SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of the nation's school district superintendents believe the Common Core State Standards are appropriately challenging and will improve education, according to a recent survey.
Two-thirds of the 1,800 school superintendents who participated in the survey, conducted by Gallup and Education Week and released last week, responded that the standards would improve education in their community.
Another 22 percent responded that the core would have no effect, and 7 percent believed adoption of the Common Core would adversely affect education.
The survey also questioned superintendents on the degree that most students would be challenged by the new standards, with two-thirds responding that the Common Core is "just about right," 14 percent responding that the standards are too challenging and 5 percent saying the standards are not challenging enough.
In Utah, opinions remain divided on the controversial standards. But many of the state's district superintendents are optimistic about the effect the Common Core will have in schools.
"We’ll see as time goes on, but my anticipation with the implementation of the Utah Core (which includes the Common Core) is that there will be a greater focus, a greater depth, a greater application, greater problem solving and intent of learning outcomes for students," Alpine School District Superintendent Vernon Henshaw said.
The Common Core is a series of English and mathematics benchmarks that outline the minimum skills a student is expected to master at each grade level. They have been adopted by all but six states, but the transition to new standards has created challenges in some parts of the country, resulting in angst from parents and educators.
Among the common criticisms is that the shift in math from rote memorization to rational problem solving and analysis has resulted in complex and confusing coursework that baffles both students and their parents.
But Ogden School District Superintendent Brad Smith said that is evidence of the increased rigor of the core, which expects students to not only apply the appropriate formula to a math problem but also understand the mathematical concepts behind those formulas.
"They're a huge step up from where we've been," he said. "A huge step up."
The Common Core was developed by identifying the skills students need to master to be prepared for college coursework and working backwards to draft standards from high school graduation to the early grades of elementary school.
Smith said that style of back-mapping is critical to changing education outcomes in the country and hadn't been attempted on a large scale prior to the Common Core.
"Our aspiration is not that our students are prepared for college entry, it’s that they’re prepared for college," he said. "The Core to me represents a reasonable, good-faith basis to try to accomplish that."
But Smith added that while he believes standards-based education is essential to improvement and that the Common Core is appropriately challenging, the new standards are not the only method that can be used to reform education.
He said many states have seen successes prior to and outside of the Core, but critics have largely focussed on attacking the new standards without offering alternatives.
"I think Common Core foes pretend that advocates of standards-based education believe the Common Core is some kind of magic talisman that will just automatically fix everything, and I don’t think anyone thinks that," he said. "I certainly don’t think that."
Henshaw said he couldn't speak to statewide attitudes on the Common Core, but his district has seen a productive transition to the new standards.
"From the perspective of Alpine School District, teachers and principals have been implementing the Utah Core over the last couple of years and receiving training, and it’s been, overall, a positive thing," he said.
He agrees with the Gallup survey that the standards are appropriately challenging, but he added that as with all standards, the Core will be revised and improved upon as educators become familiar with new teaching methods.
"I’m pleased with how things have been going with the implementation in Alpine District and just like with standards in the past, our teachers will continue to develop curriculum that will help them to teach these standards in a more refined way year after year," he said.
Sydnee Dickson, director of teaching and learning for the State Office of Education, said the state recently sent out a survey to all of Utah's elementary and secondary mathematics teachers, with a response rate of roughly 29 percent.
She said the survey focused on issues related to the transition to new standards, and not necessarily opinions on the standards themselves, but teachers were given the opportunity to respond with general comments.
"We didn’t ask them whether they like the Core or not, we asked them questions about implementation and resources," she said. "There was a lot of commentary in the open comment section that was very positive about the standards being more rigorous and better preparing students for their future."
The survey showed that Utah teachers feel confident about teaching the standards — an average of 3.1 on a 1 to 4 scale — but are also concerned about having sufficient time to prepare and plan for teaching the Core.
"It’s not the standards they’ve had issues with," Dickson said. "It’s time, it’s more professional development, it’s lesson materials, those kinds of things."