Educators say Kentucky is on the right track with Common Core standards

myoung@herald-leader.comJune 15, 2014 

Michael Benson EKU president, hopes need lessens for remedial classes.

The names of the presidents of the University of Louisville and Kentucky State University were noticeably absent last week from a group of more than 200 national college leaders who indicated their support for the controversial Common Core education standards by forming the coalition Higher Ed for Higher Standards.

U of L spokesman Mark Hebert said it was an oversight that President James Ramsey's name was not on last week's list, and he reaffirmed U of L's backing of Common Core. Attempts to reach officials at Kentucky State University were unsuccessful.

Both schools previously showed their support by signing the College and Career Readiness Commonwealth Agreement.

The presidents of Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky were among more than 17 Kentucky higher education officials to join the national initiative.

EKU President Michael Benson said in a statement that he was proud of EKU and the commonwealth's support of Common Core.

"It is imperative that we have high school graduates who are better prepared academically for college and career," Benson said. "The Common Core standards will help accomplish this goal and will allow many more students to bypass developmental education courses currently being offered in college."

Jay Blanton, spokesman for UK, said that not only did President Eli Capilouto support Common Core, but faculty feel that "innovations like the Common Core standards are foundational building blocks, critical to students having the skills they need to succeed in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields that are so essential to our country's economic growth."

The Common Core standards are an initiative of the National Governors Association to set benchmarks for what children in each grade should learn. However, there is no set curriculum for each grade, creating flexibility in reaching the standards. Individual states, school districts and teachers may determine their own curricula and lesson plans to fit the individual needs of children.

Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core standards in an attempt to help make students college and career ready. Math and reading standards have been implemented, and state education Commissioner Terry Holliday has said Kentucky schools will institute the science standards in the fall.

Statistics from the Council on Postsecondary Education show that during the 2012-13 academic year, nearly half of all incoming students at two-year colleges, and more than one in five at four-year schools, were required to take remedial courses due to a lack of academic preparedness.

Graduation rates at Kentucky colleges also are a cause for concern; less than half of all students graduate from a four-year institution with a bachelor's degree within their first six years. At community colleges and two-year institutions just over one in 10 students graduate within the first three years.

Opponents of Common Core say the standards are just more of the same.

David Adams, a Tea Party activist who filed a lawsuit last year against Gov. Steve Beshear over the implementation of Common Core, said Kentucky colleges support Common Core because doing so will bring them more money.

"Common Core will generate more revenue for the colleges, and we will be back here in X number of years wondering why remedial rates are even higher," he said.

For decades, critics such as Adams have said, federal programs have attempted to help students, but U.S. students have continued to fall behind other nations. From President Lyndon Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind, education reforms have come and gone with little or no results, they say.

Conservative opponents insist Common Core will be another waste of money that will not help students. "They will just keep lowering standards to meet goals to get funding," Adams said.

Conservatives also fear a federal takeover.

As designed, Common Core is an independent initiative adopted by states individually. President Barack Obama tied funding grants to the acceptance of "college and career ready" standards. According to a recent Washington Post article, an early version of Race to the Top specifically highlighted Common Core.

Gene Wilhoit, a former Kentucky education commissioner and one of the architects of Common Core, insisted the Obama administration change the wording because they did not want the federal government to be involved in Common Core. Even still, opponents of Common Core fear that requirements for education funding eventually will move from simply accepting standards to accepting federal curricula and lesson plans.

Liberal opponents of Common Core fear the program was designed to profit corporations, not students. Bill Gates, one of the primary financial backers of Common Core, has insisted that is not the case.

People with concerns about Common Core do not truly understand it, said Sue Cain, college readiness and developmental education initiative coordinator for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. Cain, who has worked nationally with Common Core, is confident the standards will work.

"As the Common Core were written, Kentucky educators suggested many adjustments, changes, additions and fixes for things we thought went too far, beyond college-ready," she said. "Our changes were a part of the changes made to the overall standards."

Cain also said the standards would work because of the collaboration that took place at all education levels.

"Common Core is different because both postsecondary and K-12 came together to develop the standards that exist," she said. "Previously, they were not communicated well; this time with these standards that conversation is occurring."

Cain isn't worried about the possibility of a federal takeover of the standards. Even with the current Race to the Top grants, states could alter up to 15 percent of the standards to fit individual needs, she noted, adding that was done to help custom-fit education to work-force needs that vary around the country.

Cain said a federal takeover would not make sense because the standards were written to be adjusted.

To those who fear Common Core will benefit special interests and corporations more than students, Cain said, "I wish they could see the Common Core in action. It's more than standards, it's more than assessments, it's more than accountability. This is to make sure students are ready to go to college or have a career."

So is it working? Education officials in Kentucky think it is. Data from the state Department of Education show that college and career readiness has jumped from 31.8 percent for 2009-10, just before the state adopted Common Core, to 54.1 percent for high school graduates in 2013.

But Cain said that was not good enough.

"We have got a long way to go in Kentucky, but we are on the right path. Every other state is watching our progress here in Kentucky. We are leading the nation in this."

Matt Young: (859) 231-1324. Twitter: @mattyoungnow.

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