Will Kansas ban counting to 100 and reading?

The mainstream media has been hyping bills lately (one passed in Indiana and one pending in Oklahoma) that would demand a review of the Common Core State Standards. The typical story features a headline declaring Common Core “repealed” in Indiana, while the rest of the article details why that’s not necessarily the case. In short, these laws do not prevent the state from adopting the Common Core or something substantially similar. But an amendment slipped into the state budget last night by the Kansas Senate would repeal the Common Core...and replace it with nothing.

First, some background. The Kansas Supreme Court recently ruled that the states funding formula is flawed and disproportionately sends funds to property-rich areas of the state at the expense of the property-poor ones. To remedy that situation, and with its legislative session quickly coming to a close, the legislature is scrambling to find about $129 million to put into aid for schools.

During this process, however, Senator Forrest Knox from Altoona introduced a provision that would prevent the state and local school districts from expending any state funds, “to implement the common core standards or any portion of such standards, including any assessments affiliated with common core standards unless the legislature expressly consents to the use of the common core standards.” The amendment passed 27–12.

Unlike bills in other states that call for review and maybe some tweaks to the standards, this provision is clear: Common Core would be no more in Kansas (at least until the legislature assented). The key provision goes far beyond simply reverting to the old Kansas standards—which would alone be a huge mistake, as the old Kansas standards (especially in math) were pretty terrible. In short, while it is somewhat vague and open to interpretation, it seems to state that school districts cannot spend any state money to do anything in their district that is outlined by the standards. So what is in the standards?

Those unfamiliar with the Common Core may know little more than what they’ve read on social media and may think the standards dictate confusing or ideologically slanted lessons. But the Common Core, like any set of academic standards, do not dictate those or any set of lessons because standards, by definition, merely set goals and expectations for student learning. Decisions about curriculum, homework, textbooks, and more are, as always, local decisions.

But the Common Core do require, for example, first graders to “count to 120.” The English language arts standards also expect these youngsters to “recognize the distinguishing features of a sentence” and “demonstrate understanding of spoken words, syllables, and sounds.” But if this language becomes law, those things may no longer be taught in Kansas schools. If Kansas schools are prevented from spending money on “any portion” of the Common Core, that could mean just about any basic math or English skill. It’s no surprise, then, that a representative of the state’s local school boards wondered aloud, “Does that mean we stop teaching first graders how to count?”

To be clear, I’m sure each of those elected officials, including Senator Knox, are well intentioned and want what’s best for the students of their state. But it also would appear that backlash in the state, as in so many others, has transcended reason and has caused these leaders to react impulsively in order to please a core constituency instead of taking a step as simple as reading the standards for themselves. Hopefully, the Kansas House and Governor Sam Brownback will knock everyone to their senses and delete this provision.

We at the Fordham Institute have long held that if Kansans can find a set of standards that is even better than the Common Core, we would support it. However, states like Indiana are finding out that taking two sets of good standards (their old ones and the Common Core) and trying to mold them into a solid set of expectations is tougher than it looks. Instead, Kansas would be wise to allow teachers use their own judgment in finding the best way to individualize instruction for every child in order to meet the high expectations of the Common Core. They’ve been preparing to do just that since the standards were adopted in 2010. Changing gears now will be disruptive to classrooms across the state, but banning any and all elements of this solid set of standards would be devastating.

UPDATE, 4/10/14: Shortly after this piece was posted, the Kansas Legislature made a number of changes to the funding bill—including, thankfully, the removal of the controversial Common Core provision.

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