Opinion Editorial #1: What is Common Core?   Leave a comment

I wrote this article which was published in Heber Valley’s Wasatch Wave in March 2012.

What Is Common Core?

by Christel Swasey

One week ago, all I knew about Common Core was that the high school had adopted new teaching methods for math, because my high school daughter and her guidance counselor had mentioned not liking Common Core math. I hadn’t given their comments much thought.  I didn’t know Common Core touched other subjects, all grade levels, or other states.

When I heard that our high school was hosting a presentation about Common Core, I made a mental note to go.  But life got in the way; I didn’t end up going.

The day after the presentation, my friend emailed that presentation: “2 Moms Against Common Core” which was now on YouTube.

What I was surprised to learn was that the Common Core standards had been rewritten by Utah educators (including our own locals) based on standards given out by the Federal government.

From the presentation, I learned that Utah had joined the SBAC, a testing arm of the Common Core, in 2009, which linked Utah to a group of other states that all agreed to agree on what to test, to adhere to Common Core standards, and to agree to change state laws to accommodate joining SBAC.  (That sounded like putting the cart before the horse:  To test kids, first we agreed to change any laws that could stand in the way of the common core, and agree with a group of other states on what should be tested?  And writing the test before the curriculum had been set seemed odd.)  I also learned that there was nationalized database of kids’ names, ages, health, psychological health, etc., connected with the SBAC testing, that was potentially invading FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) laws.

I emailed the local school board for answers.  No response.

I emailed them again.  Finally, one response.  But it wasn’t pretty.  The board member was angry at the questions that were arising, and kept repeating the fact that our kids deserve the best and the phrase, “We have local control.”

As an educator (I’ve taught 3rd grade, high school, and college courses at UVU) I care deeply about educational reforms, and know they are sorely needed.  Standards need to rise.  But as a thinker-outside-the-box, I care deeply about the long term political ties that can arise from educational laws and the political processes that change education. I don’t assume something’s all peaches and cream; I like to know the pros and cons, the ins and outs, and what all sides are saying.

So I started close to home. I asked WHS administrator Jason Watt if he knew anyone who had much to say about this issue.  He said, “I’m not sure you’d find any high school teachers who would speak against the common core.  All the ones I’ve spoken with love the rigor and focus it’s brought to the curriculum.”

He was right. Most of the teachers I then contacted were enthusiastic about the changes the new curriculum brought. There would be more grammar and more nonfiction and less literature. There would be less lecturing and more student inquiry.  I didn’t look too deeply into the curriculum itself at this time, because by now I was aware that regardless of the quality of the new standards, at issue was whether Utahns would be as free as we used to be, to control what we want to teach kids.

I read in the news that just a few weeks ago, Utah’s School Superintendent had written a letter to the U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, asking for clarification on whether Utah has local control.  Duncan assured him that Utah does.  But if the association of governors is in the entity in charge, and not the federal government, why didn’t Utah’s School Superintendent ask the association of governors instead?  Why did he direct his question to Arne Duncan?  The asking showed his perception that states were not really in control of the answer to the very question of who was really in control.

I read in the news that Utah Legislators had voted 21-6 in favor of a resolution to reconsider our involvement with Common Core.  Why would Utah need to reconsider?  What were others thinking?

I then asked Representative Kraig Powell. He said he had been all for Common Core, as far as he’d understood that it was a simple raising of standards and cooperating inter-state.  Then he’d seen the presentation at the high school.  It had raised issues for him about local versus federal control, and he was now “very concerned,” –conflicted enough to plan a public symposium to discuss pros and cons of the issue.  He said that the state school board is voting on this on April 13th, so time is an issue.  He was also concerned that the Common Core initiative had never been up for public debate nor for legislative debate; the governor and state superintendent had signed Utah up for something that would affect children (whether for good or bad is debatable) –all without letting the people have a voice.

I read that South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley was getting her state out of the SBAC and Common Core, so I called her associate, Senator Michael Fair and had a conversation about it with him.  He said that “most non-patented intellectual property is in the public domain. So everything contained in the Common Core Standards is available to any and to all. It is the test that can only be obtained by ‘members’ “.  So then why did we need to be in the consortium?  My quest went on.

I called Brenda Hales, who works at the Utah State Office of Education and who has been intimately involved with Utah’s joining of the Common Core Initiative for several years.  After talking with her for almost an hour, I realized that she sincerely believed that the CC was free from federal controls.  Her office had received “not one red dime” from the federal government, except for the indirect benefits the state would later receive through SBAC (the testing arm) which had received millions.

Brenda Hales told me that the only reason Utah’s in the Common Core is “to have a seat at the table,” meaning, to be able to discuss nationalized testing and standards with other states. When I asked her whether the whole thing was legal, she was alarmed. (I’d read that because of the 9th and 10th Amendment, and because of three other federal laws that prohibit the federal government from supervising states’ educational systems, this might not even be legal, based on the incentivizing and overseeing that had been happening on the federal level) She said that “I don’t talk about my political views.  I am the most apolitical creature you will ever meet.” She kept assuring me that the federal government had nothing to do with CC and never would.  I asked her about the appendix to the SBAC bylaws, which states that assessments must be aligned with the consortium’s common set of standards, which were to be based on the common core standards released by the federal Department of Education, “refer to exhibit B”.  She hadn’t read it.

I wondered if  there had been a cost analysis of the Common Core Initiative or the SBAC testing program.  I found that there hadn’t. Why not?

Jim Stergios, of the Pioneer Institute, told me, “The Congressional Budget Office would not have done it because the standards and tests have never been approved by Congress.  It is in the interests of supporters of the Common Core to gloss over the costs because at the end of the day the states and localities will pay for 90 percent of it, as is in line with the historical record for school spending.”

I also read that President Obama had overridden Congress to push educational reforms he strongly believed were good for kids.  “Given that Congress will not act, I am acting,” he had said. So  $330 million had been given by the federal government to SBAC and another assessment group to create the tests and Utah received a NCLB waiver from the federal government for joining. Why was the federal government incentivizing the Common Core Initiative so strongly if it was a states-led program?

I went to the White House official site and read Obama’s comments upon giving the NCLB waivers to Utah and some other states.

Just a few weeks ago, Obama had said, “Today, we’re giving 10 states the green light to continue making reforms that are best for them.” I couldn’t decide if it sounded like someone who had “nothing to do with local control,” or like a generous dictator.

In just a few days, I’d been overwhelmed with input from local, state and national stakeholders. I had enough information to write a book.  I had heard from the Governor’s office, a representative, a senator, think tanks, reporters, teachers, former and current school board members, the USOE, neighbors, relatives, and friends.

I almost decided not to write this summary because I’m still in the very beginning of the learning curve.  The historical trail –not to mention the consortium agreements and bylaws– is hundreds of pages long.  But I went ahead, believing that we should all at least be aware that there is an issue out here with more than one valid point of view that deserves open and conscientious attention and discussion.

Posted April 6, 2012 by Christel Swasey in Uncategorized

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