On uncommon ground; common core in Washington County School District

common-core stgnews.com

ST. GEORGE – On June 17, at a Washington County School District board meeting where district administrators, teachers and community members gathered, the attending public erupted into cheers as opponents of the Common Core stood to voice their opposition.

The June 17 meeting agenda, which included items such as presenting and approving a new budget, reporting test scores and enumerating what is right within the district, contained no mention of Common Core but that didn’t stop concerned parents and citizens alike from using the public comment time to speak out against it.

Ed. note: Thursday afternoon, as this report is published, the district held a special meeting affording the public opportunity to come and be heard concerning Common Core. St. George News will publish report on that meeting separately.

The Common Core has drawn a lot of ire both nationally and locally – groups such as Utahns Against Common Core have set up websites and petitions all aimed at repealing the core in Utah – and many opinions and rumors surround this set of educational standards.

So what is the Common Core, what does it look like locally and why is there so much opposition?

What is common core?

At its simplest, the Common Core State Standards could arguably be defined as nothing more or less than a consistent set of educational standards. And, along with consistency in standards, increased rigor to better prepare students for higher education and beyond.

David T. Conley, Common Core State Standards Committee co-chair, wrote in a pamphlet entitled “The Common Core State Standards: Insight into Their Development and Purpose,” that the Common Core standards were developed by governors, state education chiefs and leading educational researchers “in response to the new realities of the U.S. economy.”

In the pamphlet, Conley points to the vast differences in educational expectations that previously existed from state to state as the impetus for designing the new standards. Some states require a very high standard from their students and other states have much lower standards. Conley said: While in the past the disparity in standards between states did not matter as much, “the situation is much different today.”

Conley defines the core’s role as one of “(ensuring) that all students are able to be successful in an economy and society that is changing at a remarkable pace and that will continue to do so throughout their lifetimes.”

On a local level, Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson said this of Common Core:

“All Common Core is, is that what you would learn in one school is what you would learn in another, it is a consistent set of standards focused on preparing students to culminate in high test scores, secondary and post secondary education, and gainful employment.”

Some opponents of  the Common Core, however, have a much different definition.

Sinhue Noriega, Washington County resident authored the book “If it’s Broken Don’t Fix it; An Inside Look at Education and the Common Core.”  Noriega defines Common Core as this:

It is a universal mandate that takes over education on the national level. It is not a reformation of the system by the states or by the people, but the complete overhaul of the entire education system, authorized and controlled by the central government.

Common Core in Utah and Washington County

According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, Utah is one of 43 states and the District of Columbia that have adopted Common Core standards of education.

Adopted in 2010 and implemented for the 2013-14 school year, Common Core in Utah, as stated on the Utah State Board of Education website, applies only to standards relating to math and English language arts.

Utah is also separated from other states that have adopted the core by choosing to opt out of a national assessment test. Instead, the board created its own assessment of the standards known as the SAGE test.

Some of the local opposition to Common Core is that it dictates to the district and/or the teacher what and how to teach, but the district maintains that is not true. It makes a distinction between standards, which are a measuring tool or level of expectations, and curriculum, which is how and what the teachers teach to help their students reach those standards.

“Our teachers have autonomy to teach what and how they can,” Bergeson said, “to get (the students) to the level of success needed as long as it is ethical and moral.”

Bergeson said that the district’s standards match national standards in math approximately 98 percent and in language arts, which is more subjective, approximately 90 percent and insists that they have the ability to move further away from the national standards but feels that would defeat the purpose of creating consistency in educational expectations.

Why so much opposition?

Opinions and rumors about the Common Core are prevalent in Washington County and range from extreme theories of strobe lights and brainwashing to genuine concerns for the students over the increased rigor to the topic au currant of federal government overreach.

Brainwashing, bar codes and strobe lights

Much of the rumor mill regarding brainwashing and other “conspiracy theories” centers on the SAGE assessment system, which is Utah’s online assessment test of the core standards.

Stories that the test contains strobe lights designed to disorient and brainwash the student and theories that the government is gathering personal information about and tracking the test taker have surfaced and though they sound bizarre they continue to persist among detractors of the core.

Craig Ericson, a concerned grandparent and resident of Washington County, came to the June 17 meeting specifically because he had heard rumors about the flashing lights and kids being brainwashed.

“That sounds like WWII Germany to me,” Ericson said, “I don’t want to see that happen here.”

Barbara Beckstrom, a member of the school board, said that she had been asked if the district was installing bar codes in the students.

“We teach kids,” Beckstrom said in response, “we are in the business of teaching kids, not checking out groceries.”

District administrators, many of whom have taken portions of the SAGE exam, insist that no such lights or personal questions exist on the test.

“We hear parents say ‘we need to see the test because I hear there are survey questions about my students’ opinion about things in our home about religion and personal things,’” Brad Ferguson, director of assessment and research for the district, said. “Well there are really not, it’s just really hard test questions about language, math and science.”

Consternation over increased rigor

But all rumors aside, even the increased rigor has come under scrutiny.

While district administrators and school board members maintain that the higher standards are what students need to compete academically both nationally and internationally, parents have expressed concern.

“Math questions are becoming ridiculously difficult and convoluted,” Ivins resident Susie Johnson said.

Websites abound that contain difficult and downright absurd questions all purportedly related to Common Core standards.

Even Bergeson admits that the increased rigor has caused consternation.

“This is a new and unique experience,” Bergeson said, “students are being challenged, but we don’t want this to be a bad experience.”

Still, many insist that our students can handle it.

“It is the rigor our students need,” Beckstrom said, “we need more rigor or our students lose out, our kids are smart.”

Federal overreach

Perhaps the most persistent reason for opposition to the Common Core is what the Core’s opponents see as an abusive overreach of the federal government.

“It’s all about our Constitution,” Noriega said, “if this fight wasn’t about the Constitution, I wouldn’t be in it.”

Noriega is a recent transplant to Washington County who moved here solely because of the fight against Common Core. He hopes to make the people of the county aware of just how important they are and the power they have to effect change, Noriega said.

For Noriega, issues such as federal land grabs, Bundy cattle, gay marriage and “Obamacare” all combine or are tied into Common Core, he said, making Washington County primed and ready to push back against the central government.

Though he calls the current curriculum “perverse and ugly” and makes claims that text books tout President Barrack Obama as the “savior of our world,” for Noriega, the struggle against Common Core has less to do with the curriculum, he said, and more to do with what he sees as the violation of our constitutional rights to maintain local control over how we educate our children.

It could be argued that Noriega is one of the most vocal detractors of the Common Core, but he is not alone.

Fears that the government is systematically taking control of education and that its stranglehold is already so tight that educators and others have been threatened with their jobs if they don’t support the Core permeate throughout the county.

While the district maintains they have not threatened anyone with their job, the fears, whether justified or not, are not without validity. One source contacted for this story refused to comment precisely because he was in fear for his job, though it is important to note that he was a government, and not a school district employee.

Other opponents simply urge parents to ask questions and be involved so that a government takeover does not happen.

“The deeper we get into it,” Johnson said, “the more we sign away our rights as parents to decide what kids in our state should be learning and at what standard.”

District administrators say they strive for transparency and likewise urge parents to ask questions, to read the state core standards for themselves, to visit the SAGE testing website and take a sample test, and to come their children’s school and classroom to see firsthand what is being taught and how.

On uncommon ground

The Utah State Office of Education insists that the state core standards were not developed or mandated by the federal government and that the state maintains control and autonomy. Other groups and opponents say exactly the opposite.

On the website for Utahns Against Common Core it states:

If you’ve never heard about Common Core, it is an initiative funded by special interests and the federal government with the goal of nationalizing education. You may have heard that these are better standards, or that the standards were created by the states, or that states retain local control over their own standards. This does not match the facts.

For the district’s part, Bergeson said, they hope to move away from the political agenda and disagreements and just “concentrate on doing their job, which is educating children.”

In today’s heated political landscape Common Core has become so divisive that it could be said that there may never be an amenable conclusion.

“It is such a divisive issue,” Rex Wilkey, assistant superintendent over elementary education, said, “we are doing the best we can, maybe we will never agree in this country.”


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  • Bender June 26, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    “That sounds like WWII Germany to me,” Ericson said, “I don’t want to see that happen here.”
    Comedy gold. Someone should make a movie. The gullibility is strong in the anti-common core group.

    • Brian June 27, 2014 at 7:35 am

      It could be argued whether gullibility or ignorance is the more dangerous, especially when viewed through the lens of history. But there is a reason Hitler said “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future”. Education, especially when controlled by government, is an incredibly powerful tool. History shows us exactly how Hitler wielded that tool, with devastating effect (here is a good place to start: http://www.newfoundations.com/GALLERY/Hitler.html). One of the key tenets of communism (what Hitler did was essentially communism) is control of education, including the pigeon-holing of kids at a very young age. You and your child have zero say in what your child will do for a living or what their future will look like. That decision is made centrally. That is where Common Core comes in. Your kids have to take the SAGE tests (opting out is no longer an option), and you can’t see what is on the test (more red flags than a russian garage sale). Not only that, but the tests are adaptive in real-time, so every test is different. If the purpose of testing is to gauge where a kid is, what is the point of an adaptive test? You can’t compare results. You can’t even trust the results. The point of SAGE isn’t to test the kids, but to influence them. The next item on the agenda has to be the complete banning of home schooling. It’s entirely incompatible with CC (or should that be CCCP?). I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that happens before January 20, 2017.

      • Bender June 27, 2014 at 9:55 am

        Yep, like I said, comedy gold.

        • Brian June 27, 2014 at 1:40 pm

          Laugh at history all you want, but it has a way of laughing at us when we don’t learn it’s lessons. If you think it’s “different this time” or the rules don’t apply to us because we’re America, you’re wrong. Lot’s of things have changed in history, human nature isn’t one of them.

          • Chris June 28, 2014 at 11:15 am

            We are not laughing at history. We are laughing at you and your amazingly poor grasp of history.

          • Bender June 28, 2014 at 12:22 pm

            The history lesson to be learned here, my comically paranoid friend, is that in every group of people there are a handful unable, or unwilling, to grasp reality. Your fearful and nonsensical rantings place you in that group. Ever considered professional help?

  • I'm Concerned June 26, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    The camel’s nose is in the tent. It got there selling Race to the Top lottery tickets and No Child Left Behind waivers. What happens next depends on our resolve to maintain local control of the tent and/or the temperament of the camel, and I really don’t trust the camel.

  • Chris June 27, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    “what Hitler did was essentially communism” Wow, Brian, you are truly ignorant. I pity whatever profession you are engaged in.

    • Brian June 28, 2014 at 8:08 am

      Communism, fascism, socialism, marxism, etc are all forms of tyrannical, big government, with very subtle differences in structure (at least as to what it means to the people living under them). None of them are in any way compatible with limited government, which is the opposite end of the spectrum. Thinking of it in terms of left and right is flawed, because both the liberal left and progressive right today are close cousins, both wanting huge government. I’m not downplaying at all the Holocaust or any of hitler’s (lowercase intentional) other atrocities. On the contrary. But his tyranny and form of government (if you can even call it that) was a very close cousin to communism. Label it how you want, but the commonalities are what count: massive oppression, no freedom, millions killed (hitler, stalin, mao, etc), etc. So if you can only think in terms of labels, I can understand your knee-jerk reaction. If you understand the underlying meaning of those labels, my statement is completely correct, historically accurate, and easily verifiable by comparing what it is like to live under communism vs what it was like to live under hitler. If you were living under either the label wouldn’t matter at all.

      • Bender June 28, 2014 at 10:05 am

        BRIAN <- often wrong but never in doubt.

      • Chris June 28, 2014 at 11:12 am

        brian (lowercase intentional), if you really believe that “the commonalities are what count” then you would make a very poor scientist (it is obvious from your tortured logic that you are not), and for that matter, a very poor historian. If we are looking at “massive oppression, no freedom, millions killed” as the common factor, then the U.S. founding fathers’ support for the slavery of blacks and the annihilation of Native Americans makes them the same as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. (uppercase intended).

  • philiplo June 28, 2014 at 12:21 am

    The willful ignorance and irrational fears of those opposing stricter standards for educational goals is irrefutable evidence that such standards are needed.

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