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Trib Talk: Is Common Core an upgrade or 'cookie-cutter' education?

Published May 21, 2013 4:40 pm

Education • Utah's state school board adopted the standards in 2010, but critics want the state to change course.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

State Board of Education Chairwoman Debra Roberts on Tuesday urged opponents of Common Core educational standards and new computer testing to "let go of this political posturing and recognize what we can do to transform education here in Utah."

"This is great stuff. Let's work together to meet the needs of our children," Roberts said during a live video Trib Talk with Dalane England of the Utah Eagle Forum, moderator Jennifer Napier-Pearce of The Salt Lake Tribune and Tribune education reporter Lisa Schencker.

The video chat included questions and comments from readers via Twitter and Facebook.

England raised critics' common concerns, from the source and content of the standards to the design of the tests and how students' results will be kept private.

"I don't have a problem with rigorous standards," England said, questioning the quality of the Core, developed as part of a states-led initiative coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

She said not all experts believe the standards to be rigorous, and she questioned why Utah didn't adopt higher standards."Let's do it independently. Let's do it on our own," she suggested.

The standards outline the concepts and skills students should learn in each grade in math and language arts, while leaving curriculum (or how the standards should be taught) up to local schools and teachers. Utah's state school board adopted the standards in 2010, along with most other states, in an effort to raise the bar for what K-12 students are expected to learn.

They are now being used in Utah schools, but continue to spark controversy.

Utah Republicans voted at their Saturday convention to approve a resolution to withdraw from the Common Core, which conservatives believe is "un-American and inferior" and an attempt by Washington to control Utah's education system.

Curriculum was formerly 70 percent literature and 30 percent informational texts, England said, explaining "the Common Core has flipped that."

Informational text is not as interesting to students, she said, arguing literature is where students develop a love of reading.

"That's where they learn to have character; that's where they learn life skills," she said.

Roberts said the Core does require students to read more primary texts, such as the Constitution, and learn to interpret them. Students need such literacy to understand concepts in science and other subjects, she said.

But, she added, "In no way is literature diminished in the standards."

She noted one of her children recently read To Kill a Mockingbird as a sophomore, a year earlier than usual, due to the increased rigor of the standards.

After a teacher raised fears about being required to "teach to the test," England said she shared that concern. With so many options for education today, she questioned, "Why do we want to have a one-size-fits-all education?"

But Roberts argued the Core sets only minimum standards for what students should learn, and if there are shortcomings, the state board can swiftly make adjustments "on the turn of a dime."

It's up to teachers to go beyond the Core's minimums and use computer-adaptive testing to tailor education to individuals, she said.

All Utah schools will begin using the testing next spring. The test changes based on a student's ability level, offering different questions based on a student's answers.

That testing is "such a powerful tool. We will be meeting the individual needs of our children," Roberts said. "That child who struggles will have a test that will adapt to that struggling. And that teacher will be able to look at the results of that test and say, 'Here's where I can help that child.'"

A student who excels "will have a harder test…So you'll be able to push that child to live up to the talent and capacity they have."

A parent said she has been told her children cannot move above grade level due to Common Core, and asked how that is an improvement.

Roberts responded that it is not true that the Core keeps children from working above grade level.

"We have put the standard in place," she said. "Now it is up to local school boards, local districts, local charter schools, to look at individual children and make sure they're not holding that child back."

Their job, she said, "is to help that child become all that child can become. And they can use whatever pedagogical – which is teaching skills – and whatever curriculum they want to use. And it is my hope over the next 5 to 10 years that we can bring technology much more into our classrooms, so that teachers will have one more tool to help those children become all they have the capacity to be. And so from the State Board perspective, that's an inaccurate statement. We want children to reach to their highest capacity."

She emphasized that the board required the testing company it will use to sign a contract that will protect individual students' results.

But England again urged more local control.

"How do we know what they're going to do with that information?" she said. "There's no way to prove they are going to abide by that contract." —

Q & A on the Common Core

Q: What is the Common Core?

A: The Common Core is a set of standards in math and language arts that aim to better prepare kids for college and careers. The standards outline the concepts and skills students should learn in each grade, while leaving curriculum (how the standards should be taught) up to teachers. Most states have adopted the Core. In Utah, the Common Core replaces Utah's previous standards.

Q: Who created the Common Core? Was the federal government involved?

A: The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers led development of the Common Core on behalf of states. The federal government was not involved in the standards' development, and adoption of the Core was voluntary for states.

It's true that the federal government encouraged states to adopt the standards several years ago as they applied for federal Race to the Top money, but Utah did not win that money. The federal government also has required that states adopt college and career-ready standards in order to receive waivers to No Child Left Behind, but to receive waivers states could either adopt Common Core or different standards of their choosing.