"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2012 Year End Post

Note: Audio for the board meetings can be downloaded at the bottom of each of the following links.

Nov. 13, 2012: http://sbs.alpinedistrict.org/cgi-bin/WebObjects/eAgenda.woa/wa/displayMeeting?meetingID=1297
Nov. 27, 2012: http://sbs.alpinedistrict.org/cgi-bin/WebObjects/eAgenda.woa/wa/displayMeeting?meetingID=1312
Dec. 11, 2102: http://sbs.alpinedistrict.org/cgi-bin/WebObjects/eAgenda.woa/wa/displayMeeting?meetingID=1314

I want to thank Board Members, Mark Clement and Terry Peterson for their service.  I will miss our discussions.  I wish them the best in their future endeavors!

Welcome to our two new board members who will be sworn in this January, Scott Carlson and Brian Halliday. I look forward to working with you both.

Board Leadership and Code of Conduct
During the January 8 Board Meeting, our newly-elected board members will be sworn in. We will also select a new Board President and Vice President. I was told the Board President is responsible for upholding our Code of Conduct. I would recommend that everyone read the Code of Conduct here. You can read the official About the Board from our website here. Every January, we review the Code of Conduct.  I would like to bring your input to our discussion.  Please feel free to email or Facebook message me with your suggestions and thoughts.

Here is a quick overview of November and December.

Space Center
Probably the biggest issue in November was the Space Center.  So many people showed up at the Board Meeting to show their support for the Space Center.  It was great to see that level of public involvement.  A committee has been established to explore options and to make recommendations to the Board.  Right now, they plan on presenting options in February.  For my part, I am very supportive of the Space Center. (My kids would be very disappointed were I not.)  I want to continue the simulators and the current experience in whatever way makes the most sense.  If there is a cost-effective way to get part of the Space Center back up and in operation, I am supportive.

Also, during the public comments, Robin Allred took the time to support the idea of incorporating families into our district values. (Thanks, Robin!)

We accepted the CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report) which is a required document detailing the financials for the district for 2011-12.  The auditors gave us a clean bill of health.  There are some very interesting pieces of information, especially toward the end of the report, e.g. salary schedules, amount spent per student, number of employees, tax rates over time, etc.  You can view it here: http://alpineschools.org/accounting/cafr/2012-cafr-audit-services-provided

Closed Schools
The following schools will be closed for 2013-14.  Note: Lone Peak HS is not on this list.  I mentioned concerns that have been raised about Lone Peak.  The principal says they may have room for only 30 more students.  I have been told principals can limit those who want to attend from "out of area" when there are reasons such as limited space and/or teachers.  I will follow this closely.

Fox Hollow Elementary – Due to the capacity of the school.

Freedom Elementary – Due to the capacity of the school.
Hidden Hollow Elementary – Due to the capacity of the school.
Meadow Elementary – Due to the capacity of the school.

Pony Express Elementary – Due to the capacity of the school.

Snow Springs Elementary – Due to the capacity of the school.

American Fork Junior High – Closed to out-of-area students with the exception of students who will attend American Fork High School. These students would still be required to apply for an out-of-area exception through Student Services during the open enrollment window.

Lakeridge Junior High – To continue educational offerings.
Vista Heights Middle School – To help equalize boundaries with the new school.
New Eagle Mountain Middle School – New school

Enrollment Projections
Our district has a great track record on enrollment projections.  The latest projections were discussed, as well as what additional schools might need to be constructed and when.  This information can be viewed here: http://alpineschools.org/administration/enrollment-history-projections/2012-13-enrollment-history-projections
These projections are used to make recommendations about bonding and building.  For those of you concerned about bonding, this is the time to start thinking about alternatives.  We will need to accommodate these projections, unless something drastic occurs.  Please take the time to review this information and give me feedback.

Eagle Mountain Elementary School
Property was purchased in Eagle Mountain for a new elementary school, planned as part of the bond projects.

Utah Consolidated Application
Every year the district has to fill out this application for the state.  It provides our accountability for certain programs that come with strings, both Federal and State, e.g. Special Ed, Optional Extended-Day Kindergarten, etc.  From my perspective, it is a lot of hoop-jumping, and many of the options are for ways that allow children to spend more time in school and less time at home.  (I will refrain from editorializing.)  There are about 40 different funding sources, most of which come from the state.  As mentioned, in order to get the funding, you have to show your compliance with the "strings".  I would prefer to have the state just give the local districts a lump sum and let us divvy it up as we see fit.  (Pipe dream, I know.)

Graduation Requirements Policy
The State Board sets the minimum graduation requirements.  Alpine School District has placed additional requirements on our graduating students.  The policy has been changed to reflect two different kids of diplomas: a basic and a traditional.  A Basic diploma (e.g. Fast Track) will be offered with 24 credit hours.  All the required courses (3 English, etc) must still be earned.  However, students can graduate with fewer electives, if they choose.  A Traditional diploma requires 28 credit hours to obtain.  A few interesting things.
1) Students with an IEP can earn a traditional diploma with those 28 credit hours, and whatever course accommodations needed to made in accordance with the IEP. 
2) There are also 2 certificates offered to special ed students who do not qualify for the traditional diploma. 
3) A student who successfully completes Calculus has met the math requirements regardless of number of math credit hours earned.  However, that student would have to still meet the 24 or 28 credit hours by taking electives instead of math.
4) The SEOP has been changed, by the State Office, to a CCR (College and Career-readiness) Plan.  The policy stipulates that each student will have one.  I tried to get clarification on whether a parent can opt their student out of the CCR Plan.  I was told each counselor will be following the student to make sure they are on track for graduation.  There are additional pieces of information, such as career testing, that are optional, since they would fall under the Utah FERPA (privacy) law.  Any private information, likes, dislikes, family circumstances, etc. all require written permission from a parent. 

The policy can be viewed here:

School Calendar Update
The school year for 2013-14 will start on Tuesday, Aug. 20 instead of Thursday, Aug. 22, so teachers can have two full professional development days, instead of the current minimal days.  (Yea! Not a fan of the minimal days, personally.)

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Responsible Participation in a Democracy

Note: I am NOT aware of any of these materials being used in Alpine District Schools. However, where they are recommended by the USOE's Materials Committee, they are fair game for any public school in Utah to adopt.

Imagine your daughter comes home from school.  She presents you with an essay on a political topic she is, all of a sudden, very passionate about.  Her essay makes you angry and afraid.  She deliberately projects the worst that could happen with this particular situation.  And finally, she wants you to join her cause.

...Now imagine she's six years old.

Too far-fetched?  Read on.

One of the big issues for parents has to do with textbooks. Which textbooks are used?  Can they bring them home?   I have been told we want to allow our teachers to use whatever materials and resources they need to accomplish their objectives.  However, parents want to know what their kids are learning and have some idea of what is being taught.  How do parents stay involved in that process? Should the local school board have oversight in this regard? Or should it be left to the individual teachers? Should teachers provide a syllabus and a list of materials for parents? Should parents even want to know, as long as the kids are doing well and meeting the objectives?

And just what are some of those objectives?

At a Utah School Boards' Association meeting last January, the President of the National School Boards' Association gave the keynote address.  She concluded her speech with the idea that if public schools ceased to exist, we would lose our democracy. 

At a recent Governor's Education Summit, it was reported that while it is important for us to educate our students for employment, it is also important they know how to treat people in society and act "civilly".

The State Board of Education says, "Utah's public education system is created in the state Constitution to 'secure and perpetuate' freedom."

Alpine School District's first value statement is, "To prepare our students for responsible participation in a democracy."

Currently, the emphasis of public education seems to be more on perpetuation of our democracy/way of life/democratic republic/[insert your preferred description here] than on the 3 R's.  Nationally, as I read publications, teachers are being told their role is to make sure their students become good citizens.  Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic take a back seat to participatory democracy. 

"So what?" you say. "Who can argue against good citizenship?"  I would submit that while securing and perpetuating freedom are very good and noble goals (ones I whole-heartedly support), good citizenship (however defined) is not the sole purpose or even the primary purpose of education, public or otherwise.  When you make good citizenship the primary objective, you remove the focus from the individual child.  The child becomes a cog in the wheel of the larger society.  At one point, education was about providing skills for discerning truth from error; classical education was about creating an educated individual without any other expectation.  Citizenship and public involvement were the by-products instead of the objectives.  Public involvement was also reserved for adults, not children.  Furthermore, depending on who determines what "good citizenship" looks like, you could be opening a big can of worms.

That brings us back to the original questions: how do we know what our kids are being taught, and how involved should parents be in following along?

The Utah State Office of Education has an Instructional Materials Database.  A committee, made up of educators from the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) along with appointed citizens, reviews materials and makes recommendations. The official purpose of the Instructional Materials Committee is to determine how closely materials align with the Utah Core standards for a given grade and subject. Recommended materials may be used without reservation for that grade/subject. Recommended Limited materials may be used in the classroom but require supplementation.  So, someone is watching over us and determining what our kids should learn.  No need for us to be concerned, right?

Let's take a look at a few examples.

In our district, it's safe to say the majority of parents want a more traditional approach to math.  Since implementing Common Core, we have been trying to find textbooks that would appeal to our parents.  Unfortunately, we couldn't find any Common Core integrated math textbooks for Grade 9. Only one other Common Core state adopted the integrated math approach besides Utah. The other 45 states still teach Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, etc.  Obviously, the textbook publishers didn't have a market for the integrated textbooks.   Alpine's ninth-grade teachers are having to use whatever they have and put things together on their own. (As a side note, a parent at a School Community Council asked what the approval process was for teacher-developed materials. There is no formal process.)

One integrated textbook the State's Review Committee recommends is the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP). This math book doesn't have any examples, but does have a political agenda. The introduction says this program is appreciated for the "communication skills...developed....The ability to persuade people and to effectively argue ideas has proved priceless...in personal, academic, and professional situations." This is a math book, remember. 

Here is a link to the IMP evaluation from the Materials Review Committee. "Lessons consist of single-page individual or group tasks without traditional mathematical instruction or explanations. Mathematics is learned through the culture and practice that is developed within the classroom as students work on the various tasks.[emphasis mine]"  This is an approved textbook. 

By contrast, Saxon Math, considered a traditional math text, didn't have an integrated approach available yet.   Even so, a pre-Common Core review of Saxon was considered "Recommended Limited" by the Materials Review Committee. "While we found much of the content of the Utah State Core in Saxon Math, the philosophy in how children best learn math differs greatly. The following skills and pedagogy were considered by the review committee...Problem solving is more teacher-driven. It does not encourage students to develop their own ideas. Lessons in problem solving are very superficial. Students are told how to solve each problem. [emphasis mine]"

The more traditional approach is marginally recommended, not because of WHAT is taught. The problem is HOW it is taught. So, the review committee reviews for content but can also "blacklist" a teaching philosophy most parents prefer for their kids. In short, if a math book shows kids how to solve problems and doesn't force them to develop those solutions on their own, the State Office of Education doesn't think it should be used to teach math. 

Rather than the Materials Committee being a resource to the districts, it has an obvious philosophy and an agenda. Should local schools and their constituents wish to pursue a method of math instruction varying from the preferred philosphy of the USOE, they are hindered in their ability to do so, even IF the content matches the state standards. Remember this, when you hear how Common Core is "just standards, not curriculum".

Language Arts is even more subjective and values-laden than math.  And, it, apparently, is a great opportunity for encouraging responsible participation in a democracy.  Here's an example. 

The Zaner-Bloser Voices First Grade Langauge Arts series is Recommended Limited for elementary reading but Recommended Primary for Character Education. You can see the official review here. (All emphasis below is mine.)
  • Six- and seven-year-olds are taught to deliberately make their parents "upset or angry". This is done in order to get parents to participate in specific social or political activism. "Say: We're going to write a letter to parents about our problem. We need parents to understand our problem, so we're going to use words that make them feel how important it is to help us. Write anger, fear, and joy." Say: Now remember...this is for your parents...Guide discussion, as needed, to the idea that parents might be upset or angry [i.e. it will be a good thing to get your parnets upset or angry for your cause]." (Assessment Handbook, pp. 38)
  • An exercise about using "emotional words" teaches children the phrase "my mom always 'nags' me to clean my room" is better than "my mom always 'asks' me to clean my room."
  • The materials teach First Grade children to deliberately exaggerate or distort reality in order to stir up emotion and action in others. "By stating the worst that could happen, the writer appeals to the readers' feelings of anger." (Good Neighbors, pp.T79)
  • "The purpose of the book is for students [ages 6-7] to use their voices to advocate solutions to social problems that they care deeply about. They are engaged in learning...social advocacy." (Good Neighbors, pp. T1)
So, instead of learning to read and write about pets or fairy tales, your six-year-old is learning to use emotional words to manipulate you into becoming an involved citizen in some "good" cause the publishers are advocating and the teacher is facilitating. When I was in school, manipulating your parents using emotional words wasn't a character trait to be desired. It was called a tantrum, and you were sent to your room. These days, it's taught as "character education" and "political advocacy" in a First Grade writing class. (Incidentally, does anyone really believe a six-year-old is advocating something other than more Oreo cookies and a later bedtime on their own?)

This series also comes with a selection of Informational Text readers (instead of literature--Thank You, Common Core). These readers include a lot of emotional words to inspire the children to action. The books in the series include a political agenda and encourage activism. One book from probably a Fifth- or Sixth-Grade series is The Highlander Center.  Not only is there an entire book on this center, it is then referenced in another book called Education for All. By way of information, from Wikipedia: "Current focuses of Highlander include issues of democratic participation and economic justice, with a particular focus on youth, immigrants to the U.S. from Latin America, African Americans, LGBT, and poor white people."  Nope.  No agenda here, right?

MVVG and You
In our school district, we have our Mission, Vision, Values, and Goals (MVVG).   Our website says they "guide the focus and priorities of the Board..."  The Goals were determined by a very-involved community process several years ago. The Mission, Vision, and Values were adopted and promoted, over several years, by our district administration.  Remember our first value: To prepare our students for reponsible participation in a democracy.  Given this value, the recommendation by the State Office's Review Committee for character education, and all the rest, is it any wonder that a good and decent teacher might feel this reading package is exactly what everyone wants their children taught in First Grade?  And if parents are not happy with this, who should they blame?  the teacher? the district? the *State Board? the Governor?

As we are laying blame, we should first take a look in the mirror. This Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm at Timpanogos High School, our board will be reviewing our district value statements.  Is the primary purpose of education democratic participation?  Good citizenship?  Or are we looking to create educated individuals, the by-product of which may include securing and perpetuating our freedoms?  What do you think our values should be?  If you aren't there, our district values will be left up to those who are.

*About half of the State School Board members are up for election this November. The State School Board appoints the State Superintendent who oversees the entire USOE. (Here is a map for the State School Board districts.) I would encourage you to find out who is running, and vett them.

P.S. Special Thanks to Zaner-Bloser's "Voices" series for instruction on using emotional words.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sunday Competition and other items

In September, we've had two board meetings.  In summary, this blog will touch on these issues:

Sunday Competition
Community Input Meetings: We NEED YOU!
RDAs (Redevelopment Plans): Your Tax Dollars at Work

Audio for Sept. 11, 2012 located at the bottom of the page here: http://sbs.alpinedistrict.org/cgi-bin/WebObjects/eAgenda.woa/wa/displayMeeting?meetingID=1223

Audio for Sept. 25, 2012 located at the bottom of the page here: http://sbs.alpinedistrict.org/cgi-bin/WebObjects/eAgenda.woa/wa/displayMeeting?meetingID=1245

Sunday Competition
The most recent issue was an inquiry into a "new policy" forbidding Sunday competitions in the district.  The short answer is the Board has no policy (new or old) regarding Sunday competitions.  In the past, some teams have asked students to commit to competing on Sundays, should they rise to a national level of competition.  Our administration has recently reiterated that this practice is not allowed.  Because of some of the requirements at national competitions, the lack of participation by one or more of the team would disqualify the entire team.  Coaches and principals have been asked to work together with parents and students to find options for this Catch-22 situation.  By way of information, individual schools, as long as sufficient public input has been sought, can establish a practice of forbidding school competitions on Sundays.  This is what Lone Peak has done, but it has been done at a school, not a district, level. 

We hear a lot about government being by "We, the People".  Well, this is your chance to have a direct impact on your school district!  District administrators (and, when feasible, board members) will be at combined School Community Council/PTA meetings for the next 4 weeks or so.  These meetings are open to the public, and every school will host one.  You can attend any one that you choose, even if you don't have kids in the school.  They will be addressing Common Core, our Mission Vision Values and Goals (MVVG), and any other issue you would like to discuss.  I would recommend you attend and share your thoughts and observations.  This is your opportunity to give direct input on the things that are important to you in our schools.  Bring a friend with you.  Here is a partial list:

Oct 3:
10:00 am Westfield
1:30 pm Mountain Ridge
Oct 4:
9:30 am Alpine
Oct 10:
1:00 pm Lone Peak
Oct 16:
3:40 pm Highland
Oct 17:
9:30 am Cedar Ridge
Oct 18:
1:00 pm Ridgeline
1:30 pm Timberline
Oct 23:
3:45 pm Deerfield

Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs: Your Tax Dollars at Work)
Many of you remember the Vineyard Redevelopment from last year.  For more detailed information, please go here.  As a quick refresher, RDAs are an arrangement where a portion of the additional taxes that will be coming to the district (and other agencies) from increased property values on a development are not collected by the district for a set period of time, but returned to the developer for aid to move more quickly.  The thinking is that, over time and with the tax incentives, additional businesses will come and the development will progress more rapidly.  The end goal is to increase the overall tax base faster than would have otherwise happened.  The district has several criteria used to determine whether or not an RDA is something to consider.  It's important to remain consistent with each entity asking for this type of tax-incentive/deferral. The district has the opportunity to participate in two additional RDAs, currently. 

The first one is with Eagle Mountain City and is called an Economic Development Agency (EDA).  As far as I can tell, this one requires our participation by state law.  It will help develop infrastructure in Eagle Mountain City so a business park can be established and the anchor client can begin operations.  The advantage to this agreement is a cap on the amount of tax dollars to be reinvested, as well as the time commitment.  So, if the tax dollars allocated are spent prior to the 20-year time frame, the district (and the other taxing agencies) start receiving 100% of their tax dollars at that time.  The Board's overall feeling is they want to help Eagle Mountain City with their infrastructure, and this seems to be a reasonable way to do so. 

The second one is an optional situation where we are asked to return a portion of tax revenue for a business park located between Adobe and IM Flash.  The appeal is for the higher tax base that comes with HighTech jobs.  The question is whether or not those jobs would come anyway.

I thought, with Vineyard, this wasn't something that happened very often.  I am finding this is really a fairly common occurrence.  The question for you is what do you think of this kind of practice?  At best, it is the way things are done, and brings additional jobs into our local community.  At worst, it is crony capitalism--government giving incentives to select businesses for some pay-off down-the-road. 

Additionally, the legislature changed the laws on RDAs this past session.  It used to require 2/3 vote of the taxing entities to go forward with a plan.  This put the district (with 2 votes) in a position to lobby the State Board's rep (1 vote) to block anything unfavorable to the school district.  (In the case of Vineyard, the State Board rep voted AGAINST Alpine, as did Commissioner Larry Ellertson, increasing your taxes last year, but that's another story.)  Now, with a simple majority, any taxing plan can be approved without buy-in from the district, even though our tax-incentive will comprise roughly 60% of the total.  I find this change egregiously unfair, because it allows taxation without proper representation.  The legislature makes changes to these rules, by my count, on almost an annual basis.  This is something with great potential impact on all taxpayers, but it doesn't register on the average person's radar.  It would be good to contact your legislators and ask that a proportional representation on these committees (called TECs: Taxing Entity Committees) be put into law, instead of one that allows everyone else to run roughshod over the school district.  Also, the 2/3 majority seems like a better threshold for providing tax-incentives that will impact the local taxpayers.

I don't think this is the proper role of government--determining winners and losers.  I am sympathetic to the argument that some of this helps to bring in new businesses and increase our tax base.  However, a lower tax rate, treating all people and businesses the same, should accomplish the same goal.  So, on the promise of a greater tax base, in say twenty years, our kids now will not reap the benefit of increased development that might have come anyway.  Of course, all this requires a crystal ball, so it's anyone's guess whether the tax-dollar investment will be worth it.  But, as stated in our Board Study Session, we are never presented a proposal where the district isn't supposed to get more money in the long run. 

If you support RDAs, you need to let the local governments know, as well as the legislature.  If you do not support them, you need to get involved in changing the laws at the state level, and lobbying your local government agencies to stop approving them.  If a majority of the entities doesn't vote in favor of the RDA, it doesn't happen.  But, how often does this become an election issue so our officials are held accountable?   It hasn't been, but it should be. 

Next blog: New Assessment/Accountability Requirements from the State/Feds, Differentiated Diplomas and State Textbook Reviews

Thursday, August 2, 2012

SBAC: Adoption process...my letter

Dear State Board Members:

I want to start out by thanking you for your hours of service and for taking the time to read this letter.  You have received many communications about Common Core, and although this letter will touch on that, my overriding concern is with process and not with specifics.  I have to admit that this letter is written as a criticism, but not of any individuals.  Please accept it in the spirit it is written, as working to improve our governing process. 

I have attached two documents: 1.) the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Utah and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), and 2.) the Cooperative Agreement between SBAC and the US Dept of Ed.  (If you can’t download the attachments, you can find them here: https://keepeducationlocal.com/~keepeduc/export/documents/sbac_mou.pdf and here: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-assessment/sbac-cooperative-agreement.pdf.) I hope you have read both of these agreements, and if not, please do so.  As you may know, both a retired appellate judge and the Sutherland Institute have determined these agreements directly lock the State of Utah into Common Core standards and testing arrangements overseen by the Federal Government, above what we already have via ESEA, etc. 

Additionally, in reading the minutes from your meetings from Jan. 2010 – Jun. 2010, I understand that the MOU was never presented to the board for a discussion, a review or a vote, and it was never reviewed, at least publicly, by legal counsel.  In June, 2010, State Board President Roberts indicated to the Board that she had signed the application for membership in SBAC.   There was no indication she believed that application (which was in reality the MOU) to be a legally-binding contract.  From discussions with USOE staff and various board members, I was continually assured there was no Federal involvement and our agreement was just an MOU, nothing legally binding.  However, in addition to requiring US Dept of Ed approval in order to exit the consortium (MOU) and full implementation of the assessments (MOU), the Cooperative Agreement requires the consortium to “Work with the Department [of Ed] to develop a strategy to make student-level data…from the assessment system available on an on-going basis…(p.11)”  There does seem to be quite a bit of Federal involvement in the assessment piece of this equation.   

I would submit that the people of Utah expect those in elective office to have thoroughly vetted any and all contracts and legally-binding agreements prior to those documents being enacted.  We, the people, would have liked to have been party to the discussion among several board members who may have found some of the SBAC agreement to infringe on Utah’s State Sovereignty and the ability of our teachers to teach beyond the tests that are funded by the Federal Government.  Would some of you have been concerned with the data sharing outlined in the Cooperative Agreement between SBAC and the Feds?

I know, as an elected official, the amount of information and paperwork that comes to me at times is overwhelming.  I know we hire good people on our staff, and we trust them to do the job they were hired to do.  I also know that the buck stops with me.   So, anything that I agree to, whether I looked into it or not, I am accountable to the people for. 

By the same token, I know you have hired good people and you trust them.  However, when you agree to sign onto something it must be read and reviewed, if you are to be accountable to the people for that action.  I am asking you to review the process whereby a legally-binding document was signed and executed without the full board’s vetting, review, and vote, and by extension, without the public’s input.  We look to you to attend to the details and make the very best decisions on our behalf.  But, once those decisions are made, it is up to you to be able to explain to us and to be accountable for those actions.  It appears, in the case of the SBAC agreement, this did not occur.  It appears that too much was done under the flag of trust, without the proper level of verification.  People are human and fallible.  This is why we have the different structures in government set up to check and balance each other.  Please look into this process and work to balance the trust with the verification.


Wendy K. Hart

Mother and Utah Citizen

Board Member, Alpine School District

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Common Core: When Does Voluntary Become Involuntary?

(This is sixth in the series. Click to read the other posts on Common Core: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

If Utah is committed to a legally-binding agreement, should those elected officials who made that agreement have read it?  Should they have submitted it to legal counsel for a review?  Should they have voted, in a public meeting, debating the merits of the contract PRIOR to having their representative sign it? 

If so, you need to contact ALL the members of the State Board of Education BEFORE Friday, Aug. 3.  Here is a link to their email addresses.  Read on for more information.

For fifteen months, since I found out about the Feds funding the Common Core tests (assessments), I have been very concerned with Common Core.  To me, the lynch pin of the entire thing rests on the testing.  Those of us who bring up the loss of local control and giving greater power to the Feds are always told something like: Common Core is voluntary.  The Feds aren't involved.  We can get out anytime we want.  Since I started all my research on Common Core, some additional pieces of information/evidence have come to light.  The most important piece of this evidence is the contract Utah has signed with the testing consortium, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

From the beginning of Common Core in 2009, the State Board and State Office of Ed (USOE) have been involved in a consortium of states writing the standards, and then deciding between the two testing consortia.  Some of our USOE employees have been involved on committees and as consultants in these endeavors.  In every instance I have found, there has been discussion about maintaining Utah's independence and sovereignty.  However, this has been weighed against the desire to get additional funds, tests, not reinventing the wheel, etc. as Common Core has been rolled out across the nation.  In my personal discussions with staff and State Board Members, they are consistently pointing to their desire to maintain Utah's independence, and I believe them.  However, I have read other documents that indicate this independence has been compromised, and, it has been done without the direct consent and/or knowledge of our elected representatives. 

In January, 2010, Utah applied to receive money from the 2009 stimulus package under the Federal Race to the Top program.  We didn't qualify for the funds, so we submitted our application again for Phase 2 in June, 2010.   We didn't receive any of those funds either.  However, in the Phase 2 application, we replaced a non-binding agreement with SBAC with a legally-binding agreement* that was signed by the Governor, the State Superintendent, and the State Board President.  This past April, State Board President Debra Roberts said the agreement was not legally binding because the board never voted on it.  Other board members believe it is legally binding.  Within that document, we agreed to several things.  Some of those are:

1. Adopt Common Core standards for the state (p.3).
2. Implement the full complement of SBAC tests by 2014-15 school year (p.3).
3. Determine and work to change any state laws that would prevent the use of the SBAC tests or any other part of our agreement (p.3).
4. Abide by the governance and agreements of SBAC (p.3).
5. To exit SBAC, receive approval of our request from the US Department of Education (p.12).

Additionally, SBAC, upon receiving $159 million from the Federal government, signed a Cooperative Agreement that commits SBAC (and its members) to an on-going relationship with the Feds for testing development and reporting student data.  Because of our involvement with SBAC, we are equally constrained by this agreement with the Feds.  So, even though Utah never signed or agreed to anything from the Feds, our agreement with SBAC does so on our behalf. 

A retired appellate court judge, Norman Jackson, reviewed these documents at the request of some parents.  He concluded that the US Dept of Ed does not have to grant any state's request to exit the consortium.  He also stated that the agreements legally bind Utah to implementing the testing and the standards, as dictated by the Federal Government.
In no board meeting minutes is there evidence that the actual SBAC agreement was discussed or legal issues raised.  No vote, no contractual review, just general info on SBAC.  Based on this lack of information in the minutes, the Board was not aware of the implications of this agreement.  In short, it appears that many of the State Board Members had not read this contract prior to its signing, and may not have even known of its existence, until concerned citizens found it.

Having said that, some of these members want to exit SBAC completely.  A vote to withdraw from SBAC was taken in Feb., 2012, and failed 4 -10.  On Aug. 3, the board is scheduled to vote again on our association with SBAC.  I would like to encourage you to encourage them to withdraw completely from this association.  While the Board's desire to withdraw will trigger a letter to SBAC, our formal withdrawl will be contingent on approval from the US Dept of Ed.  I assume that just prior to an election, there would not be any reason for the Dept of Ed to hold Utah to an agreement it wishes to exit.  After November, I would be less certain. In short, we voluntarily entered a prison of our own (and other states') making.  How easy will it be to withdraw?  Much more so, if we show our support to our State Board members who are willing to exit this agreement with SBAC, and, by association, the Feds.  Please ask them to review the two contracts (Utah and SBAC and SBAC and the Feds), and to commit to voting to get out of that agreement.

*The Race to the Top application on the US Dept of Ed website is the only place I have found a copy of the SBAC agreement (although I requested it from the USOE in November, 2011).  It can be found on pages 286-302 of a nearly 500-page application.  The 500-page application is too large to email.  The Keep Education Local site just pulled those 17 pages from the RTTT application obtained from the US Dept of Ed site.  I have linked to both sites, so you can see them for yourself.

Monday, June 18, 2012

To Tax or not to Tax: Budget 2012-13

 On Tuesday, June, 19, the board will have a public hearing on our proposed budget for this coming fiscal year.  Please attend at 6pm and comment at the district office in American Fork.

Budget 2012-13: Increase Tax Rates?  Don't Increase Tax Rates.
First, I would highly recommend reading the first few pages of the budget, found here.  Using the pdf pages, go to pg. 9 - 10 to read the summary on the tax rates, and then 11 - 14 to see the "Big Picture" of the overall budget.  It should take you less than 10 minutes.  If you are interested in the employee changes, see pg. 82.  Pg. 83-88 contain a glossary.  You can also see the Board, Superintendent and total principal salaries and benefits outlined on pg. 26.  We are planning on an additional 2,076 students this fall, and adding 66 full-time employee positions and 3.5 counselors to accommodate that growth.  (Incidentally, the state has mandated a certain counselor to student ratio.  Alpine is behind on this ratio, and we send a letter every year telling the state we are working on complying with their mandate.  I, personally, would err on the side of having more teachers, but that decision isn't in my hands.) 

At the board meeting, last month, we reviewed the proposed budget which included an increase in property tax rates.  This would require a Truth in Taxation hearing in August.  The rationale behind the increase was to "recoup" the property tax amount that goes to charter schools in our area.  About 4 or 5 years ago, the legislature changed charter school funding from entirely income-tax based to getting a portion from local property taxes.  The actual funding formula (other than overall increase in per pupil funding for ALL public school students), as far as I can tell, hasn't changed; just the combination of pots has changed.  At the time of this change, many school districts increased their property tax amount to accommodate the loss of property tax revenue.  Alpine did not.  We were planning on a bond, and we try to be more conservative in our approach to taxation.  At the time, the amount deferred from property taxes was $500,000.  It is now up to $1.2 million.  (It is based on the number of students going to charter schools, and the payout is 25% of the per student--including charter students--property tax amount. Email me if you want more details.) Our administration and most of the board found the argument compelling that the money should have been ours and wasn't anymore.  In my opinion, the money is the taxpayers' and whether or not we pull from one pot or another doesn't necessarily entitle us to that money.  I do agree with the idea that the amount of property taxes sent to charter schools should be clearly identified on the property tax notice (which was a bill that never came before the State Senate this year but passed in the House).  I also find property tax the least fair and the most egregious method of taxation.  For that reason, I would be opposed to a property tax increase except as a last resort.  I wouldn't base it on an appeal to fairness.

That being said, in the last month, our budget staff, Jim Hansen and Teresa Newman, and our Business Administrator, Rob Smith, have received more concrete information from the county.  It appears that due to 1)increased property values, 2) more people paying their taxes, and 3) the legislature consolidating property tax revenues and shifting from one pot of property tax to another pot, the district will be receiving $1.5M additional revenue from the state over our originally proposed budget.  Due to this increase, they are recommending that we not increase the current property tax rates.  (The board could, at any time, still decide to increase rates, but, most likely, won't without the recommendation of our administration.) However, despite a lack of tax rate increases, we have budgeted for 30 full-time teaching positions.  There may be some flexibility in this: more teachers that are part-time or whatever is seen as necessary.  The Obama EduJobs program from two years ago, allowed us to hire 26 teaching positions.  That money is no longer available, and so those 26 positions were to be eliminated.  Due to some good budget work and the reasons I mentioned above, we will be able to retain all 26 positions and add 4 more, in addition to the teachers required by additional student growth.  This is phenomenal!  In January, the board expressed a desire to reduce class sizes.  We have had several parents (and less publicly, teachers and administrators) comment on the need to reduce class sizes.  The original, original budget included only 8 additional teaching positions.  But, since this has been a high priority for the board, I have been impressed with the ability to come up with 30 positions.  With 79 schools in the district, it is a drop in the bucket, but, like anything, it is a big step in the right direction.  I would recommend an email or a comment at the budget hearing, if you are pleased with the reduction in class sizes and/or the static property tax rate.  I can't thank our business office enough for all their hard work on the budget and for looking for ways to not increase property tax rates, but to decrease class sizes.  Our business department has very good people, and I appreciate their efforts on our behalf.

Some additional items on the budget that might be of interest. 

1. Health care costs went up nearly 16%, which would have added $8.6M to our budget.  The collective bargaining agreements (also on this meeting's agenda: See Action Items: Certified, Classified, and Administrative Agreements) include five different health plans, ranging from current-level coverage (that would have increased the district's costs $8.6M) to a Health Savings Account.  Employees requesting the current level of coverage will need to pay a portion of the premium.  Those opting for the Health Savings Account will receive the difference between their reduced premium amount and the amount the district is paying for everyone else into their Health Savings Account.  The other three plans fit in between those two extremes.  As is, our health care costs didn't increase very much.  I applaud our administration and our associations for their creative approach in solving this dilemma. 

2. Federal Revenues make up 8.2% of our total budget.  For our general fund (day-to-day maintenance and operations), it is only 7%, or $28M out of $377M.  Due to the failure of the Congressional Super Committee, overall Federal Revenues will be cut 9% in January.  So, Federal Revenue is a figure we need to keep an eye on.  For Nutrition Services, Federal Revenues make up nearly 48% of of the budget, or $10.9M out of $22M.  A lot of this money is for Free and Reduced lunches, but all student lunch are subsidized, either by the state or the Feds, or both.  I was unaware of this information until a year ago. 

3. Pg. 18 shows a pie chart of the expenditures in the General Fund.  You can see that 70% of our expenses are on Instruction. 

4. Our collective bargaining agreements include funding "step and lane" which is the salary schedule.  As employees get more education and are with the district longer, their salaries are increased.  This requires an increase in the budget to accommodate those increases.  Also, there will be a 2%, one-time bonus given to all employees out of last year's budget, which came in under projected expenses.

5. The Common Core math textbook purchase is being taken out of Fund Balance (essentially our savings) from this past fiscal year (2011-12). It will be about $1.2 - $1.5 M.

6. The Collective Bargaining Agreements change our requirement to negotiate with the associations from them needing to have a majority of employees (State Law) to having the "greatest number". 

7. And lastly, the budget includes $1.5 M for the purchase and implementation of a new financial/purchasing system.  Our current system is 30-years old and has been modified in-house multiple times.  Those who are familiar and comfortable with the system are few and far between.  The financial system will be discussed and voted on in the July board meeting.

Superintendent Reappointment
The Agenda includes the reappointment of our superintendent, Dr. Vernon Henshaw, for another two years.  There is no formal contract, but the benefits include the same health and retirement benefits as our other employees.  The budget includes a raise for both Dr. Henshaw and our Business Administrator, Rob Smith.  Dr. Henshaw is a very good and competent administrator.  I have seen him ably implement whatever direction he is given from the board. 

Common Core/State Board of Ed Update
The State Board of Education will be voting in August on whether or not to remain a governing member, to change to advisory member or to withdraw completely from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia (SBAC), which is creating the state tests all Utah public school students (district and charter) will take come 2014-15, along with 30 other states.  (What is tested is what will be taught.)  Our original agreement with SBAC, as included in our federal Race to the Top application, Phase 1, was just a non-binding memorandum.  In the Race to the Top, Phase 2 application, this non-binding memorandum was replaced with a signed, legally-binding contract. (See page 286 for the signed contract with SBAC.) Additionally, the SBAC consortium signed a legally-binding cooperative agreement with the Federal Department of Education.  So, via our contract with SBAC and their agreement with the Feds, our state tests are subject to Federal control and supervision.  Interestingly, the state board never discussed or voted on this contract with SBAC.  State Board President, Debra Roberts stated in a public forum on April 26 that the contract was not legally binding because the board never voted on it.  However, it was signed by the Board President, the Governor, and the State Superintendent.

It was suggested during the June meeting that a letter be sent changing Utah's status from Governing Member to Advisory Member.  The Board was told that Advisory status would alleviate our obligations to the consortium.  State Board Member Dave Crandall read the contract and indicated that our obligations would be the same with the exception of losing our vote in the consortium.  Based on Member Crandall's information, Board President Roberts declined to sign the letter, since there was no apparent advantage.  Kudos to Mr. Crandall for his follow-up!  Because of this, the full board will be voting on whether to withdraw completely from SBAC this August.  Without the direct obligation from the consortium to the Dept of Ed, Utah can adopt the Common Core standards and still determine it's own tests.  Currently, there are no financial penalties for this course of action.  There is, however, concern that we may not receive our (illegal) No Child Left Behind waiver if we pull out of the testing consortium.  Once we are granted the No Child Left Behind waiver, we are obligated, as far as I can tell, to maintain the Common Core standards and SBAC testing until such time as the Federal government determines we need to do something ELSE in education. 

Additionally, the State Board is reviewing Social Studies standards.  If you are like me, you will want to pay close attention to this process and give a lot of input.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Invictus: Unconquered

I had the great opportunity to attend two graduation ceremonies this past week.  I am excited for the Class of 2012!!

The first graduation was for Lone Peak High School.  There were approximately 600 graduates, and Lone Peak has performed phenomenally in sports, music, academics, etc.  The parental involvement is very high.  The kids are wonderful!  It brought back fond memories of my high school and the great friendships I developed (and still cherish).  I envy those students of Lone Peak, and, in fleeting moments, yearn to return to those wonderful high school years. 

The second was for Summit High School.  Until I became a member of the board, I was unaware of Summit High.  Because of this, I'd like to give you a little more information.  When we think of high school, most of us will think of our fun, unruly, and exciting experiences.  Lone Peak reflects those memories most closely for the vast majority of us. 

In contrast, Summit High is there to serve "students who are in the custody of the State of Utah for reasons of neglect or delinquency and non-custody students who are at-risk of educational failure....A positive relationship with each student is the first order of business."  There were 31 graduates who overcame very difficult circumstances: homelessness, addiction, abuse, neglect.  The road has been very difficult for them, and yet, they have not given in.  Instead, they have achieved greatness.  One graduate shared the poem, "The Race", which says: "all you have to do to win is rise each time you fall."  This concept these students have had to learn repeatedly.  Instead of a traditional band or orchestra, Summit has a wonderful rock band, Invictus.  If you ever get to hear them perform, I'd take advantage of the opportunity.  We heard one of the best renditions of Pachelbel's Cannon in D, as well as What a Wonderful World.  The faculty and staff are very devoted to their students, and the students are, as well, to them.  This year, the faculty (and some private organizations) donated enough money to give a total of $55,500 to be split between the 31 graduates, allowing them each to attend college or a vocational school of their choosing.   I was impressed with the caliber of the students, who have risen above so much, as well as their mentors and friends that they found in the faculty of Summit High.

Each Summit graduate must memorize the poem, Invictus, which means, "unconquered".

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

--William Ernest Henley
May we each be the master of our fate and the captain of our soul.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Money and Management

The Board Meeting this Tuesday, May 15, will have far-reaching implications.  See the agenda here.

Budget and Tax Rates
First, we will be reviewing the proposed Maintenance and Operations (M&O) budget (everything except buildings, buses, long-term stuff).  This is really the only time the budget will be discussed in depth and allow you the opportunity to weigh in on it PRIOR to its adoption on June 19.  During the June meeting, we will have a formal, public budget hearing.  However, if you have suggestions or comments, they will have greater impact prior to the hearing, not during.  I have been told that in the past 10 years, no one has commented on the budget. 

*Note: Boring, but important, stuff to follow.

During the campaign, I had a few people make comments on property tax hearings.  Truth in Taxation is a legal hearing the district must engage in to raise our property tax rate.  Taxes vary based on what your property is worth in any given year.  Every year, the County determines what the tax rate for the district will be, based on how much our collective properties are worth.  If the district accepts that tax rate or lowers it, there is no Truth in Taxation hearing.  If, however, the district decides to raise that tax rate, the law requires a Truth in Taxation hearing.  The main complaint I received was that, during the hearing, the public was given the impression that the tax rate increase had already been decided and the hearing was just a formality. 

When I attended a District Finances 101 course at a conference, the presenter explained why the complaint I heard is mostly accurate, and it has to do with state laws.  By law, our budget for July 2012 - June 2013 must be approved by June 22.  As we approve that budget, we also accept the tax rate from the county.  That allows us to project how much money we will receive, from property taxes, during the coming year.  If we decide we need to increase the amount coming in, we will include the increase in the proposed budget.  When the budget is approved in June, the increased tax rate is, also, approved.  So, even though we are required by law to hold a Truth in Taxation hearing in August or September, by then, we are 2 months into the fiscal year, and the spending has been going on, as per the June budget.  In reality, the only opportunity to influence the budget, and any proposed tax rates, is BEFORE the approval in June.  I think the system is messed up, but that's the law.  I would like to see us hold a budget Open House (like Highland City does) in May.  However, since no one has yet commented on the budget, there really doesn't seem to be a reason to take the time. 

Superintendent Evaluation
This Tuesday, in a closed session, we will be evaluating our Superintendent, Dr. Vern Henshaw.  Superintendents and Business Administrators are given two-year contracts.  So, every two years, it is the board's responsibility to evaluate their performance and decide whether to renew those contracts and under what conditions.  In Alpine, we review our Business Administrator's appointment six months before the Superintendent's.  This allows us to have more continutity in case one of them were leaving. 

We have asked Richard Stowell, Executive Director of the Utah School Boards Association (USBA), to assist us with this process.  A few months ago, we reviewed some of the things we would like to see in the evaluation.  My main focus was on concrete, measurable objectives.  We each met with Mr. Stowell to relate both what the superintendent does well and where we would like to see improvement.  That information was put together in a survey form, and each board member picked so many in each area as the most important items.  The compiled information will be presented to us this evening for our discussion and for our formal evaluation.  Additionally, we have received a report from the Superintendent of his goals and accomplishments over the past two years.  Mr. Stowell will be providing comparables in salary, as well.  We will be able to discuss the evaluation, as well as any proposed contractual changes for both the Supertintendent and the Business Administrator.  The closed session allows for discussion only.  Any action (approval of contract, etc) will be voted on in an open meeting. 

Common Core Update
During the State School Board meeting this month, Superintendent Larry Shumway told the board he would be submitting a letter to the testing consortium (Smarter Balanced or SBAC) to switch Utah's status from a governing member to an advisory member.  The reason was our State Board decided to issue an RFP (request for propsal) for different entities to bid on creating our own state tests, instead of adopting those funded by the Federal Government.  Our agreement with SBAC REQUIRES us to implement their tests in the 2014-15 school year.  This means it would be hard to have any company want to bid on creating tests, if we are legally obligated to adopt someone else's tests.  It was assumed a change to advisory status would allow us to stay in the consortium and still issue the RFP.  However, a change to advisory status does not change the testing requirement.  It only forfeits our single vote in the consortium.  Many state board members were opposed to this action.  Some I've spoken with think there will be a complete withdrawl from the consortium.   I am keeping my fingers crossed.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Alpine's Implementation of Common Core

As I've mentioned previously, I am very grateful to our district administrators who decided to delay implementation of Common Core a year.  We have been able to learn from other districts and have more resources available to us than we would have.   Unfortunately, it is still rushed in some areas, and that isn't something that our district has any control over.  The implementation schedule was set by the State Board of Education.  Here is what you need to know about Alpine's implementation.

First, every school in the district will be having a parent information meeting about Common Core. Here is the link to the times and locations.  I encourage everyone to attend to find out the district's perspective on Common Core, and the local School Community Council's selection of math texts.  The district's math committee has been reviewing the available math texts this past month.  I have heard very positive things from those on the committee.  I know they have worked long and hard to come up with the best options available.  They have narrowed down the selections and will be presenting those options to the School Community Councils.  The School Community Councils will make their decisions this month, and the textbooks will be ordered in April.  The cost for these textbooks is estimated to be $1.5M for this year, and about the equivalent amount next year. 

Utah is the only state to select the "integrated" math approach.  This approach incorporates elements of Algebra and Geometry in every year, instead of separating them out into Algebra I, Geometry, etc.  Additionally, seventh-graders currently can take Math 7, Pre-Algebra or Algebra I, depending on their test scores.  With Common Core implementation, Math 7 and Pre-Algebra students will be in the Intermediate II math course.  Here is a link to the math implementation schedule, if you want to see where your student will end up.  There are, essentially, three paths students can take through math.  To see this plan, click here.  It is significant to mention that not a single 9th-grade math textbook was reviewed because there aren't any that are aligned to Common Core with the "integrated" math approach available at this point in time.  That is a concern to me, but I am told we are going forward.

Second, math will switch to Common Core for those going into 6 - 8 (and some 9th) grades this Fall.  Language Arts will switch to Common Core for K - 5 and 7 - 12.  Next year (2013-14), the elementary grades, 9th and 10th will implement math, and the 6th grade will implement Language Arts.  Our teachers will undergo training this Spring and Summer to be prepared for the switch.  The teachers who deal with the "Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects" will also receive training before school starts in the Fall.  (In last year's budget, $860,000 was allocated for Common Core training.) 

Third, Common Core Language Arts has an increased emphasis on informational text (information-based readings) over literature.  In elementary, 55% of the curriculum should be informational, increasing to 70% by high school.  The complexity of a text (reading) is supposed to increase.  According to the formula, a narrative (story) is easier to read, and so would be considered a lower complexity than a similarly worded information-based reading.  (In fact, the Grapes of Wrath is said to be a Grade 2-3 complexity level, but is "upgraded" to high-school level, based on "qualitative measures".)  Since we are not adopting new textbooks for Language Arts, there isn't anything concrete upon which parents may provide input for this aspect of the Common Core implementation. 

The Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (a consortium of 31 states) is currently providing our state with the Common Core tests in English and Math, starting in 2014-15.  However, Alpine is requesting to be one of the pilot districts for the assessments (tests), which would start in 2013-14.  We are assured that since we have a representative from the Utah State Office of Education, we will be able to control the content of the assessments (tests).  The tests will drive the curriculum, especially as envisioned by the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  "Hopefully, some day, we can track children from preschool to high school and from high school to college and college to career. We must track high growth children in classrooms to their great teachers and great teachers to their schools of education." If teachers are being tracked, based on student performance, they will be teaching to the test. 

Additionally, Utah is one of 6 states Secretary Duncan praised for our data-tracking system. He says, "The Data Quality Campaign, DQC, lists 10 elements of a good data system. Six states, Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, and Utah, have all 10 elements. Other states are also making progress. For example, Arkansas has a data warehouse that integrates school fiscal information, teacher credentials, and student coursework, assessments, and even extracurricular activities." [emphasis mine]  I would recommend you read the entire speech, as linked above. 

Finally, as time goes on, there will be more online and digital texts and readings than before.  We are in a transitional phase, and many of the districts that have already implemented Common Core have done so without any formal textbook adoption--just online.  This has been successful for those teachers who haven't relied on textbooks, but it has been difficult for those who have.  Additionally, I'm unsure how we maintain transparancy to the public, as to our curriculum in a digital age.  This is another area that will need to be addressed going forward. 

In conclusion, I applaud our district for waiting to implement and for providing parents with the opportunity to provide input on Common Core.  I just wish we had more local control over the entire thing.  If we, as parents or as a board, were to decide on a different set of standards, there are no options for doing so.  The State Board has already decided for you and for our board.  If the playing field were wide open, would we have decided to change and adopt these standards and assessments at this point in time?  I, honestly, don't know, but we weren't given that choice, and neither were you.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Common Core Doesn't Determine Curriculum: Who's Behind the Curtain?

(Fifth in the series on Common Core.  Read the intro, part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

4. They say that Common Core does not determine curriculum, aka "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

Common Core is just standards.  Standards lead to assessments.  Assessments lead to curriculum.  As Dr. Jay P. Greene stated, "To make standards meaningful they have to be integrated with changes in curriculum, assessment and pedagogy [teaching methods]."

People complain about teachers teaching to the test, but, at the same time, if those teachers are being evaluated by the results of those tests, why wouldn't they?  Also, if we are putting our kids into those testing situations, don't we want them prepared to succeed?  Yes, we want them to succeed.  And yes, the teachers will teach to the tests. 

I had originally started this blog to tell you how the curriculum hadn't been determined, yet.  You still have the opportunity in math, at least in Alpine, to give your input.  However, two things have occurred that you need to be aware of.

First, even though Alpine delayed Common Core implementation by a year, the textbook publishers are still scrambling to put things together for us to evaluate.  Singapore Math won't have their Common Core-aligned textbooks ready for evaluation till April.  Alpine will be ordering textbooks by then.  The decision will have already been made. We have to begin implementation in the Fall, as per the State School Board's requirements.  So, we are making decisions worth millions of dollars over a short period of time and without considering all the possibilities.  If it is determined some other textbook is better than the ones we select this year, we will not be in a financial position to change things around for several more years.  This is a rushed decision because of an arbitrarily-imposed timeline from the State School Board. 

Second, I became aware of an additional $15,872,696 grant from the US Department of Education (Federal Government) to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) to "support efforts to help participating States successfully transition to common standards and assessments."  As part of SBAC's plan, they will develop "model curriculum and instructional models" and "curriculum materials".  Remember,  "the federal government ... will not have a role in [the Common Core] implementation."  Do you still buy that line?

In Alpine, you have a small window of opportunity to give your feedback on the math texts that are available to choose from.  Every middle school will be having School Community Council meetings to present their selections and inform you of how Common Core will be implemented. 

There is no process for Language Arts involvement, currently.  I was told the Language Arts piece really isn't that much different.  We will just be realigning which materials go with which grade-levels.  So, for example, a book that might be for third grade right now, will need to be shifted down as an appropriate level for second or first grade.  But let's delve into Language Arts some more.

First, you need to know that the official title is "Common Core Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects".  So, when we say English, we also need to understand that our Science, Social Studies, and CTE (Career and Technical Education) subjects will be involved in Common Core teaching and standards.  (There is training scheduled in our district for those specialties for Common Core implementation.) 

Next, there is a heavy emphasis on informational texts (texts designed to convey factual information), as opposed to literature.  In the elementary grades, it is to be 50% literature and 50% informational texts.  In middle school, 55% informational texts and only 45% literature.  By high school, 70% must be informational texts and only 30% literature.  (See nice video here from Sue Gendron, policy coordinator for the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, text percentage begins about 5 min in.  Please note, this is a leader of the assessment consortium, discussing the specific changes required in the curriculum because of the standards.)  I'm not opposed to informational texts, but I have a couple of concerns. 

My initial concern with the emphasis on informational texts was the child's engagement and enjoyment of reading.  When we first learn to read, we get hooked on the stories.  Over time, we develop sufficient skills and interest in reading that we can read more complicated things, conveying information, and learning facts and figures.  However, in the beginning, it's all about the stories.  I don't know about you, but my voracious readers don't read much informational text.  They read for enjoyment.  They read for entertainment.  If we take the enjoyment out of reading by making it all fact-based, we end up creating a problem that didn't exist before.  Not to mention that good literature allows you to learn from the experiences and mistakes of others, even if those others are fictional.  Take A Christmas Carol or MacBeth.  There are timeless principles to be learned from Ebenezer Scrooge and Lady MacBeth.  Or Huck Finn, saying, "You can't pray a lie."  I haven't read Huck Finn in decades, but that is one vivid lesson I remember from my sophomore American Lit class.  What interesting informational text did I read that year?  I can't really say. 

My next concern comes from the same place as my concern with the assessments.  Informational text is going to be written from a particular perspective.  Part of the reason education is supposed to be local is to allow us to maintain our local culture and values.  Education wasn't originally intended to displace parental and community values.  And yet, there is great potential for it in this context.  To alleviate concerns, it is important to note that every informational text is going to be presented.  Then, the student is to give the opinion from the text and construct a counter-argument.  There is great potential for good, as well as social engineering in this.  I have a lot of trust that our local teachers will do a good job.  I just worry about the assessments and what slant they will take.  Along those lines, we have the potential to do one of two things to our kids.  First, they can be taught moral relativism quite easily through the "question everything" model.  Second, since the majority of what is presented in school is presented as fact, anything contrary to the school's presentation (perhaps Mom's and Dad's perspective?) could be deemed incorrect.  It is very dependent on the local implementation, and, of course, the assessments.

Let me give you an example.  During the USBA Conference, I attended a presentation on Common Core.  The presenter, from the State Office of Education, gave us a quote from Ronald Reagan's address to the students at the University of Moscow in 1988.  In it, Reagan discusses the advantages of a free-market system.  First, we are asked to decide what claim Mr. Reagan is making.  Then, we are REQUIRED to talk with the person next to us and cite evidence that supports our conclusion and listen to our partner.  And finally, "considering the current economic conditions of 2012 what evidence could you use to support Reagan's claim for economic growth?  What evidence could you use to develop a counterclaim?"  What if I replace Reagan's speech with the Declaration of Independence?  "What evidence could you use to develop a counterclaim" to the idea that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights?  Do I want my kids to understand and know the opposite of unalienable rights?  Yes.  Do I want them to be taught that unalienable rights is a superior argument to the alternative?  Emphatically, yes.  Will that be done?  I don't know.  How will this be handled and tested?  Locally, probably okay...until the assessments prove otherwise.  In fact, this is a goldmine of opportunity for inserting an agenda into our schools.  With local control, we get to set that agenda.  With national control, we don't.  (And I won't even go into the potential for peer pressure in a classroom when discussing potentially charged issues.)

It should be noted that the State Board of Education has stated Utah will NOT be adopting the Common Core standards for Science and Social Studies, as they are too fraught with ideas and values contrary to Utah's culture.  I appreciate their sensitivity to our local values.  However, remember that the now-adopted English standards also include Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects.  Utah Law requires students to thoroughly study America's Founding Documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, etc.  So, my query about the counterclaim to the Declaration isn't without merit.  In short, I will be curious to see how that "Literacy" piece is incorporated into these other subject areas. 

One additional point, even though the US Department of Education is prohibited by any number of laws--including the orginal Act creating the Department of Education--from being able "to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s curriculum, program of instruction...", the Department has effectively paid other entities to do what it isn't able to do directly.  However, under the law, if you pay someone to break the law for you, you are still guilty.  As a white paper, The Road to a National Curriculum, says:

By PARCC’s and SBAC’s admission, these standards and assessments will create content for state K-12 curriculum and instructional materials.  The Department [of Education] has simply paid others to do that which it is forbidden to do. This tactic should not inoculate the Department against the curriculum prohibitions imposed by Congress.
In truth, I assumed the US Department of Education would have waited two or three years, till we had fully implemented the assessments, to peer out from behind the curtain on curriculum.  But, I suppose when you are the Great and Powerful Oz, you don't need to pretend to follow the law.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Common Core: Where Are We Getting Our Assessments?

(This is the fourth of eight blogs on Common Core.  For previous blogs, click here: Intro, Point 1, Point 2)

UPDATE: The Utah State Board of Education applied to be removed from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in August, 2012.  They then selected the American Institutes for Research (AIR) a "behavioral and social sciences organization" not a testing organization to create the Common Core-aligned state tests to be administered in 2014.  To read about AIR, go to my blog here

3. Common Core proponents say that the standards do not determine assessments.

In discussing Common Core (CCSS) , I have had proponents say things like, "It's just standards.  It doesn't dictate testing or curriculum".  Standards will require testing aligned with those standards.  So, who is involved in creating those tests? After three days of blogs on this subject, I assume no one will be surprised by the answer...the Federal Government.  The US Department of Education is funding the assessments for the Common Core.

Many of you have read my first blog on this topic.  Some of it will be repeated here, for clarity.  In short, the US Department of Education gave a grant of $330,000,000 to two consortia to develop assessments.  The Smarter Balance Consortia (SBAC) is the one Utah belongs to, along with about 30 other states.  The assessments are to be computer-adaptive and available in 2014.  Computer-adaptive tests use a series of more detailed questions to determine the knowledge of the test-taker.  For example, if you answer an initial question correctly, the subsequent question goes into greater depth and so on. 

An emphasis is being placed on the testing by US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  He said:

As I travel around the country the number one complaint I hear from teachers is that state bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn't measure what really matters... Both of these winning applicants are planning to develop assessments that will move us far beyond this and measure real student knowledge and skills.
One concern with this approach is the SBAC consortium doesn't appear to focus on content knowledge.  While there is concrete knowledge included in the Common Core Standards, the emphasis in all the meetings I've attended, and apparently in the assessments, has been on processes and communication instead of content. 

Dr. W. Stephen Wilson, a professor of mathematics and education at Johns Hopkins University, reviewed the assessment plan for Smarter Balance.  He is concerned by the emphasis on mathematical processes over actual math knowledge and skills.  (Read his full comments here.)  Dr. Wilson says:

The conceptualization of mathematical understanding on which SBAC will base its assessments is deeply flawed. The consortium focuses on the Mathematical Practices of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) at the expense of content, and they outline plans to assess communication skills that have nothing to do with mathematical understanding....

Mathematical Practices, or what was usually called “process” standards in most states, do little more than describe how someone pretty good at mathematics seems to approach mathematics problems. As stand alone standards, they are neither teachable nor testable. Mathematics is about solving problems, and anyone who can solve a complex multi-step problem using mathematics automatically demonstrates their skill with the Mathematical Practices, (whether they can communicate well or not)....

Ultimately, the actual assessments will tell us all what SBAC thinks is important.... It appears that the assessments will focus on communication skills and Mathematical Practices over content knowledge. [emphasis mine]

Another critique said:
Both [CCSS assessment] consortia appear poised to develop subjective assessments rather than objective tests. SBAC plans to assess deep disciplinary understanding and higher-order thinking skills. Will either PARCC or SBAC test student content knowledge and skill? [emphasis mine]
Additionally, I was able to review some sample test questions.  I saw a lot of free-text, explain-your-answer questions.  Let me give you one example. 
First, you have a 4-paragraph description of a family concerned with their gas bill and a page of the bill. 

Part A: Using a free text response: Assess the cost-effectiveness of new insulation by researching "heating degree days" on the internet. The response must include:
  • Compare the heating costs from Jan. 2007 to Jan. 2008
  • Explain the savings after the insulation
  • Identify circumstances under which the Jan. 2008 bill would have been at least 10% less than the Jan. 2007 bill
  • Decide if the insulation was cost-effective and provide evidence of this
Part B: Create a short pamphlet from the gas company to guide customers in increased energy efficiency:
  • List the quantities the customers need to consider in assessing cost-effectiveness
  • Generalize a method of comparison used for the gas bills with a set of formulas, and provide an explanation of the formulas
  • Explain to customers how to weigh the cost of energy efficiency measures with savings on their bill
Then upload your pamphlet...to the computer for grading.
While this might be a good classroom exercise, this is a math test, remember? I don't even want to go into how a computer accurately grades something like this.  I assume the program is looking for certain numbers and words in the response, but there are so many variables to how one answers this.  One computer science person stated he is familiar with the capabilities of natural language programs and worried this would exceed those capabilities.  In short, our kids may not be able to do math problems, but, at least, they'll be able to explain about the math problems and make pretty pamphlets. 

I haven't even gotten into Language Arts yet.  There are more concerns about the Language Arts assessments, not the least of which is the writing piece.  How does one effectively measure writing without a human involved?  I will go into my concerns with Language Arts in greater detail when I address curriculum next time.

Assessments will drive the curriculum.  We will teach what is on the tests.  It is important to know who is writing the tests and what they are evaluating.  Who are the people involved in SBAC?  What are their backgrounds, their biases and their agendas?  How do we prevent these biases and agendas from spilling over into our very verbose computerized tests?  The assessments are too big of a player to turn over to some "experts" and the Federal government.

Two additional points of concern are peripherally connected to the assessments.

First, some people feel they don't need to worry because they homeschool, or go to private school or send their kids to charters.  Well, the charter schools are treated the same as the district schools when it comes to standards and assessments: they're going Common Core.  But home and private schools may not be free and clear either.  The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) is concerned with not just the influence of Common Core on public schools, but private and home schoolers, as well. Congress reauthorizes their Elementary and Secondary Education Authorization (ESEA) bill every year.  The ESEA is the main way the feds create their own standards for our schools and appropriate funding for education to a large degree.  This year's version has made HSLDA very nervous.  In short:

In addition, one provision in the Senate’s bill mandates that any state taking federal funds must put in place “College and Career Ready Aligned Standards.” Mandating that each state have aligned standards with aligned coursework will guarantee the creation of national academic standards, national curriculum, and national testing. We believe this will result in the eventual requirement that homeschoolers use these national standards, curriculum, and testing. [emphasis mine]
A few years ago when ESEA created No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Utah tried to opt-out of federal education dollars and the NCLB constraints.  The feds responded that we could go ahead and do that, but they would provide NO federal funding to the state.  That means we wouldn't lose just the education dollars, but road funds, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.  Given the above ESEA concerns, the state would be forced to forgo $5.2 Billion or "ensure", through state law, that all education venues (public, home, private) meet "College and Career Ready" standards and assessments, aka Common Core.

The other concern has to do with privacy and data collection.  As part of the stimulus bill, the US Department of Education (DOE) has required the states to create longitudinal data systems.  The idea is that your child's information is tracked from preschool through college.  This will allow for greater information for research in education.  How does this tie in to Common Core?

The Common Core standards were the vehicle to get the longitudinal database. … They want to get all these systems where they interconnect. … The data sets already exist and are coded.

To protect your child's privacy, the feds have a rule called FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).  Currently, certain people (e.g. elected school board members administrators) can view personally identifiable information (PII) about your child.  Any data the school collects, they can have access to.  Up until this month, they did not have the right to share that information, except under very specific circumstances.  Now, this data can be shared, without your consent, to bureaucrats in other agencies or private organizations as "authorized representatives". 

Thus, for example, a school may turn over PII to DOE as part of regular procedure and not be told that DOE is disclosing that data to a research company. And if the school discovered, and objected to, the redisclosure, DOE would not even have to point to an express legal authority for its action.
Read more about these concerns here, realizing this was written prior to the adoption of these new FERPA standards. 

And just to make you even more comfortable, here's more information about data collection on students.

Under regulations the Obama Department of Education released this month, these scenarios could become reality. The department has taken a giant step toward creating a de facto national student database that will track students by their personal information from preschool through career. Although current federal law prohibits this, the department decided to ignore Congress and, in effect, rewrite the law. Student privacy and parental authority will suffer.
How did it happen? Buried within the enormous 2009 stimulus bill were provisions encouraging states to develop data systems for collecting copious information on public-school kids. To qualify for stimulus money, states had to agree to build such systems according to federally dictated standards. So all 50 states either now maintain or are capable of maintaining extensive databases on public-school students
The administration wants this data to include much more than name, address and test scores. According to the National Data Collection Model, the government should collect information on health-care history, family income and family voting status. In its view, public schools offer a golden opportunity to mine reams of data from a captive audience. [emphasis mine]
To view the pieces of information to be collected, including religious consideration and diseases, illnesses, etc. go here

The Feds are incentivizing the assessments, but do we have to adopt them?  Not yet.  Our agreement with SBAC says we will contribute to their consortium.  There is no statement of obligation to the tests, I am told.  However, in a discussion with a State Office (USOE) employee, she said there would be no reason to belong to the consortium unless we implemented Common Core now and were able to give feedback on the assessments.  Some of the State Board of Education members do not want us to adopt SBAC because of the costs and/or concerns about the content of the assessments.  They are supportive of the Common Core standards, but would like Utah to develop its own assessments.  Another USOE employee stated that the USOE/State Board will select the questions for the assessments from a database of those created by SBAC.  Also, one of our USOE employees is high up in the SBAC consortium.  The assumption is that those USOE employees will effectively screen anything that doesn't maintain Utah values from the assessments.  They say there is no need to worry, and we will always be able to back out. 

Having said that, why am I bothering to give you this information?  It's all good, and if it isn't, we can opt out at a future date.  I believe my role is to give you the information, both the positive and the negative.  The positive is already out there.  But there's always a downside.  We, the people, need to be empowered to make our own decisions and hold our elected officials accountable.  Providing only one side of the story is not sufficient.  There are pros to Common Core, but there are also cons.  You need to see both sides, make your own decisions, and then act on those decisions.

There are, at least, three entities you should contact about Common Core: the State School Board, your legislators, and the governor.

First, you need to let the State School Board know of your concerns and that you are watching the assessment process very closely.  Utah should not have signed on to a program without data (or textbooks) to back it up.  What concrete protections are they putting in place against encroachment by the Feds or even areas of concern in the standards and assessments when accepting things from other states?

Second, your legislators need to be aware of and remove (if found) any direct references to Common Core, SBAC (Smarter Balance) or standards from a consortium of states in any of the legislation that may discuss education standards or assessments.  This could be a backdoor approach for enshrining Common Core into law.  (It currently is only the policy of the State School Board; not the law of the State.)  They need to know if you favor Utah creating its own assessments.  The legislators also need to be asked about the protections they will be putting in place to prevent Federal overreach into the area of education.  Education is a state issue, not a Federal one.  We should not be willing to grant that authority to any government or organization outside of Utah.  If (or should I say, When) the Feds use their power of the purse to 'encourage' us to tow the line, we need to already have legislation in place to prevent them, other states, or outside organizations from dictating our standards, assessments, or curricula.

Third, the governor signed on to Common Core.  He needs to hear of your concerns as well.

Please know, however, it requires some digging to find this information I'm presenting.  Those who decided on this were presented only the roses of Common Core, not the thorns.

In conclusion, the Feds are paying two consortia to develop assessments.  These assessments appear to test communication and processes over actual content knowledge or skills.  Additionally, several pieces of legislation and DOE regulations could require all students to meet Common Core standards (often phrased as college- and career-ready) and take Common Core tests.  Finally, using the vehicle of Common Core, we have a nice data-collection system.  I don't believe this is what the State School Board had in mind when they adopted the Common Core standards, but this is what it has become.  We have sacrificed the principle of local and parental control on the alter of (supposed) better educational outcomes and a desire to keep up with "other states".  We will reap the rewards of less control and greater bureaucracy with no guarantee of the original outcome.  There is never a right way to do the wrong thing.