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Education Reporter

Federal Grants Fund 'Core' Developers
Last year the Obama administration and other Common Core Standards Initiative (CCSI) supporters repeated ad nauseam that the common education standards movement was led by states rather than the federal government. While it is true that federal money was not used to develop the standards, states were strongly encouraged — some say bribed — to adopt the common standards if they wanted to win a piece of the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition money.

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Now that all but seven states have given up local authority over education standards by adopting the English/language arts and mathematics standards, the next push is to develop common assessment tools (i.e. standardized tests) to determine whether students are mastering the new standards. Obama's Education Department is funding the design of these new tests with $330 million awarded to two assessment groups.

Recently, these two assessment consortia have expanded their plans beyond tests. The Education Department gave them an additional $31.6 million to write instructional materials and professional development aids to prepare teachers to transition to the common standards.

Several other organizations are already working to provide curriculum and other instructional materials for teachers, including the major education publisher Pearson, a half dozen groups funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the second largest teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers. One can only speculate as to why the Obama administration is pouring taxpayer dollars into a project that many in the private sector are already tackling, but there is a more fundamental issue at stake: Is it legal to design curriculum using federal funds?

That question was a hot topic at a recent meeting of test designers, state policy people and academics in Atlanta, according to Catherine Gewertz, a reporter for Education Week. One of the meeting attendees, Christopher T. Cross, helped write the 1979 law that prohibits the federal government from funding curriculum when he was the Republican staff director of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Cross raised the issue with Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, an advocacy group working with one of the two consortia developing assessments, and now curriculum materials. Cohen said his client, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), is planning to develop curriculum frameworks and model instructional units, not complete curricula. He noted that the PARCC materials will be readily accessible through a digital library, but that no state or district will be required to use them. (The other consortium, SMARTER Balanced, has a similar plan to create a "clearinghouse" of curriculum resources.)

Still, some attendees wondered whether the intent of the federal ban allowed for a distinction between "curriculum" and "curricular/instructional materials/resources." Cohen insisted that "curriculum implies something highly detailed that dictates what gets taught and how it's going to get taught. We're not doing that."

Cohen also pointed out that the Department of Education approved the consortia's plans for the materials, so "clearly the Department didn't think this was running afoul" of the 1979 law. Pascal "Pat" Forgione, head of the Educational Testing Service's Center for K-12 Assessment and Performance Management, wasn't so sure. The issue could be the "Achilles heel" of the consortia's work, said Forgione, the host of the Atlanta gathering.

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