Common Core goals: 'Federal takeover' or an opportunity for Utah schools?
To hear some describe them, Utah's new Common Core academic standards will lead to distortions of values they say are dear to the state.
Students will face mathematical word problems about gay couples. Teachers will struggle to fairly assess students. Utahns will lose control of their classrooms to the federal government, they say.
But advocates say the Common Core will better prepare Utah kids for colleges and careers, won't include any controversial teachings and will respect local control.
So which is it?
The state school board adopted the Common Core a year and a half ago, but controversy over it is bubbling up now that the standards are starting to hit classrooms and bills related to them are hitting the Legislature.
State education leaders say many of the concerns, however, are based on fiction.
"Whenever you make a big change like this, sometimes you also have rumors about the change," said Brenda Hales, state associate superintendent. "And one of the challenges of putting this particular core in place has been combatting rumors about what the Core is and how the Core was developed."
Lawmakers, wary of the new standards, have tweaked the wording of several bills related to the Common Core this session. The state school board is helping to lead a consortium of states that is developing computer-adaptive tests based on the standards, but it considered dropping out of that role earlier this month after critics expressed concern about losing local control. Board member Craig Coleman added he worries teachers will narrow what they teach to match the tests.
A committee of lawmakers in a late-night, last-minute discussion recently recommended the Legislature be required to approve any federal directives related to the Common Core before they're implemented in schools. It was a move Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said would safeguard against "federal tentacles" creeping into Utah.
"Different values" • The conservative Utah Eagle Forum, a leading critic of the Common Core, has been asking members to fight the standards.
Utah has "different values, different ideas; we know our Utah students," said Utah Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka. "We are certainly smart enough in the state to write our own core curriculum, and that's the way it should be."
With a "national curriculum," she said, "you run the risk of a federal takeover and end up with national standards, which is what we see happening right now."
Mark Peterson, State Office of Education spokesman, said he got about 25 phone calls and twice as many emails earlier this month when the board was set to discuss the new computer-adaptive tests for the Common Core. At the meeting, several rose to speak against the Core and using testing developed by the multistate consortium.
"The best ideas are fostered in a spirit of competition where we find the best and pull from there," said Wendy Hart, an Alpine School District board member, offering her own opinion. "When we do things from a grass-roots level, we have greater opportunity for that. When we take things from the top level down, it's much, much more difficult."
Kris Kimball, of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Constitutional Studies, said it's important that assessments be written in Utah.
"There are social agendas being introduced through mathematics," Kimball said. "In a story problem you would have a reference to partners in a household rather than a mother and father."
Deborah Henrie, who heard about the issue through the United Women's Forum, said the Common Core is untested.
"We have educators who are directly involved with our students, and I feel much more confident in placing these kinds of decisions in their hands instead of in the hands of people who are so wholly unconnected with the state of Utah," Henrie said.
Fighting back with facts • In reality, state education leaders say, these are the facts, which don't support those claims:
Common Core standards are not curriculum. The standards outline what concepts students should learn in each grade. Utah districts, schools and teachers will decide on the curriculum used to teach the concepts in classrooms.
• No one has yet written any test questions for the computer-adaptive tests, said Judy Park, state associate superintendent. Utah will be able to reject any eventual questions seen as objectionable, she said.
• The standards cover only math and language arts, not social studies, health, science or any controversial topics within those subjects.
• The standards were developed by a group of states, including Utah, not the federal government. States have decided whether to use them. But federal education officials did give adopting states credit during competition for federal Race to the Top dollars, which Utah did not win.
• Finally, many of the textbooks, worksheets and other materials in classrooms are already developed out-of-state. "There are not walls on the borders of Utah," Park said.
Many education leaders and others don't understand the objection to standards and tests developed with other states.
"I don't see it as someone imposing their system upon us," said state school board member Laurel Brown at a recent meeting, discussing the board's role in developing the computer-adaptive tests. "I just don't have the them-versus-us mentality."
Park asked: "Are we wanting to broaden our horizons and make sure our kids are able to compete across the nation or the world, or are we just wanting to keep our kids only aware or understanding or receiving things from here in Utah?"
Lt. Gov. Greg Bell defended the Core in a January blog entry, saying the standards don't include "any moral or political positions, values or lifestyle considerations."
Finally, education leaders add, Utah can drop the Core or the tests at any time. But they're not sure why anyone would want to.
"Our only desire has been to make sure we are giving the kind of rigor and relevance to the standards that our students need to compete," said Debra Roberts, state school board chairwoman. "... Any assumption in any other way is just false to the point of silliness."
What are the Common Core standards and computer-adaptive testing?
Common Core standards outline what students should learn in each grade to be ready for college and careers after high school. Utah adopted the standards, which were developed as part of a states-led initiative, in 2010. They'll be fully implemented in Utah by the 2014-2015 school year. The first part of that phase-in started this year with sixth- and ninth-grade math in Utah.
Utah is also a leading state within the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of states working to develop computer adaptive tests to be based on the Common Core. Computer-adaptive tests adapt in difficulty as students take them, helping pinpoint students' strengths and weaknesses and yielding immediate results. The tests would likely replace Utah's current Criterion Referenced Tests (CRTs).