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A verdict on Common Core? Utah gets a little closer

The Utah Core Standards, federal influence and what students lack are key focuses of the governor, the attorney general and education leaders.
The Utah Core Standards, federal influence and what students lack are key focuses of the governor, the attorney general and education leaders.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's adoption of the Common Core Standards did not cede control of the state's education system to the federal government, according to a report by the Utah Attorney General's Office.

And another report by a committee of local education experts found that the standards themselves are more rigorous than previous standards, are based on best practices and sound research, and will sufficiently prepare students for college if implemented correctly.

The two reports were presented to the Utah State Board of Education on Friday in response to a request by Gov. Gary Herbert last summer that asked for a review of federal involvement in state education standards, including their relationship with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The governor last year also called for a review of the standards to resolve the question “once and for all” whether they were an improvement from previous standards.

"I'm concerned about the argument back and forth from good people on both sides of the issue, for Common Core, anti-Common Core. But the overarching issue there is the federal overreach," Herbert said. "We ought to be concerned about it. And certainly, that's part of this education conundrum that we're a part of today."

Federal entanglement

The Attorney General's report maintains that the Utah State Board of Education has control over what statewide academic standards are adopted, and that local school boards decide individually what curriculum to use.

The state did not receive federal funds to adopt the Utah Core Standards, and education leaders are free to adopt, modify and teach to those standards without losing federal dollars, according to Attorney General Sean Reyes.

Federal entanglement in Utah's standards is unclear, however, when it comes to the state’s waiver from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with which Utah has been “arguably coerced” into complying, Reyes said.

The Act, known in its current form as No Child Left Behind, would require every student in Utah to score proficiently on statewide tests. As most, if not all, schools in the state would not meet this requirement, Utah is one of several states that have acquired waivers from the federal education law.

Schools that fail under No Child Left Behind are subject to five-year systematic mandates, including having to transport students from a failing school to a compliant school, firing teachers and principals, and major restructuring of underperforming schools.

In order to be eligible for a waiver, Utah and other states have been required to adopt "College and Career-ready standards," such as the Common Core. However, Utah adopted the Utah Core Standards in August 2010 and didn’t receive its first waiver until two years later.

Nevertheless, a “plausible argument” exists that the waiver constitutes federal entanglement with respect to Utah’s standards, the Attorney General’s report states.

Utah's current waiver expires in June, and the U.S. Department of Education has offered states an opportunity to apply for a three-year waiver. Utah has until March 31 to apply.

But the State School Board does not plan to renew its waiver, challenging the U.S. Department of Education's ability to enforce the law if every school in Utah would be failing in some way.

While implications of not renewing the waiver are mostly unknown, the board is asking the Legislature for a $30 million one-time appropriation from the general fund that would allow them to offset whatever costs may result from No Child Left Behind.

Title I funds would not be cancelled if Utah didn't get a waiver, though those funds would be redirected to various academic turnaround initiatives.

The board will make a final decision next month on whether to renew Utah's waiver.

"We will know more then than we know now," said David Crandall, chairman of the Utah State Board of Education. "Right now what we have in place is we are not applying for a waiver, and we have asked for additional money to support that."

Academic rigor

The committee appointed by the governor to review the Utah Core Standards was made up of two teams of college professors that separately reviewed the English language arts and math standards.

The committee was charged to evaluate whether the standards are more rigorous than previous standards, whether they are based on best practices, and whether they sufficiently prepare students for postsecondary education.

The committee's report did not make recommendations on curriculum, course materials or implementation, which are not dictated by the Utah Core Standards, according to Peter Trapa, professor and chairman of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Utah.

"Of course, these are extremely important issues for the education of children in the state of Utah," Trapa said. "But they were deemed beyond the charge of the technical working group. The focus was really on the standards."

Maureen Mathison, associate professor and chairwoman of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the U., led the language arts review team.

The team found the standards as having a higher rigor than previous standards because they expose students to additional types of text, they place a greater emphasis on scaffolded reading comprehension, and they require students to engage in higher analytical thinking in reading and writing.

The team found previous standards to be "disjointed and discrete" when compared to the new standards, which are more vertically aligned and have a better introduction, reinforcement and practice of language arts concepts. The new standards also encourage more collaboration among students, Mathison said.

“Overall, we felt like the core standards are going to take the state into the future,” Mathison said.

Trapa, who led the math working group, said he and his team found the new math standards to be more challenging, with a heavier emphasis on statistics. He said the Utah Core Standards for high school math are an “excellent” preparation for general education math in college and could reduce the need for remedial coursework.

While Utah's previous math standards were lauded for their clarity, Trapa said this was at the expense of making connections between concepts. The new standards better bridge that gap.

“If you were to start over from scratch, the corpus of standards that would emerge I think would be very similar to the corpus of standards that we have now, the Utah Core Standards. The issue of organization of those, you might find some variation in that,” Trapa said.

Richard Kendell, former commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education and co-chairman of the committee, praised the two working groups for their thorough analysis.

"I was incredibly impressed with both teams," Kendell said. "I think they brought great expertise to the table. I think they were thorough, very professional, and I think they approached their task without any particular bias."

Public perception

As part of the study, the committee surveyed more than 7,000 Utahns about their perception of the Utah Core Standards. Fifty-five percent of respondents were educators, and 58 percent had children enrolled in public schools.

Sixty-seven percent support the language arts standards either as written or with continual improvement, 24 percent do not support the standards and 9 percent do not support any uniform statewide standards.

In math, 63 percent supported the standards either as written or with continual improvement, 28 percent do not support the standards and 9 percent were against any statewide standard.

The poll lies somewhat at odds with a poll comparison released Thursday by UtahPolicy.com. In August, only 29 percent of likely voters in Utah said they supported the Common Core Standards, 41 percent were opposed to them and 20 percent were neutral.

However, a poll conducted last month showed that 57 percent of respondents supported math and language arts standards adopted by several states when the words Common Core were not used in the question.

The standard review committee also took written comments and feedback on the Utah Core Standards. While the implementation of the standards was outside the scope of the committee, many comments indicated that implementation was hindered by insufficient professional development for teachers, according to Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University and co-chairman of the committee.

“The implementation issues came up again repeatedly in various ways, but that stood outside the charge of this committee. So we did not really wrestle with those,” Holland said. “It does seem to be a problem, and our recommendation is that it warrants further study by an appropriate body. It needs to be dealt with.”

David Thomas, vice chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, said state funding for teacher training dropped from $77 million per year to $1 million during the Great Recession. This year, the board has requested $30 million for professional development, which would focus largely on better understanding of the Utah Core Standards.

“One of our legislative priorities this year is an infusion of money specifically for professional learning,” Thomas said. “I think that’s one thing that hopefully we can share with the governor and have him help us on the hill.”

Finding improvement

The committee recommended that education leaders remain flexible in allowing adjustment to the content of the Utah Core Standards.

"These standards are not fixed in stone," Holland said. "Evaluation and revisions as necessary of the Utah Core must be done on an ongoing basis."

The governor gave recommendations of his own to the State School Board, calling on education leaders to work with local school boards to improve the implementation of statewide standards, as well as needed revision of the standards themselves.

"I think part of the problem we seem to have had is we have not communicated very well," Herbert said. "We ought not to be afraid of sitting down and discussing issues and communicating. … If we find that there are problems, we ought to fix them."

Herbert also asked board members to foster a greater focus in schools on the founding of the country, what the Founding Fathers accomplished and the significance of the Constitution.

"There ought to be a good understanding (among) our graduating students of the rules that govern us here embodied in our federal Constitution, the greatest document maybe ever created in history," he said.

He called for deeper discussions about civic responsibility and participation in the political process.

“I find it disappointing that in a state that probably should know better that our participation in going out and doing such a simple thing as being an informed voter and casting a ballot our participation rates are low,” Herbert said.

Herbert also asked the board to provide better training for students about free market enterprise and economic principles, which he said have made America successful.

"I do trust you to make the right decisions," Herbert told board members. "When we talk about local control, we're talking about you guys. When we talk about local control, we're talking about our local school districts. You have a significant role to play, and I trust that you'll get it right."

Contributing: Dennis Romboy

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com, Twitter: MorganEJacobsen