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Christie Stirs Things Up With Call to Drop Common Core But Keep PARCC

Change in stance, clearly aimed at national GOP, greeted with strong reaction in governor’s home state

Gov. Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie’s declaration yesterday that the Common Core State Standards are “not working,” and that New Jersey can do better on its own, may prove to be good politics when it comes to appealing to the Republican base in other states.

But it certainly left his home state’s public schools, already in flux, even more uncertain about what it all means, especially considering that Christie went on to say immediately that New Jersey will stick with the PARCC testing aligned with the standards.

As was widely expected, Christie announced in an elaborate invitation-only policy speech at Burlington County College that his administration was backing off the national standards it adopted five years ago.

A commission of parents and teachers will review them, as well as the state’s previous standards, with an eye on coming up with recommendations for a new set of distinctly New Jersey standards, he said. The review will happen in the next six months, Christie said, although any new standards will likely take much longer.

“Today, I’ve directed the Commissioner of Education to begin immediately to assemble a group of parents and educators to consider developing New Jersey educational standards: New Jersey College and Career Readiness Standards,” Christie said.

Christie was strongly defending the Common Core standards as recently as two years ago.

But as he positions himself for an all-but-certain bid for the GOP presidential nomination, he had lately been hinting at such a reversal, as the Common Core has come under intense fire -- especially from the conservative right -- as a federal power grab over schools.

Christie’s language yesterday was directly aimed at that right flank, blaming the standards on the Obama administration and saying it was the product of “federal bureaucrats.”

“It is time to have standards that are even higher and that come directly from our own communities,” he said. “In my view, this new era can be even greater by adopting new standards right here in our state, not 200 miles away on the banks of the Potomac River.”

His claim is a bit off, as the standards are not federal but were adopted through a collaboration of business leaders and the individual states, including New Jersey. New Jersey educators served on panels involved in the development of the Common Core.

Still, the Obama administration pushed for adoption of those standards, and the Common Core has become a prime focal point of conservative critics.

Either way, the role of national politics was obvious yesterday – it was probably no coincidence that Christie was scheduled to go on New Hampshire radio right after his speech.

But what effect Christie’s stance would have on education in New Jersey was much murkier.

For one, while Christie said the state would stay with the PARCC testing aligned to the Common Core, at least for now, it is actually the PARCC testing that has generated the most debate, with tens of thousands of students sitting out the tests this spring and the PARCC consortium making changes to address the concerns of some parents and educators.

And Christie chose his words carefully when he spoke about Common Core, explicitly saying there would be a “review” of the standards and that recommendations “may” come out of that review. A whole new set of standards in math and language – the two subjects covered by the Common Core – could take years to develop and implement, if history is any guide.

Those uncertainties left educators, advocates and others scratching their heads yesterday.

A group of principals and supervisors invited to the speech stood together in the lobby afterward, several of them indignant that Christie was essentially tossing aside the work that they and other educators have taken on.

“What this means is the work we have been doing for the last three or four years in aligning everything to the standards is taking another shift,” said Emil Carafa, a principal in Lodi and past president of the state’s principals association.

“We were just getting comfortable and knowledgeable with the standards, and this now uproots that,” he said. “It uproots everything we have been working on.”

Others pointed to how Christie only last year appointed a state task force to examine the state’s use of PARCC and other assessments – and the fact that the task force has yet to issue any report. To now disavow the standards behind those tests is unsettling, they said.

“We haven’t released our report, we don’t know what PARCC has done,” said Nicole Moore, a school principal in Shamong who is a member of that task force. “We are still doing our work, and to say otherwise is premature. And this puts us in a tricky position.”

It was not universal confusion. The audience at the college auditorium in Pemberton was filled with leaders from business and higher education, and several afterward said any review of Common Core and PARRC would be worthwhile.

“I didn’t hear anything that gives me any concern,” said Steven Rose, the longtime president of Passaic County College. “We absolutely backed the Common Core, but if we can get this through and it makes it easier and won’t have the same controversy, great.”

“If we can find a New Jersey version that still has the high standards, that would be great,” he added. “The thing I was listening for was that we still have PARCC.”

A statement from the New Jersey School Boards Association also said that the review would be helpful in improving on the standards.

“We view Governor Christie’s directive as an opportunity to build upon an already strong set of standards,” said Lawrence Feinsod, director of the association. “A matter as important as our state’s academic standards is worthy of reflection and review.”

But the voices of skepticism, if not outright opposition, were more widespread. Some were predictable, including from the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that has been in frequent combat with the governor.

Wendell Steinhauer, the NJEA president who was in the audience, said afterward that Christie was using “backward logic” by supporting PARCC while disavowing the Common Core.

“I like the approach that he will bring in educators and make it New Jersey, that is all great and I hope NJEA is involved in that,” he said. “But to continue with the PARCC test, that does not make any sense at all. The PARCC test is completely aligned to the Common Core.”

Previous allies of the governor’s policies also expressed disappointment, including the Better Education for Kids organization, which has pressed for greater accountability and standards.

“We are deeply concerned that this reassessment of the Common Core standards will set back the progress New Jersey has made in ensuring that all New Jersey children are college and career ready in an ever competitive global workforce,” read the statement released by the group.

And even the state’s staunchest critics of the Common Core weren’t jumping to Christie’s side yesterday.

Carolee Adams, president of the Eagle Forum, arguably the loudest voice against the standards, said yesterday that Christie’s endorsement of the PARCC testing negated any gains from his disavowal of the Common Core.

“Don’t be duped by the half-truth of a national headline that Christie is abandoning the Common Core standards,” Adams wrote in an emailed statement, “without mentioning New Jersey will still implement PARCC assessments. He’s buying time! Intellectual dishonesty and pandering continue.”

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