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July 28, 2014

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State lawmakers hear pros, cons of Common Core standards

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Seniors Jesus Reyes, from left, Daniel Cortes, Denisse Castro and Anita Sroya listen 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.

More than three years after Nevada adopted the Common Core State Standards, proponents and critics faced off in a 10-hour legislative showdown over whether the new academic benchmarks will help or hurt students in the Silver State.

For months, dozens of concerned citizens and parents have been protesting the Common Core at legislative committee hearings on education, prompting lawmakers to devote one of its meetings to debate the pros and cons of the new standards.

The Common Core, which has been adopted by 44 states nationally, was developed by a panel of academics convened by governors and state school superintendents to replace a hodgepodge of state standards.

The national standards outline what concepts students must master in English and math each year from kindergarten to high school graduation. It represent one of the most significant changes in American education — one that is transforming textbooks, teacher training and testing.

Proponents argue these more clear, uniform and rigorous standards help students across the country become better critical thinkers and problem-solvers who can compete in the global economy. They say the standards raise expectations of Nevada students, better preparing them for college and career.

“Nevada took a big step forward with the Common Core,” Michael Brickman, the education policy director of Fordham Institute, testified today. “Please don’t slow down or turn back now.”

Critics, however, believe the Common Core is a veiled attempt at a federal takeover of local education, a power grab for classroom curricula and student information. They view the standards as a “one-size-fits-all” and “top-down” approach that has never been tested, will be expensive to implement and take years to determine its impact on student achievement.

“This is a radical revision of your state’s education system,” Jane Robbins, a senior fellow with the American Principles Project, testified. “Common Core is an infection. The only way to get rid of it is to surgically remove it.”

The chorus of complaints against the Common Core is crescendoing across the country.

Lawmakers in several states have proposed 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.

As opposition grows, state education leaders have begun to strike back. The Nevada Education Department rebranded the Common Core and is launching an aggressive public campaign to win community support and fight misconceptions about the standards.

“There’s so much misinformation and erroneous information out there,” Dale Erquiaga, Nevada superintendent of public instruction, said. “Like them or not, these are our standards. They’ve been embraced not once, but three times by the state board of education.”

The Common Core still has its staunch supporters, primarily in the Las Vegas business community. However, educators have a mixed opinion.

Earlier this year, the National Education Association — a major teachers union — pulled its support of the Common Core. Its local chapters in Nevada, however, are still supportive of the standards, although many educators are worried about its rollout.

Principals and teachers testifying before lawmakers said they believe the Common Core will lead to more engaging lessons and meaningful classroom experiences.

“We need to teach (students about) grit and tenacity,” Jeremiah Norman, a fifth-grade math teacher at Goldfarb Elementary School, said. “I want to push them to get their maximum capability.”

Critics, however, argued the standards promote inappropriate literature and convoluted ways to solve math problems. They also said they feared student privacy laws would be compromised by the new Common Core assessments.

“This is not the answer to the education of our children,” Janice Baldwin, a Carson City resident, said. “This really does not meet our children’s needs.”

John Eppolito was allowed to lay out a 30-minute case against the new standards. For the past several months, the president of Stop Common Core Nevada has been traveling across the state, sharing his thoughts about the standards with hundreds of parents, teachers and residents.

Eppolito said he was concerned about the “secretive” way the Common Core was adopted in Nevada. The Northern Nevada father of four children said well-heeled corporations created the standards and the federal government coerced states into adopting them through grant funding and regulatory relief.

“This was like tablets handed down from God,” Eppolito told lawmakers. “We didn’t have a chance to vet this. There was this big rush to get this in schools before anyone knew what was going on.”

State senator Aaron Ford bristled at that comment. He retorted there were several public meetings held before policymakers signed onto the Common Core.

“I take issue with the continued misrepresentation that public input wasn’t allowed or received,” Ford said. “None may have been received, but it was certainly allowed.”

State assemblyman Elliot Anderson questioned whether Eppolito and other critics wanted to scrap the new academic standards in the middle of a multi-year implementation process.

“Do you think education in Nevada is working right now?” Anderson asked Eppolito. “It just seems like we’ve tried our old standards. We don’t know if Common Core will work, but we know our previous standards aren’t working.”

Although most policymakers at the meeting seemed to want to stay the course with Common Core, State Senator Scott Hammond said he was open to an alternative.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of changing course,” said Hammond, a Clark County teacher who asked several pointed questions of Common Core advocates. “I don’t think it’s necessarily too late to turn around.”

For state assemblyman Harvey Munford, the Common Core represents yet another stab at reforming public education over the decades. Munford said he’s uncertain any academic standard would miraculously boost student achievement. It’s not that simple, he said.

“I don’t think this is the panacea to solve all of our educational problems,” Munford said. “I don’t know. But we have to try to do something.”

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