Hoosiers Reject Common Core in Call for State Autonomy

by Alec Torres
The rise and fall of national education standards in Indiana.

On Monday, Indiana governor Mike Pence (R) signed legislation withdrawing the Hoosier state from the Common Core. What began as a bipartisan effort in education reform ended with Indiana as the first state to withdraw from the national standards that 45 other states and the District of Columbia have signed on to.

“I believe our students are best served when decisions about education are made at the state and local level,” Pence wrote in a statement. “By signing this legislation, Indiana has taken an important step forward in developing academic standards that are written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers, and are uncommonly high.”

Common Core was designed to provide unified national standards by which to measure and teach students. Beyond easing the educational transition of children who move from one state to another, the Common Core was intended to promote the reading of “informational texts” more than fiction and push for the teaching of a “conceptual understanding” of math over mere memorization.

At first, the initiative seemed full of promise; it was little-known and seldom critiqued outside of education-policy circles. In Indiana, the effort to implement the Common Core was spearheaded by Republican governor Mitch Daniels and his fellow Republican Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction, with the support of Democrats and Republicans alike. In August 2010, only two months after the final standards were made public, Daniels touted the Common Core as a simplification of the state standards that had previously been in place, and the state board of education voted unanimously to join. Implementation began the next school year. Only four states — Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia — refused to adhere to the new standards.

But following the initial enthusiasm for the standards, Indiana, along with Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, put their implementation on hold, and a spate of other states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah, withdrew from participation in the national tests tailored to the Common Core.

According to Indiana state senator Dennis Kruse — the Republican chairman of the Education and Career Development Committee, and author of the bill withdrawing Indiana from the Common Core — the anti–Common Core movement in Indiana began with two local mothers: Heather Crossin and Erin Tuttle. “They brought it to the attention of Scott Schneider,” a Republican state senator and early opponent of the Common Core, “and then they presented to me,” Kruse tells me.

As Maggie Gallagher of the American Principles Project detailed in National Review Online last year, Crossin and Tuttle began advocating against the Common Core only when their children started coming home with odd math homework, fewer novels to read, and more “Time magazine for kids.”

After calling around and finding out that neither their fellow parents nor elected officials had a clue what the Common Core was, Crossin and Tuttle spoke with Schneider, their state senator, who then proposed a bill in 2012 to bar the state board of education from adopting any standards developed under the Common Core. The bill ultimately failed, but the momentum begun by Crossin and Tuttle drove Indiana’s withdrawal from the Common Core just over two years later.

When Governor Daniels finished his term-limited eight years in office, Mike Pence, who did not take an official position on the Common Core in his campaign, won the election to replace him in 2012. Three months into Pence’s term, lawmakers in Indiana began pushing against the Common Core and approved a bill to halt its implementation, arguing that it stripped power over education from the state. The pause was meant to give budget officials and a legislative panel time to review the Common Core and its effect on Indiana. A state education committee also worked to review and later revise the standards.

During the pause in implementation, Pence announced plans to withdraw Indiana from the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a group charged with developing K–12 math and English tests and assessments aligned with the Common Core.

Senator Kruse tells me that the turn against the Common Core was so rapid in part because few originally knew what the state was getting into. When Daniels held an education roundtable with educators, business leaders, legislators, and more, about the Common Core in 2010, Kruse says, “nobody [attending the meeting] knew anything about it, nobody opposed it, there was not one person against it, and [the board of education] voted unanimously.”

As the Common Core was implemented, “the more I learned, the more I didn’t like” Kruse says. He mentions in particular the use of what he calls “fuzzy math” and the fact that Indiana previously had high academic standards, which he feels were sacrificed. After a meeting with Schneider, Crossin, and Tuttle, Kruse says he “was convinced that these weren’t the best standards for our children.”

“What I think really captured the house and the senate,” he says, “is that we don’t want national standards, we want state standards. We want Indiana to be in charge of our standards and our tests.”

On March 12, 2014, 35 senators voted yes on SB 91 to withdraw Indiana from the Common Core standards, with 13 senators opposing the measure.

State senator Tim Skinner, a Democrat and former teacher, was one of the 13 in opposition. Despite his initial skepticism of the Common Core, Skinner thought further change would only disrupt education, as schools would have to buy new textbooks, teachers would need to make new plans, and administrators would have to draft new tests. “Public schools had been told two years before to start adopting the Common Core standards,” Skinner says. “They started doing what they were told to do and started incorporating those into the examinations and lessons.”

Skinner had initially opposed adopting the Common Core standards because he felt teachers, administrators, and the general public weren’t well enough informed about them and hadn’t been consulted. He also thought that the Common Core standards did not improve upon the previous Indiana state standards.

Since the implementation was put on hold, Indiana has held public sessions featuring the opinions of those for and against the Common Core. “We had the public discussion we never had originally,” Skinner said. While he didn’t think highly of the new standards, Skinner had faith that educators would make do.

“Even though I wasn’t really a big fan of the Common Core it’s not something that’s fatal,” he says. “There’s a little bit of flexibility in the Common Core standards in regards to the state being able to implement a percentage of their standards within the Common Core standards. If they see some glaring errors, they have ability to adjust those standards.”

With Pence’s signature on SB 91, Indiana has until July 1 to adopt its own standards, which have already been in development since soon after the Common Core was delayed about a year ago. The board of education may adopt the new standards as early as April 28, a week after another scheduled education roundtable.

The new standards, now in their third draft, have become yet another source of contention. In creating the new standards, evaluation teams from the state Board of Education and Department of Education are reviewing earlier state standards, the Common Core standards, and international standards. To curb bias, evaluators are not told the origin of the standards (though evaluators well versed in the different standards may not need labels to determine their origin).

Sandra Stotsky, an education expert asked by Governor Pence to review the newly drafted standards, says that the English-language standards, at least, are Common Core “warmed-over.” “Basically over 90 percent of the [English] standards [for high school] are from Common Core,” Stotsky says. The first draft Stotsky saw was essentially “cut-and-paste” from Common Core, she says.

Stotsky was on the validation committee for the Common Core before its release, working with 25 or so other members to ensure that the Common Core standards were internationally benchmarked, research-based, and rigorous. She was one of five people on the validation committee that did not sign off on the Common Core because, to her mind, the standards failed on all three counts.

She has been sent two drafts of Indiana’s new standards to review so far, both of which she sent back. “I have made it very clear that I would not review any document that looked like Common Core warmed-over,” she says. “It wasn’t written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers” as the governor promised, she adds.

However, Claire Fiddian-Green, the governor’s special assistant for education innovation, defended the efforts to revise the standards, saying the methods to determine them do not favor the Common Core. “The reviewers are looking at the standards blindly,” she says. “They are looking at the outcomes.” Depending on the types of outcomes favored — for example, whether evaluators prefer improved reading of informational texts or of fictional works — the revisions may not be completely neutral.

The process of review that the current standards are undergoing, however, is undoubtedly different from how the Common Core was formed. The panels have taken great effort to review the opinions of teachers and the public, Fiddian-Green says. “The panel members spent upwards of 50 hours each both individually on some preparation work and in four-day sessions face-to-face,” she says. “They have gone through repeated iterations and reflected on the comments received, more than 2,000 public comments, more than half of which were from teachers in Indiana on the specific standards that were in the first draft posted online.”

Fiddian-Green is a little worried about Stotsky’s claim that many of the standards are taken directly from the Common Core. She says she isn’t sure how much of the new standards are taken from the Common Core in the current draft, as it is difficult to make such an analysis while the standards are still being changed. “We’re really just focused on making sure we’ve got the best standards — what students ought to know by content area, by grade level,” she says, “so that when they graduate they are ready for the next step of their lives.”

Despite the controversy surrounding Indiana’s rejection of the Common Core and the new, soon-to-be-adopted state standards, Governor Pence believes Indiana will be a harbinger for other states looking to reclaim educational autonomy from perceived federal overreach.

“I believe when we reach the end of this process there are going to be many other states around the country that will take a hard look at the way Indiana has taken a step back, designed our own standards, and done it in a way where we drew on educators, we drew on citizens and parents, and developed standards that meet the needs of our people,” Pence said.

The degree to which other states follow Indiana’s lead may well depend on whether the new standards are written “by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers,” or if the standards are merely the Common Core dressed in Indianan clothes.

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.