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Pro And Con, State School Board Hears About Common Core

Students like these at Townsend Elementary School will not be taking any field trips this year. (KWMU Staff Photo)
At a meeting of the state board of education, those for and against the Common Core made their case over an issue that was settled back in 2010.

JEFFERSON CITY -- Missouri has already adopted and begun to implement the Common Core State Standards,  but a group of diehard opponents urged the state board of education Tuesday to follow what they said is the lead of other states and reconsider.

In a pair of presentations, those for and against the standards made their case over an issue that seemingly was settled back in 2010, when the same board voted to accept the guidelines that have been approved by the vast majority of states nationwide. Full implementation of the standards is set for the 2014-15 school year.

Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who favors that action, told the board Tuesday that it should stay the course and move ahead with standards that she said would help students domestically in the job market and internationally in global competition.

“You’ve raised the bar,” she said. “Why would you consider lowering it again?”

But Mary Byrne of the Missouri Coalition Against Common Core, said the standards would do a disservice to Missouri children. She said they were not developed by the state, as proponents claim, and they would not improve learning in the state’s schools.

“Our tax dollars went to a process that we had no input in and no control of,” Byrne said.

State Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, has renewed his legislative effort against the standards, introducing a bill that would bar the state or any individual school district from implementing the standards “or any other substantially similar learning standards. Any actions taken to adopt or implement the Common Core State Standards are void.”

Similar legislation from Lamping went nowhere in the General Assembly last year, even after he modified it  along lines suggested by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Opponents’ arguments

In her side’s one-hour session, Byrne argued against implementation of the standards primarily on procedural grounds. She contended they did not align with the purpose of education according to the Missouri Constitution; they were not really developed by the states; they jeopardize the quality of education in Missouri; and they were not properly vetted according to Missouri law.

Quoting a number of people from Mark Twain to Martin Luther King to Bill Gates, she urged abandonment of the standards because they pay more attention to the needs of businesses than to the needs of students.

Karen Effrem, a pediatrician who heads a group known as Education Liberty Watch, took a more substantive tack. She argued that the standards ask too much of young children and too little of older ones, creating a level of stress that isn’t necessary.

Credit Education Liberty Watch website
Karen Effrem

“We’re turning five- and six-year-olds into good little corporate board members,” Effrem said.

She said the emphasis on skills that students are too young to have can lead to symptoms such as avoiding schools, insomnia, panic attacks and self-mutilation.

“We’re putting tremendous pressure on children to do something that they are not able to do, thereby creating stress, there by creating difficulties in learning, frustrating then where they do n want to be in school because of demands that are being made that are not appropriate,” Effrem said.

For people who are teaching those young children, she added, there are also stresses.

“It is turning teachers who do not necessarily have training in psychology essentially into psychologists,” she told the board, “and that could be potentially dangerous because these assessments will go into child’s record and essentially follow them for life.”

She recommended that the board withdraw Missouri from the Common Core and adopt standards for younger children that are written by early childhood teachers. She also said any curriculum should address only academic subjects and not what she called psychological or psychosocial values and beliefs.

Proponents’ arguments

Oldham, who said she was born in St. Louis and still has family living in the area, spent only half as much time as opponents did presenting her case, primarily because board members had few questions.

Credit Chamber of Commerce website
Cheryl Oldham

She said the standards are rigorous, fit into international and national comparisons and are important both to students and to the nation as a whole.

By 2020, Oldham said, two-thirds of all jobs will require some kind of post-secondary credentials that can be earned with the help of the Common Core standards.

She spent much of her time combating what she said are common myths about the system.

Oldham said it is about what students should know, not how they should learn it, which will remain the responsibility of local school boards. “It is not a curriculum,” she said.

But, she added, the standardization of what students know should help improve job prospects all over.

“An A in one state may be the equivalent of a B in another,” she said, adding:
“Operating a piece of high-tech machinery is the same whether it takes place in Missouri or Mississippi.”

Oldham said no centralized authority will take over locally run education, that the Common Core will not dumb down existing state standards and “will not allow big government to snoop on children and collect data,” contrary to what opponents claim.

She challenged assertions that the standards are too focused on vocational education or on a national school system.

“We don’t have a ministry of education,” Oldham said. “We’re not like our global competitors. We don’t do that, and we don’t want to do that.”

Demien departs

Herschend noted that Tuesday’s meeting was the final session for Debi Demien as a member of the state board. Demien, a Wentzville Republican, was appointed to the board in March 2006. It was Demien who pressed for the debate on the Common Core standards on Tuesday.

Demien, a retired teacher, will be succeeded on the board by Joe Driskill, a Jefferson City Democrat whose home town is now part of the redrawn 3rd congressional district. Driskill served as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives from 1983-1993 and was the state’s director of economic development from 1993-2003.

With the departure of Demien, no women are serving on the board.

Driskill was the second member of the board named last week by Gov. Jay Nixon. He also named John Martin, a former interim superintendent of the Kansas City public schools, to a seat on the board that had been vacant since Stan Archie resigned last January following allegations that he had sexually abused a minor.

Martin is also a Democrat, giving the board a 4-3 majority of Democrats over Republicans. He and Driskill must be confirmed by the Missouri Senate but are expected to begin serving with the next board meeting pending confirmation. While Driskill was named to a full eight-year term, Martin’s term is set to expire on July 1 of this year.

His service on the board would appear to make moot a question raised by legislation  filed by Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence. It would bar the state board from classifying a school district as unaccredited or reclassifying an accredited district as provisionally accredited when no board member is a resident of the congressional district in which the school district is located.

It was aimed at the controversy over the Kansas City public schools, which currently are unaccredited and facing the same student transfers now ongoing from Normandy and Riverview Gardens. Though the Missouri Supreme Court has said the law governing the transfers is constitutional in the Kansas City situation as it is in St. Louis County, the Kansas City schools have gone to court to try avert the transfers.

The only vacancy remaining on the board is a seat from the 8th congressional district in southeast Missouri. It must be filled by a Republican.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.