As Wisconsin schools begin a new year, many are tailoring their lessons around an increasingly controversial set of voluntary math and English standards for kindergarten through 12th grade.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, which sets new and often more rigorous goals for the nation’s students at each grade level, is drawing flak from all sides, from Tea Party activists to educators.

Complaints focus on how the standards were developed amid concerns there was not enough local input. But backers say a wide range of interests were brought to the table, including educators and politicians from both sides of the aisle.

In 2009, the bipartisan National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers partnered with Achieve Inc., a nonpartisan education nonprofit, to draft the standards. With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the governors and school officers sought to address concerns that American students were not achieving at the same level as students in other nations and were not prepared for college and careers after graduation.

The standards list specific expectations for academic mastery and call on teachers to help students develop critical thinking and analysis skills, said Emilie Amundson, Common Core State Standards team director for the state Department of Public Instruction.

“For Wisconsin as a state, this is a huge shift. Our (previous) standards … were so incredibly general,” Amundson said. “We now have an expectation as to what children should learn and be able to do.”

So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards — though some, such as Wisconsin, are starting to balk.

Many educators around Wisconsin began implementing them when they were adopted by State Superintendent Tony Evers in 2010. But this year, the standards will be in place in virtually every public school in the state, and some private schools.

Tim Schell, director of curriculum and instruction for the Waunakee School District, said the transition to Common Core will be hard for elementary-level teachers, who must overhaul both their math and literacy curriculums.

“You’re beginning to see some of the actual impact, and these are big changes,” Schell said. “These are not easy changes.”

Madison school superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said school districts will be able to make appropriate adjustments.

“The standards aren’t perfect. I don’t think any set of standards ever are,” Cheatham said. “But they are a dramatic improvement from the standards that we had previously.”

Rising skepticism

As the standards have become more widely implemented, skepticism has grown. Critics are troubled that the standards were developed nationally, not by individual states or school districts.

Some also question the funding from the Gates Foundation, which seeks to improve education and health care worldwide.

The left-leaning Milwaukee-based nonprofit publisher Rethinking Schools criticized the standards as having been developed with “too little honest conversation and too little democracy.”

Kim Simac, leader of the Northwoods Patriots, a Tea Party affiliate in Eagle River, called the standards “a monstrosity” and said local town boards and school boards should have been more involved.

In May, the state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee amended the state budget to require a review of the standards and a study of the costs associated with them. It called for a series of public hearings on Common Core, which DPI plans to hold, and asked for a Legislative Council study committee to look into the issue. The budget committee also added language to block additional Common Core standards, such as for science or social studies.

But in fact, the Common Core initiative disbanded, and no further standards are planned. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau also is expected to release a report by Aug. 30 on the cost of implementing Common Core, as well as the cost to halt implementation.

“DPI began to implement Common Core in 2010 without any public input or legislative action,” state Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, said in a statement. “My hope is that after public input is had and the study received by the Legislature, we can more precisely assess which standards are best for our state’s schools.”

State Rep. Mandy Wright, D-Wausau, a former middle and high school English teacher, said the standards are a way to bring continuity across classrooms on what students are taught.

“People have really developed their niche and what works for them as teachers,” she said. “We needed something like this to bring it all together, to pull together all those different pieces.”

She said teachers, not lawmakers, should address critics’ concerns.

Wisconsin lawmakers aren’t the only ones raising questions. In April, Indiana passed a law calling for an evaluation of the standards and their costs, while stalling their implementation. Michigan, in its new state budget, prohibits spending state money on Common Core. And several states, including Georgia and Oklahoma, have withdrawn from one of the groups developing Common Core-related standardized tests.

Gov. Scott Walker was an early supporter of the standards, but this month his office declined to comment.

ObamaCore?

The standards have been championed by Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary. And the administration offered Race to the Top grant money and No Child Left Behind waivers to some states that got on board. Indeed, some critics of Common Core have dubbed it ObamaCore.

New testing, funded in part by federal Race to the Top, is part of the deal. Beginning in 2014-15, all Wisconsin students in grades 3 to 11 will take standardized tests linked to the Common Core standards. The results will eventually be used as part of new evaluations of teacher effectiveness.

Mike Bormett, DPI policy and budget director, said these new tests will cost the state an additional $8.3 million next year. The tests are more costly than previous assessments because more grades will be taking the tests, they are more complicated and they require expensive software.

DPI team director Amundson also notes that the new testing will almost certainly result in lower scores.

“These are higher standards,” Amundson said. “It’ll be a harder test.”

Some educators worry about the pressure the new tests will put on teachers and students.

Stewart Purkey, associate professor of education at Lawrence University in Appleton, questions whether the standards will do anything to meet the special challenges of students with disabilities or from diverse backgrounds.

“We just don’t know what the effect will be,” Purkey said. “At the very least we should be talking about taking a year to implement these and see how they affect students.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Mark Pitsch is an assistant city editor for the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.