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We Don't Need No Federal Curriculum

Sharing Notes: Utah joins 34 other states to share education standards while some fear a federal takeover.

By Eric S. Peterson
Photo by Larry Shumway 
Posted // August 11,2010 - Utah recently joined 34 other states in adopting common standards for math and English/language arts achievement. While the common standards could provide a yardstick for improving education goals, some state leaders worry the yardstick could be wrested away from the states by the federal government and used to spank them into acceptance of a federal education curriculum.

The Utah State Board of Education unanimously approved the adoption after its third public discussion of the proposal on Aug. 6. The only concern among the members was the possibility of federal interference. Superintendent Larry Shumway (right) spoke of the fact that Utah may have lost out on receiving $175 million in “Race to the Top” federal-education-reform funding—money that could have helped implement Utah’s adoption of the new Common Core State Standards Initiative—because the state would not compromise on its education policies to make them more fed friendly.

“This is not a race to the top plan,” Shumway told the board “This is a plan to move Utah’s education forward.”

For a year, numerous states, including Utah, worked to establish standards that would provide benchmarks for students of individual states to reach, but leaves how schools and instructors get their students to those checkpoints up to each state’s curriculum. “There’s no common set of textbooks people have to buy, nothing that says every 11th grader is going to read Julius Caesar or anything like that,” Shumway says in an interview.

The Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that tracks education policy, predicted the standards will increase the quality of education for three-fourths of the states participating. In Utah, the expectation is that the state’s language-arts achievement will make a jump from a C ranking to a B.

Shumway feels Utah has already proven that it’s not willing to cede any sovereignty to federal control simply through the “Race to the Top” application, where he says Utah was disadvantaged for not enacting certain measures, such as policies that would allow the state to terminate bad teachers. Shumway says that in Utah, teachers unions are not the powerhouses they are in other states—like Illinois, where U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hails from—so the state can more easily adopt a merit-based teaching system.

“[The federal] vision is geared more for urban settings like downtown Chicago.” Shumway says.

Even though Utah’s participation in the consortium comes with no federal money and is completely voluntary, that doesn’t allay fears that a common standard could be abused by an overreaching federal government.

“I’m concerned [that] when states all have the same standard, it gives the federal government the ability to create national standards or a national curriculum they can push on to states,” says Mathew Piccolo, a policy analyst for the Sutherland Institute, a conservative Utah think-tank.

That fear is shared by Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, a member of the Education Interim Committee and co-founder of states-rights group the Patrick Henry Caucus.

“It’s a bad idea,” Wimmer writes in an e-mail. “We’re moving in the wrong direction. Instead of moving more to educational independence, we’re moving more toward national requirements and standards.”

Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, founder of the Patrick Henry Caucus and also a member of the Education Interim Committee, however, recognizes that the adopted rules could greatly benefit education achievement in the state, so long as there is no federal money involved. Sumsion had even planned on submitting a bill in the Legislature to reject the state’s acceptance of the federal money had it been won.

“I don’t think anyone in the Legislature would be opposed to higher standards, if indeed these are higher standards,” Sumsion says. “My only issue is that we simply we have to stop taking the federal government’s bribe money.” Sumsion is confident Utah can make up for implementation costs expected to begin going into effect by 2014, through efficiencies in computerized testing that will allow for cuts in other testing areas of the budget.

Shumway says that while Utah has adopted a common standard, the state will only integrate into the new standard when the resources are available. As for concerns about the Common Core Standards being hijacked by the federal government, Shumway may not be worried, but he isn’t turning his back on the feds, either.

“It’s hard to look at Washington, D.C., these days and not have a concern,” Shumway says. “But as I assured the board today, we will be vigilant and oppose any federal take over as vigorously as we can.”

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Posted // August 14,2010 at 13:39

Maybe we do need it - a double negative in the headline? Come on!


Posted // September 19,2010 at 15:22 - After your previous comment, it's pretty easy to see that you need more education.


Posted // August 16,2010 at 17:28 - Gotta appreciate a good Pink Floyd reference when you see one.


Posted // August 16,2010 at 10:27 - They still teach the concept of irony in English class, don't they not?


Posted // August 14,2010 at 10:40

Being a product of the Utah public school system and knowing how low test scores are from Utah schools, I'm all for federal curriculum. It is time the State of Utah actually put money IN education rather than continually cutting.


Posted // August 13,2010 at 14:39

Agreed, AL. My family moved down from Washington State and my kids they were over a year ahead of what was being done in Utah. After the first report cards came out and the teachers were not willing to discuss moving the kids up a grade or giving them some more advanced work, we transferred to the local charter school. That turned out to be no better than the public school, aside from the class size, and my kids were bored because the curriculum they used was very lecture-oriented, with kids repeating back stuff to the teacher ("traditional focus, rigorous curriculum" said the charter). After a year in Utah schools, my wife and kids went back to Washington in June to hit summer school and try to catch up so they could return to their old school (which has 4 national board-certified teachers in the building), while I stay working here and hope for a transfer back to the Pacific Northwest.

Common standards are no good when you have uncertified teachers (like in the charter school) and excessively large class sizes in the public school. I do feel bad for Utah teachers; it sounds like they get no respect from legislators, parents, and kids, which seems odd to me given how much I'm told the church values children and education. Even the governor here doesn't seem to value education much - he doesn't even have a college degree.


Posted // September 14,2010 at 21:43 - I taught in Washington State after teaching in Utah and the kids in Washington State were not ahead--at least in math. The same textbooks were being used and the students were very similar. The only difference I noticed was higher drug usage (so the school counselors told us) and cruder language in my Washington classes. And I got paid more!


Posted // August 16,2010 at 10:50 - I came from, and taught in the California school system. I do not teach here because of the lack of respect for the teaching profession that seems to abound in Utah. From the lack of pay to the "babysitting" mentality that is imposed upon the teachers. Just get them through high school so they can start making babies. In a state where voters don't even care who the republican candidate is as long as it's not a democrat, do you expect them to elect representatives who care about education?


Posted // August 15,2010 at 00:47 - The church encourages it's young women to get an education that has the ability to pay bills, to either supplement the husband's income, or to replace it if he loses/changes/gets laid off. And from what I've seen, even going part time, they are doing as advised.


Posted // August 14,2010 at 10:42 - This is sad but true... not sure were you heard that "the church" values education though. They value submission and nothing more.


Posted // August 12,2010 at 20:35

Good luck getting something like that to pass the Utah Legislature. People here are so afraid of government "take overs" that they'll risk progression at any cost. Take, for instance, Race to the Top. We have recently refused grant money because we don't want "interference" in how we do things. And why do we do things that way? Because "that's how things are done." Nevermind that it doesn't work.

Another thing Utah doesn't like is paying out money to the education system. We have over crowded classrooms (I have 46 in a room built for 25) and teachers have no books to give them, no desks to put them in, and no time to offer them because they're too busy babysitting.

I think it's hypocritical that we're so willing to have big families but refuse to pay tax money to educate them.


Posted // September 21,2010 at 10:31 - "As someone who hires employees for my company, I'm getting a little sick of meeting people that don't even have the ability to write their name." Amen brother! We have a state of chilren graduating high school without any of the basics required to get by in the world, and families of 8 and 12 overloading our school system. There needs to be a limit on the amount of tax breaks you get to have any type of impact on society other than a drain.


Posted // September 19,2010 at 15:20 - Stefan: I have no kids, and no plans to have any kids, but no one benefits from having a population that can't read, write, spell, or do math properly. Educating the masses has more benefits for everyone than everything else combined. Utah is ranked 45th out of 50 for overall tax burden, so you've got five other hellholes to choose from where you would pay fewer taxes. I'm all for an increase in taxes if it leads to better education. As someone who hires employees for my company, I'm getting a little sick of meeting people that don't even have the ability to write their name.


Posted // August 14,2010 at 13:45 - Collect more taxes for education? Fine - just make sure you collect it from those, who actually have those big families. We are already paying out enough in taxes for things we do not benefit from.


Posted // August 13,2010 at 04:51 - I strongly agree with "alterego" and I add when we brought our family west to UT the schools were 2 years behind the schools from where we came. When I asked a 6th grade teacher here when would the students begin to learn sentence diagramming, her shocked response was that "restrictive" English was not taught in UT. I noticed that when I found that 4th graders here have no concept of correct spelling. "Creative" writing was stressed, not the spelling. Many teachers have told me they can't teach because they have to act as babysitters in their classrooms. For a state whose majority of citizens believe "the glory of God is intelligence, it surely does not walk the talk.