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Uncommon Agreement

Nationally, it runs along a conservative fault line across the 2016 presidential election. In conservative Alabama, it stitches tight the often disparate politics of business and education. Just don’t call it “Common Core.”

Educational standards are nothing new, says Alabama Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice. Creating them on a national level saves money and ensures that students around the country have the same skills and abilities.

Educational standards are nothing new, says Alabama Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice. Creating them on a national level saves money and ensures that students around the country have the same skills and abilities.

On the national scene, the educational standards known as Common Core have become a political tempest, and the standards seem destined to become a divisive issue in the 2016 presidential race. Common Core has critics on both the political left and the right, but nationally, Republican social conservatives have been quickest to find fault with the standards. 

While public opinion in Alabama usually falls closely in line with social conservatives, this issue hasn’t been so clear-cut. Groups that are traditionally politically conservative, such as the Business Council of Alabama, have stood up to support Common Core. And Scott Beason, the Republican state senator from Gardendale who tried but failed to pass a bill that would give school systems the choice to opt out of Common Core standards, was defeated in the November election. 

Here’s a look at Common Core in Alabama and the viewpoints of its supporters and detractors. 

Common Core in Alabama Schools

Perhaps one reason that Common Core has inspired less political opposition in Alabama than in many other states is that here, the standards go by a different name and some voters may not realize the state’s standards are Common Core. Alabama’s recently implemented College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS) are based on the Common Core State Standards, “but modified to meet Alabama’s specific needs,” says Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards. 

The state Board of Education has sole authority over state educational standards. Every few years, the state board appoints a committee to review and update its list of academic expectations for public schools, Howell says. In 2009, the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts went through this committee review process and the new standards were implemented in 2012. 

Educational standards have been in place for decades, and Common Core is just the latest version, says State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice. The CCRS, which include standards in math and English language arts, focus on developing critical thinking skills and problem solving. The standards introduce more complicated mathematical concepts in earlier grades and address reading, writing and literacy across the curriculum, including literacy standards for science, social studies and technical subjects.

In their third year of using Common Core standards, Alabama “teachers are telling us that the new standards let them teach again, instead of just preparing for standardized tests,” Bice says. “Students are more engaged with the hands-on aspect of their lessons that connect what they’re learning to real life.” 

Alabama’s graduation rate rose to 80 percent in 2013, up from 72 percent in 2011, and Bice expects more positive results. 

Supporting Common Core

Such positive feedback from schools and teachers across the state fuels the fire of Common Core supporters. Bice believes the standards are important because they level the playing field. 

“Imagine if an ‘A’ in math in Vestavia Hills meant something different from an ‘A’ in math in Madison City,” Bice says. “If each school system set its own academic standards, Alabama could end up with a chaotic patchwork of high and low academic standards across the state. Parents would struggle to know whether a school held his or her child to high expectations — even if they just move across town.”

For that reason, Bice did not support last year’s bill to allow school systems to opt out of Common Core. In addition, “it can take months (or even years) of work by educators to develop high-quality standards,” he says. “That’s not a task that most districts want on their plates, given their limited resources. What our local school districts and schools embrace, however, is the development of the local curriculum by teachers, leaders, parents and other local stakeholders that provides the pathway toward the attainment of the standards.”

Groups like the Business Council of Alabama have voiced their support for the State Board of Education’s adoption of Common Core. William Canary, BCA president and CEO, has been pleased with how the Board of Education “has addressed every complaint lodged by opponents of Alabama’s standards, including increasing the protection of student personal data and rescinding the Memorandum of Understanding between Alabama and the National Governors Association,” he says. 

Canary does not believe the standards represent an attempt by the federal government to take over the state’s education system, as some critics have suggested, and believes the state Legislature should also stay out of it. 

“Any attempt by the Legislature to assume control of this issue, relegated by law to the State Board of Education, is the very definition of government overreach,” he says. “We remain united with Alabama’s business, education and military communities as we move forward with offering our children a brighter future, regardless of the ZIP code in which they live.” 

Opposing Common Core

While supporters describe Common Core as setting “higher standards” for students, one of the chief complaints of the opposition is that Common Core offers “lowered expectations that will ultimately limit opportunities for many students,” says Linda King, a spokesperson for the Common Sense Coalition Tea Party, which has held speaking engagements and rallies across the state opposing the adoption of Common Core. For example, “the lead writer of the Common Core math standards, Jason Zimba, has admitted that Common Core math will only minimally prepare students for college,” King says. “How does society, or, more specifically, the business community, benefit from ‘minimally’ prepared students? Shouldn’t we strive for excellence in whatever the endeavor? How can Common Core — which is designed to achieve equal outcome — ever be excellent?”

In addition to questioning expectations set by Common Core standards, critics say the process of developing the standards was also flawed. Lou Campomenosi, a Fairhope resident who is president of the Common Sense Campaign Tea Party and an adjunct professor at Tulane University, says the development of the standards, which was largely financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was “done in a vacuum” by a relatively small group of people that included two subject matter experts and others with an interest in education and no real qualifications. The process was “antidemocratic” and “cut out any public participation,” he says. Instead, it “should have included teacher input and should have been tested in a few states before rolling out to all the states,” Campomenosi says. “None of that was done.” 

A final complaint is that the Common Core standards aim to mold tomorrow’s students to think like radical leftists, critics say. Campomenosi says he already sees the results in his college classrooms, where students come in with “cookie-cutter, left-wing ideas,” he says. Common Core supporters “are radically inclined to see the American experiment negatively,” he continues. “Common Core is a fundamental effort to change America and develop the exact kind of elitist, America-hating people who are in the faculty lounges of Harvard and Yale.”  

Former Sen. Beason says he has already seen his own children coming home with negative ideas about pivotal moments in American history. For instance, when his sixth-grade daughter studied the Industrial Revolution, he says she was mostly taught about how the workers were treated poorly and not “about how that brought the United States to lead the whole world into modern society.” Instead of Common Core, Beason favors using the Massachusetts language arts standards and the California math standards, which are widely believed to be the most successful in the country.

Board of Education member Stephanie Bell has publicly opposed adoption of Common Core standards in Alabama, but did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

Common Core for Business Leaders

Business leaders can be found on both sides of the Common Core debate, but there’s general agreement that it isn’t just an educational issue — it’s also a business and economic issue. 

Common Core supporters say that the standards will help better prepare Alabama’s future workforce. “In both two- and four-year colleges, Alabama spends millions of dollars each year on remedial classes that reteach topics students were supposed to learn in high school,” Bice says. “In the workforce, employers often can’t find employees with the basic critical thinking and analytic skills they need to succeed in a given profession. It’s easy to see that holding students to higher expectations will lead to a stronger economy for Alabama.”

Beason encourages business people to “step back and evaluate the purposes and goals of what your children are being taught,” he says. “I’m a free-market, liberty, freedom, pro-America person. If you’re a pro-business, pro-free market conservative, why would you support the kind of things that I believe are taught through the Common Core curriculum?”

Whatever business leaders decide, it’s an important time to look closely at Common Core, as it’s poised to become a big issue in the next presidential election. As for state politics, Common Core critics hope Gov. Robert Bentley will decide to take action against the standards, as GOP executive committees in many Alabama counties and the state have voted to repeal Common Core, Campomenosi says.

For Alabama businesses, the quality of the state’s education system is “mission crucial,” Howell says. “Without an educated, high-quality workforce, you cannot accomplish your mission. The same is true for your future clients and customers. Graduates earn a better wage than dropouts, and college graduates earn even more. They are the ones who will be buying and using your goods and services. If you want to stay in business, you must be able to compete with businesses who are recruiting the best and brightest minds from around the world. Alabama’s graduates have what it takes to help you not only compete, but win.”

Nancy Mann Jackson and Robert Fouts are freelancers for Business Alabama. Jackson is based in Huntsville and Fouts in Montgomery.

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