SALT LAKE CITY — Criticism of the Common Core State Standards is intensifying as Utah's election season progresses.
Utah has been a part of the consortium of states implementing common educational standards for more than two years. But the topic has gained notoriety in recent months, from multiple bills debated during the legislative session asserting the state's educational sovereignty, to candidates for public office frequently being questioned on their support or opposition to the standards.
The Common Core State Standards are a set of achievement benchmarks in mathematics and English language arts. They are voluntarily adopted, with the goal of improving college- and career-readiness among students as well as establishing a degree of educational consistency between states.
To many, however, that push for inter-state consistency and collaboration echoes over-reaching federal control of local education. After 10 years of hearing educators lament the teach-to-the-test burden of No Child Left Behind, many parents are crying foul.
The group Utahns Against Common Core has launched a petition on its website and has gathered more than 1,000 signatures. The petition calls for a withdrawal from the common core standards and demands that full control over curriculum and assessments be given to local school districts. It also calls for the state to develop a five-year plan to remove any and all dependence on federal education funding.
Sydnee Dickson, director of teaching and learning for the State Office of Education, said most of the concerns she's heard regarding the standards are based on misinformation. She said much of the furor over Common Core is politically motivated — stemming from anti-federal sentiment and ignoring the standards themselves — and is perpetuated by blogs instead of factual data.
"We're already seeing higher pass rates," she said. "Our experience since we began the adoption is that it's changed the instruction. Teachers are expecting more rigor."
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said she supports raising education standards in Utah, but doesn't agree that the state needs national benchmarks to do so.
"We don't have to do Common Core to raise mathematics standards," she said. "We don't have to do Common Core to work with other states. Raising standards and Common Core are two different things."
Ruzicka, like many opponents of Common Core, foresees a federal takeover of education with Utah's participation held hostage by federal dollars. Dickson said that there is no tie between adopting the standards and receiving federal funding and emphasized the standards do not threaten state sovereignty.
"Teachers and school districts are still in control of what is being taught and how it's being taught," she said.
The topic was addressed recently at an April 11 Republican gubernatorial debate. Nearly all the candidates expressed a need for greater local control of education, with Morgan Philpot and William Skokos stating explicitly their opposition to the Common Core State Standards.
"I will fight to get us out of Common Core," Philpot said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Gov. Gary Herbert, who has overseen the adoption of the Common Core standards, instead focused on the need for greater rigor in Utah classrooms and spoke favorably of shutting down the federal Department of Education.
While anti-federal ideology plays a large part in the debate, there is also a concern among some parents, like Alisa Ellis, that the common standards would impede well-performing students from accelerating their education. Ellis has worked with her children to get ahead in math and hopefully complete AP Calculus in their junior year of high school. She said she was unsure what effect the new benchmarks would have on students in the tops of their classes.
"How can you take a whole nation and put it into the same window without hurting the top and bottom?" Ellis said.
Dickson said that under Common Core, accelerated tracks and honors courses will continue to be available. If a student is gifted enough to skip courses, parents and school districts can work together to make that happen.
She also said that with AP examinations taken independent of a classroom, there is nothing to stop a student in their junior year from registering for and taking the test if they feel proficient.
Dawn Davies, Utah Parent Teacher Association vice president, agreed with Dickson, saying the standards set a minimum benchmark for each grade but do not prevent anyone from moving ahead. She said the standards help make students better able to meet global and local business needs and prepare students who are entering or exiting the state.
"We are a mobile society and as people come to our state we need to have the high standards," Davies said.
Ruzicka, however, downplayed the need for inter-state consistency as a solution in search of a problem.
Ellis said she is more worried about federal control than the standards themselves. She said she met with Herbert and members of the State Board of Education but that they had failed to answer her questions, instead turning discussion back to the benchmarks raised under Common Core.
"There's no harm in raising the standards," Ellis said. "I just don't think it should be done the way it's being done."
Dickson said officials focus on the standards because that is, in essence, what the Common Core State Standards are. She said the peripheral discussions of socialism — she's heard the standards referred to by opponents as the "Communist" Core — and federal manipulation is little more than political fodder in a campaign season.
"I have yet to hear any of the political comments that are valid," Dickson said. "It's all steeped in fear and not fact."