Common Core Sparks Debate



By Michael Hernandez

(Photo by Marc Langsam)

THOUSAND OAKS—A packed audience of almost 400 parents from Conejo Valley Unified School District gathered for a community Forum at the Thousand Oaks High School Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 10th that featured proponents and opponents to Common Core education debating the merits of new learning standards that that take effect in California districts beginning this fall and fully implemented in California and 45 other states for the 2014-15 school year.  This also marks the first major overhaul of public education standards in California since 1997.

The Thousand Oaks debate was sponsored by the Conejo Valley Unified School District and Concerned Parents of Conejo Valley which is led by Common Core critic Tony Dolz, who recently ran for Conejo Valley School Board and has announced he will also run in the next election.

Common Core State Standards

Supporters believe that the Common Core State Standards will give children a “richer education, teaching to think analytically, make connections among different subjects” as well as develop argumentative skills while critics argue that Common Core State Standards are “an attempt by the federal government to control public education” and “will seize control from local districts” over how children learn and are taught.

The contrast between these two positions is sparking heated debates not only in Ventura County but nationwide.

Common Core supporters state that the new standards are:

  1. Aligned with college and work expectations;
  2. Include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
  3. Build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
  4. Informed by top-performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
  5. Evidence and/or research based as well as being one of the most significant reforms to U.S. education in recent history.

Common Core critics express the following  major concerns:

  1. A federal takeover of schools led by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a lack of Congressional public hearings;
  2. The financial incentives from the federal government to adopt not only Race To The Top but Common Core which may prove to be inadequate for implementation;
  3. The huge costs for California implementation with cost estimates ranging from one to four billion dollars depending on who makes the estimate;
  4. Debates over whether the new standards are better than the old standards of if they are “dumbing down” standards; and
  5. Collection of student and family data by the federal government.

Development of Common Core

The  two   organizations   leading   the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) project are the National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

One organization is a bipartisan organization of the nation’s governors while the  other  is  a  nonpartisan,  nonprofit membership organization made up of the states’ chief school officers.  Both these organizations developed “Common Core State Standards” for mathematics and for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects.

In the adoption process, California has chosen to add 15 percent allowed standards to complete the learning needs of California students.

Accompanying the Common Core Standards are College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards that “define the general cross-disciplinary literacy expectations that must be met for students to be prepared to enter college and the work force.”    While these Anchor Standards have not yet been adopted by California, they serve as the framework around which the standards are organized.

Also, included with the Common Core Standards are “exemplars and student samples” to guide instructional implementation by teachers as well as “sample courses” and “pathways” for district and school implementation.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education

The National Research Council of the National Academies (advisors to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine) composed of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and The Institute of Medicine has recently released (2012) A Framework for K-12 Science Education that will create new standards in K-12 science education.  These efforts have been supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York together with the Institute for Advanced Study with the Next Generation of Science Standards based on the framework led by Achieve, Inc. (which has yet to be adopted in California).

The new Common Core Standards will include more emphasis on nonfiction (technical reading of government documents and scientific journals) or non-narrative texts and takes a more integrative approach (blending subject or content matter across grade levels) in mathematics and science.  The expressed intention is “depth” over “breath.”

Two Common Core Consortiums

Two separate consortiums of member states have been developed for assessment of the new Common Core State Standards:  the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC which has 25 states including California and the Virgin Islands and educates 19 million of the nation’s public K-12 students) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC which has 21 states and educates 24 million public K-12 students in the United States).

Member states of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium are: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, U.S. Virgin Islands, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Member states of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers are:

Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

Common Core On-line Testing

Possibly, the biggest change is in the development of on-line testing (requiring students to use computers) which will adjust questions based on responses.  Questions will require more verbal answers that require explanation and move away from the existing multiple-choice items that are currently the practice in the existing high-stakes state testing.

Common Core Community Forum

The two-hour Common Core Community Forum was moderated by Thousand Oaks Acorn editor Kyle Jorrey and featured seven panelists.

Representing the school district were Jeff Baarstad, Conejo Valley Unified School District superintendent; Mike Soules, president of Corwin Publishing, a Newbury Park educational publisher; Jon Sand, CVUSD director of curriculum and assessment; and Peggy Walker, Newbury Park High School and  2011 Conejo Valley teacher of the year.

The panelists speaking against Common Core were Bill Evers, former U.S. Department of Education official and currently a Hoover Institute Fellow; and Sandra Stotsky, author, professor and former commissioner on the Massachusetts Board of Education.  Also on stage was Tony Dolz, chairman of Concerned Parents of Conejo Valley, who only spoke closing comments on the last five minutes of the community forum.

The first half of the Thousand Oaks Common Core Community Forum featured information and concerns from presenters Bill Evers and Dr. Sandra Stotsky followed by a local perspective and then a presenters’ round-table discussion.

“The Common Core Standards were written by a handful of people under the sponsorship of inside beltway advocacy and lobbying groups for the state governors and state school chiefs,”  said Dr. Bill Evers who argued “We have already gotten in California, what we are going to get from the standards as far as improving student and teacher performance.  Do we want to accept mediocre standards when California has the best math standards?”

“Mathematics is being pushed back one year,” said Dr. Evers.  “It is important for our eight graders to take algebra.”

“Massachusetts, California and Indiana have the best state standards which are being abandoned for Common Core Standards which are vastly inferior,” said Dr. Sandra Stotsky.   “I believe in high standards and the role for local and state government to set these high standards.”  Dr. Stotsky, claimed that Common Core Standards were developed by those with no “teaching experience” and that they were “not benchmarked internationally.”  “They are not rigorous, nor are they research based.  They do not lead to analytical or critical thinking.”

“Some State Boards of Education began adopting Common Core Standards before they were written,”  said Dr. Stotsky.  “Legislators are going to have a huge bill for technology.”

Mike Soules of Corwin Publishing, claimed “the focus of Common Core Standards is on accountability.”  He said, “Each state will adopt the Standards, material (curriculum), as well as training.  Different states will have different ways of localizing what they are doing.”

“Common Core Standards will give greater autonomy and greater flexibility in the classroom for teachers” said Mike Soules.  “Teachers are now being empowered.”

“Common Core Standards will integrate 21 century skills (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication) with every day learning.  These are research-based standards and practices,” said Dr. Jon Sand.   “Common Core Standards support big ideas and have driving questions, which are often student generated and which engage students. They provide teachers with extension activities.  Our language learners need real world applications that make a difference.”

“Our focus has been on content not on process,” said Patty Walker.  “Today, we need to go beyond content.  We need to shift toward research based pedagogy with an emphasis on process.  We need to focus on results.  Content is still important but we need to add process.”

“From a local perspective,” said Dr. Jeffrey Baarstad, 2013 central coast superintendent of the year, “80 percent of our eight graders take algebra and 10 percent of seventh graders take algebra and we’re not going to change it.”

“Our kids are achieving in the highest level.  Our API (Academic Performance Index) scores are at the top five percent of the state.  Our graduation rate exceeds 97 percent,” said Dr. Baarstad.  “We’re not going to go backwards.  We have great teachers and support staff.   We have great kids in this community supported by parents who care deeply about education.”

“We have a wise Board of Education with an average term of 10 years of service” said Dr. Baarstad.  We have no intention of pulling back or reducing rigor.”

“Our educators are excited about Common Core.  They see more rigor,” said Dr. Baarstad.

“We will have more in-depth training (the next two to three years), we will purchase the best instructional and supplemental materials and we do need technology—no matter if we do Common Core.   We’ve got to prep for technology,” said Dr. Baarstad.

Forum Audience Participation

Audience participation was the focus of the last hour of the Common Core Community Forum when almost audience members lined up to make statements or ask questions of panelists.  But only a dozen, all of whom expressed negative views of Common Core, had the opportunity to do so.

Gracie Dunbar stated “writing comes at the expense of teaching basic facts.   There seems to be an emphasis on relative truth.”

Kurt Adams questioned why California is spending “one billion to implement Common Core Standards when the State is under extreme financial stress.  Is it prudent to use this money?”

Harry Karidis said, “We’re stuck with an industrial age education system when we need new thinking.  We need to flip the model to what inspires.”

Ron Meyer, President of the California School Employees Association’s local chapter said, “Indiana is considering pulling out of Common Core because the cost is 4.4 billion dollars to implement Common Core.  What will be the cost in California?  Given the government’s history of unfunded mandates, where will the extra money come from to fund this down the line?  What programs will be cut off and what employees will be laid off to cover that shortfall?”

Dr. Baarstad’s response was that he believed such money could come from Proposition 98, which guarantees a portion of the state’s budget be spent on K-12 education.  “I thinking technology is going to be a challenge at the local level.  But, I don’t think we’ll have to cut budgets or staff to support Common Core.”

In response, Dr. Evers said “No district is required by law to follow the new standards.   Your could follow the 1997 standards instead if you want.”

“Some of you may disagree with me violently,” said Dr. Baarstad.   “I don’t think it’s the best interest of of the kids and teachers in this community for us to be some sort of test case that says ‘we don’t want the state’s money.  Do we want to be the community that says no to everything that has to do with Common Core State Standards?”

Dr. Barstaad said, “We don’t want to do anything in this community to dumb down our curriculum.  I trust our teachers’ judgment.  It’s right that you ask questions.  It’s right that we do investigations.”

Gino Spinelli said, “The school board has done such a great job, why change?”

Gary Pipes commented, “Why are we going to change when we see this kind of success?  Can you promise all the parents and children, that high achievement will not go down.”

“No matter what you do, there’s a learning curve,” Dr. Sand said.  Dr. Stotsky responded by saying, “We won’t find out how low we are sinking.”

George Miller of Oxnard said, “I really have a problem with tracking children for life.  What safeguards will we have?  Why does the federal government need all this data?”

Dr. Baarstad explained that California currently collects information about student test scores, parents’ education level and economic data.  “Parent education and parent wealth are the two greatest indicators of a child’s educational future.”

“If there is going to be new information reported on our kids, I’m going to have some very significant concerns about privacy issues, just like you.”

According to Lynn Geraci, “Why not use the traditional ways to teach?”

The Common Core Community Forum ended with a closing statement from Tony Dolz, founder of Concerned Parents of Conejo Valley, “I am one of you.   I don’t have all the answers.  I do have two children in public schools.  I have questions.  You have heard experts.  It is up to us parents to decide.

“I would like to thank the superintendent, school board, principals and teachers that have made our schools the best in the nation.  Ironically, the school board is ready to abandon California written standards that have given us outstanding outcomes and trade them for national standards that are untested and extreme.  Why?

Common Core Opt-Out Form

“Our attorneys (U.S. Justice Foundation) have created an opt-out form for your protection.  You may check out that form at  I also have many available here.   You have four choices:

1. Be placed in a classroom that does not use a curriculum based on the Common Core State Standards;

2. Not have biometric data collected or shared in any database system for any purpose;

3. Not have personal information collected and shared with other states or the Federal government for any purpose; and

4. Not take part in any federally sponsored national assessment program for any purpose.

Critics of the Common Core State Standards distributed flyers outside the auditorium written by Orlean Koehle, State President of Eagle Forum of Calfornia on “Common Core—A Trojan Horse for Education Reform,” a statement published by Dr. Ron Paul, Texas Congressman entitled “Common Core” Nationalizes and Dumbs Down Public School Curriculum and a flyer which listed websites with views against  the released Common Core State Standards:;;

Michael Hernandez is editor of the Citizens Journal and a former daily newspaper reporter and editor as well as a public school educator.   


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