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July 25, 2014

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New standards for education dredge up old apprehensions

Critics of Common Core liken it to federal government takeover of local schools

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Senior Raequan Charingto takes notes during a science proficiency exam tutoring session for seniors inside the classroom of science teacher Sergio Lopez at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas on Monday, April 23, 2012.

Updated Monday, April 7, 2014 | 9:34 a.m.

Nevada’s efforts to adopt new education standards are being roundly applauded by educators and business leaders but drawing the scorn of some parents who say the initiative is too radical.

The new standards, called Common Core and developed by a panel of educators convened by governors and state school superintendents, have been criticized for, among other things, favoring nonfiction passages over classic literature, for de-emphasizing cursive and for introducing new strategies in teaching addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

The state Board of Education in 2010 adopted the standards, which represent one of the most significant changes in American education, transforming textbooks, teacher training and standardized testing.

Proponents argue that Common Core replaces a hodgepodge of state benchmarks with a more rigorous national standard that develops critical thinkers and raises expectations for American students. Advocates also point to the benefits of having a national standard in a highly transient state like Nevada, where many students transfer in with mismatched credits and significant knowledge gaps.

Critics call Common Core a veiled attempt at a federal takeover of local education.

They say Common Core — which they dubbed “Obama-core” — is a “one-size-fits-all” standard developed in secrecy by “big business” and “big government” and without much input from K-12 teachers. Others decry states’ efforts to track student information (mostly test scores) from kindergarten through high school, college and possibly beyond as an intrusive and unnecessary data mining operation.

“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to education in Nevada,” said John Eppolito, the president of Stop Common Core Nevada. “This is not going to improve anything. It’s going to make things worse. This has to be stopped.”

Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Dale Erquiaga views this growing chorus of complaints as a “small but vocal” group. He said the group is spreading misinformation about Common Core, and it’s threatening to derail its complicated implementation in Nevada.

“Most of this is fear of the unknown,” Erquiaga said of the opposition. “No one has any evidence of these claims. They’re using Common Core as a political platform to criticize this president.”

• • •

Fierce opposition to Common Core is growing across the country.

Lawmakers in several states are proposing bills to defund or halt the implementation of the new standards. Last month, Indiana became the first state to abandon the standards it once embraced.

In Nevada, a few hundred parents and citizens have begun to take a stand. They are in talks with lawmakers, trying to get a bill introduced during the 2015 legislative session to stop Common Core.

Dozens of protesters have spoken out against Common Core at state school board and interim legislative meetings, calling on board members, lawmakers and Gov. Brian Sandoval to reject the standards.

Eppolito, a parent of four children in Incline Village in Northern Nevada, is leading the movement. For the past several months, he has traveled across the state, sharing his opinions with more than 200 parents, teachers and citizens.

Opponents in Clark County are mobilizing against Common Core, as well. Amy Bauck and Christina Leventis are two local parents who have held several small-group meetings to air their concerns.

Bauck and Leventis said they fear their parental rights are being infringed upon by the state. They bemoan not being able to opt their children out of new online, Common Core-aligned tests, which are being introduced to 44,000 students in Nevada this month.

Bauck has already pulled her three children out of public schools because of Common Core. Leventis is considering the same for her two children.

“Education should be left up to state and localities,” Leventis said. “One-size education can’t fit all of us. Our children aren’t clones.”

• • •

As the movement against Common Core grows, Nevada’s K-12 education leaders are starting to push back.

The Nevada Board of Education approved changing Common Core’s name to the Nevada Academic Content Standards. Several states are rebranding the standards because they believe the Common Core name is too “toxic.”

The Common Core movement also has been hurt by a dearth of communication and definitive information about the standards. A national survey last year found that two-thirds of Americans had never heard of it.

“There’s a lot of confusion about what standards are in (Common Core),” said Michelle Exstrom, the education program director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Much of the information out there is myth.”

Erquiaga admits the Nevada Department of Education has historically done a poor job of communicating its school reform efforts to the public. He added that Nevada updates its academic standards about every seven years, so the Common Core adoption was nothing new for the department but was new for parents and students.

“We didn’t explain it well at all,” Erquiaga said of Nevada’s Common Core implementation. “We’re trying to communicate better in the face of political opposition that has nothing to do with the work we’re doing.”

To combat misinformation, Erquiaga is launching an aggressive communications campaign called Nevada Ready to inform parents and residents of the new standards, curricula and assessments. Armed with a $200,000 donation to the Nevada Public Education Foundation from the Wynn Family Foundation, Erquiaga intends to create a Common Core website and hold information meetings with residents across Nevada.

The biggest misconception about Common Core stems from the fact that it is a set of standards, not a curriculum. Standards are goals for what students should master in a given subject in one year. A curriculum is what lesson plans and textbooks should be used to reach those standards.

Erquiaga said he has yet to hear a substantive argument against the standards from Common Core critics. Most of the criticisms focus on the way the standards were developed — which Nevada could not control — and objectionable lesson plans, workbooks and textbooks that are being used in other states to teach Common Core material, he said.

Nevada’s 17 school boards retain their authority to choose which textbooks to use and how they design their curricula to meet the standards, Erquiaga said. The notion that the standards would be used to gather noneducation-related information on Nevada students, like a family’s political affiliation, is simply not true, he added.

Valid concerns, Erquiaga said, include: Are teachers getting the proper professional development to teach to more rigorous standards? Are there enough computers and Internet bandwidth to support computerized testing? Has the state allocated enough money to implement the standards?

“I know this is not going to be easy,” Erquiaga said. “Change is scary, but I think at the end of the day, these new standards will benefit our students. Nothing we’ve heard (negative about the Common Core) will make us change our minds.”

SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

The Common Core State Standards are more rigorous and demanding than Nevada’s academic standards. Common Core requires students to use text and problem-solving skills to ask questions and defend their answers — all at earlier ages.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

• Nevada standards for reading: Students are expected to use information to answer specific questions, with assistance in first grade and without assistance in higher grade levels.

• Common core standards for reading: In kindergarten, students are expected to ask and answer questions about key details in a text with assistance. By second grade, students are expected to read and understand different types of literature, such as folktales and science articles.

• Nevada standards for math: In second grade, students are expected to add and subtract between one- and two-digit numbers. By fifth grade, students are expected to add and subtract fractions with different denominators using models, drawings and finding the common denominator.

• Common core standards for math: In second grade, students are expected to add and subtract between one- and four-digit numbers using models, drawings, place values and regrouping numbers. By fourth grade, students are expected to solve word problems by adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators using models, drawings and finding the common denominator.

MIDDLE SCHOOL

• Nevada standards for reading: By sixth grade, students are expected to understand and expand their vocabulary using dictionaries and contextual clues from reading text.

• Common core standards for reading: In second grade, students are expected to understand and expand their vocabulary using children’s dictionaries, contextual clues from reading the text and using root words, such as “addition” to determine the meaning of “additional.” By seventh grade, students are expected to conduct short research projects drawing on multiple sources and assessing the credibility and accuracy of those sources.

• Nevada standards for math: In seventh grade, students are expected to compare and order a combination of numbers, including fractions, decimals, percents and integers.

• Nevada standards for math: In sixth grade, students are expected to compare and order a combination of numbers, including fractions, decimals, percents, integers and absolute figures.

HIGH SCHOOL

• Nevada standards for reading: Throughout high school, students are expected to write explanatory essays that are well organized and use literary devices, such as similes.

• Common core standards for reading: In fourth grade, students are expected to write informative essays, introducing topics clearly, developing them and linking ideas using precise language.

• Nevada standards for math: In high school, students are expected to apply the Pythagorean Theorem and solve linear equations with two variables algebraically and graphically, and verify solutions with and without calculators.

• Nevada standards for math: In eighth grade, students are expected to apply the Pythagorean Theorem and solve linear equations with two variables algebraically and estimate solutions by graphing equations. Eighth-graders are also expected to understand geometric rules, such as if two shapes are congruent.

CORRECTION: John Eppolito is the president of Stop Common Core Nevada, not the founder. | (April 23, 2014)

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