INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — A swirl of controversy and misinformation is growing as Nevada enters the third year of implementing a nationwide education initiative aimed at establishing what students should know after graduating from each grade level.
The Common Core Standards Initiative — or simply, Common Core — attempts to standardize English language arts and mathematics for K-12 students, and Nevada is among 44 U.S. states and the District of Columbia that have formally adopted the program.
The standards were developed in response to a 2004 study called “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts,” which found that high school graduates were falling considerably short of expectations of both employers and college institutions after moving on from high school.
“For too many graduates, the American high school diploma signifies only a broken promise,” the study reads. “While students and their parents may still believe that the diploma reflects adequate preparation for the intellectual demands of adult life, in reality it falls far short of this common sense goal.”
In 2009, the National Governors Association — a bipartisan organization of American governors — took it upon itself to carry out the report’s recommendation to restore value to the high school diploma by developing a common set of rigorous standards.
The NGA convened a group of professional educators to develop those standards, an exhaustive process that included incorporating feedback from teachers across the country, including in Nevada.
Then-Gov. Jim Gibbons established a Blue Ribbon Task Force on March 15, 2010, which met publicly six times between March and November. At the final meeting, the group presented a final report to incoming Gov. Brian Sandoval and every present member of the legislature.
Additionally, the Nevada State Board of Education held several public hearings in the run up to the legislature approving Common Core at every grade level for English language arts and every grade except 11 and 12 for math.
Since the Silver State’s adoption, school districts such as the Washoe County School District have begun incorporating Common Core standards into their curricula.
“It has really been a bottom-up effort with the teachers leading the charge,” said Aaron Grossman, WSCD Teacher on Special Assignment.
In English language arts, Common Core emphasizes content knowledge over rote memorization, Grossman said, meaning students are encouraged to engage with primary materials and make claims through writing or speaking with evidence retrieved from sources.
“Common Core essentially says there are certain things kids need to be successful in college courses or their first job, but we own how the kids get there,” he said.
In other words, familiarity with making an argument and supporting with source materials can be aided by teachers in Northern Nevada who are able and even encouraged to use the rich local history of mining, for example, to bring these over arching concepts to the classroom.
“I think there is a lot of confusion of standards with curriculum,” said Grossman, adding that teachers are able to tailor specific lesson plans in flexible ways to meet the standards.
Not everyone agrees with the standards put forward by Common Core.
John Eppolito, a Tahoe real estate agent who emerged as an ardent critic of International Baccalaureate when WCSD was considering implementing that program nearly five years ago at public schools in Incline Village, has serious concerns.
Eppolito currently is president of the group Stop Common Core Nevada, which was founded several months ago to oppose the state’s adoption.
“It’s a one-size-fits-all program, it has a top down control, it’s not written by K-12 teachers and it was rushed by the federal government into implementation after a series of secret meetings,” Eppolito said. “The objections were not published, it was not research-based and it’s never been tested.”
Judy Osgood, public information officer for the Nevada Board of Education, said the federal government played no role in the development standards. The board of education website further asserts the feds do not govern Common Core.
“The initiative was and will remain a state-led effort,” the website reads.
Further, claims that Common Core is one-size-fits-all are contradicted by proponents who assert the program defines what students need to know, rather than dictates how teachers should teach or how students should learn.
However, Eppolito is not alone as criticism of the program grows.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley recently said her state should not “relinquish control of education to the federal government, neither should we cede it to the consensus of other state.”
And while TV and radio political personality Glenn Beck recently took to the airwaves to denounce Common Core as President Barack Obama’s clandestine plan to transform America into a serf state beholden to China that uses Muslims as enforcers, Eppolito said it would be a mistake to say all program critics are misinformed conspiracy theorists, or for that matter of a certain political stripe.
“Democrats in Clark County have come out against it, the Chicago Teachers Union has come out against it — it’s not just conservatives,” he said.
On March 24 of this year, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation, making his state the first to opt out of Common Core.
“I believe our students are best served when decisions about education are made at the state and local level,” Pence said in a statement. “... Indiana has taken an important step forward in developing academic standards that are written by Hoosiers, for Hoosiers, and are uncommonly high.”
In New York, a growing chorus of parents is encouraging children to not take the math tests, which they claim are too hard, according to media reports.
Meanwhile, comedian Louis C.K. has taken to Twitter to assert that his daughters “used to love math! Now it makes them cry.”
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently told a group of state superintendents the groundswell of opposition is attributable to “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
The backlash has culminated in several efforts in states such as Ohio and Oklahoma that have formally adopted the standards, but are now pursuing legislation that will rescind that adoption.
Eppolito, who said he is trying to protect his kids, hopes Nevada will join with other states in reconsidering adoption.
Kathryn Kelly, founder of Incline Village-based eLearning cafés, said Nevada needs to do something, as it ranks at or near the bottom in state comparisons in education.
“For those of us who spent time looking through Common Core, it raises the academic bar for kids in Nevada,” Kelly said. “Most of it is simply best practices that teachers have been using for a long time.”
Kelly said she is less concerned with the process relating to how Nevada came to adopt Common Core, and more focused on how it will transform the state into a place with an educational landscape that is competitive.
“I am more of a product person, I am not concerned with the tortuous evolution about how to get there,” she said. “Nevada urgently needs to raise the bar of academic expectations — I am bewildered how far behind this state is.”
Next door, the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District has been prepping for Common Core for years after the state of California adopted the program on Aug. 2, 2010. Full implementation is planned for the 2014-15 school year.
— Matthew Renda is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza.