Reprinted with permission
Common Core: A Threat to Homeschoolers?
Do we have cause to be concerned about the latest efforts in education reform?
BY JOY PULLMANN
MUCH OF THE TIME, PUBLIC SCHOOL INITIATIVES and regulations do not affect homeschoolers. The “next big thing” in public education, called Common Core education standards, already is, however, and that influence will grow. There are three major ways this nationwide initiative affects homeschool families: curriculum, testing, and student data tracking.
First, a bit of background. Common Core specifies what public-schooled children should know in math and English in each grade from kindergarten to graduation. Forty-six states agreed in 2010 to replace their own math and English standards with Common Core standards. In 2014–2015, these states will also replace their state tests with national Common Core tests funded by the federal government.
National education standards have been a goal of politicians and advocacy groups for decades. In 1959, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,1 President Dwight D. Eisenhower called for them. President Richard M. Nixon said “fear of ‘national standards’” is one of the “bugaboos of education.” President George H.W. Bush embraced them, only to see the Senate reject national history standards. President Bill Clinton pushed for Goals 2000 and voluntary national testing, which Congress also rejected.
This time around, national standards advocates put together Common Core under the auspices of two private trade organizations, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Neither has any formal legislative power, and both mainly function as networking opportunities. The federal government gives funds to each, and states pay both for membership dues and consulting services. Although tax dollars helped sponsor Common Core, the standards were written during meetings closed to the public and the press. Common Core tests, which are entirely funded by federal taxes, are likewise being written by private organizations in private meetings. Major businesses such as GE and Exxon-Mobil and foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed tens of millions to the Common Core project.
These realities have inflamed freedom-of-information and corporate responsibility groups, but for homeschoolers the concerns go much deeper. Homeschooling gives families the freedom to teach their children how and what they wish. Common Core, however, requires a unified national learning path, thereby restricting in what order and to what depth children will learn the components of math and English. This would be less objectionable if Common Core were not so mediocre, according to all the academic experts on Common Core’s validation committee who refused to sign off on it. Other standards and education experts have since sharply criticized Common Core’s academic quality. Because Common Core is so comprehensive, it is likely to influence even what and how homeschoolers teach, particularly through curriculum, testing, and student data tracking.
Let’s look at curriculum. Because 87 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren are now attending institutions that must teach Common Core, most major curriculum providers have shifted their products to match it. Some curriculum companies, such as Saxon Math and Shirley Grammar’s publishers, have shifted their mainstream textbooks to match Common Core but are also offering homeschool editions that have not changed. Still others, such as the Institute for Excellence in Writing, have relabeled their curriculum without changing it or have made no changes whatsoever. IEW founder Andrew Pudewa said, “If we explain what we do in terms of the fuzzy vernacular of the Common Core initiative, homeschooling parents shouldn’t for one second think that it means that we have changed what we are actually doing.”2
As for testing: a number of states require homeschool families to administer standardized tests (usually the state test) and/or have their curriculum and learning plans reviewed by government officials, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association.3 In many of these states, homeschool families can administer any nationally normed standardized test they wish, such as the Stanford Achievement Test or Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Both of those tests,4 however, are also aligned to Common Core,6 “And our greatest worry is that if the CCSS [Common Core] is fully adopted by all states, policy makers down the road will attempt to change state legislation to require all students—including homeschool and private school students—to be taught and tested according to the CCSS.”
Usually, homeschool students perform better than public school students on standardized exams and on tests focused on concrete knowledge (such as solving for X or vocabulary), so the shift would be little to worry about right away except that Common Core tests are expected to be different from pencil-and-paper, knowledge-based tests most families are used to. By 2018, all Common Core state tests must be taken on a computer, and the computer tests are expected to have “performance tasks,” where rather than answering multiple choice questions, students must essentially play a short video game or write a sentence or essay. (Paper Common Core tests will be available until that school year.)
The computerized tests will also be different for every student. Students who answer a question right get a harder question next time, and students who answer a question wrong get an easier question next. The idea is to pinpoint exactly what tasks students can perform rather than give a percentile range comparing that student to others of the same age and grade. This different, more complex testing format may mean some students test worse than others—even though they may have equal knowledge—because they are unused to the testing format. This is a common obstacle for homeschoolers, many of whom are unaccustomed to timed tests, for example. The shift in testing practices may also mean more families have to prep for tests to get their children comfortable with the test environment, which families may not feel is the best use of their school time.
The tests also will feed into the student databases states are constructing right now. Several states, including Oklahoma7 and New York, are now including homeschool students8 in their databases. The idea is to have a comprehensive look at each state’s population and track young people from “cradle to career,” as President Barack Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have said.
To get 2009 stimulus money, every state agreed to build a longitudinal student database that can be shared with other states and the federal government. Federal guidelines on the sort of information these databases can track on individual children include Social Security numbers, hobbies, family religion, family income, family voting status, test scores, medical records, and more, according to a 2012 Pioneer Institute report9 and the National Center for Education Statistics.10 The idea is to create a comprehensive dossier of each child in the state, which includes their records from social welfare agencies, health care professionals, the justice system, and so forth. In 2011 the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) reinterpreted national student privacy laws11 to allow any school district or state or federal education agency to share student information with any individual or organization, without parents’ knowledge or consent. In addition, the agreements states signed for stimulus money include a requirement that schools even collect data on students who are not tested, such as homeschool students.12
The several agreements the USDOE has signed with two organizations writing national Common Core tests insist that information these tests collect must be “student-level”—meaning these would not be anonymous aggregate records like what researchers need to identify trends, but instead tied to specific kids.13
To any parent, this entire project is alarming. At the very least it is a magnet for identity thieves, who love to steal children’s identities because the child often does not learn about the theft until adulthood. Identity thieves often target existing government databases, which can themselves be accidentally compromised—as in California last year, when payroll data for some 700,000 home-care providers was lost in the mail. In 2012 alone, millions of people’s identities were put at risk when thieves hacked various government and military databases.14
There are some positive things about Common Core for public school students. For homeschool families, it largely represents an intrusion into their education freedoms.
Joy Pullmann (email@example.com) is managing editor of School Reform News (found at http://news.heartland.org/education) and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute (www. heartland.org). She is also a homeschool graduate and married mother of three small children the Pullmanns plan to homeschool. Visit her blog at 1trueword.com.
This article was originally published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Learn more at www.HomeSchoolEnrichment.com
10Federal Register 74 no. 221(November 18, 2009): 59836, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2009-11-18/pdf/E9-27427.pdf .
Common Core Q&A
Jonathan Lewis talks with Will Estrada, Director of Federal Relations at HSLDA
One of the concerns about Common Core is the collection and tracking of student data that’s taking place. Are homeschoolers being tracked? How will this impact the homeschooling community as a whole?
Right as we’re debating the Common Core and nationalized education standards, curricula, and testing, we’re also seeing a push for nationalized databases of student specific data. Recently, nine states announced that they were joining a consortium of states in giving detailed information on students to a private company and aligning their databases so that all nine states could access this data. This was “legalized” by the federal government through a quiet change to FERPA, the federal student privacy law, back in 2011, making it easier for the government to give data to private companies and share that data between states—all without parental approval. NYC schools were initially planning to include the data of homeschool students in this database, but after HSLDA contacted them, they backed off this. We are aggressively working to ensure that no homeschool student’s data is included in this database.
If implementation of the Common Core standards moves forward, what is the probable impact on homeschoolers?
There is no question that the Common Core movement is nationalizing educational decisions. We believe these are decisions which should be left to local parents, teachers, and schools. We believe this will hurt public education. Right now, Common Core only applies to public schools, and homeschool and private school students are exempt. Our concern is that if every state ends up adopting the Common Core and it truly becomes a national curriculum, the pressure will grow for all students—including homeschool and private school students—to be taught the same and tested the same. This would be terrible for homeschooling freedom. We are also concerned that colleges, universities, and employers may only accept graduates who have gone through a Common Core K–12 education.
We’re hearing reports of attempts to halt implementation of Common Core. Indiana and Michigan have taken steps. US senator Chuck Grassley is trying to rally support against it at the federal level. Is there still hope that Common Core can be defeated, or at least significantly reduced in scope?
The good thing is that as parents learn about the Common Core, they are realizing it’s a bad idea. To stop Common Core, we need to have a dual state-federal strategy. At the state level, governors and state legislatures need to take charge of their states’ education and not turn it over to national bureaucrats. At the federal level, Congress needs to defund President Obama’s Race to the Top program, a federal competitive grant system established by the 2009 stimulus bill, which gives federal education dollars (taxpayer money) to states which adopt the Common Core and national databases.
What can freedom-loving homeschoolers do to take a stand against Common Core?
Call your governor, your state legislators, and your federal representatives. Urge them to reject the Common Core, because educational decisions should be made by those closest to the students and not by national education bureaucrats.