A set of education standards being implemented in Powell and around the state have become the subject of mounting political controversy in recent days, despite having been developed years earlier.
Park County School District No. 1 Superintendent Kevin Mitchell doesn’t think the controversy has to do with the Common Core State Standards themselves.
“There is just something going on in the United States right now with pushback,” Mitchell said at a school board meeting last month. “Some people call them Tea Party, others Libertarians. I don’t know that they belong to any particular group — I’m just saying there’s a group of people who are really anti-federal government in a lot of ways. And why they attack this one little part, I still have not been able to figure out.”
A number of conservative groups — including the Park County Republican Party — have taken aim at the standards, saying they erode local control and are unduly influenced by the federal government.
“Bureaucrats far removed from American families and their children’s classrooms are doubling down on control,” says former state legislator Amy Edmonds, now with the free market think tank Wyoming Liberty Group. “Implementation of the Common Core is just another in a long line of government’s empty, failed promises.”
Edmonds spoke to the State Board of Education last week and at local meetings recently, asking that the state end its use of Common Core Standards and return to a system that better allows for local control.
Wyoming plans to stick with Common Core.
“The State Board of Education’s position of being in favor of the Common Core has been reaffirmed,” board chairman Ron Micheli was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article. “And it will stay that way until there is a change in the position of the board.”
Though the state can opt out of Common Core Standards at any time, state Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, said Wyoming educators may not want to.
“I have yet to find a school district or administration that doesn’t support the Common Core State Standards,” Coe said at a Park County Republican Women’s meeting last month.
Similarly, most Powell teachers like the new standards, Mitchell said.
No teachers in the Powell school district have complained to Mitchell about the new standards, he said. Local teachers at every grade level began using curriculum they aligned to the standards at the beginning of the school year.
What the standards are
The Wyoming Department of Education describes standards as defining “what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade level in any given subject.”
Wyoming has standards for nine content areas in education, ranging from fine arts to physical education. Common Core Standards address only two areas — math and language arts.
For example, Common Core Standards say one of the things kindergartners will learn is how to count to 100. How kindergartners learn to count — through activities, worksheets, music or other ways — is up to local teachers.
Teachers determine the curriculum for their classrooms, aligning it to the Common Core State Standards, Mitchell said.
“Local control and innovation are a key part of this. The standards specify what students should know and be able to do in each grade ... it is still up to states, districts, schools and teachers to determine how to get students to that point,” said Sen. Coe, who serves as chairman of Wyoming’s Senate Education Committee.
The Powell school district hasn’t had to purchase any new books for Common Core Standards, Mitchell said. Books may be suggested in the standards, but teachers still choose texts and materials for their lessons, he said.
Educators have said Common Core is more rigorous than previous standards, and some opponents have called them too advanced for kindergarten and first-grade students.
Mitchell asked all teachers in August if the new standards were too difficult for kids, specifically the district’s youngest students.
“Not one kindergarten or first-grade teacher — or any teacher for that matter — said they were developmentally inappropriate,” Mitchell said.
A national set of standards?
Though some have called Common Core federal standards, Coe said the U.S. Department of Education had no part in developing them. Rather, it was an effort led by states, he said. So far, 45 states have voluntarily adopted Common Core Standards.
“There’s no national curriculum here,” Coe said.
Edmonds said she has a hard time seeing how Wyoming was involved.
“No one from Wyoming created the standards,” she said last month.
While Wyoming educators and residents had opportunities to comment on Common Core, she said no changes were made to the standards.
“When I think of a Wyoming-led standards initiative, I think of professors from the University of Wyoming, teachers from our communities, sitting down and reviewing and writing those standards and being involved in the process,” Edmonds said. “That is not how it happened. The standards were delivered to the state, written, and then they were reviewed as is.”
Wyoming does have freedom to adapt the Common Core State Standards, Mitchell said.
“You can change up to 20 percent of the language in the standards and still have them align with assessments,” he said.
Wyoming could add to the standards, too, and make them more difficult, Mitchell said.
That the standards are not rigorous enough is one of the criticisms voiced by some opponents, including the group Wyoming Citizens Opposing Common Core.
While discussion has focused on who wrote the Common Core State Standards, Mitchell asked if that is actually very important.
“Does it matter who wrote them? It’s really whether they’re good or not,” he said. “Are they good for the students of Wyoming?”
Mitchell said it’s also ironic that people act like national standards and assessments aren’t in place already.
“The ACT is a national test and has its own set of national standards. I don’t know that anyone in Wyoming even got a chance to participate in writing the ACT standards,” he said. “We don’t question that assessment, because the universities like it and that’s what they use to deem if a kid is ready for college work.”
The ACT exam is based on national standards, “and all 50 states use it,” Mitchell said.
Wyoming now uses the ACT to measure proficiency and college readiness for all 11th-grade students.
For years, states have been using other national assessments, such as the SAT and NAEP.
“Nobody’s complaining about those,” Mitchell said.
GOP announces opposition
Earlier this month, the Park County Republican Central Committee unanimously voted to adopt a resolution opposing Common Core State Standards, said Chairman Larry French. The Wyoming Republican State Central Committee had already passed the resolution, and the Park County committee wanted to join the effort, French said.
French said he doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with having standards and accountability in education. However, French said he personally doesn’t want to see any federal involvement in education — whether it’s standards, money, curriculum or information gathering.
“I feel we’re perfectly capable of educating our kids in Wyoming,” he said. “We don’t need government interference from Washington, D.C.”
French said he’s also worried about what could come down the road.
“I’m just opposed to the hidden consequences that will come from this — unintended consequences always show up,” he said.
The adoption of Common Core first began in Wyoming in 2009, when then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jim McBride and then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal signed an agreement to participate in the process leading to a set of Common Core State Standards, according to the Wyoming Department of Education. From there, the state released drafts, surveyed school districts, allowed public comments, held public meetings and reviewed the standards, according to the department.
In April 2012, the State Board of Education voted 8-4 to adopt the standards. Gov. Matt Mead signed the new content standards into law in July 2012, following a 75-day review.
Education standards are reviewed every five years by a committee of Wyoming teachers, community members and parents, according to the Department of Education. Ultimately, the State Board of Education must give final approval to state standards.
As the debate about Common Core continues, Mitchell cautions that changing the standards means looking at the entire education system — not just one element.
He said it’s important standards, curriculum and tests are aligned if Wyoming lawmakers are holding districts, teachers schools and students accountable for results.
“If you want to stop all accountability, then stop all accountability,” Mitchell said. “But you can’t just pull one piece out, because then the train keeps going.”