll fix this in West Virginia is through the Legislature.”