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.
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.”
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.”
- Common Core State Standards Initiative
- Utah State Office of Education
- Washington County School District
- Utah’s SAGE assessment system
- Utahns Against Common Core
- Think you’re stuck with Common Core? Think private school is too expensive? Think again
- Residents meet with district, education officials over Common Core, SAGE testing
- Letter to the Editor: St. George Airport, Disneyland & Common Core; grounding effects of education reform
- Letter to the Editor: A plea to mothers, Common Core
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