PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - The standards stirring up strong emotion and debate around the country are a new initiative that detail what students in grades kindergarten through 12 should know in math and English at the end of each academic year.
The idea is that students in a given grade are learning the same thing, and being assessed the same way, as their counterparts in other common core aligned districts in other states.
According to the California Department of Education having the same standards "helps all students get a good education, even if they change schools or move to a different state".
In early February, parents gathered at a "Common Core Information Night" at Palm Desert High School.
It was one of a series of meetings put on by the Riverside County Department of Education.
"The Common Core focuses more on the problem solving and innovation versus the right answer. So there is a right answer, but the question you always have to ask is, why is it the right answer?" said Mike Barney, a representative from the Riverside County Department of Education.
The Common Core Standards were released in June of 2010.
They were developed and supported by the National Governor's Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and an organization known as "Achieve".
The effort was supported by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, totaling more than $150 million dollars.
Gates spoke about the standards and related computer-based testing in 2009 at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well, and it will unleash a powerful market of people providing services for better teaching. For the first time there will be a a large uniform base of customers looking at using products that can help every kid learn better, and every teacher get better," said Gates.
46 states, including California adopted the Common Core Standards by August, 2010, while competing for more than $4 billion dollars worth of federal grants being offered through President Obama's "Race to the Top" education initiative.
States earned bonus points on their grant applications if they agreed to adopt un-named standards specified by the federal Department of Education, standards which aligned perfectly with the Common Core State Standards, so Common Core is what the states adopted in their efforts to secure funding.
President Obama commented about money awarded through "Race to the Top" in 2010.
"We just didn't hand the money to states that wanted it. We challenged them to compete for it, and it's the competitive nature of this initiative that we believe helps make it so effective. We laid out a few key tests and said that if you meet these tests, we'll reward you by helping you reform your schools," the President said.
But as more states are moving forward with implementing Common Core, resistance is growing.
A growing number of people around the country are speaking out against Common Core including parents, teachers, administrators and elected officials.
As a result, several states are considering making changes to Common Core, and some are considering backing out of the program.
In New York, the board of the state teacher's union voted unanimously to withdraw its support for the Common Core standards as they've been implemented.
Indiana state lawmakers are considering a bill to void the standards.
Arizona is one of a handful of states changing the name of the standards, following the advice of leading republican Mike Huckabee, who recently suggested the name "Common Core" had become "toxic", and needed to be "re-branded".
In perhaps the biggest hit to Common Core, the head of the National Education Association, the country's biggest teacher's union, sent out a letter February 19th to 3 million teachers, calling the rollout of the standards "completely botched".
A valley parent we spoke with also has concerns with the new approach.
"My son is able to calculate numbers in his head, and he is already running into problems in first grade because of the way they want him to do his homework. That makes him second guess the things he can do in his head. So I feel it punishes kids who can do numbers faster," said La Quinta resident Tracy Mcdanel.
Among the criticisms is that Common Core is "untested" and "dumbed down", and that the standards were developed by special interests in Washington with little input from parents and educators.
Others contend Common Core does not adequately prepare students for four year universities.
Other concerns include data mining.
With more computerized testing in classrooms, significant amounts of personal data will be collected on students over time, generating concerns over privacy and how that information is used and secured.
Leading critics of the Common Core State Standards include education historian Diane Ravich, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
"By all this emphasis on reading and math scores, we've created this multi-billion dollar testing industry. The kids are learning to take tests, but they're not actually learning reading. They're not actually learning math," said Ravich.
The California Department of Education says it was up to individual school districts in the state whether to adopt the common core standards.
But some say that is debatable.
On the state Department of Education website, a section on Common Core explains how the state will "ensure full and equal implementation of the common core state standards in every district".
We've also learned that all districts in the state will be required to participate in statewide assessments based on the standards.
The state also used money as an incentive, awarding a total of $1.25 billion dollars in grants to districts adopting the new approach, districts including Palm Springs Unified.
"The focus in the classroom will be more problem solving, higher level thinking, communication, kids working in teams and collaborating to come up with answers and solutions to problems that are a little more real world," said PSUSD Superintendent Dr. Christine Anderson.
As part of the move toward Common Core in the Coachella Valley Unified School District, the district promoted, and voters approved Measure X in June of 2012.
The bond measure provided 41 million dollars to purchase iPads for every student in the district.
Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton talked about Common Core and CVUSD while appearing at a community event in Coachella January 13th.
"I was talking to the Superintendent earlier and he was so proud about the ipad application that he talked about as an idea last year that is now a real reality. So that every kid here in the valley is getting an iPad, not only for Common Core, but also apps to track what they are eating, and their physical activity," said Clinton.
Implementing Common Core in California will cost the state well over one billion dollars according to an estimate from the Los Angeles times.
Last June, the newspapers editorial board posed the question, "was adopting Common Core a mistake?".
The standards the state already had in place were highly rated.
A study in 2010 by the Fordham Institute gave California's English standards an "A" rating, and found those existing standards were "clearly superior" to the Common Core English standards.
The state's math standards also received an "A" rating, and the difference between those standards and Common Core math, Fordham described as quote "too close to call".
"You know, our heart seems to be in the right place, and we're trying to do the right thing, and trying to prepare our kids appropriately. That in mind, there is some skepticism there, and we are trying to learn as much as we can," said La Quinta resident Lance Levitt, who has two children attending elementary school in the Desert Sands Unified School District.
In mid-march, 3 million California students began "field testing" Common Core related computer-based assessments.
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