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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Rich and Emily Turpin help their daughter, Emma, unpack her bag after school at their home in Clearfield on Friday.
Until you actually have a child in it, I don't know if you know what (Common Core curriculum) really means when it comes to day-to-day homework. It's one of my biggest apprehensions. We don't really know what that thing looks like. —Emily Turpin

CLEARFIELD — Nine-year-old Emma Turpin wore a white skirt with black butterflies to her fourth grade class at Antelope Elementary School in Clearfield on Friday, complemented by a black top, yellow earrings and a tote bag that looks like a purse.

"She's a girly girl," said Emma's mother, Emily Turpin. "She always has her hair done in curls, and she wants to look nice."

Antelope Elementary follows a year-round school schedule necessitated by rampant growth in the suburbs between Salt Lake City and Ogden, so Emma's school track started earlier this month. For her older brothers — Connor, 15, and Matthew, 12 — school opens on today, right after Labor Day.

The Turpin kids join 49.8 million students in public schools this year, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It will cost $571 billion to educate them, or $11,467 per pupil. School reforms in key areas mean kids across the nation will be taught and tested in new ways during the 2012-13 school year.

Changing landscape

As an ardent believer in school volunteerism, Emily Turpin is Antelope Elementary's PTA president, and she also lends her piano skills to accompany choir concerts at Clearfield Jr. High. Being involved at school helps her understand what school is like for her children and gives her a close-up view of school trends.

She is pleased by recent developments that have created new learning options in her children's public schools. Connor, who is sophomore class president at Clearfield High, made room in his school schedule for his student government class, and a released-time religious instruction class, by taking driver's education and health classes online last summer.

Utah's new Electronic High School, a digital delivery system for high school courses available to students throughout the year, made it possible. Connor's mom said the online classes he took worked out well, but she's not sure the format will work for all students or all subjects.

"You have to be really self-motivated,'" Emily Turpin said. "It puts a lot more responsibility on the students to read the material and study."

The biggest change for Matthew is that his classes in Clearfield Junior's honors program will be following the nation's Common Core State Standards for the first time, Turpin said.

An orientation meeting promised that under Common Core, classes would focus on life skills instead of rote problems. Turpin is concerned about the tougher math that track students will have to do, even though Matthew has always been a good student. Because the Common Core standards have not been aligned to the ACT and SAT tests that Matthew will take in a few years, she worries that he won't be properly prepared.

"Until you actually have a child in it, I don't know if you know what (Common Core curriculum) really means when it comes to day-to-day homework," she said. "It's one of my biggest apprehensions. We don't really know what that thing looks like."

Top five issues

The move to Common Core State Standards is one of the five biggest issues in education this year, according to the Council of State Governments. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia are implementing the standards and moving toward assessments that more accurately measure student progress as part of a national school reform effort to provide consistent accountability in U.S. schools.

The states that have not adopted the standards are Alaska, Texas, Nebraska and Virginia. (Minnesota approved the English language arts standards, but not the mathematics standards.)

"The core standards are more rigorous and build on mastery in each grade so that students graduate college career-ready," said Pam Goins, director of education policy for CSG. "The college remediation rates currently show that students aren't prepared for credit-bearing work, but the CCSS will prepare students to master the content and apply their knowledge."

Because they live in Utah, the Turpin children will be affected by another top education issue identified by CSG. Utah is one of 32 states granted waivers to the requirements of the National Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind. Five more states are awaiting word on whether their NCLB waiver applications will be approved, Goins said.

States receiving waivers were required to implement their own rigorous academic standards, accountability systems and educator evaluation programs. So, the Turpin kids are likely to see some differences in the way they are taught and tested.

Connor Turpin's participation in online schooling highlights another issue that will be prominent this year: increasing educational choices for parents and students. Goins said that public schools and districts have developed a variety of options for students in recent years, including open enrollment, charter schools, online learning, magnet schools and dual or concurrent enrollment in post-secondary courses. And, in some states, families can exercise choice by using public tax dollars to pay tuition for private or parochial school through voucher programs.

Emma's teacher, Tallene Huffaker, is one of the nation's 3.3 million full-time teachers. She presides over a bustling class of 37 fourth-graders at Antelope Elementary, a number that is more than double the average class size for public schools, which NCES lists at 15.2.

Improving teacher quality is the other key issue CSG identified for K-12 education. Across the nation, schools are experimenting with linking salaries to student performance, although the practice is controversial because of inequities in student backgrounds from school to school. Efforts to reform teacher tenure laws are also under way, empowering local districts to remove teachers from their jobs for an expanding array of reasons.

Overhauling higher education to ensure a competitive edge and grow the U.S. work force is CSG's other top education issue.

"The data clearly show that states prosper when there is an increase in the number of college-educated employees in the work force," Goins said.

Better alignment between K-12 curriculum and higher education expectations is part of the discussion, and Goins said that Common Core State Standards will help the process.

"The blame game must stop and both take responsibility for preparing and graduating successful students," she said. "Finally, there must be a commitment from post-secondary education to work more closely with business and industry to connect work force needs to create pathways of learning so that students are employable when they graduate."

Although education remains a political hot button, Goins said it is difficult to predict what education legislation will show up in Congress until the outcome of the presidential election is known.

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"I anticipate there will continue to be increased discussions around college- and career-readiness, graduation rates, decreasing dropouts and encouraging innovation," she said. "The other key topics will likely be rewarding successful districts and states as well as offering more flexibility in the areas they determine are of greatest need."

The outcome of such discussions on the national front will shape Emma Turpin's school experience for many years to come, but after school ended Friday, she had other things on her mind.

School was great on Friday, Emma said, especially the science experiment that caused a soda pop bottle to explode. Cheering for her brothers at a Saturday football game was the next big item on her agenda.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com