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Misinformation or monopoly of thought? Common Core opponents, supporters square off

SALT LAKE CITY — Protesters lined 500 South outside the doors of the State Office of Education Friday morning, carrying signs and at times chanting in opposition of the Common Core State Standards.

Inside, the State School Board heard those concerns repeated during the public comment portion of Friday's board meeting and afterward, State Superintendent Martell Menlove abandoned his scheduled committee meetings to hold court with a small group of parents.

"You must talk with us, we must have an open dialogue," said Alisa Ellis, who has long been involved in anti-Common Core advocacy. "The Common Core nonsense is creating a monopoly. Not just a monopoly of curriculum but a monopoly of thought."

About 100 people took part in Friday's demonstration, which was called in response to what protesters said was an intent by the Office of Education to launch a pro-Common Core campaign on Friday.

But Menlove said the board was not attempting to "sell" Common Core to voters and taxpayers, but simply had a responsibility to ensure that accurate information was being relayed to the public.

The discussion on Common Core lasted two hours, during which a number of questions – oft-repeated in the several years that led up to and followed the state's adoption of the Common Core Standards for math and English language arts – were posed to the state's top education officials.

"I think we've got a group that has entrenched themselves in opposition to the core curriculum and said 'we're not going to believe anything you say irrespective of whoever says it'," said Kory Holdaway, a former state lawmaker and now government relations director for the Utah Education Association. "I don't think you're ever going to see that group go away, frankly."

Menlove said it appears ideological opposition to big government had caused some individuals to erroneously affiliate non-Common Core elements with the standards, such as student data collection – mandated by No Child Left Behind – and computer adaptive testing – a 21st-century assessment model independently pursued by the state.

"I think there are a lot of things out there that many of us are concerned with and I think people are inappropriately tying some of those things to Common Core simply because it seems to be something we can rally about and be against," Menlove said.

But Common Core opponents insist that the blame for misinformation lies with the State Office of Education and backers of the Common Core standards. At several points during Friday's discussion they requested of Menlove – often interrupting him while speaking – that implementation be halted to allow for continued debate and consideration.

Lisa Cummins accused school board members of "falling hook, line and sinker to sell our children's souls" and said she was committed to defending her children from the "tyrannical jurisdiction" of the State Board of Education.

"If you insist on collecting my student's data you had better come with a warrant," she said.

Siri Davidson, a mother of five who drove from Payson with her children to attend Friday's gathering, said she had decided to home school her children because of Common Core.

"We feel like this is absolutely unacceptable for the state office to do this to us," she said. "They're calling it rigorous, I'll tell you what it is: stupid."

But Steven Harper, an Olympus Junior High English teacher and adjunct professor at Salt Lake Community College, attended Friday's board meeting to show his support for the Common Core.

"The Common Core Standards are a necessary upgrade," he said. "They're goalposts to help those who actually know the students in their classroom."

Of the protesters around him, Harper said he was concerned about the loaded language they used – phrases like "leftist," "socialist" and "marxist" were common – and the misinformation they perpetuated.

"This is so retrograde," he said, gesturing over his shoulder to the painted "No Common Core" signs behind him. "This is backwards and we need to move forward."

Ellis said she appreciated the time parents were given to make comments to the board and speak with Menlove. But she said she would continue to push for an open debate, moderated by a third party, where parents could make their concerns heard.

On Thursday, the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, an organization comprised of professional societies in mathematics, released a statement praising the math standards of the Common Core and lauding the foresight of states who had adopted them.

"If properly implemented, these rigorous new standards hold the promise of elevating the mathematical knowledge and skill of every young American to levels competitive with the best in the world, of preparing our college entrants to undertake advanced work in the mathematical sciences, and of readying the next generation for the jobs their world will demand," the statement read.

The Utah Council of Teachers of Mathematics similarly released a statement last month expressing support for the standards. The council noted that adopting the Core is a massive undertaking that naturally places stresses on teachers during the transition period, but encouraged the State School Board to continue its support of the Common Core.

"Implementing the Core Standards has been challenging, but we view the effort as worthwhile – one that will lead to higher levels of college and career readiness for our students," the UCTM statement said.

Holdaway said he felt no progress had been made by Friday's discussion. He said the questions posed by opponents were effectively the same concerns that have been shared since 2009 and that the answers given by Menlove and other educators continue to fall on deaf ears.

"I'm dumbfounded that (they) are still opposed to setting standards that are common as a nation and then letting states decide what the curriculum in those states are going to be," he said. "I'm bewildered by it."

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