Don't fear Common Core, Nielsen tells local Republicans

Barbara Nielsen
Barbara Nielsen Casey Conley/Staff Photo

A former S.C. superintendent of education said Monday that Common Core learning standards being introduced in the Beaufort County School District this fall should be embraced, not feared.

Speaking before about 80 people at a Hilton Head Republican club meeting, Barbara Nielsen tried to debunk what she said are numerous "myths" about the standards, including concerns that it's an insidious federal takeover of the state's education system.

"It is not a special way of delivering English, language arts, reading or math, it is simply, in clear terms, laying out what your students should know at each grade level and subject matter," said Nielsen, a self-described "conservative Republican" who lives in Beaufort County. She was speaking at the First Monday Republican Lunch Group at Aunt Chilada's Easy Street Cafe.

Common Core standards, which South Carolina adopted in 2010, have become a controversial subject, especially among some Republicans who oppose federal involvement in education, data collection, and other things.

Last month, Bluffton Tea Party member Bert Walker described the standards as "a clear violation of the state's right to dictate curriculum."

Yet the standards are supported by high-profile Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also back the effort, saying the standards are needed to ensure American students keep pace with their peers from other countries.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided significant support for the endeavor, as have groups backed by the foundation.

Hoping to allay concerns about the federal government, Nielsen said the federal Department of Education was not involved with creating the standards, which have since been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. She also noted that President Barack Obama had not been elected when the standards were developed in 2006-07.

Nielsen, who served as South Carolina's education superintendent from 1990-98, said the standards do not override local decisions on curricula or teaching materials, and decisions on standardized tests will continue to be made by state and local districts.

"There is just so much misinformation out there. What I saw creeping into this was, there are a lot of people who want school choice; there are a lot of people who are against federal intrusion," she said. "Those weren't the issues we were discussing. Those are separate from Common Core."

Following Nielsen's remarks, one person asked how standards would affect students in advanced classes.

Nielsen responded that students who learn quickly can still progress at their own pace under the standards, just as they always have.

State Sen. Tom Davis, who described Nielsen as "an incredible public servant," said he is still learning about Common Core but remains concerned about "the nationalization of standards."

Davis, a Beaufort Republican, says applying free-market principles to education likely would produce better outcomes than creating a new set of standards.

"The free market is ultimately going to be what drives excellence at the lowest cost," he said.

County school district spokesman Jim Foster said the Common Core standards for math and English will take effect this fall.

Jeffrey Moss, the new Beaufort County School District superintendent, attended Monday's lunch meeting. He said the district is training teachers on the new standards.

Moss says the standards should serve as a baseline for measuring student achievement, not the ceiling.

"This is what is considered the minimum standard. We want our children to excel beyond that ... and go beyond what is expected so they can truly compete in the world," he said Monday, his first day on the job.

"I think we've laid a great foundation."

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Beaufort County officials react to Common Core backlash, June 12, 2013