At forum on state education commissioner, concerns about Common Core take center stage

06/03/2014 5:32 PM

06/03/2014 5:32 PM

The topic was the search for a new Kansas commissioner of education. But it was Common Core standards that prompted some of the most impassioned comments during the 90-minute discussion between citizens and Kansas State School Board member Steve Roberts last Thursday.

About 25 people showed up at the Shawnee Mission Northwest High School auditorium last week for one of several forums called by the Kansas State Board of Education. The forums, held across the state, are part of the search process for a new education commissioner. The post is being vacated by Diane DeBacker, who resigned in April to take a spot as an adviser for the Abu Dhabi Education Council.

The state board of education, whose members are chosen in partisan elections, sets standards for educational goals, graduation requirements, accreditation and licensing of teachers. The commissioner is appointed by the board and is its executive director.

Although the group was presented with time to ponder what the board should look for in a new commissioner, most of the questions and opinions had to do with other issues, among them Common Core.

“What I’m hearing is we’ve lost local control with federal money,” said Shawn Dietrich of Spring Hill. “I don’t get how we’re saying we have local control when we’re being told what to do by the federal government. The Common Core standards, 80 percent of local control is gone because those standards are set by a national group.”

Another woman, who would not give her name, worried that the standards would take away parents’ voice. “It’s inferior to what we had before, it’s politically biased and it doesn’t support good education,” she said. “All accountability has been stripped from the teachers and principal.”

Common Core is an attempt to set nationwide standards for what students should know in each grade. Proponents have said having a nationwide standard, rather than different standards for each state as things are now, would make it possible to compare states’ performances on standardized tests.

However, critics say a rush to implement it has led to teaching materials that are confusing and not age-appropriate.

Roberts said he is not a fan of Common Core but believes the state will have to accept something like it because corporations such as Microsoft, Exxon Mobil and Pearson Education, publisher of learning materials, are for it.

“We’re going to have to eat something called Common Core because the world’s richest man is behind it and the world’s richest corporation is behind it,” he said.

But he said he was not convinced that having the same standard in every state would be a better system.

A bit of disagreement broke out when one questioner asked whether the state board had voted to approve the Common Core standards. Roberts said the board did not vote on it, but was contradicted by First District board member Janet Waugh, who was also attending. Waugh’s district includes part of Johnson County.

Waugh said the board did approve the standards, albeit with some changes that caused the board to rename them the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards.

“I support these standards because they teach kids critical thinking and problem solving,” Waugh said. It’s not so much memorization of facts as “understanding why we know them and how to use them in real life.”

Other topics also were brought up. Paul Schwartz of Lenexa said he was concerned about privacy issues in the Olathe district, where his kids attend.

He said districts should be careful about giving students email accounts and online access that could compromise their data.

David Wilson said he was concerned about school financing and how a recent Kansas Supreme Court decision would be implemented. He suggested that school finances should follow the student, which he said would be fairer to private and home schooled students.

Roberts, however, called that a “huge political lift.”

Roberts also bemoaned the fact that the federal government has power, through withholding funds, to dictate practices on such things as school lunches. “I look forward to the day we can say in Kansas, we feed our kids ourselves,” he said. “But if we did that, they would keep our money and it’s a lot of money.”

Mary Sinclair of Fairway said federal mandates are about equity between advantaged and disadvantaged areas.

“Those funds are to provide additional support to kids who come in and are not as ready to learn as other children who have more financial resources behind them,” she said.

“Federal mandates are about providing accessibility and quality education to all kids.”

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