Common Core 101: Your Introductory Course To Idaho’s Education Standards

Jan 21, 2014

These eastern Idaho kindergartners have higher expectations than last year's class.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Boise State Public Radio

Idaho school kids are now being taught using a new set of standards known as Common Core. Idaho lawmakers signed off on the standards three years ago, but there’s growing opposition for them to reconsider.

We’ll be reporting on Common Core in Idaho over the next few months, but first, the basics. Our education reporter Adam Cotterell gave Morning Edition host Scott Graf a tutorial.

Q: Adam, what is Common Core?

A: The short answer is it’s a set of education standards. But I think part of the confusion people have is with the word 'standards.' Think of them as learning goals or objectives. Think back to the beginning of this school year when your daughter started kindergarten. I sent you a long list of everything she was supposed to be able to do by the end of the school year. Those were the Common Core standards for kindergarten.

Here’s a reading standard, “With prompting and support ask and answer questions about key details in a text.”  Here’s another one, “with prompting and support, identify the reasons an author gives to support points in a story.” 

Q: Did Idaho have a set of standards last year?

A: Yes. States have been required to have standards for a long time. There’s some overlap between Idaho’s old standards and Common Core. The main difference, in kindergarten at least, was that Idaho’s old standards focused more on foundational skills. Here’s one of last year’s Idaho kindergarten standards, “Hold a book right side up and turn pages in the correct direction.” There are some things like that in the Common Core standards but not as much.

Q: Couldn’t a state use its own standards rather than go with Common Core?

A: Sure, and five states have decided they are better off writing their own. Critics say Idaho should do that too. That includes Stacey Knudsen with the group Idahoans for Local Education.

“Is there no one in Idaho capable of writing a set of standards?” Knudsen asks. “Are there no educators are there no teachers? Do we have so little faith in Idahoans and our own organizations?”

But Tom Luna says it’s not that states couldn’t write good standards on their own. Luna is Idaho’s schools’ superintendent and defender-in-chief of Common Core. He says before states adopted Common Core, there was an incentive to set low standards.

“You would have a state that would set very low math standards. And they would report that 85 percent of their students were meeting their academic goals,” Luna says. “You’d have another state that would set very high math standards. And they would report that 70 percent met their academic standards. And the perception was the state that was reporting 85 percent was doing better than the state reporting 70 percent.”

Q: So how did we get from each state writing its own standards to most adopting the same set?

A: Luna says he was there at the beginning. He says it started in 2007 with an informal conversation between school chiefs from a handful states.

“We realized that we had many of the same issues,” Luna says. “We were graduating students from our schools but too many of them weren’t ready when they went to college, they weren’t ready when they went into the workforce. And then we also realized that it was very difficult for us to compare how our schools were doing state to state.”

In 2009, governors and schools chiefs from 48 states agreed to work together to develop a set of shared standards. They got a big group of experts together to write them and that group released the final draft in June 2010. Then states started adopting them. Kentucky actually agreed to adopt Common Core standards even before the first draft came out. Idaho lawmakers signed off on the standards in 2011.

Q: In your quote from, Luna he talked about comparing how schools are doing state to state.

A: For supporters it’s not just about getting high standards it’s about everybody having the same standards. That’s the 'common' in Common Core. The argument goes: if students have the same learning goals and just as importantly take the same tests, you can easily compare Idaho student progress to that of kids in California.

But opponents really don’t like having standards in common. They’re afraid it will lead to a national curriculum where teachers have no control over what and how they teach and they don’t believe states went into this without the federal government pulling the strings.   

Q: The opposition movement has become quite visible in the past few months. What other objections do they have?

A: It’s a long list. They say Common Core is crony capitalism, that it’s just a way to get schools to buy more things like software and hardware to take tests with. They say it puts more emphasis on high-stakes testing which they see as already overemphasized. They’re concerned about data from those tests being used inappropriately. And a there’s a lot more.

Q: How valid are their objections?

A: They raise some points worth talking about like, are we putting too much emphasis on testing? But there are some objections that are just conspiracy theories and there are other objections that aren’t really about Common Core but about the nation’s education system as a whole.

The concern about data is one of those. What data schools gather about students, what they do with it, and how they safeguard it are important issues but they’re not directly about Common Core.

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio