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States abandoning Common Core
Kathryn Goppelt, an anti-Common Core activist, prepares to speak to the House Education Committee, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Baton Rouge, La. The committee passed the first piece of a compromise on Louisiana’s use of the Common Core education standards, which Goppelt called “a step in the right direction.” Credit: AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte

Getting a fresh set of standards should be easy in a state where Common Core is opposed 39 percent to 51 percent, right?

Louisiana is poised to join the roster of states putting the Common Core standards under review. But in states that have scuttled the standards, namely South Carolina and Indiana, the replacement standards have been near carbon copies of the Common Core, critics have complained.

So why is it so difficult to get standards that are a radical departure from the Common Core, even in a state where Common Core is incredibly unpopular?

Online poll of Common Core standards in Tennessee receives 131,424 reviews of individual standards, 56 percent of reviews called for keeping the standard

Common Core’s staying power might be explained by what it is and isn’t. Common Core, after all, is not a curriculum. It doesn’t mandate a set of textbooks or tests. It doesn’t provide lesson plans or scripts for teachers. It’s a list of targets for what students should be able to do at the end of each grade. And how different can those targets really be?

Related: Does Common Core really mean teachers should teach differently?

In Tennessee, just 38 percent of the state’s voters support the standards, according to a December Vanderbilt University poll. But the results from another poll — created by the state after Common Core opponents there called for the repeal of the standards – found that when it came down to the individual targets contained in Common Core, most participants would actually keep most of the standards intact.

More than 2,200 Tennesseans participated, including 1,164 teachers, 320 parents, 141 school administrators, and 15 students. Participants were given the opportunity to go through all the nearly 2,000 Common Core standards for English and math and decide for each standard whether to “keep it,” “remove it” or “replace it.” The website logged 131,424 reviews of standards, 56 percent of which were “keep it.”

While it is clear that the two polls tapped very different constituents, Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says that it isn’t surprising that a standard-by-standard review of the Common Core would look different than a review of the sum of Common Core’s parts.

Related: Common Core math experts say teachers need to stop using shortcuts and math ‘tricks’

“Except for the 500 people who are fanatics about this stuff, it’s hard to read math and English standards and see a big difference,” said Hess. “They could look broader or narrower, they can seem faster or slower, but if we are talking about all the stuff we want kids to be able to do, that’s not going to be profoundly different.”

“Any set of [math] standards that draws on the expertise and the knowledge of the field are going to look very similar [to Common Core], focusing on reasoning, not mimicking.”

Mark Ellis, professor of secondary education at California State University at Fullerton, doesn’t think the standards are perfect – like many, he thinks that the math standards for high school need work – but he doesn’t see a wholesale retreat from that philosophy as warranted or in the cards.

“What has happened in mathematics education is decades of research and coming to consensuses particularly in kindergarten through sixth-grade,” said Ellis. “Any set of standards that draws on the expertise and the knowledge of the field are going to look very similar, focusing on reasoning, not mimicking.”

Ellis said that even the standards in Texas, where Common Core is banned, look like Common Core, concluding they “aren’t identical in the wording, but in the intent.”

In fact, some districts in the Lone Star State have found it difficult to find materials that are aligned to the Texas math standards that don’t also purport to be aligned to the Common Core.

Hess says it’s not the individual standards or their progressions that are the problem, but the philosophy behind them.

“What’s really controversial is the instructional shifts the Common Core calls for,” said Hess, referring to the Common Core’s calls for things like more non-fiction and a call for more of a focus on conceptual understanding of math. “That’s not really in the standards, it’s in the appendixes, but that’s the whole philosophy of the standards, that’s what’s changing classrooms.”

Related: What makes a good Common Core math question?

Like many critics, his biggest issue, though, is how the standards were implemented, not what they actually require students and teachers to do.

“I have no problem with more conceptual math or non-fiction,” said Hess. “But there is a lot of confusion when you tell teachers in 45 states to do this regardless of the context in that district or school.”

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