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Utah guv wants academic standards re-examined

Published July 18, 2014 7:58 am

Education • A new website will invite the public to raise concerns about the content of specific requirements.
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With new academic standards continuing to divide educators, lawmakers and parents, the governor will ask the Utah attorney general's office to reexamine the state's adoption of them.

Gov. Gary Herbert will ask the attorney general to look into what, if any, federal entanglements have been involved in Utah's adoption of Common Core State Standards in math and language arts. He's also convening a group of Utah experts to review the standards from a higher education perspective.

And his office has created a webpage to solicit comments about specific standards from the public.

Herbert said Thursday morning he's heard positive and negative feedback about the standards — which outline what students should learn in each grade.

But he said it seems both sides are "talking past one another using different terms to describe shared frustrations" and it's time to try to do something about it.

He said Utah parents, educators and school board members are the ones who "should determine what is taught and how it is taught."

"I state unequivocally today that we will not cede that responsibility to anyone else," Herbert said. "We as a state need to resolve these contentious matters."

The state school board adopted the standards in math and language arts in 2010 in an effort to improve education in Utah, and they're already being used in classrooms statewide. Utah education leaders have hailed them as more rigorous than the state's previous standards.

Since their adoption, however, a group of vocal opponents in Utah have decried the standards as federal overreach, though they were not written nor required by the federal government. The federal government did, however, encourage their use.

In more recent years, opposition to the standards has grown in Utah and nationwide among some who worry about a lack of textbooks to reflect the standards and about the new way they teach math, which many parents say has them struggling to help their kids with their homework.

Most other states also adopted the standards, but in recent months, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Indiana decided to drop them.

Herbert said the group of Utah experts he's convening to look at the standards from a higher education perspective will make recommendations to the state school board. That group will be led by Richard Kendell, a former Utah System of Higher Education commissioner.

"I don't want to presuppose the outcome of this review but I want to emphasize that Dr. Kendell and his team of experts may in fact recommend some standards be removed, some standards might be made more rigorous and some standards might not be changed at all," Herbert said.

Gayle Ruzicka, head of the Utah Eagle Forum and a vocal Common Core opponent, called the announcement Thursday "a giant step." She said she believes the governor's actions will lead to Utah dropping the standards.

"I think what he's trying to do is create a situation where everybody has input and now can see that we need to change things if we are going to have local control," Ruzicka said. "We don't have local control now. We have federal control."

State education leaders also said Thursday they welcome the governor's actions, though they've already spent years trying to reassure the public that the standards are not federal, don't impede local control and are good for kids.

"I don't think there's anything necessarily new here, but obviously the concern here, and the hope, is we'll be able to come to some resolution," said retiring State Superintendent Martell Menlove.

David Crandall, head of the state school board, said he agrees with the governor that the state needs high academic standards and to maintain local control over schools.

"We want to make sure we're not getting into anything we don't know about," Crandall said.

JoDee Sundberg, an Alpine school board member who also sits on the boards of the state and national school boards associations, called the governor's plan "the right thing to do."

"I think this will clear up a lot of concerns people have had and misinformation," Sundberg said.

State education leaders have long asserted that misinformation is responsible for much of the opposition to the standards in Utah. For example, they say there's confusion over the difference between standards and curriculum. Standards outline the concepts that should be taught, while curriculum describes how those concepts are taught — and curriculum remains up to local schools and teachers.

Also, reassurances that Utah is in control of its standards have come over the years from the U.S. secretary of education, and the head of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which helped lead the writing of the standards. Former State Superintendent Larry Shumway also formally asserted Utah's control over schools to the federal government.

But Herbert said Thursday that those efforts fell short of solving the debate.

"Whatever has been done in the past has not resolved the dispute," Herbert said. "There's too much animus out there with the groups on all sides of the issue and it's just time for us to kind of push the pause button and say, 'Let's reevaluate, let's ascertain that we have Utah standards.'"

He acknowledged, however, that it's still unlikely everyone will be satisfied.

"There's always somebody who's not going to be happy with what the outcome's going to be," Herbert said. "We won't please the extremes on either end of this discussion but the other 85 percent of us, the reasonable people of the world, will probably feel good about the outcome."

He said the attorney general's office will look at the standards' adoption through the lens of a bill passed in 2012, SB287, which allows Utah to exit any agreement that "cedes control of Utah's core curriculum standards to any other entity."

Herbert also on Thursday addressed issues with the state's new school SAGE testing and student data. Some educators have expressed concern with the testing, saying they had to start it well before the end of the year because of limited school computers.

Herbert said he and others will work to fix that issue, and he's asking legislative leadership to work with his office and the state school board to address concerns over whether the testing puts the privacy of student data at risk.