Resetting the bar for state education

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett reads to elementary school students. Bennett has led efforts by the state to adopt national education standards.


the days preceding Indiana's adoption of new national education guidelines,

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett's efforts at persuasion were

met with what has come to typify teacher response to almost anything coming

from the state: skepticism.


very important to understand that this is a state-driven initiative," Bennett

argued in an attempt to reassure a crowd assembled in Indianapolis earlier this

month – part of the superintendent's recent statewide tour to meet with

Indiana educators. "We have been on the ground floor in discussing these



new national guidelines, known as Common Core Standards, will eventually

replace Indiana's current set of state mandates for gauging how and what

students are taught. Earlier this month, Indiana became one of at least 33

states to have adopted the measure so far.


like other local and federal officials, took pains to emphasize states' roles

in crafting those standards at this month's meeting. But a cascade of guffaws

and muffled laughs seemed to indicate not every teacher present was convinced

the effort was locally-grown.


is the consensus from teachers around the state — that this was not

really some local, home-grown decision," explained Teresa Meredith, vice

president of the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA), a teachers union,

and a teacher in Shelbyville. "But, hopefully, by working between Dr. Bennett

and the ISTA, we can change that."


the state is moving forward on Common Core at all is a change of pace given

recent impasses between state and union leaders.


April, Indiana educators failed to put together a bid for millions in cash from

the federal government's Race to the Top program, aimed at spreading $4.35

billion among states that best exemplify the kinds of reform the government is

looking for. The Common Core Standards were meant to be a part of that drive,

and Indiana stood to gain up to $250 million in federal education subsidies for

a winning bid.


territorial issues between the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) and ISTA

proved contentious. Disputes between the two groups torpedoed the bid at a time

when the state has cut $297 million from schools for the current two-year

budget – cuts that could get deeper if the latest state revenue numbers

are any indication.


disputes have some wondering if state officials and educators will ever learn

to get along – and how many more opportunities will fall by the wayside

in the meantime.


Havill-Weems, training director for the Indiana Parent and Information Resource

Center (PIRC), a parents advocacy group, said it was "frustrating," when

students missed out because state and union officials couldn't agree.


you aren't able to forge those strong partnerships that focus on student

outcomes, with the loss of that prize, what we're really looking at is an

example of the potential fallout that directly impacts our students," she said.

"The students end up losing."


step in the right direction'


President Barack Obama launched Race to the Top in 2009, his administration was

careful distinguish it from the No Child Left Behind program put in place by

his predecessor. Race to the Top, he explained, would focus instead on

measuring growth and standardizing teaching, rather than on testing data.


got in line with 47 other states, each of which had to outline a plan for

revamping its education program. The "Standards and Assessment" portion of the

application was a major component for putting together a winning bid. It

influenced Indiana's initial plan to adopt Common Core Standards as part of a

reform package the state calls its Fast Forward plan.


Core was intended to better align Indiana's standards of instruction with those

of schools across the nation. "We want to ensure our students are held to the

highest academic standard," IDOE said in a statement at the time. "And we

believe that the Common Core State Standards will position Indiana children

well — nationally and internationally."


submitted its bid for round one of the program, but the initiative didn't get

far. On March 15th, Bennett announced that Indiana was not selected as one of

the 15 finalists.


soon began planning a second application, but announced April 22 that

re-application would be virtually useless. Negotiations to curry support with

the ISTA hadn't gained the necessary traction, and support from teacher unions

was estimated at just 60 percent.


although the state is no longer in the running for millions of federal dollars,

Bennett says Common Core Standards are still worth implementing. He said

federal money was never the primary draw: For example, that money could not

have been used to fill the hole left by budget cuts, as some have suggested,

only for costs associated with reform. It is unclear how those costs will be

covered now.


think the reforms are essential and Indiana will be a national leader on

implementing reforms without national money," Bennett said.


new standards will stress depth-over-breadth-of-teaching more than the previous

ones. It will also make teachers' specializations narrower, Meredith explained.

Only time will tell if that's ultimately a good thing.


standards and goals are spelled out very specifically. For example, an eighth

grader would need to be able to "consult general and specialized reference

materials, both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or to

determine or clarify its precise meaning or part of speech." It's left to local

administrators to determine how best to keep teachers and students in line with

the standards.


don't really have any big concerns yet," Meredith said. "Probably more of a

question than anything. There isn't any data yet that suggests that the Common

Core Standards change learning in the classroom or are impacting students'

lives outside. But with anything new, the data comes in a few years down the



Rep. Gregory Porter, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the

standards were "a step in the right direction," but said he had reservations. "Obviously

since we've adopted this thing it's going to require some dollars behind it,"

he said.


to changes in the quality of education, Porter said he was "eyeing it

cautiously" for now. "My concern with this is when comparing all the students

of different states, we're not all going to start at the same level."




of Indiana's failure to submit a viable bid for federal dollars can be

attributed to tensions between IDOE and ISTA leadership, the latter of which

withheld much of its support. Tennessee and Delaware – which, as Race to

the Top winners received a combined $600 million for their education programs

— had secured between 95-100 percent support from local teachers' unions.


ISTA claims the only way to get its full support is to follow the lead of

Tennessee and Delaware by better including unions in the process.


big problem we had with [the proposal] was that we were never invited to be a

part of the conversation unless we would blindly agree to Fast Forward," said

Meredith. "It's hard to agree to something if you can't even see it."


took similar issue with what he characterized as unilateral action on the part

of the IDOE .


main thing I'm concerned about is that this whole movement did not really

involve the legislature," porter said. "Not once, not twice, but on numerous

occasions I reached out to the Department of Education. We never really got any

pertinent information."


different subjects currently utilize standards implemented during different

years, adoption of the new standards will take place gradually through 2013, as

old standards are phased out.


the future, ISTA insists its attitude is cautiously optimistic. Meredith said

she anticipated a difficult 2011-2012 school year.


think teachers are confused," she said. "And the next year is going to be a

challenging year for having two sets of standards and figuring out what to



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