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DETROIT – Partisan bickering over the Common Core has pushed Michigan legislators in recent years to freeze – then unfreeze – spending on the new standards. They’ve banished the new exam that education officials had been planning to introduce this year and forced the creation of a second new test for 2015 as well as a third one for 2016.

Common Core politics
As political battles rage over the Common Core, teachers like Jennifer Bahns at the University Prep Academy middle school in Detroit are trying to prepare their students for the first major Common Core exams this spring. Credit: Erin Einhorn

And through it all, Jennifer Bahns and her students have just been trying to keep up.

Bahns teaches seventh grade math at the University Prep Academy Middle School in Detroit – a highly regarded charter school that draws kids from some of this city’s most struggling neighborhoods.

Related: Pass rates dip and test takers decrease after first year of new high school equivalency exam

She has no influence over the politics of the Common Core – slammed by critics on the right as an overreach by the federal government and by critics on the left as a profit engine for testing companies – and she can only guess how ongoing conflicts and confusion over Common Core in state legislatures and education agencies will ultimately play out in American schools.

But as Michigan and more than 40 other states plan to administer new exams linked to the standards for the first time this spring, Bahns is among hundreds of thousands of teachers across the country who have had no choice but to plow ahead with implementing changes in their classrooms.

“There’s a lot of chaos and there’s a lot of uncertainty, which negatively affects the kids.”

The transition is especially tough in Michigan where political one-upmanship has resulted in the likelihood that students here will take three different state exams in three years – the most recent tests designed to separate kids who are up to the challenge of the Common Core from those doomed to fall behind.

That means Bahns’ seventh graders this year are grappling with algebraic equations that used to be taught in the eighth or ninth grade. They’re being asked to learn multiple solutions for each equation and to write sentences explaining how they computed their answers.

It’s a lot for these kids, many of whom face the trials of poverty on top of their schoolwork, but on a recent afternoon as Bahns took her students through a series of problems, most were catching on.

Common Core politics
Jennifer Bahns at the University Prep Academy middle school in Detroit. Credit: Erin Einhorn

“Oh, this is easy!” one student exclaimed as Bahns showed him how to break down an expression like 3(2x) + 4y(5) to the simpler 6x + 20y.

Other students nodded in agreement as they worked through a group of equations. But when Bahns told the students to plug in numbers for each of the variables – y = 2 and x = (-1) – the sounds of confidence around the room sputtered into confusion.

“Wait! I’m lost!” one student said.

“Hunh?” queried another. “I’m confused on that, bro.”

The problem was negative numbers: these kids hadn’t worked with negatives in months and couldn’t remember how to handle them. Bahns reminded her students that two negative numbers multiplied together make a positive number, but the class remained so stumped that she had to improvise. She scrapped the lesson she was teaching and launched into a review of negatives. That meant she’d have to spread over two days a lesson that was intended to be taught in one. And it meant her students would be another day behind in their preparations for the new, unknown – and utterly mystifying – state exam that was looming just two months away.

“They want us to go deeper but it’s impossible … There’s no give anywhere.”

“It’s hard because you only have sixty minutes and we have these expectations to get through this, get through this, get through this,” Bahns said. “They want us to go deeper but it’s impossible … There’s no give anywhere. Do they want us to go deep and really make sure they [students] understand how to persevere through these difficult problems? Or do they want us to cover five different strands? Because we’re not going to be able to do both.”

The new standards in their English classes have them delving into non-fiction articles and learning how to cite evidence from those texts in their writing. If Bahns’ students perform poorly on the state exam, the low scores could affect which high schools they attend. Their school – which must aggressively compete for students in a city in which kids can freely choose from a long list of charters, city schools and suburban schools – could lose students and resources if it drops on the annually published state rankings. Low scores could jeopardize job security for teachers and principals.

The political battles in the state capital have made the challenge even more daunting.

Michigan was one of the first states to embrace the Common Core State Standards, a national effort to set shared learning targets for each grade so kids from every state will be similarly ready for college and careers by graduation.

The Michigan Board of Education – eight officials chosen in statewide elections – unanimously adopted the Common Core in 2010. The state soon joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two state coalitions that received federal funding to develop Common Core-aligned exams that will be administered across the country this spring.

There was so little controversy around the board’s decision, the move barely rated a mention in local news reports. Elected officials who later raised alarms said they were not aware that their state had adopted the new standards.

Adopting the standards “was routine,” said John Austin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor who is now the school board president. “We update our standards periodically … That is our job by the Constitution and it’s good that we have it. We have long eight-year terms. We had an expert-led process that determined the best learning standards in all disciplines.”

Once the school board adopted the Common Core, schools and districts had four years to  develop curricula aligned to the new standards and to buy equipment to administer tests that – for the first time – would be given online.

“We partnered with Eastern Michigan University and spent five Saturdays deep-diving into the standards,” said Karey Reed, assistant superintendent of the Global Educational Excellence school management company, which runs ten charter schools in Michigan. “It’s a new style of teaching,” she said. “[Teachers] have to really get used to teaching very conceptually and letting [students] solve problems in a variety of ways.”

Related: What makes a good Common Core math question?

When first adopted, the standards were met with skepticism by some but embraced by others. “In my circle, in this district and around me, most people that read [the standards] said ‘Oh my god! This is what I went to college for. Finally! It’s not multiple choice, not teach to the test,’” said Sarah Olson, the executive director of teaching and learning for Royal Oak schools, a suburban district outside Detroit.

But by 2013, the politics around the Common Core had changed.

Tea Party activists blasted the standards as an effort by the Obama administration to snatch control from local schools. Parents and teachers worried the Common Core would mean more high-stakes testing for kids.

Critics in several state legislatures passed bills blocking the standards and Michigan joined the effort in 2013 when a group of opponents slipped language barring spending on the new standards into the state budget at the eleventh hour.

Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, a Common Core supporter, had no power to remove the language from his $49.5 billion spending bill. And so, for the next few months, schools were thrown into limbo, unsure if they could continue to pay for teacher training or materials related to the Common Core. The state Education Department even wondered if it had to take down part of its website.

“Confusion was the watchword of the day,” said Michigan State University education professor Robert Floden.

Funding was restored in October 2013 after four months of hearings, but Common Core opponents were emboldened by their brief victory. Last year, just nine months before Michigan planned to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s exam to students in grades 3 to 8, the Republican legislature shut the test down, barring the Smarter Balanced test and joining a growing number of states that have pulled out of Common Core consortia in favor of single-state exams.

Michigan didn’t have enough time to create a new exam – a process that typically takes three years – but the legislature left enough legal wiggle room to allow the Education department to repackage the Smarter Balanced exam for 2015 – just under a new name.

When students in grades 3 to 8 take the new Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-Step) this spring, all the reading and math questions that will count toward their scores will be drawn from Smarter Balanced exam materials. Michigan is still listed as a full member of the Smarter Balanced consortium and will pay its full $4.9 million fee to the consortium for 2015. Smarter Balanced Deputy Executive Director Luci Willits says Michigan’s 2015 scores will be directly comparable to those from other Smarter Balanced states.

Plans for 2016 are still underway as the state talks with test makers and considers its options, but the testing turmoil most likely means that Michigan kids will end up taking three different tests in three years: the state’s traditional MEAP in 2014, the Smarter Balanced-based M-Step in 2015 and a new, unknown M-Step in 2016.

The constant changes will likely make it impossible to track student progress from one year to the next – a problem that has forced the state to seek a waiver from federal rules requiring states to hold schools accountable for student progress over time. The confusion has also put on hold another legislative priority – a plan to use student test data in teacher evaluations.

Related: Will test-based teacher evaluations derail the Common Core?

Still, teachers fear that they will be blamed for the resulting tumult and school leaders worry the commotion will affect their schools’ standings in annual state rankings.

The rankings are especially crucial in Detroit, where population loss and the charter boom have forced schools into heated recruitment wars. A single year of bad scores here can sink a school if too many students – and the education dollars they bring with them – decide to go elsewhere.

So for teachers like Bahns and her colleagues at University Prep, the politics around testing have added an extra layer of anxiety to the already daunting challenge of teaching to the more rigorous standards.

“There’s a lot of chaos and there’s a lot of uncertainty, which negatively affects the kids,” said Sara Muchmore, a University Prep English teacher. “When teachers are unsure about what to teach, that kind of uncertainty trickles down to the kids.”

Both sides of the debate in Lansing, the state capital, say they regret the way the political dispute has affected classrooms, but are quick to blame each other.

“Legislators should not be guiding educational decision making or second-guessing the good [decisions] we make,” said Austin, the Board of Education president. “Their gumming up the process of moving ahead with the Common Core certainly does not help advance the goal of educating our kids.”

Tom McMillan, who led Common Core opponents in the state house before leaving office this year due to term limits, shot back that the mess could have been avoided if the Board of Education had held a more public process when it adopted the standards in the first place.

“The chaos was created by the state Board of Education and the Michigan Department of Education sneaking it through in 2010 without looking for a debate and making sure people were signed onto it,” said McMillan, a Republican who represented the wealthy Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills.

Uncertainty in schools may be exacerbated by the arrival of new legislators with new priorities every few years since, under Michigan law, legislators are term-limited to eight years in the senate and six years in the house.

But experienced educators say they do their best to tune out the noise.

“I’m 71 years old and I’m so used to this,” sighed Narda Murphy, the superintendent of the Williamston school district in a suburb of Lansing. “If somebody decides on a political level to throw out the Common Core, they’ll bring in some other framework. To me, it’s a lot of wasted energy.”

As for Bahns, this is her eighth year in a classroom and she’s not about to let politics or outside pressure affect her students.

“It’s really, really ridiculous to me,” she said. “But what I tell the new teachers is just do the best you can do because that’s all you can do.”

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