Old-fashioned, prudent or just stubborn, Nebraskans don't usually rush in to something. They like to kick the tires and take it for a spin before signing on the dotted line.
In 2010, however, Nebraska state officials hastily lined up with officials of other states for an Obama administration fix for the nation's lagging student achievement.
Tempted by an Obama administration offer of federal Race to the Top grants, Nebraska officials promised to adopt a set of universal academic standards purported to be so tough and revolutionary, they would help restore the nation's standing as an international education leader, catching up to perennial powerhouses Finland and Japan.
The standards were called the Common Core.
The promise never came to pass. The grants went elsewhere, and Nebraska wrote its own standards, joining three other states on the sidelines as the rest of the country rode the Common Core wave.
Whether Nebraska stays on course or decides to join the mainstream will depend, in part, on information coming to light as other states wrestle with implementation of the Common Core and its costs.
Events are unfolding around the country that are providing state policymakers with more details than they had in 2010 to decide whether to join the 46 states that adopted Common Core, including all bordering states.
This week the Nebraska Board of Education will learn how, in the opinion of one consultant, Nebraska's English language arts standards compare with those in the Common Core. The results of this study by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning are eagerly anticipated by educators, policymakers and community groups.
Results of a McREL study comparing Nebraska's math standards with those in the Common Core are to be released in September.
Meanwhile, a national backlash against Common Core has grown intense, and a few states are reconsidering their participation.
In a recent speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan doubled down on his advocacy for the standards, praising states for courage in adopting Common Core and rejecting accusations that the standards represent an unconstitutional federal takeover of education.
The standards, Duncan said, “may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown versus Board of Education,” the landmark desegregation case.
Skeptics knock the standards with equal fervor, calling them a back-door step toward a single, national curriculum, and questioning whether the standards are as rigorous as claimed.
They frequently interpret the standards' increased emphasis on reading nonfiction and informational texts as evidence of a move away from teaching great literature. And they criticize the math standards for trimming content — which supporters defend as an overdue paring down to essential concepts.
Their criticism also slips occasionally into the realm of conspiracy, envisioning United Nations and leftist plots behind the standards effort.
In the beginning, Nebraska and Iowa both signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a state-led process to develop common standards in English language arts and mathematics for students in kindergarten through high school. Nebraska Department of Education employees served on the writing teams.
It was better to have input, state officials said, than to accept what others created.
The Common Core standards were based on a set of educational benchmarks developed by Achieve, a nonprofit group founded in 1996 by governors and business leaders. The group receives funding from corporate and philanthropic sources.
Achieve partnered with the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and consultants to write the standards, which were released in June 2010.
Advocates said the standards were better aligned with college and work expectations and reflected what top-performing countries do. They were based on evidence and research, and they demanded higher-order thinking from students, the advocates said.
In Nebraska's Race to the Top application, Gov. Dave Heineman and then-Education Commissioner Roger Breed promised to adopt the standards and implement a new generation of tests, tied to the standards, that would ask questions of greater complexity.
When federal officials rejected Nebraska's application for a $123 million grant, Nebraska's flirt with the Common Core ended.
The state rewrote its math and language arts standards and launched its own standardized tests.
Jim Scheer was vice president of the Nebraska Board of Education back then.
He said he was at a meeting in Chicago in October 2009 when he first heard of the Obama administration's new Race to the Top grants. Under the rules, states agreeing immediately to adopt Common Core would score more points on their grant application.
Nebraska officials didn't think they had much of a chance at a grant, but the money was so attractive that board members thought they should give it a try. Though Nebraska promised to adopt the standards, it did not do what some states did — adopted the standards sight unseen.
“They literally weren't even written yet,” Scheer said.
“A lot of the states, in fairness, their funding was being cut dramatically,” Scheer said. “And I guess they felt they had no way to react except to find some manna from the federal government.”
Only Nebraska, Texas, Alaska and Virginia did not adopt any of the Common Core. Minnesota adopted the language arts standards but kept its own math standards.
There could be a silver lining in Nebraska's reluctance.
States that embraced the standards are busy working out the bugs. They are giving leaders here a clearer picture of what lies ahead if they were to change their minds.
For instance, the two consortia that have developed tests for the Common Core have released cost estimates for their assessments. Those tests, because of the more complex scoring, could be more costly than Nebraska's current tests, officials say, though making an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult at this point.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is $27.30 per student for reading and math. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers is about $29.50 for reading, writing and math.
Nebraska currently spends about $21 per student for reading and math combined, and $12.30 for writing.
Last month, Oklahoma decided to opt out of the national assessments and develop its own. Utah did the same thing last year.
Iowa, although belonging to the Smarter Balanced consortium, has no plans to administer the new assessments, said Staci Hupp, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education.
Iowa lawmakers commissioned a state task force to study the state's assessment needs. It will provide recommendations no later than Jan. 1, 2015. In the meantime, schools will continue to use the Iowa Assessments, formerly known as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, she said.
States switching to the Common Core have encountered resistance from teachers unions.
Surveys show that teachers generally support Common Core, but the rapid rollout has raised alarm about the fairness of holding teachers accountable for student progress during the transition.
Scheer is not sure how the Nebraska standards will measure up to Common Core in the McREL study.
At the time they were adopted, comparisons showed they measured up well.
“Were they as rigorous, or not? I don't know. I guess that depends on who you ask or who you paid. ... But they certainly were better than what we had.”
If the McREL study indicates Nebraska standards are inferior, state officials have several options. They could adopt Common Core, or rewrite Nebraska's standards to beef them up. The Nebraska Department of Education is about to start a periodic standards update anyway.
Another option would be to adopt Common Core and supplement it with additional Nebraska standards to reflect whatever extra areas that Nebraskans feel their kids should know.
The study could provide evidence that would enable individual Nebraska districts to adopt Common Core on their own.
Nebraska law requires districts to adopt state standards, but districts can adopt their own standards if those are at least as rigorous as the state's.
The frenzy surrounding Common Core is hard for Nebraska educators to avoid.
Professional journals, consultants and school supply outlets are talking about it, pitching products and programs as being compliant with Common Core.
Last week a thousand school administrators from Nebraska districts met for their annual Administrators Days conference in Kearney.
In the hotel lobby, book sellers offered instructional manuals, including Writer's Workshop for the Common Core, Common Core Curriculum Maps and Using Common Core Standards to Enhance Classroom Instruction and Assessment.
There is one wild card ahead.
If Congress ever rewrites the No Child Left Behind law, Nebraska officials will be closely watching whether holdout states will be penalized for going it alone.
Kathleen Porter-Magee, an expert on standards for the pro-Common Core Fordham Institute, said critics are right to be wary of federal overreach.
“I don't think we're in the danger zone yet,” she said. “And I think that we should be watchdogs to make sure that this remains a statewide effort, and that the details of No Child Left Behind reauthorization don't start to subtly take the power away from the states to really drive this.”