Join the fight against Common Core

By Lindsey Burke, Heritage.org

Two competing forces are pushing on America’s K–12 education system today.

One is an effort to infuse education choice into a long-stagnant system, empowering parents with the ability to send their child to a school that meets her unique learning needs.

The other is an effort to further centralize education through Common Core national standards and tests.

Across the country, education choice options have been proliferating rapidly, including vouchers, tuition tax credits, special needs scholarships, and education savings accounts. Educational choice is a revolution because it funds children instead of physical school buildings and allows dollars to follow children to any school—or education option—that meets their unique learning needs.
  • Choice empowers parents to direct their child’s share of education funding, giving them options beyond an assigned government school.
  • Choice pressures public schools with a much-needed competitive atmosphere, which works toward improving educational outcomes for students who take advantage of choice options as well as students who choose to attend their local public schools.
  • Choice helps kids. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., now have private school choice programs—and more states are considering implementing choice options. Education choice represents the type of innovation and freedom that will provide long-overdue reform to the K–12 education system, and holds the potential to truly raise educational outcomes for every child across the country.

But at the same time this encouraging shift toward education choice is underway, there is a push to take education in the exact opposite direction through Common Core national standards and tests.
  • Common Core is an effort to centralize education by dictating the standards and assessments that will determine the content taught in every public school across the country.
  • Common Core has no evidence that it will improve academic outcomes or boost international competitiveness. But the Obama Administration has pushed states to adopt national standards and assessments in exchange for offers of billions of dollars in federal funding and waivers from the onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind.
  • Common Core assumes that top-down, uniform standards and assessments—driven by federal bureaucrats and national organizations—are preferable to the state and local reform efforts guided by input from parents, teachers, and taxpayers.
States have been competing to improve their education systems by implementing education choice options and other reforms such as alternative teacher certification, transparent A–F grading systems, and a focus on reading achievement. Check out innovations in:
American education is at a crossroads: One path leads toward further centralization and greater federal intervention. The other path leads toward robust education choice, including school choice and choice in curricula.

Common Core takes the path toward centralization, and state leaders should seize the moment to resist this latest federal overreach. National standards and tests are a challenge to educational freedom in America, and state and local leaders who believe in limited government should resist them.

This post originally appeared on Heritage.org.


They leave no child behind (without NCLB)

The schools that innovate are going to be rewarded. You can feel like a victim in education. This is saying, "We're going to control our own destiny." —Principal Rob Metz, Saint Louis Park High School

Does it take a village to raise a child? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what your definition of "a village" is. In her book It Takes A Village, Hillary Clinton says, "Every child needs a champion." For the last fourteen years at Saint Louis Park High School, every ninth grader has had multiple champions, even those whose home lives were less than ideal.

Almost half (and rising) of Saint Louis Park High School's ninth-graders were failing at least one class. Lacking the funding to simply throw money at the problem, counselor Angela Jerabek decided that a team of teachers, social workers, counselors, and administration would "have the back" of every ninth grader, meeting with and about each one continually, all year long. The result?
Since the program started in 1998, the number of students in advanced classes has skyrocketed. Then, 44 percent of ninth-graders were failing one or more classes; last year, that fell to 20 percent. Cigarette use was cut in half among ninth-grade boys...It's a simple premise: more adults reaching out to a student to prevent them from slipping into anonymity, failing class and dropping out. "No student will be able to get by unnoticed," Jerabek said. ("Intense focus on 9th-graders pays off big in St. Louis Park," Star Tribune, December 23, 2011)
The school is now closed to open enrollment and has a waiting list. The program is being piloted nationally by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute under the name Building Assets Reducing Risks (BARR).

When it comes to raising kids, no school or government program can replace the loving support from a team of parents, extended family, friends, a church home, and youth groups. Saint Louis Park High School's experience has confirmed that kids can overcome adversity with a group of caring adults in their corner.


New social studies standards nearing completion

According to a January 12 e-mail update from the Minnesota Center for Social Studies Education (CSSE), the latest revision of Minnesota's K-12 academic standards in social studies is nearing completion:
The state K-12 social studies standards are in the final phase of revision, with an estimated completion date of mid-February or sooner. The CSSE will send an e-blast as soon as the final draft of the standards is posted on the Minnesota Department of Education website.

The CSSE has received many questions about the possibility of delaying the implementation date. At this point, there has been no legislative action to delay the implementation of the new standards. Therefore, the implementation timeline remains in place and the newly revised social studies standards must be implemented no later than the 2013-2014 school year.

There will be a session on the new standards at the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies Conference on March 5 in St. Cloud. Please join us if you would like to spend some time "digging in" to the new standards with other teachers and curriculum coordinators!

There will also be multiple opportunities for training on the new standards this summer through the Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota's social studies organizations.
The current standard for history and social studies was created to replace the Profile of Learning in 2004-2005. It was created with an unprecedented level of public input in a relatively short period of time, including public hearings that at times devolved into politically-charged shouting matches. The 2004 standards had plenty of room for improvement (earning only a grade of C from the Fordham Foundation), so after Minnesota schools lived with them for several years and a rigorous and public revision process was conducted, I am anxious to hear what teachers and outside experts have to say next month after the new standards are released.


Education reform forum convenes this Saturday

Restoring Excellence in Education, a forum that will examine reform issues in both K-12 and higher education, will be held this Saturday, January 14 at Saint Cloud State University. It will feature RiShawn Biddle, editor and publisher of the education reform website Dropout Nation; and Richard Vedder, Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University, Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The morning session, focusing on K-12, will examine teacher quality, environmental activism (with commentator Erin Haust), school choice, and Minnesota legislation. Minnesota state Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud) and Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) will provide their insights. Erickson chairs the Minnesota House Education Reform Committee and is a member of the Education Finance Committee. Allen Quist, education reform author and candidate for Representative in the Minnesota First Congressional District, will join the morning panel discussion.

Higher ed will be discussed in the afternoon session, including expectations, political correctness, and the U.S. Department of Education. Minnesota state Rep. King Banaian (R-St. Cloud) will moderate the afternoon session, and Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona), who serves on the Minnesota House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, will join the panel discussion. Dan Severson, candidate for U.S. Senate, will lead the discussion about the Department of Education.


A constitution, if you can keep it

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. —Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

The Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement announces that, pursuant to legislation passed by Congress, educational institutions receiving Federal funding are required to hold an educational program pertaining to the United States Constitution on September 17 of each year. This notice implements this provision as it applies to educational institutions receiving Federal funding from the Department [of Education].—Federal Register: May 24, 2005

There is nothing inherently wrong with observing the day the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution in 1787, but the devil is often in the details.

To some, Constitution Day represents yet another intrusion by the federal government into the affairs of the states, in this case, education. The federal Department of Education has only been in existence since 1980, yet by the Tenth Amendment, the federal Constitution leaves this vital function to the various states. The Constitution Day provision is another in an unending list of federal mandates imposed on the states.

While few would argue against "an educational program pertaining to the United States Constitution," is a federal law mandating it really necessary? Even if there are schools that are not teaching anything about the Constitution, is a one-day program really going to make a difference?

The mandate's lack of specificity is what's good and bad at the same time. Leaving the specifics about the "educational program" to the states and local school districts is a good thing, if you accept the mandate's legitimacy in the first place. Yet as with the rest of your local school's curriculum and state graduation standards, the Constitutional curriculum must be monitored and vetted by parents and the community:
  • Does it teach that the Constitution to be taken as written and amended by the people, or does the Supreme Court have the power to unilaterally create provisions and invalidate existing provisions (the so-called "living Constitution")?
  • Does it teach the importance of our founding principles as stated in the Declaration of Independence?
  • Does it really teach the Constitution, or attempt to redefine it?
On exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government they had created. "A republic, if you can keep it," said Franklin. As Irish orator John Philpot Curran observed in 1790, "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance."



EdWatch succeeded by Education Liberty Watch

The prototypical Minnesota grassroots political action organization, EdWatch, was disbanded last year due to the departure of its founders to new positions. A "new" group, Education Liberty Watch, has taken its place.

I use quotation marks around the word "new" because Education Liberty Watch is more of a child of EdWatch than a brand new administration. The group's president, Dr. Karen Effrem, was a key member of the EdWatch leadership and advocacy, a well-known face at the Capitol. Dave Jones was an EdWatch board member. Constitutional attorney Marj Holsten and Polly Sorcan are long-time EdWatch volunteers. Gubernatorial primary candidate, conservative activist, and radio personality Sue Jeffers and Director of Legislative Affairs for the Republican Liberty Caucus Minnesota Greg O'Connor round out the new board.

Expect continuity of principle: the new group has adopted the old group's motto, "Education for a FREE Nation," and some observers wondered why they did not simply retain the EdWatch name and organizational structure. The group's face to the world, its web site, has a streamlined look and blog-like organization that should facilitate finding specific information. Although new, it seems like it could be kept more up-to-date than the old EdWatch site. The front page today details Effrem's urgent media and legislative testimony schedule in both houses and several radio shows.

With the state academic standards in social studies under revision, an education finance omnibus bill in committee, a multibillion-dollar budget deficit to be closed, and union bargaining rights debated on the nightly news, it is good to know that academic freedom and educational liberty again has a steadfast guardian in Minnesota.


The Dayton education agenda's pre-K obsession

"Instead of talking about how to spend more money and finding ways to spend more money, we ought to be talking about how to focus the resources we have on something we can measure." —Sen. David Hann (R-Eden Prairie), Star Tribune, February 5

Do you get the point that Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton really believes in early childhood education? The governor's seven-point education plan is not content with dedicating one or two of these points to early childhood education, he embeds "ready for K" goals into five of them:
  • Invest in Early Childhood and All-Day Kindergarten
  • Target All-Day Kindergarten
  • Expand existing K-12 system into a comprehensive pre-K-12 system
  • Adopt pre-K - 3 reading standards
  • Support early childhood teacher observation and development
  • Reauthorize Statewide Early Childhood Advisory Council and reestablish Children's Cabinet
  • Charge Commissioner of Education with leadership of early childhood initiatives
Considering the state's barely ten-month old kindergarten-readiness study, this obsession with pre-K seems odd.
The Minnesota School Readiness Study found that between 91 percent and 97 percent of Minnesota five-year-olds were In Process or Proficient in five developmental areas necessary for school success: physical development, the arts, personal and social development, language and literacy, and mathematical thinking. This compares to last year’s study with numbers between 87 percent and 96 percent. The increases are within the margin of error between the two years.
When you couple these findings with national empirical studies on Head Start and other preschool programs that show little if any benefit to pre-K programs, you may wonder why Governor Dayton is so bent on a significant expansion of government pre-K and all-day kindergarten.

"There's nothing terribly new in here," said Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville) in the February 5 Star Tribune article, "Dayton renews pledge to raise school funding." "We're going to have more commissions and more advisory councils. I think we've been there and done that," remarked Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), chair of the House Educationn Reform Committee in the February 5 Star Tribune article.

Dayton's myopic focus on pre-K and kindergarten to the exclusion of other education reforms such as streamlining the process for sponsors of successful charter schools to open new sites, and education tax credits is a missed opportunity for much-needed education reform for Minnesota students and families. Dayton's omissions provide an excellent opportunity for the Republican majorities in the Legislature to display some leadership in state education policy initiatives.


EdWatch (1998-2010)

EdWatch, Minnesota's best-known, powerful grassroots K-12 education advocacy organization is concluding operations at the end of this month, according to co-founder Renee Doyle, in an e-mail sent to supporters at the end of November.

"We came into being in 1998 over the statewide outrage about Minnesota's radical new education system, the Profile of Learning," said Doyle in the e-mail. "Colleen Wogen, Julie Quist and I called the first meeting to order and elected each other officers. We had no idea that our newly established educational non-profit would not only go state-wide, but that five years later, under the name EdWatch, it would go national. EdWatch has stood as an advocate for children, parents and teachers and always has been on the cutting edge of educational research and information."

It amazes me to look back over the last twelve years and realize what an education we gave each other, legislators, school boards, parents, and the public. Doyle said, "We boldly challenged the conventional wisdom regarding No Child Left Behind, International Baccalaureate, Early Childhood Education, School-to-Work, the federal curriculum, international education standards, education for world citizenship, earth-worshiping environmentalism, school mental screening and drugging, 'comprehensive' sex education, Outcome Based Education, and a centralized federal workforce system.  We reminded parents, teachers, and students that good education understands that truth exists and should first of all be about acquiring knowledge and understanding, not about inculcating government-approved values and beliefs."

I cut my political teeth during the Profile of Learning repeal battles. A friend of mine and fellow parent alerted me to the process-based Profile, which was enacted in administrative rule during the Jesse Ventura administration by the then-Department of Children, Families and Learning under its commissioner, Christine Jax. By establishing statewide academic requirements in rule rather than through legislation, the Ventura administration avoided all of those bothersome public hearings and legislative oversight. Complaints to my then-state senator yielded polite letters full of edubabble and reassurances that parents should pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, after all, the state of Minnesota knows best (summed up in the nanny state admonishment, "Just breed 'em and feed 'em").

My most memorable experiences as a member of EdWatch include:
  • Organizing and conducting an EdWatch education workshop in 2001 (just after 9/11)
  • Celebrating the repeal of The Profile of Learning
  • Having my picture taken with Michele Bachmann at her desk on the floor of the Minnesota Senate, on the first day of her first term
  • Visiting Bachmann months later in her freshman office, with the window facing into the parking garage, and seeing that photo on her bulletin board
  • Visiting Republican legislators, meeting legislative staff, and learning the secret routes around the Capitol and State Office Building
  • Being appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty to serve on the Academic Standards Committee to help draft new academic standards with the renamed Department of Education under commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke
  • Helping to create an early version of the EdWatch web site, as well as my own web site (Minnesota Education Reform News) and blogs
  • Being inspired by some amazing conservative activists and conservative Republican legislators and candidates
The EdWatch principles of parental control of their children's education, knowledge-based curricula, and individual liberty will be promoted by a successor organization led by EdWatch board member Karen Effrem. The new organization, Education Liberty Watch, is currently being formed.


Senate GOP should vet Dayton appointments the old fashioned way: on their merits

In Minnesota, as in Washington, the Senate has the duty to confirm appointments made by the executive branch. But unlike Washington, D.C., Minnesota’s confirmation process used to be about the resume and qualifications of the nominee at the beginning of their term.

Used to be? Until 2004, that is, when Steve Kelly, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee used the confirmation process to conduct a two-year job review of Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke because he disagreed with the policies she was successfully promoting on behalf of Governor Tim Pawlenty. 

No one with a straight face could argue Yecke was not qualified to be commissioner. A native Minnesotan, she was a former teacher with classroom experience. She had a Ph.D. in education policy. She had already served as commissioner of education in another state and was a high ranking official at the federal Department of Education. Minnesota had never seen anyone more qualified to run the state education department.

But her confirmation was not about her qualifications. Kelly didn’t even bring up her confirmation until halfway through Pawlenty’s first term in office. He then held two hearings spanning six hours of testimony about the Pawlenty education agenda and her part in getting it accomplished. The hearings turned into a "witch hunt" lead by Kelly.

The DFL-controlled Senate denied her confirmation at 3:00 in the morning on the last day of the legislative session, while the public was sleeping.

Governor-elect Dayton won the election, and he deserves to appoint a commissioner of education who shares his values, but former Senator Kelly’s conduct must not be rewarded with a Senate confirmation of his own. Republican Senators like David Hann, Gen Olson, and Geoff Michel who had front-row seats to the unfair scrutiny applied to Yecke should send a signal now to the Dayton administration that a Kelly nomination would be dead on arrival.


Are the winds of educational freedom blowing towards Congress?

By Karen Effrem

With the rise of TEA party movement and general voter anger at the overspending and the strangling control the federal government into more and more aspects of our lives, it was quite encouraging to read a lengthy analysis on EducationNews.org of where federal education policy is headed that included an interview of Congressman John Kline (R-MN2).

Rep. Kline is currently the ranking Republican on the US House Education and Workforce Committee. If the currently predicted Republican landslide in the US House occurs in the November midterm election, then he could well be chairman of that all-important committee and will be very influential in federal education policy. This would include how No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will be reauthorized and what will happen with the Race to the Top initiative started by the Obama administration after passage of the stimulus bill. Here are some excerpts from his remarks.

National Standards: EdWatch has warned since July of 2009 about the dangers of the Common Core Standards initiative as an effort to impose radical national/international standards on the states that will do nothing to improve student academic achievement. (Legislative testimony is available here.) The Obama administration‘s blueprint for the reauthorization of NCLB even called for tying the receipt of federal Title I money to acceptance of these Common Core Standards. Rep. Kline opposes that concept:
For instance, Rep. Kline casts a wary eye on the federal role in championing the Common Core State Standards Initiative. That effort, which resulted in the creation of reading and mathematics standards that so far have been adopted by nearly 40 states, was state-led, through the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

Rep. Kline has no problem with, for instance, Minnesota and Wisconsin getting together and coming up with their own set of more-rigorous academic standards. But the federal incentives for adopting the common-core standards make him—and many of his fellow House Republicans—uneasy, he said. [Emphasis added]

States that competed for a slice of the $4 billion in federal Race to the Top grants got extra points for their participation in the common-standards venture. And, in his blueprint for an ESEA renewal, Secretary Duncan proposed tying the Title I grants given to districts to help disadvantaged students to states’ adoption of either the common-core standards or to college- and career-readiness standards developed with state institutions of higher education.

“We’re watching this very closely,” Rep. Kline said of the standards push. “If we are, in fact, putting in a de facto national curriculum, my caucus will rebel. I’m very leery when [the action] shifts over to the U.S. Department of Education providing either rewards or punishment” for adopting certain standards. “That’s dangerous,” he said.
National Tests: Rep. Kline had similar views when discussing national tests promoted by both the Common Core Standards initiative and the Race to the Top program.
Rep. Kline also has qualms about the administration’s $350 million program aimed at helping states craft common assessments, funded with Race to the Top money. He wants to ensure that it doesn’t lead to Education Department involvement in creating the tests.
Continuing the Race to the Top: Fortunately there seems to be little enthusiasm among Republicans for this.
The Obama administration also asked for $1.35 billion in the fiscal 2011 budget to continue the Race to the Top program for an additional year and extend grant eligibility from states to school districts; Rep. Kline said he wouldn’t support that plan. He thinks the program was too rigid and imposed federal policy preferences on states.

“This is the U.S. Department of Education putting [out its] view of what needs to be done. ... It’s not the states deciding. It’s not local control,” he said.
Stimulus Money to Stabilize State Education Budgets: Rep. Kline and the Republicans uniformly opposed the stimulus bill.
The former Marine colonel and helicopter pilot said he wouldn’t be likely to support the provision of more money to help steady state and district finances, since he doesn’t think the $100 billion provided for education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 2009 stimulus law, helped the economy.
US Senate: The article also mentioned two Republican US Senate candidates, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Joe Miller of Alaska who have called for the abolition of the US Department of Education. Given that academic achievement, freedom, and state sovereignty have done nothing but suffer since its creation during the Carter administration, lots of support would certainly exist for that idea.

As the campaign continues, please encourage candidates for Congress that understand how important it is to dismantle the federal leviathan in education, that there is no proper role for the federal government in education in the US Constitution, and that the power to set education policy must be returned to where it belongs, to the states and to the people.

Karen Effrem is director of government relations for EdWatch.