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Education: Schools chairman defends Common Core

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

National education standards that will be implemented in the South Carolina public school curriculum next year will benefit students and teachers, according to the chairman of the Georgetown County Board of Education.

Jim Dumm, who has served on the board for 19 years, sees the Common Core standards adopted by 45 states as a natural progression from the time when Georgetown County didn’t even have common standards among its own schools.

He spoke this week to the Waccamaw Neck Democrats, an invitation extended after local Republican groups sponsored talks by Sheri Few, head of a group that is lobbying state lawmakers to reject the Common Core standards. Few is also a GOP candidate for state superintendent of education.

Republican opposition to the standards in English and math touches on a range of concerns including the effectiveness of the standards, the role of the federal government in education, the perceived liberal bias in curriculum and the collection of data to assess student progress. The Georgetown County Republican Party has adopted a resolution opposing Common Core, which was approved by the state in 2010 and has been introduced into the curriculum over the last two years.

The standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Common Core standards did not come about from any kind of federal decree,” Dumm said. “Not President Obama. Not Education Secretary Arne Duncan.”

Critics say the federal grants offered through the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative enticed states to adopt the standards. Dumm said the only federal money the district gets, passed through from the state, comes from the provisions in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, such as Title I funds for low-income students.

States will adopt their own curriculums to meet the Common Core standards. That will lead to innovation, Dumm said. “It’s forcing kids to think more clearly and give good rationales for their decisions,” he said.

Dumm said the only other time he can recall curriculum issues being a topic of public debate was in the 1990s when the district adopted an Instructional Information System as a way to make sure students throughout the district were being held to the same standards. “Teachers were being challenged to do a better job,” Dumm said. “Until the mid 1990s we didn’t have a common curriculum across the county.”

Most of the opposition to the IIS was due to the time required to enter data.

The 2001 update of the federal education law, known as No Child Left Behind, had a bigger impact, Dumm said, and it wasn’t positive. Under the goals of the law all students were required to be “proficient” in English and math by 2014, including students whose first language isn’t English and those in special education classes.

Vida Miller, a former state House member who also served on the county school board, noted that South Carolina suffered from the federal law because it already had rigorous standards in place. Unlike states that started from scratch, it was harder for South Carolina to show improvement toward the federal goals.

The goals were worthy, Dumm said, but the implementation was flawed and never properly funded. “No Child Left Behind was a conspiracy aimed at ruining public education,” he said.

Democrats suggested opposition to Common Core may follow the same line in order to bolster the case for vouchers for parents who want to send their children to private schools. “A lot of criticism of Common Core is coming from the far right,” Dumm noted.

But Jim Watkins said one of his friends, a self-described liberal Democrat, also has concerns about the standards, particularly in the call for more reading from “informational texts” and less fiction. “Is it a mile wide and an inch deep?” Watkins asked.

“I have no concern that the arts and humanities are going to be harmed,” Dumm said.

Asked why South Carolina continues to rank low in educational achievement compared with other states, Dumm said, “because we’re putting out fires like this.

“Until we make education a priority and don’t see everything in black and white we will remain in the high 40s,” he said.

“Where’s this hysteria coming from?” Rita Smith asked.

Dumm said he was at a loss to say. He pointed out that even the state superintendent, Mick Zais, a Republican, supported adoption of Common Core. “One of the few things in education he has supported, but that’s another story,” Dumm added.

Dumm said the Waccamaw Neck Democrats are the only group that’s asked him to talk about Common Core. Although he was first elected as a Democrat, school board elections are now nonpartisan. He plans to run again this year for one of two at-large seats on the nine-member board. The chairman is elected by the board members.

So what can the Waccamaw Neck Democrats do to help education, Watkins asked. “Volunteer in your schools. Visit your schools. Vote the right way,” Dumm said.

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