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Tony Bennett: Indiana should have renamed Common Core at the start

(The first of two stories with experts from former Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett’s interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. For the second part, go here.)

Indiana’s former state Superintendent Tony Bennett was his usual outspoken self on a recent trip to Denver.

He was invited there to speak at a Donnell Kay Foundation speaker series and while he was in town he sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado Bureau Chief Maura Walz. (The foundation also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat Colorado.) Bennett, who faces a May hearing on ethics charges for allegedly using the resources of his office for campaign purposes, talked about the case, Indiana’s dumping of Common Core standards, his attitude toward his critics and what he hoped his legacy would be.

Bennett was a strong early champion for Common Core, education standards that 45 state ultimately agreed to follow. Indiana last month passed a bill to void its adoption of Common Core and draw up new state standards. Here’s what Bennett had to say about Common Core.

Lawmakers, he said, didn’t always know much about Common Core:

Bennett said the pushback that led Indiana to void its adoption of Common Core, and other states to consider following its lead, is unfortunate:

“I think we have legislators that are against something that they really haven’t researched very well. For instance, I can tell you, I am not certain some of the legislators I’ve dealt with who are opposed to Common Core could stand up and tell you why they’re against Common Core.”

On Indiana’s adoption of Common Core, Bennett explained his motives:

“When I was in Indiana, I pursued adoption of the Common Core in large part because I was very alarmed at the percentage and rate at which students had to be remediated leaving high school. So I thought that was a terrible drain on our system; I thought it was wrong. Gov. (Mitch) Daniels one time referred to it as a breach of warranty, that when we send kids out of the K-12 system and they need to be remediated. So I looked at Common Core as a potential solution to that. Higher standards, greater rigor, greater expectations, and an opportunity to elevate our children to be more competitive. The discussion has been lost in all of this, federal overreach, by inserting the word curriculum as opposed to standards.”

Bennett blamed messaging for the Common Core backlash:

“It is unfortunate that the federal government felt the need to be so visibly in front of this issue. Because it wasn’t their issue. So that’s been a problem. In conservative states that are worried about federal overreach, that in and of itself created a problem.”

But Indiana’s Common Core adoption, he said, was not influenced by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or the federal government:

“I never one day felt pressure from Secretary Duncan to adopt Common Core. Never once. And we were a state that dropped out of Race to the Top. So believe me, if a state could have walked in and said, hey, we’re not going to do this Common Core thing, it could have been us.”

Criticism of Common Core, he said, is often contradictory. Critics say the standards are too weak and at the same time they say Common Core tests are too hard:

“It’s been an argument that comes out of both sides of one’s mouth. In one instance, we don’t think that the standards are very good, but on the other instance, we don’t like the fact that our students’ performance might go down.”

The majority of Indiana teachers, Bennett said, support Common Core:

“We were all-in in Indiana. As a matter of fact, I think that Indiana is going to be a really interesting study going down because I frankly think teachers were ready to move in that direction.”

Bennett said there never would have been a Common Core controversy in Indiana if the state had just adopted them with a different name:

“I always told my staff, it was one of my greatest mistakes in office: I should have re-branded those things as the Hoosier Standards for College and Career Readiness. And these are Indiana’s new standards! These are not Common Core, these are Indiana’s new standards and we’re going to adopt them like Indiana standards are always adopted! Which we did. We’re going to implement them the way we’ve always implemented standards so that there was this total buy-in.”

Indiana’s well-regarded prior standards were not superior to Common Core, as critics often argue, he said:

“Indiana standards that we worked off of prior to the adoption and implementation of Common Core, we referred to as a mile wide and an inch deep. They did more to take away local control than Common Core did! We had so many indicators and so many standards that teachers were literally trying to make sure they hit every one and jam all this information into 180 days of school. With Common Core, the fewer, clearer, deeper standards — it enabled, in my opinion, and I’m a former classroom teacher, my daughter is currently a third grade teacher and has taught in the fifth grade, if you ask her, you know what she would say? This gives me greater flexibility, greater autonomy, to be more creative about developing state of the art, 21st century lessons for my kids.”

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