Mom Alyson Williams: Why Utahns Have Lost Confidence in the Utah State School Board   3 comments

Guest post by Alyson Williams
Utah mother Alyson Williams has given permission to post her letter that was written this week to former State School Board member Joel Coleman in response to his suggestion that citizens should “ask the members of the board” to alleviate their concerns about Common Core.

Joel, many of us in this group have indeed asked members of the board about the adoption and more, and when their answers didn’t match up with the verifiable facts, our confidence in them was understandably diminished.

I understand what you are saying about the Board reviewing the standards for months… you are probably referring to the DRAFT of the standards that had been made public. Funny thing though, the board’s feedback resulting from this months-long review has never been publicly shared so I guess we’ll just have to take their word for it in spite of the fact that representative government doesn’t typically require blind trust. Perhaps they felt confident that private reviews of the draft was adequate, but if they had anticipated that the standards writers would actually incorporate any of the feedback of those select few who were even able to give it, wouldn’t they also be anticipating the possibility of significant changes in the final version? Or, is this an admission that everyone knew the standards would be what they would be and that the board’s decision was really about whether to go along with the other states, and not about the standards on their own merits?

You’re right, meeting minutes can be vague at times. Good thing we have the audio. As Brenda had so succinctly put it in the meeting where the board authorized the initial MOU for the state to participate with the Common Core initiative in the first place, “half a billion is no small chuck of change” and “it doesn’t concern me that it will be so wildly out of line that we couldn’t live with it.”

Two Days after the final draft was released the board voted to adopt on first reading. Then a handful of weeks more there was the final vote. Why the rush? They wouldn’t be implemented for over a year. In the audio of that first board meeting that Connor referred to, Larry Shumway makes it clear that the standards had to be adopted for an upcoming interview about the State’s Race to the Top application. Now, after losing out on that grant, the board inexplicably insists that there was no Federal influence on their decision!

Dave Thomas stated in our recent debate that the Federal government was deliberately excluded from the initiative, implying the USED jumped on the bandwagon later with Race to the Top. I wonder, did he read the MOU the board had authorized the superintendent to sign in 2009 that clearly outlines what the Federal role would be? It’s only a couple of pages long.

Or, there is the congressional hearing around that same time where T. Kenneth James, then president of the Council of Chief State School Officers said, “I think it [the Common Core Initiative] can be done without the perception that the federal government is driving the train.” Then they discussed how the Feds leverage education funding and use their “pulpit” to promote it.

On your blog, Joel, you talk about the public comment on the standards to the board as evidence that the public was aware of what was happening and link to the minutes of two State Board Meetings as evidence. If anyone bothers to click on the links and read, they will see that Oak (one person, not plural) was one of two “public” and the only one to comment on standards. It turns out that at that time he was talking about Utah’s own Social Studies Standards, not Common Core. He also presented the board with a petition that you mention, also not about Common Core, but about including instruction about our country as a Republic in our state Social Studies Standards. At the end of Oak’s comments in one of the two meetings he makes reference to some new, national standards that he’d heard of saying something about how he hoped we wouldn’t go that direction. Evidence of the board’s representation, of their engagement with their constituents, or should I say constituent, on Common Core?

You can read more of what I’ve already written about what I think are flaws with the adoption process: (

Some of us have asked about the costs and why there wasn’t a formal cost study done. There was the claim you shared with me on FaceBook about the tens of millions saved by adopting the Common Core. Didn’t you say $75 million? I read over the budget for the past four years and couldn’t find that. I asked you for a reference then and am still waiting.

You probably don’t recall the “bagels and bills” event that I attended and sat at the same table as you did. I had come in hopes of meeting my State Board representative with whom I’d been unable to connect via email or phone. Instead I sat dumbfounded as he used his time to talk to the audience about the crazy moms (lumping all mothers’ voices into one) who were publicly discussing their concerns about Common Core, which he called “conspiracy theories,” and basically asked the local school board and local chamber to disregard what he characterized as unfounded fringe opinions, as he had determined to do. All this without his ever having engaged in a conversation with a single one of us. I never was able to introduce myself to him that day.

There was the time that Christel was speaking to a board member about why the board was unwilling to meet and discuss with some of us our concerns. The board member said she had met several times with Ms. Swasey. Christel had to ask, “Did you know that is me? I’m Ms. Swasey?” I could go on, but as you can see, it’s kind of embarrassing and that is not my goal.

It’s not these interactions alone that shake people’s confidence. I am always told to “read the standards” as if they are so wonderful I couldn’t possibly have concerns if I’d actually read them. We parents don’t have the benefit of the official professional development to help us overlook the obtuse and jargon-filled wording of the standards themselves to construct generous interpretations of their quality.

I went to the Logan debate prepared to discuss the standards themselves and instead fielded nebulous questions about what my “dream education system” would look like. I thought it silly that as Tami talked about the standards that night she gave examples of counting to 100 and basic addition – as if that’s all the standards are, as if we didn’t teach those things before Common Core. She got applause for claiming that with common standards kids will be able to move from state to state and be on the same page. Is she not aware that there are four adoption paths outlined in Appendix A of the CC Math Standards? Utah adopted was is called the “integrated” path that spreads the topics across classes and grades so uniquely that it seems likely that Utah will be even more out of sync with what other states (including those that adopted CC) are teaching, and in what order, than ever. Only one other state did this. So, unless those who were applauding are planning to move to Vermont they may be in for a rude awakening. What about all those students who move here from other states, or a homeschool student trying to be placed back into public school, but who had been studying math by discrete subject? How will they fit into a system that teaches a little algebra here and a little geometry there? Did the board study that? If commonality is the most appealing benefit that is supposed to compensate Utahans for what we’ve given up, why are we implementing it the way we are?

Then there is the increase in informational texts recommended for ELA. Appendix A of the ELA standards is the “research” for the standards. It is basically just an essay about text complexity with only a couple of footnotes through which the writers notably, in the first instance, consult themselves. It offers some kind of interesting insights about how text complexity is measured and how text complexity differs across various media and over time. Then, it puts forth what is basically a hypothesis that if kids dissect a graduated complexity of informational texts they will be more career-ready. It is followed by a list of other research papers (not directly referenced to anything in the text itself as one would expect of a “research”paper), also primarily about text complexity. There is no Newkirk, who wrote about how kids who read a lot and are intrinsically engaged in what they read are better readers and writers. There is no Oatley who has been recognized internationally for his research on the psychological effects of reading and writing and the importance of reading fiction. The Common Core hypothesis for ELA is that in college and as adults we typically read more informational text, therefore we should read more in K-12 as well. It’s nothing more than an untested theory that is made all the more concerning by the fact that there does exist research that might suggest  the opposite is true – that, for that very same reason, students ought to be reading more classic literature and fiction to voluntarily increase reading stamina and to develop a more sure foundation in the ideas of the best thinkers and observers of our civilization as can only be conveyed in the great literary works that have outlasted the educational fads of the moment.

I’m not saying I am absolutely right or have all the answers but am discouraged that the board can’t offer anything of substance to counter concerns, but tend to rely on endorsements as if it were evidence.

They don’t even seem to be familiar with the basics of the agreements they authorized to be signed, like the 15% cap on adding to the standards. The board gave a presention to members of the legislature in which they denied that such limitation even existed despite the fact that we were able to show them several places in primary governing documents where it did exist, not counting the minutes of the board meeting where the 15% was stated expressly in their adopting vote. (See slide 20 of the board’s presentation posted here:

Sorry about rambling on. I share all this “water under the bridge” stuff only to make the point that many of us have “asked the board” and discovered that as much as we like you and the members of the board personally, and as well-intentioned as they undoubtedly are, they haven’t proved to be a reliable source of information or insight on these topics. That is why your advice here “to ask” comes across as a little condescending and why many of us are looking forward to enabling a process of getting members on the state board who are more electorally accountable to their constituents, who might demonstrate a little more independence of thought instead of parroting the company line, and who might be a little more diligent with the details.

It’s not about finding someone who always agrees with one view on Common Core or another. I’d prefer disagreement in the context of an honest discourse about the pros and cons of de facto national standards,

or about what is really meant by the “critical thinking”that seems to be the magic sauce of the standards according to proponents, (you thought “state-led” had a lot of different meanings!)

or about the obligations associated with and our reliance on federal funds,

or about whether workforce preparation should be the primary goal of education

and about how the adoption of the Common Core standards and the other stimulus-driven reforms affect Utah in all of those areas.

In conclusion, repeating to parents ad nauseam talking points about how the standards are “rigorous” (because we said so) and“internationally benchmarked” (“in spirit,” to quote directly from the CCSS) smacks of propaganda. I really don’t think I’m the only person who is tired of such nonsense and that’s why I believe the controversy around this topic is not going to die down any time soon. Advising clearly frustrated constituents who have done their homework to “ask” board members who haven’t been able to demonstrate that they’ve done theirs only adds fuel to the fire.


3 responses to “Mom Alyson Williams: Why Utahns Have Lost Confidence in the Utah State School Board

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  1. Sent from my iPad

  2. Its there any way you can set up this comments section so it doesn’t get picked up by the various web crawlers and blasted all over the internet and further do you have an e-mail address for your blog.

  3. It may be possible to hire a few otherwise unemployed college grads to lobby the various legislators with a well prepared presentation on the shortcomings of common core. This would be invaluable experience for them. Political Sci grads come to mind here and education majors as well. Debaters would be a plus. In any case, there is so much human resource for this given the high college grad unemployment.
    Several companies for example could work share the individuals taking turns paying them at least an honorarium so the monetary burden is spread around.
    Another activity might be to populate the various precincts with persons who will recruit candidates that will support repealing of common core curriculum in the state.
    Perhaps over the long run, a state constitutional amendment that locks out potential for any more curricula being imposed on the state by the feds.

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