- - Friday, May 2, 2014

Just about everyone is familiar with the old idiom “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s a valuable metaphor, but as it turns out, it’s also very useful literal advice as it relates to the growing public policy debate over Core State Education Standards.

My wife Patsy and I are very lucky to have all our children and grandchildren living close to us. We love being part of their daily lives and watching our children raise families of their own.

A few weeks ago, one of our daughters shared with me a textbook belonging to her son, a public school student in Homewood, a suburb of Birmingham, Ala. Something on the cover of my fourth-grade grandson’s textbook alarmed her, and after she showed it to me, it triggered an investigative instinct in me as well. On the cover, in bright red letters, unmistakable, were the words “Common Core State Standards.”

“If you want to know why so many people do not like Common Core, there it is,” said my daughter. Parents are under the impression that a central, national entity is dictating what our children read and learn, she continued, and every time a parent disagrees with the subject matter or struggles with a new method of math, we do not have to look far to find where to place the blame.

Then she asked me: “If there is no required reading list, no required curriculum for Common Core, why are these books labeled as belonging to and adhering to Common Core?”

Quite frankly, I did not know the answer. I was certain that no single organization in Washington D.C. or elsewhere dictates what children in the Homewood public schools read. I could not explain, though, why my grandson’s textbook made it appear that such a group does in fact exist.

I did what I always do when I don’t know the answer to something — I ask someone who does know.

Betty Winches is the assistant superintendent of instruction for Homewood City Schools, a top-rated public school system, and for years I have known her to be a world-class educator and academic leader in the schools. So I asked her the same question that my daughter asked me: “If there is no Common Core reading list or curriculum, why are the textbooks in Homewood’s schools labeled “Common Core?”

The answer, as Betty explained to me, is Business 101. The books are labeled “Common Core” because the textbook publishers have stamped them with those two high-profile words to sell more books. That’s it. No mandate. No federal overreach. It is simply a marketing tool.

In fact, given that there are only a limited number of textbook publishers operating in the country today, it is probable, if not likely, that second-grade kids in Homewood are using the same textbook as their peers in Virginia — one of only a handful of states that has not adopted Core Standards. The only difference is that, for those books sold to Alabama or one of the other 44 states that have adopted the standards, the books have been labeled with “Common Core” to indicate their alignment with the standards.

I have always believed that the government that governs closest governs best. Local control, local decisions are almost always the best. It turns out that is exactly what is happening in our schools. The decision to use my grandson’s textbook was not made by some central federal entity that dictates what our children and grandchildren read.

Instead, the decision was made on two levels, both in Alabama. First, a statewide group of educators, school officials and lay persons select which books and textbooks — submitted by the publishers — adhere to the general educational standards of Common Core and also reflect the values that we in Alabama want for our children. This group provides insights and recommendations on each book submitted and sends that list to the state superintendent of education, who submits the list to the State Board of Education. Those recommendations then go to the local school systems, each of which has its own respective committee of parents and educators that selects which books students in that school system will read. In fact, the local school systems are not even required to select exclusively from the statewide list. If Betty and her board want Homewood students to read a book not included on the state’s list, they have the authority to make that decision.

So the decision about which books are read in Homewood schools is made by educators, parents and school officials in Homewood. If an Alabama parent or group of parents has an issue with a specific book in their local school, they do not have to lobby Washington for change. They don’t even have to call Montgomery. All they have to do is tell their concerns to the local school administration.

I understand the business decision made by the textbook publishers to stamp “Common Core” in big letters on the front of their textbooks.

But I think that we should also label these books — in large, bright letters — as what they truly are: “Alabama-approved, Homewood-selected.”

Bob Riley is a former Republican governor of Alabama.

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