2013-06-13 / Front Page

Common Core comes under fire

Speakers express anger over changes to school standards
By Darleen Principe

Tensions ran high at a community forum Monday night where the topic of discussion was the controversial implementation of the Common Core state standards at Conejo Valley schools.

Targeted for full implementation throughout California by fall 2014, the Common Core State Standards Initiative marks the first major overhaul of public education standards in the state since 1997.

Afew of the curriculum changes to come include a larger emphasis on technical reading—scientific journals, government documents and other non-narrative texts—as well as the blending of separate math subjects, such as algebra and geometry, across all grade levels.

Besides changing the curriculum, Common Core, which has been adopted in 45 states, calls for a new teaching style and a new system for testing students.

Despite being adopted by the California Department of Education in 2010, the new standards have only recently sparked divisive debate among parents, teachers and school officials.

In front of a packed audience at Thousand Oaks High School’s 400-seat performing arts center on June 10, speakers representing Conejo Valley Unified School District and the grassroots group Concerned Parents of Conejo Valley debated the pros and cons of instituting Common Core.

During the first half of the two-hour forum, which was moderated by Thousand Oaks Acorn editor Kyle Jorrey, six panelists presented their stances and engaged in a panel discussion.

Representing the school district were Jeff Baarstad, CVUSD superintendent; Mike Soules, president of Corwin Publishing; Jon Sand, director of curriculum and assessment at CVUSD; and Peggy Walker, teacher at Newbury Park High School.

The panelists speaking against Common Core were Bill Evers, former U.S. Department of Education official; and Sandra Stotsky, author, professor and former commissioner on the Massachusetts Board of Education.

Public outcry

About 60 audience members lined up to make statements or ask questions of panelists during the second half of the forum.

But only a dozen, all of whom expressed negative views of Common Core, had the opportunity to take the microphone before the forum ended at 8 p.m.

Ron Meyer, president of the California School Employees Association’s local chapter, asked how implementing Common Core would affect the CVUSD’s budget, especially in the wake of several years of consecutive state funding cuts to education.

“Currently the state government has (earmarked) potentially $1 billion (to schools for the implementation of Common Core),” Meyer said, directing his question to the superintendent. “Given the government’s history of unfunded mandates . . . where will the extra money come from to fund this down the line? What programs will be cut off and what employees will be laid off to cover that shortfall?”

Baarstad said he suspects the state will provide enough money under Proposition 98, which guarantees a portion of the state’s budget be spent on K-12 education, to support Common Core.

“I think (upgrading) technology is going to be a challenge at the local level,” Baarstad said, adding that CVUSD would have worked to update computers and other technology infrastructure regardless of the new standards. “But I don’t think we’ll have to cut budgets or staff to support Common Core.”

In response to the superintendent, Evers said that “no district is required by law to follow the new standards.”

But if CVUSD opts out of teaching the Common Core curriculum, it will not receive any of the supplemental funds being offered through the state for the implementation, he said.

“You could follow the 1997 standards instead if you want,” Evers said, prompting applause from the audience.

Baarstad responded by saying that opting out of Common Core would create a “nonproductive controversy.”

“Some of you may disagree with me violently,” the superintendent said. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the kids and teachers in this community for us to be some sort of test case that says ‘we don’t want the state’s money and I’ll put 100 percent of the responsibility on my teachers (to develop their own curriculum).’

“Do we want to be the community that says no to everything that has to do with Common Core state standards?”

Audience members answered the question by shouting “yes” and applauding.

Maintaining achievement

Another speaker, Gary Pipes, asked the panel, “Can you promise all parents and all children that the high achievement in reading and math in our schools will not go down?”

Sand, CVUSD’s head of curriculum and assessment, said the district would not let student achievement drop regardless of Common Core.

“No matter what you do, there’s a learning curve,” Sand said, adding that while the district may see dips in test scores in the midst of the transition to Common Core, achievement in the long run will not be affected.

But panelist Stotsky argued there would be no way to “find out how low we are sinking” academically because all standardized tests, including the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Advanced Placement (AP) exams are being “dumbed-down” and aligned with Common Core standards.

Privacy issues

One woman, who compared Common Core to the “dystopian nightmare” depicted in George Orwell’s novel “1984,” asked why California is “so anxious to sell their soul to the federal government when it comes to education.”

“There are so many Orwellian things in this program that it is irresponsible to pass something like this unless you know every detail, because it will affect our children’s lives for as long as they live,” she said.

George Miller, another speaker, said he has a problem with how the state plans to track personal data on students as required under the new standards.

“I want to know what safeguards are in place and why the federal government needs all this data,” Miller said.

Baarstad explained that the state currently collects information about student test scores, parents’ education level and economic data, because “parent education and parent wealth are the two greatest indicators of a child’s educational future.”

“If there’s going to be a whole rash of new information that’s going to be reported on our kids, we’re going to find out about that too,” Baarstad said. “And I’m going to have some very, very significant concerns about privacy issues, just like you.

“That’s something I can absolutely promise you—we will look into those issues as an individual district.”

Several times during the question and-answer portion of the forum, audience members shouted in disagreement or dissatisfaction after Baarstad’s responses.

At one point, the superintendent said that if he ever “had the privilege” of speaking to some of the audience members one-on-one, they might be surprised by how much they agree on issues.

“But something I don’t agree with some of you about is the way we conduct ourselves in terms of our disagreements. . . .” Baarstad said.“A healthy American democracy has disagreements, but I do think we should express them in ways that are more productive than me shouting at you or you shouting at me. And I can tell you that’s something we teach your kids in school every day.”

Further conversation

At the end of the event, 2012 school board candidate Tony Dolz, who sat on the stage but did not speak until the last five minutes, thanked the superintendent and other CVUSD officials for making Conejo Valley schools “the best in the state and nation.”

He suggested having a followup forum in the fall so parents could get more up-to-date information.

Dolz, who has two children in the district, is the founder of the group calling itself the Concerned Parents of the Conejo Valley. Members first voiced opposition to Common Core at a recent school board meeting, prompting the district to hold Monday’s forum.

Dolz suggested that parents with concerns opt-out of the standards using a form drafted by attorneys at the U.S. Justice Foundation and available on Dolz’s website.

Dan Arterburn, a retired educator and parent of three CVUSD students, said it was forthright of district officials to host the forum.

“I think it shows a certain amount of receptiveness of the Conejo Valley Unified School District . . . to welcome people who really brought some outside perspective to the validity of instituting Common Core,” Arterburn said. “I thought it was great and very open and candid of the district to open its doors and encourage more dialogue about this important issue.”

A video of the forum will be aired on Time Warner channel 20, Verizon channel 32 and Charter Cable channel 59 at 8 p.m. tonight, and for three nights next week—June 18 to 20.

Residents may request a DVD copy of the event by sending an email to kise@conejousd.org or calling (805) 497-9511, ext. 201.

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