Indiana & The Common Core
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com•mon core 
| 'kämən kôr |  noun a set of nationally-crafted academic standards adopted by Indiana, 44 other states and the District of Columbia. adjective 2 of or related to such standards  |  classrooms across the country are introducing Common Core math curriculum 
Adopting the Common Core wasn't a big deal.
 Not at the time state officials signed on, anyway.
The Common Core had been public for a few weeks before the State Board of Education took up the question of its adoption. Then-state superintendent Tony Bennett chaired the panel. Like most debates over academic standards, the debate was ... well, academic. In August 2010, the State Board voted to adopt the Common Core.

The panel's vote was unanimous — and quickly forgotten. Three months later, the Republicans won back the Indiana House. The new GOP majority in the General Assembly got to work carrying out Gov. Mitch Daniels' ambitious education agenda. By spring, Indiana had an expansive voucher program, a teacher evaluation mandate and merit pay law, and A-F accountability for schools.

By comparison, the Common Core seemed benign. Sure, it carried a promise as bold as any of the other new initiativesexpect Indiana's students to learn the same things at the same as their peers in all 50 states — a promise many had waited years to fulfill. Still, it was just another "new thing" in Indiana's new education order.

But if the process of adopting the Common Core was quiet, the discussion that's followed has been anything but. By this spring, opposition was more vocal. Lawmakers were more skeptical. The standards' future in Indiana is at a crossroads. Yet, despite a renewed debate, few in the general public even know the Common Core exists. Even fewer know whether the standards will make a difference at all.

While he was writing the Common Core, Jason Zimba kept a copy of Indiana's old academic standards handy.

They were that good, says Zimba, a former math and science professor. They were the product of a 1999 directive from Indiana's legislature for the state to adopt a set of clear, concise, jargon-free academic standards. The standards were so concise, so jargon-free, so clear that the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., had Catholic schools in the nation's capitol teaching Indiana Academic Standards. No wonder Zimba used them as a model.

"The previous Indiana standards were often out on my desk," says Zimba. After he and the team finished writing the Common Core, he started consulting with a group that helped implement the standards.

But if Indiana's standards were a model for others, why would the state want to abandon them?

Because other states' standards were nowhere near as good — and the Common Core promised to change that.

"It’s always been somewhat, well, not confusing, but bewildering that we would need 50 different sets of standards and assessments," says Terry Spradlin, a director of Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. "A student Sally or Johnny being taught in a classroom in fourth grade in Indiana, if they were to leave and move to another state, the truth is kids have been learning vastly different things."

It's been that way since states started setting standards back in the 1980s. Spurred on in 1983 by the alarming "A Nation At Risk" report, education officials everywhere began spelling out the expectations for what each student in each of their state's classrooms should be learning.

But this effort was done piecemeal. Instead of working together to develop a common set of standards, every state designed their own. And some states — like Indiana — did a better job than others.

In 2007, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers started talking about doing something states hadn’t done before: working together to write a common set of academic standards — standards written with "college- and career-readiness" in mind.

Only Texas and Alaska opted out. By March 2010, rough drafts were available.

And by June 2010, the Common Core was born.

Something was different about the math homework Erin Tuttle's daughter brought home.
She remembered the work her older kids had brought home in the past from the same Indianapolis Catholic school. The new work? Too easy, she saysIt
was 2011 — the beginning of the
Common Core's rollout in Indiana.

"They started coming home with
curriculum that we did not approve," 
says Tuttle. "[It] was going to make them 'college ready.' It's the big term everyone likes to use ... I found it to be less challenging."

So did another parent, Heather Crossin. She and Tuttle wanted the old, familiar curriculum back. But they were quickly rebuffed. The Common Core is here to stay, Tuttle and Crossin were told.

For with these new standards would come new tests as well. Indiana had joined the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. It was one of two groups of states at the time that were developing new tests that would line up with the Common Core's expectations. Eventually, in Indiana, these tests would supplant the ISTEP+.

The Common Core is nothing but a bait-and-switch, Crossin thought.

Even though Crossin's kids attended a private school, the school accepted state vouchers. As such, its students took the ISTEP+ exams — and were thereby beholden to the same state standards as public school kids.

But Crossin didn't have a problem with how things were going at her school. All the Common Core could do was force her school into using curriculum she considers to be inferior, and into preparing for tests developed somewhere else.

"Those voucher-recipient schools," Crossin says, "were being asked to sign on to a yet-unseen, yet-developed, federally-funded test."

And, Tuttle says, voucher schools weren't the only victims of the switch. She points to international benchmark numbers — the highly-regarded TIMSS study — showing Indiana students performing better than those in other, traditionally high-performing countries. Why then, Tuttle and Crossin thought, did Indiana need the Common Core?

The two parents took action. They formed Hoosiers Against the Common Core. They got in touch with a state lawmaker, Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis. In 2012, he agreed to sponsor legislation blocking the new standards.

But it didn't go anywhere. GOP state superintendent Tony Bennett was among the nation's most ardent supporters of the nationally-crafted standards. He deflected gripes from within his own party about the Common Core being nothing but federal encroachment in sheep's clothing. (President Obama's administration has never formally endorsed the standards, but they've made it pretty clear they want states to adopt something like it.)

Bennett's agenda was winning the day, and Bennett's agenda included the Common Core.

Then, in late 2012, something happened that changed everything.

Nobody saw it coming — nobody, perhaps, except Glenda Ritz herself.
Outraised four-to-one, outspent five-to-one, the local union president and school librarian from Indianapolis pulled off the upset of the 2012 election. In an altogether-good night for Republicans — they'd elected the state's new governor and solidified their legislative majorities — it was clear Tony Bennett had lost ground with conservativesBennett himself thought his support of the Common Core cost him the election. With opposition smoldering on the right, national supporters sounded the alarm. While the reality on the ground was likely more nuanced than that, the result was clear: Indiana's staunchest and most visible Common Core advocate was now out of a job.
There are opponents of the Common Core on the left and the right. ("The problem with national testing," The New York Times observed, "is that the conservatives hate national and the liberals hate testing.") But the first cracks in the Common Core's political foundation appeared on the right.

Though many of the governors who had pushed for the Common Core's creation in the first place were Republicans, President Obama's involvement had tied federal money for a key grant program — called Race to the Top — to the adoption of college- and career-ready standards.

It wasn't an out-and-out endorsement of the Common Core, but it looked like one. To a lot of people.

Bennett's loss was just the beginning. On a national level, the Common Core's political coalition was beginning to fray.
An ad from the pro-Common Core group Stand for Children Indiana. 
Conservative commentator Glenn Beck opposes the Common Core. 
Indiana lawmakers kicked off the General Assembly's 2013 session with promises that the initiatives Bennett championed as superintendent would not be undone. Indiana's Common Core advocates were confident the state wouldn't waver.

But conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin had picked up the Common Core story. The standards, they said, represented federal meddling in states and school districts. "Local control," they feared, was in jeopardy.

By March, Common Core advocates were running TV ads in Indiana, fearing ardent support for the standards had begun to ebb.

Republican Senator Scott Schneider saw his chance. He again filed a bill to withdraw Indiana from the Common Core.

His first bill died in the House, where Rep. Bob Behning — a Common Core supporter — chairs the Education Committee. He and other Bennett allies had promised any anti-Common Core bill would never see the light of day.
But Bennett was gone. And Schneider was determined.
Schneider pulled an end-run around Behning. He found a broad education bill that had already cleared the Education Committee and inserted his preferred anti-Common Core language.

Schneider's provision came to be known as the 'Common Core pause.' It stopped just short of pulling the state out of the standards entirely. But Indiana school districts had been phasing the Common Core into their classrooms gradually since its adoption in 2010.
Schneider's "pause" ordered districts to put that process on hold. Bennett loyalists and Common Core proponents were mortified.

At the eleventh hour, on the final day of the 2013 session, Schneider's legislation passed.

"There was enough momentum about this issue for everybody in the statehouse, enough people to get it passed, to say, 'Timeout, stop and let's do a thorough review,'" Schneider said just minutes after the vote.

The bill sent a national message. Indiana isn’t the only state where Republicans have reversed course on the Common Core. But it’s one of the few places where criticism of the new standards has reached enough of a critical mass to suspend their implementation.

The 'pause,' Common Core proponents charged, sent a badly-garbled message to Indiana schools.

The legislation called for a General Assembly-led review of the standards. It required the state's schools to give the ISTEP+ for an extra year. And it barred schools from using the standards in any classrooms where it hadn't been already implemented.

"When you put all the pieces together, it does equal what opponents of Common Core have been saying all along," said parent Erin Tuttle, who shared a celebratory fist-bump with Schneider after the bill's passage. "It does take a lot of wisdom on legislators' behalf to be able to put the pieces together, because it is a complex puzzle. But once you put the pieces all together, the picture’s very clear."

But what were schools supposed to do in the meantime? All schools across the state had already implemented the Common Core in kindergarten and first grade — they were following the instructions Bennett was giving them while at the helm of the Indiana Department of Education. Most schools were set to roll out the Common Core in second grade classrooms this school year.

"We hope that the confusing and incoherent language is made clearer by the Department of Education in the coming weeks, so that way, teachers and principals understand what happened here today… There needs to be clarification," Stand for Children executive director Justin Ohlemiller said on the night the Common Core "pause" passed.

And what about schools that had already fully-implemented the Common Core?

Jill Vandriessche's teachers have been using the Common Core for two years now. And she has no intention of telling them to stop.
Before the start of last school year, the principal of Monroe Primary Center in South Bend read the Common Core. And she liked what she saw. Vandriessche decided to "go early" — to buck the state's Common Core timeline and implement the standards for all of her school's classrooms, Grades K-4.

It's been said that the Common Core pause exists in the statehouse, not the schoolhouse. Vandriessche couldn't agree more. While lawmakers take this school year to review the standards, Vandriessche's staff is charging full-steam ahead. Two weeks before school started in South Bend, she sat down to talk curriculum with Monroe's second grade teachers.

"This group of kids," Vandriessche says of the school's second graders, "have had [the Common Core] since kindergarten and then it was supported in their first grade year and now, going into second grade, are on such a different level than their fourth-grade peers."

"You see a lot more of kids talking things out together, problem solving together," adds curriculum coach Melissa Glenn, "and understanding there's a thinking process involved with everything. It's not just a right answer or a wrong answer."

Common Core critics say the new standards are no more rigorous than the state standards they're replacing — especially in Indiana. Remember, the state's old standards consistently earned high marks.

But the thought of returning to the old standards upsets Vandriessche. Her classrooms, she says, stand as evidence the Common Core is working.

"I don't know how you could ever alter that or change it when our children are showing their success. And it's upsetting to say, 'Let's put it on hold,' when it's been such a value for kids," she says.

So Vandriessche, for now, is staying the course with the Common Core.

'Standards are really the foundation of all that we're doing," says IU's Terry Spradlin. That makes pausing the Common Core really complicated.  

Remember, the pause legislation requires the state to keep administering the ISTEP+ until 2015 — until the state can decide what standards to use in the future. The ISTEP+ has been phasing in Common Core-aligned questions, but it's mostly written to the state's former standards.

Think of what that means for Vandriessche's second graders. They've never been in a classroom that's used the Common Core standards. Under the state's old Common Core transition timeline, they were never supposed to take Indiana's old test.

But because of the pause legislation, when Vandriessche's students take their first statewide tests as third graders, they'll be asked to pass a test written to match the state's old standards.

Vandriessche thought she was working ahead in the state's timeline. Now, her second graders may have overshot the runway.

State superintendent Glenda Ritz says her hands were tied. To the great frustration of Common Core supporters, Ritz asked second grade teachers to stop rolling out standards in their classrooms this year.

"I refuse to not align standards and assessments for the little ones," she explained.

After all, if students can't pass the tests in third grade because they're unfamiliar with the standards, there could be real consequences for their schools.

"With accountability and assessments, we can't have valid assessments without standards to align the assessments to, and we've made a real push to make sure we have highly-qualified, effective teachers in our classrooms as well," Spradlin says. "Without the standards, we'd really have a two-legged stool, which would not stand on its own."

At the time of their adoption, the Common Core State Standards weren’t contentious. The other pieces of Tony Bennett’s expansive education overhaul drew far more discussion.

But designing an accountability system, setting a standardized assessment — all of it requires Indiana to have clear expectations of what students should know and learn at each grade level. Without the Common Core to set those expectations, it’s almost impossible to move forward with those other big changes.

For the most part, Glenda Ritz has stayed out of the Common Core fray.

In instances where her predecessor would step in with adamant defense of the standards, Ritz has remained silent. She's not opposed to the Common Core, but she hasn't been out there rallying for it either.


The "pause" legislation required Ritz's Department of Education to submit a recommendation earlier this year. When Ritz presented it to the Common Core study committee, she explained it was written "in a manner so as not to influence the forthcoming process of adoption of standards in 2014."

And that process will have to wrap up soon. State lawmakers have until November 1 to review the Common Core, when they're required to make a recommendation to the State Board of Education — the body that normally sets academic standards. The plan is to look at the Common Core, standard by standard, to see what’s working and what isn’t.

Whatever happens, this much is clear: Indiana can't go back to its old standards — not without running afoul of the No Child Left Behind Act. The federal government didn't consider the state's old standards to be "college- and career-ready."

There are pretty much two choices: (1) Keep the Common Core. (2) Find new standards and have the state's colleges and universities give them their blessing — in essence, say "These standards will get students ready for college." For how little Ritz has said about the Common Core, for or against, she has said it would be really difficult to get the universities to sign off on the old standards.

"We have a huge remediation problem in mathematics," Ritz says. "Our community colleges spend over $35 million remediating K-12 students in math. We know math standards need to be regarded at a very high level... so we have to be sure that we're gonna have it right."

Jason Zimba & Kathleen-Porter Magee
If it's math Indiana cares about, Bill Evers says the Common Core doesn't measure up.
The Stanford researcher has written a lot about the Math Wars, a long-running philosophical debate about how to teach math. He says the Common Core returns to a system of teaching math that didn't work before — and Evers isn't the only one advocating this point of view.

"[The Common Core] It meanders and messes around with all these great looking strategies that don’t always work," says Ze'ev Wurman, a former Bush administration official who helped review the math standards in California.

Evers argues the state would be better off keeping its old standards. The Fordham Institute's Kathleen Porter-Magee understands the argument — for states like Indiana, that had strong standards, the Common Core is a hard sell.

But Porter-Magee, who researches the Common Core, says there's a 'best-of-both-worlds' approach Indiana might take. She says the state can add up to 15 percent more content to the standards and still call the new standards the Common Core.

"It’s still something that needs to be driven by parents and by teachers," Porter-Magee says.

But even if you rewrote the standards to be more rigorous, Evers says it wouldn’t silence most critics.

"There is a...liberal kind of criticism that doesn’t like any standards or any testing. It just says, 'Let the teachers — the teachers are professionals — let them have autonomy.' Another set of people that would be unhappy, which I would also belong to, who don’t like nationalization of things, whether done by the federal government or a cartel of states," Evers says.
But here's the complicated reality for most teachers: Most of them, in one way or another, are already using the Common Core, like it or not.

The transition already forced a hard decision for Melinda Bundy, who teaches freshman English at Indianapolis' Cathedral High School. She scrapped a favorite unit — King Arthur — in favor of a research paper on JFK.
They have new books and new materials, all Common Core-aligned. They've gotten training on the Common Core. When adoption of the standards seemed inevitable, schools went in the direction they thought the state was heading — towards the Common Core.

The Common Core emphasizes informational texts.
It doesn't require Bundy to drop King Arthur.
But, in what has become another flashpoint in the Common
Core debate, the new standards require Bundy to teach more non-fiction than before. Bundy didn't mind the switch, but changes like this become superfluous if the state abandons the Common Core with its controversial non-fiction requirement. Common Core proponents want the debate resolved.

"The horse is out of the barn," says Tony Walker, an attorney who represents Gary on the State Board of Education. "It would be absolute chaos if we tried to reverse this at this point. That's what I truly believe. I think [the Common Core pause legislation] has just injected confusion."

It's worth noting all of the discussion may have little impact on the State Board of Education's ultimate decision. The state panel has always had say over the state's academic standards, and has adopted them in the past without any questions from the legislature. And since adopting the standards in 2010, the panel has been almost uniformally pro-Common Core. When given the chance to change the balance of power on the panel, Gov. Mike Pence re-appointed two members of the panel to new terms this year.

Pence, though, has made his mark on Indiana's Common Core debate in another way.

Last month, Pence signed a letter pulling Indiana out of PARCC, the consortium of states writing new tests.

"I'm someone that really believes education is a state and local function," Pence explained. "I brought that bias into this job. I believe that not only stepping away from the PARCC exam itself, but also with the consortium is appropriate and it's also an affirmation of the direction we've been given from the Indiana General Assembly."

But pulling out of PARCC has its own costs. Remember, the state's standards can't stay the same even if Indiana pulls out of the Common Core — so the test can't stay the same either. Indiana can't stick with the ISTEP+ in its current form.

The state's contract with testing company CTB/McGraw-Hill has one year left on it. State officials might be thinking twice about renewing the contract after computer problems ground online ISTEP+ exams to a halt statewide this past springtwice.

But who says CTB/McGraw-Hill wants to renew the contract? IU's Terry Spradlin says providing online tests is big business. And it's a national business. That means Indiana's testing contract may be the last thing on testing companies' minds.

There are two national consortia, PARCC included, that are set to roll out Common Core-aligned tests. Indiana could suddenly look like really small potatoes.

"That must also be considered — the cost factors of ... going it alone with our assessment and whether testing companies still want to be in the game to provide a standardized assessment to just a state or two," Spradlin says.

Spradlin says Indiana may be able to team up other states that have opted out of the assessment consortia. But he says Indiana may miss out on opportunities to offer crucial feedback the longer state leaders continue to put off a decision on standards.

"This is a distraction, a lot of noise," Spradlin says. "We are going to have standards, we are going to have assessments, we are going to have an accountability system. Let’s refine, let’s fix what’s broken, and move forward quickly. It is just a distraction right now. All three things are going to be in place ultimately."

Bottom line?
There are smart, well-respected people advocating both for and against the standards. Opponents say the Common Core is untested. They dispute that the standards are internationally benchmarked. Perhaps, most importantly, they believe academic standards should be the territory of states — local control. Yet proponents say having 50 widely different sets of standards made it difficult to know how well Indiana students were doing compared to their peers in Florida or Georgia or Kentucky. And some states just didn’t have good standards to begin with. Supporters of the Common Core say new, rigorous standards will raise the bar for everyone. Either way, school is back in session. Kids are back in classrooms. Schools have to train teachers, buy books, make plans for the future — for new tests or new standards. The Common Core "pause" will only last so long. The clock is ticking. And very soon, Indiana will know whether the Common Core is in or out.
Reported & written for the radio by Elle Moxley
Produced for the web by Kyle Stokes
Edited by Sara Wittmeyer
Visuals by Elle Moxley, Kyle Stokes and Jimmy Jenkins of WFIU/WTIU News

A production of StateImpact Indiana, a collaboration of Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations to explain the effects of state education policy on people's lives.