August 12, 2013

HAYDEN: Common Core may fall to politics


---- — If you haven’t heard the word “Obamacore” yet, you soon will. It’s the derogatory term given to the Common Core State Standards by some Tea Party affiliated-groups that oppose the uniform set of learning benchmarks adopted by 45 states, including Indiana.

Here in Indiana, we’re in the “pause” mode on Common Core, with full implementation on hold while legislators revisit the issue. Pushed hard by the anti-Obamacorers, the General Assembly passed a law earlier this year ordering a review of the standards and the costs to implement them.

I sat through the first of the three scheduled legislative hearings on Common Core last week. It lasted nine hours, due mostly to the unending redundancy of the speakers.

Opponents mostly argued that Common Core represents an ill-motivated federal takeover of education – even though the effort to develop the guidelines was led by state officials and supported by governors of both parties before Obama took office.

Proponents, meanwhile, argued that the guidelines are desperately needed to raise education standards in Indiana and ensure that what Hoosier children are taught is consistent with students across the U.S.

In the ideal world, Common Core would get students more college-ready before they leave high school. In the real world, Common Core is just so mired in politics that it may come undone.

But as that fight goes on, there are students who aren’t waiting for the legislature to act and who are working hard to get themselves college-ready, taking help wherever they can get it.

I met one of those students recently on the campus of Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis, which is just a short walk from the Indiana Statehouse.

Zenobia Wynn is an incoming freshman at IUPUI. On paper, the odds looked stacked against her. She’s African-American, on a needs-based scholarship, and far from home. According to national and state studies, black college students, especially those with limited financial resources, are the least college-ready and the least likely to succeed once in. Only 16 percent of African-American students in Indiana universities complete college on time.

But Zenobia was an honors student at Portage High School, where, with the encouragement of her teachers, her counselor and her mother, she took Advanced Placement classes and earned some college credits that are giving her a jump on her peers.

Zenobia was so concerned about being college-ready, that over the summer she sat in on a remedial math class offered at her high school. She wasn’t required to do that, but she’s convinced it helped her pass the math placement test at IUPUI, meaning she won’t have to pay for a non-credit-earning remedial math class in college.

There are more than 2,600 kids at Portage High, but principal Caren Swickard knows Zenobia and remembers her as “an awesome young lady” who exuded both a quiet confidence and a willingness to ask for help when needed.

Zenobia came to IUPUI early to get herself more college-ready, enrolling in the intensive, two-week Summer Bridge program. That should help raise the odds, too: Students who go through Summer Bridge do better academically, earning higher Grade Point Averages, than their counterparts.

When I met Zenobia, the only question she didn’t have answered was where she could find a church close to campus like her home church where the congregation offered her love and support.

Common Core as a tool for college-readiness is worthy of debate. But it’s an empty one if it doesn’t include the voices of students like Zenobia.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at