In California, some districts face minimal opposition to Common Core

March 30, 2015

Students build a mechanical windmill at Carr Intermediate School in Santa Ana

In contrast to other parts of the country where the Common Core standards have run into fierce opposition, several large California school districts and communities served by a leading charter-school organization have experienced considerable support and little overt opposition to the new standards in math and English language arts.

That’s according to interviews conducted by EdSource Today as part of its coverage of the Common Core standards in six school districts – Santa Ana and Garden Grove in Orange County, Fresno and Visalia in the Central Valley, and San Jose and Elk Grove in Northern California – and the Aspire Public Schools charter management organization.

The superintendents of the six districts uniformly reported that opposition has been relatively minor. “We’ve had somebody speak at our board meeting (against the Common Core) maybe once, maybe twice,” said Michael Hanson, superintendent of the Fresno Unified School District.

Gabriela Mafi, superintendent of the Garden Grove Unified School District in Orange County, described organized protesters in her area as “a few individuals – maybe a core of two or three people.” The district’s elected school board is fully supportive, as are most parents, many of whom are immigrants, Mafi said. “They work very collaboratively with us, and are very trusting of what we do, and very proud of the work we do.”

“Everyone’s bought in,” said Elise Darwish, the chief academic officer for the Aspire network, which runs 35 charter schools in 11 California cities. Aspire’s teachers seemed particularly supportive, Darwish said. “I’m not hearing opposition to the standards,” she said. “If anything, I’m hearing, ‘I want to get better at them.’ ‘Help me get better at them.'”

The superintendents offered varying explanations for the contrast with the stronger resistance to the Common Core in some other states. Such pressure has already led three states – Indiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma – to back out of the national coalition supporting the standards.

Some credited the support in part to their own districts’ efforts to educate their communities and head off potential controversy before it had the chance to grow. Christopher Hoffman, superintendent for the Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento, said his district’s success in building support for the new standards among teachers, who have then been able to spread the word to parents, has made a difference.

“In the end parents trust the teachers who are responsible for their child,” he said. “The communication we’ve provided to our teachers and their buy-in of the quality of the work that we’re going to be doing has really alleviated much of the concern.”

Fresno’s Hanson said another reason for the lack of opposition is that the transition hasn’t been as dramatic as it may have been elsewhere. California already had rigorous content standards, which the Common Core augmented, he said. “It is dramatic in the instructional shifts that are called for, but it is not nearly the jump (for California) that it is for other states,” he said. 

Public opinion polls show that the standards are relatively popular in California, where both the state Legislature and teachers unions have been largely supportive. A survey published in April 2014  by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 72 percent of public-school parents said they favored the new standards. The poll, however, also found  large racial and ethnic differences among parents in their levels of support. Fifty-seven percent of whites were in favor of the standards, compared to 71 percent of blacks, 77 percent of Latinos and 88 percent of Asians.

Other factors have helped California skirt much of the national controversy over the Common Core, as described in an earlier EdSource analysis. These include strong support from Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature, which has resulted in the state allocating significant resources to support Common Core implementation. In 2013, the Legislature approved $1.25 billion specifically for districts to implement the standards. A proposal in the governor’s budget for 2015-16 would add almost an equal amount next year.

In Santa Ana, Norma Ortiz, executive director of the Santa Ana Educators’ Association, the local teachers union, said that what she characterized as her district’s thoughtful implementation of the new standards has helped win its employees’ broad support. Beginning more than three years ago, the district invested heavily in teacher training and in-classroom coaches, providing what Ortiz called a “head start to make things easier on educators who already have much on their plates” in advance of this year’s full battery of Common Core-aligned tests.

David B. Cohen, a Palo Alto English teacher and education blogger who has been traveling throughout the state interviewing teachers for a book about education, said “there’s less outright defiance and protest” in California than elsewhere.

That’s not to say that there is no opposition to the Common Core in California. Over the past several weeks, signs of dissent throughout the state have included scattered and mostly small protests at school board meetings, a few critical Facebook pages and websites, and efforts to organize parents to “opt out,” on their children’s behalf, of this spring’s standardized tests.

Last year, running on a strong anti-Common Core platform, former schoolteacher Lydia Gutiérrez came in third in the race for state superintendent of public instruction. Gutiérrez, a Republican who had virtually no name recognition and almost no campaign funds, subsequently ran for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education, forcing board president Richard Vladovic into a runoff election on May 19.

Also last year, Central Valley Tea Party coordinator Connie Brooks, another vocal Common Core critic, won a seat on the board of the Kings Canyon Unified School District.

On the conservative side of California’s Common Core opponents are organizations such as the state’s chapter of the Eagle Forum, a “pro-family” group founded by Phyllis Schlafly, and Californians United Against the Common Core, which includes Tea Party and Eagle Forum chapters throughout the state.  

California critics also include some parents and teachers on both ends of the political spectrum. A Facebook page called “Stop Common Core in California” had 6,561 “likes” this month, with the majority of the comments voicing opposition to the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced tests, rather than to the standards themselves.

Kristin Phatak, a Chula Vista registered Democrat and mother of three children in elementary and middle school, said she transferred her previously high-achieving 8th-grader to private school after he began to fail at math, which she ascribed to the new standards. She has organized two “opt-out” parties at her home to encourage other parents to boycott the standardized tests. Fifty parents and teachers attended a party in February at which Phatak handed out sample waiver letters parents could give to their schools to request that their children be spared the assessments. California law says schools must honor such written requests.

None of the superintendents in the six districts interviewed by EdSource Today said they had witnessed similar levels of opposition in their communities.

Visalia Unified School District Superintendent Chris Wheaton described one school board meeting, where “an organized group tried to almost disrupt the informational meeting by making speeches about Obama and the United Nations and Bill Gates and all kinds of conspiracy theory statements.” But he said that was an isolated incident and that Visalia’s critics “haven’t gained enough traction to really interfere” with the district’s implementation of the Common Core.

When students start taking the new Smarter Balanced assessments in large numbers between now and June, and their scores are published, it is possible that parents and teachers will have more concerns about the Common Core, potentially generating more opposition to the standards in communities around the state.

Conflict may also arise – as it has in several other states – if a district tries to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. Both Fresno and Santa Ana – two of the districts being followed by EdSource Today – have received waivers from the Obama administration from some of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Law in return for their agreement, among other conditions, to evaluate teachers by this measure.

Ortiz, the Santa Ana labor leader, said her district hadn’t yet moved to link teacher evaluations to student scores, but under the terms of the union’s contract such a change would have to be negotiated. Should the district take such action unilaterally, she said, “it could risk labor unrest.”

As the districts begin to administer the Smarter Balanced assessments, some are ramping up their communication efforts with their staffs and communities to alleviate concerns. Jason Willis, a San Jose Unified assistant superintendent, said San Jose has issued information about the new standards for schools to use on their websites and in newsletters to parents.  The district also recently held a public meeting to field parents’ questions, with another scheduled for April.


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