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Curriculum changes facing a fight

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From the Greenville (SC) News

As the state’s public schools move toward implementing a curriculum in core subjects that will be shared by schools across the nation, state Sen. Mike Fair is fighting to the last to keep the new guidelines from going into place.

The Greenville Republican, who serves on the state’s Education Oversight Committee and the Senate Education Committee, sees the Common Core Curriculum as a politically motivated effort at social engineering that threatens to undermine state and local control of K12 schools.

“This smacks of progressive education,” he said. “Progressive education, to me, means wanting to change the culture. Not just wanting to teach for students to learn but wanting to change behaviors and everything else.”

He’s pushing a bill to stop the Common Core dead in its tracks, even as the state’s schools are already in the first of two transition years toward implementing it.

A recent motion to table the bill in the Senate Education Committee failed, and another one to study it further in the committee passed, he said, which gives him hope that it couldmake it to a vote on the Senate floor.

“The more we talk about it, the more adherents we get to the position that we need to look at this more,” Fair said, after his bill was sent out of a subcommittee to the full Education Committee but without endorsement.

Few members of the Legislature knew about the Common Core initiative until after the process of implementing it was well underway, Fair said. “The entire General Assembly needs to be involved in that discussion,” he said. Proponents of the Common Core say it provides a way to compare students in South Carolina with those in other states and in other countries, where a similar curriculum is used. They say the development of the curriculum, for English language arts and math, was driven by the states, not by Washington.

“The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them,” the Common Core organization says in its mission statement. “The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” “Businesses all across the country depend on a highly qualified work force prepared for jobs in the 21st century,” said Arthur J. Rothkopf, senior vice president and counselor to the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Common Core academic standards among the states are essential to helping the United States remain competitive and enabling students to succeed in a global economy.” Fair sees in the new curriculum an opportunity for teachers to inject their biases into the teaching of literature because the guidelines call for half of the content to be nonfiction.

Although Common Core science standards haven’t been adopted, Fair believes science could be taught as literature under the Common Core English curriculum.

“It could just as easily be Al Gore’s view of global warming, or fill in the blank, as long as it’s factbased,” Fair said. “It will not invite a critical analysis of Darwinism.” Fair believes the idea that global warming is caused by human activity is “a myth” and that evolution is “absurd on its face.” He favors drawing what may be good from the Common Core Curriculum and incorporating it into the state standards without becoming part of the system, which he says is being pushed by the Obama administration with its Race to the Top program and other grants.

Jason McCreary, director of the Greenville County School’s department of testing and accountability, said the Common Core standards will give students a deeper but less broad education than the state’s current standards, which he described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” “That can be a very powerful change in the way we do things,” he said, “because right now no schools concentrate on mastering the content, learning it to the point where it’s automatic and not really forgotten.”

“We focus on trying to learn everything we can in a ninemonth period, and we’re constantly moving on before the kids get it.”

As far as the concerns some critics of Common Core have over a “national curriculum,” McCreary said most of what’s taught under the current state curriculum is based on standards from national education organizations.

Changing the content standards will mean additional training for teachers and some extra cost for materials, but much of the current curriculum is already aligned with the Common Core, he said.

The idea behind the expanded use of nonfiction material in literature courses is to give students a deeper background in the literature they’re studying, McCreary said.

Under the current system, teachers spoonfeed the background and context — but they already have the autonomy to use other materials than the approved texts, he said.

Kelly Pew, Pickens County’s assistant superintendent of instructional services who will become superintendent on July 1, said she supports the Common Core Curriculum, which she described as “rigorous college and career ready standards.”

“We began training our teachers this year so that we would be ready for full implementation as required by the state,” she said.

She said moving toward the Common Core standards is part of state’s request for a waiver from sections of the No Child Left Behind law.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais is philosophically opposed to the Common Core Curriculum because he believes it’s a “onesizefitsall” model that goes against his goal of customized education for each student, said his spokesman, Jay Ragley.

But as superintendent, he is charged with implementing the Common Core, which was approved by the state Board of Education before he was elected in November 2010.

The state Department of Education is holding webinars and offering videos for teachers to learn how implementation of Common Core is supposed to go, Ragley said.

The plan — unless Fair is able to stop it — is for full implementation, with a new test to replace the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, in 2014-15.

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