Pennsylvania education standards running into resistance

A new set of educational standards based on Common Core has run into late-in-the-game opposition along unusual political lines

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HARRISBURG -- After years of development, a new set of educational standards for Pennsylvania has run into late-in-the-game opposition along unusual political lines.

In a Capitol hearing room last week, a Democratic state senator, Andy Dinniman of Chester County, waved a copy of the state and federal constitutions at a Corbett administration official as he asked for a delay. Representatives of business and military groups, which support the standards, looked on, while members of the York 912 Patriots, attired in matching "Pennsylvanians Against Common Core" T-shirts, applauded.

Pennsylvania is moving toward implementing educational standards drawn in part from the Common Core, a set of expectations for math and English that has been adopted by 44 other states and the District of Columbia. The Common Core was developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Obama administration used its stimulus-funded Race to the Top program in part as an incentive for states to adopt the standards.

In 2010, the Pennsylvania Board of Education approved the Common Core itself, with three years for school districts to fully implement the standards. Since then, the board has revisited the pending standards, drawing up a new framework from whichever components of the Common Core and existing Pennsylvania expectations are more rigorous.

Now, the version of the Common Core adapted by Pennsylvania is in the process of being approved, part of a set of regulations that also would make the end-of-course Keystone Exams into a graduation requirement. Approved by the state Board of Education, the regulations are now in the governor's office, where they will be reviewed and then sent to the Legislature and Independent Regulatory Review Commission for final approval.

Last week at the Capitol, groups took turns advocating for and against the proposed standards. Mr. Dinniman gathered with fellow Senate Democrats to call for a delay in making the Keystone Exams a requirement for graduation. A military group praised the standards, saying the Common Core would improve a system in which, they said, one in five Pennsylvania high school graduates who tries to join the military cannot pass academic qualifying exams.

And at the Senate hearing, the group organized by the York 912 Patriots arrived early and made their opposition clear, sometimes prompting the committee chairman, state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, to wave his hand to keep order. After learning of the Common Core from Glenn Beck, the conservative radio and TV personality, the group last month held a meeting on the topic that attracted 400 people, said Lee Ann Burkholder, a leader.

Speaking before the senators, the administration's deputy secretary of elementary and secondary education, Carolyn Dumaresq, said misinformation about the Common Core had led to unneeded concerns. She listed things the new standards would not do: usurp state control over academic standards, mandate reading lists, lead to massive gathering of personal information.

"I'm worried they're upset for reasons they don't need to be upset," Ms. Dumaresq said. "That's not happening here."

Though opposition to the new regulations appeared to unite typically divergent camps, their objections had very different bases. Mr. Dinniman said he does not object to the standards themselves, but believes that more rigorous requirements must be accompanied by increased funding to help students and teachers reach them.

"You assume that we can put in this new program and the state is going to say, 'Aren't we wonderful, we've raised the flag, we're wonderful because we have new high standards,' " he said. "But if you don't have the financial resources to get every single student to the top of the curriculum, it's a sham, it's a charade and we're raising false hopes of the students."

AFT Pennsylvania, the statewide union to which the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers belongs, joined the call for a moratorium on the Pennsylvania Common Core, saying teachers need more professional development and a plan to put the standards into effect.

Those participating in the 912 group oppose for different reasons. Ms. Burkholder said she objects to nationwide educational standards and the role of the federal government in encouraging states to adopt them. And she views the standards themselves as a tool that pushes teachers to focus on lagging students to the detriment of high-achieving peers.

"They want to bring the top students down to the middle and the bottom students up to the middle," she said. "It should be called 'Race to the Middle,' because everyone will be common."

While the new standards provoked dispute at the Capitol hearing, the Pittsburgh Public Schools have already begun to implement them, this year by having fifth-grade students do what had been considered sixth-grade math. The district has said the move will make readiness for college and careers the priority of K-12 education.

Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools in Pittsburgh, which advocates for equity and excellence in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said her group sees the standards as a way to ensure high standards for all students. Ms. Harris said more resources are needed but that higher standards cannot wait.

"I think the state and all states have an obligation to invest heavily in public education, but we cannot use resources as an excuse to not have high expectations and high standards," she said. "That said, I think it's a great lever. The two things need to happen together."

If the set of education regulations now in the governor's office do not take effect, the state would revert to the nationwide Common Core standards, scheduled to take effect in July, said Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Department of Education.

"Pennsylvania wants to move away from the Common Core to the Pennsylvania Common Core," he said. "I don't think the opponents realize if this current regulatory package if killed or disapproved, the Common Core remains."

education - state

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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