An Education Activist Speaks Out Against Common Core

Editor’s note: The following is a lightly-edited transcription of an interview with Oak Norton, an education activist in Utah and founder of Utahns Against Common Core and Agency Based Education.

Libertas Institute: Please describe your background.

Oak Norton: I’m originally from Pennsylvania and came to Utah to attend college back in 1991. I graduated in accounting and went to work for a public accounting firm for a while. I have a beautiful wife and five wonderful children, and never intended to go down the path of educational advocacy that I have.

When my oldest daughter was in third grade, I discovered at the end of her school year that she hadn’t yet learned the times tables. At a parent-teacher conference, I asked the teacher about it, noting that 30 years ago I had learned them in third grade. She said “we don’t do that anymore. It’s not part of the curriculum.” I asked her how she expected the kids to learn their times tables, and she said: “well, the smart kids will just pick it up as they go.”

I just about died. I immediately went to the principal’s office, and he reassured me that all the recent studies showed me that their new methods were the best way to teach math. It was called Investigations Math, and Alpine School District had implemented it in such a way to not teach children times tables, long division, and division by fractions. I was blown away. I couldn’t believe that anybody in their right mind didn’t need to know these things.

I went to the store and bought flash cards, knowing that I had to take education into my own hands for my children. My advocacy involvement got started a little later, when in 2000 I realized that I didn’t know the Constitution very well. I started to study, starting with Clean Skousen’s Five Thousand Year Leap. Shortly thereafter, the school district sent home a flier announcing that they were going to have a meeting called “The Role of Public Education in a Democracy.”

My first concern was that we are not a democracy, and the second concern was that free education in government schools was something promoted by Karl Marx. At the time, I was working with the Varsity Scouts (14 and 15 year olds), and they knew nothing about the Constitution. So during the public comment in that meeting I stood up and suggested that a course on the Constitution was needed, and that Skousen’s book The Making of America should be the textbook. I pointed out that our country is not a democracy, and that children need to learn what form of government we really have–what our founding fathers gave us.

After that meeting I created an online survey about Investigations Math, and began to do research and collect information that showed how California, for example, had abandoned it because it had gotten so bad. This was the beginning of my advocacy work. I later got involved with the legislature in Utah, because the school district wasn’t listening to parents. In 2007 we were able to get Utah to raise its math standards. Around 2009 I began to look at the state history standards and saw problems there as well. For example, the word “Republic” was nowhere in the social studies curriculum. In 2010 we ran a bill that now makes it state law to teach students in public school that America is a Compound Constitutional Republic.

LI: Your latest advocacy deals with “Common Core”. Help our readers understand what that’s about.

ON: Common Core is an agenda — it’s not just a set of educational standards. People will say that critics are just upset with the standards, but that isn’t the case at all. In fact, when Common Core first came out I was not opposed to it. I thought that math should be taught pretty much the same way, anywhere you go, because how different can it be?

About a year later, I became aware of some of the connections to Common Core that made me alarmed. The process began decades ago with central planners who wanted to shape society such that children would be trained for business as part of a managed economy, a planned workforce. Various things have been done over the years trying to accomplish this. One of the notable things was a letter written by Marc Tucker, who ran the National Center on Education and the Economy, to Hillary Clinton when her husband was first elected. It basically laid out a roadmap to centrally plan the educational path of children, along with database tracking. That didn’t really go very far at the time, as there was resistance (as there always has been).

Common Core really picked up in 2004, when Bill Gates, representing Microsoft, signed a contract with UNESCO (the UN’s education arm). In the contract, they committed to help establish a global education system. What’s of great importance is what they proceeded to do after that. Gates started to influence education systems and government leaders around the world, admitting in a New York Times interview that he has put five billion dollars into education reform, and hasn’t seen a lot of improvement in education.

It was recently reported that Gates has spent $150 million on grants for Common Core implementation in the United States. He started off by putting money into the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. He put about $25 million into those groups to get started on this, and basically invited them to create common standards. He wanted everybody to come under one umbrella and have a common curriculum.

LI: You said earlier that you weren’t necessarily opposed to common standards, at least initially. Why, then, is this problematic?

ON: The problem comes in when you start to look at the agenda behind all of this. For one thing, after various states agreed to create the standards, Utah had to sign onto them in order to get federal dollars under the Race to the Top grant. $4.35 billion was offered to the states, and all they had to do was agree to adopt standards that were common to a majority of other states. So the federal government started to get involved and support this movement.

The standards were written behind closed doors without any opportunity to give public comment on them. Our state office of education goes around telling people that these were state-led standards, when they themselves didn’t know who was on the drafting committee until the standards were completed. It was the Gates Foundation who basically hand-picked the people to write the standards.

One of those people was David Coleman who is now president of The College Board which sets the direction for the SAT and ACT exams. He has announced that he’s aligning those tests with Common Core.

States were given another chance for more federal money by signing on to one of the two federally funded consortia of states for assessments. Utah signed on to Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium as a governing member, obligating the state to use their exams. In February of last year, the state board of education in Utah voted to stay in the SBAC in spite of our concerns, but then a few months later after we elevated the issue of getting out, they finally voted to exit our SBAC membership. What followed was a controversy when someone inside the state office of education informed me that they were going to write the assessment RFP in such a way as to only use an SBAC partner organization, and in fact in January 2013, the USOE announced they were going to pay AIR $39 million to write assessments for Utah. The state superintendent announced they were the “only organization” that could meet Utah’s needs, in spite of the fact that Utah was already in a successful pilot program with another assessment vendor.

The specific concern with SBAC was Linda Darling-Hammond who was their senior researcher and gave the group its direction. She’s a Marxist who wrote a book for teachers on how to teach social justice in the classroom, and was Bill Ayers’ recommendation to President Obama for secretary of education. So that kind of tells you what her philosophy is on education.

LI: Do you think it’s fair to refer to Common Core as a centralization of education policy? If so, why is it troublesome?

ON: Absolutely, it’s a centralization of policy. It’s also a problem because of what the centralization is allowing the government to do. As a requirement to get out of No Child Left Behind, Utah had to set up a database (which was done in January 2012) called the P-20W database. This stands for preschool through grade 20 (post-doctorate) through into the workforce. So this data collection, that the federal government wants on all of our children, is set up as part of Common Core. It contains over 500 data points, including things like blood type, religious affiliation, dental records, what time you get on the bus, and so on. There are a whole lot of things that the federal government doesn’t need to know.

During President Obama’s last State of the Union address, he announced that he wanted to have a German-style education system here in America. In Germany, early in elementary school they start channeling children into the tracks that they think would be most appropriate for them to go into. So by the time you’re in junior high or high school, you may have lost the ability to change what your future career path is, based on decisions that were made “for your benefit” by the government.

Even though this isn’t happening at the moment, they move slowly and surely towards these goals. We’re trying to prevent that from happening.

LI: No Child Left Behind was done under Bush, so your concerns aren’t related to President Obama and his administration specifically, correct?

ON: This is definitely not a partisan issue. There have been problems from both Republicans and Democrats who occupy power seats. Even Ronald Reagan failed to shut down the Department of Education. Charlotte Iserbyt was his senior policy advisor in that department, and became very frustrated with Reagan and others who were not shutting it down. She actually released documents essentially proving that the department was a socialist/Marxist stronghold intent on deliberately dumbing down America. She documented this in a book that you can freely download.

LI: Is there anything inherently wrong with educational standards themselves?

ON: My efforts in 2007 to enact stronger standards for math in Utah shows that I’m not opposed to standards. I believe that there should be minimal standards that a state can set for its schools, but I think that local schools should have a lot of leeway in pursuing even higher standards for the students in their school, and tailoring the education of children within the school according to their needs. Common Core dramatically reduces this flexibility.


LI: Common Core proponents point out that the standards may be “centralized” but the control over curriculum development remains at a local level, so educators and administrators can determine how best to achieve the standards. Do you accept this argument?

ON: No. The reason is that the assessments being prepared with federal money are tied to the Common Core standards, and those assessments are going to be used to determine each teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. Teachers are going to “teach to the test” because that’s how their job is going to be evaluated. If they fail to have their students perform well on those tests, then they can be penalized themselves.

In addition, because the Gates Foundation has so much money and connections, they’ve partnered with Pearson Publishing and McGraw-Hill in order to create curriculum for Common Core. So the large publishers are driving what is being taught in the classroom, because they are creating the class material that will match the standards.

LI: Common Core’s focus is “college and career readiness.” Should education be geared towards these things in your view? If not, then what?

ON: I strongly believe that a proper education does provide a person with college or career readiness. The problem with Common Core is that it does neither.

Dr. Jim Milgram was the only professional mathematician on the validation committee for the math standards, and he refused to sign off on them because he said they would put us two years behind the Asian countries by 7th grade (among other reasons). On the English Side, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, who provided Massachusetts with the best English Language Arts standards in the country, said that Common Core’s ELA standards would only allow students to really be high school ready, not college ready.

LI: You said that a “proper” education helps prepare students. What do you mean by that?

ON: Classical education, where we’re not trying to train students for a particular endeavor, but giving them a broad liberal education. Expose them to great literature (which Common Core cuts out by 70% by 12th grade). Expose them to quality curriculum.

LI: Ellwood P. Cubberley, an influential educational administrator at the turn of the 20th century, viewed education as a tool for social engineering. He said, “Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” This was a view widely shared by his peers who helped establish and shape what has become the public education system in America. How does Common Core contribute to schools being used for social engineering?

ON: Common Core turns all schools around the country into the same factory. On the top of our website, Utahns Against Common Core, I feature this quote by Justice Louis Brandeis:

It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system, that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.

Our children are individuals, different from any other kids around the country. What Common Core attempts to do is to standardize all of those children onto the same schedule of learning, using the same subject matter. Our children are not wax to be molded — they are unique individuals with different learning rates, learning styles, interests, and talents. They need to have an opportunity to use their minds, coupled with choice and agency, to pursue their dreams. States should be independent to try what they feel is best. When one state finds something that works, others can mimic it if they want.

LI: In a public school system with set standards (even if they’re not Common Core), how would a child have that choice and individual adaptation?

ON: In my ideal world, every child that goes to public school should have set standards that they should try and adhere to. That doesn’t mean that every child is going to achieve the same level of learning at the same rate, of course. So education needs to be more individualized, where teachers and parents can collaborate for the best educational experience for the child. In charter schools, they will ability group students for math, where there might be 8-12 kids who are at the same level, and they will be moved through the math book at a pace that’s geared for where they’re at, where other kids might be a little slower or faster, they’ll all be grouped together based on their current ability. That’s one example of what I mean by that. Another would be greater flexibility in allowing kids to pursue things that interest them.

LI: Obviously, the greatest degree of educational flexibility occurs in homeschooling, where parents can control and adapt the curriculum on a completely customized level for their child. Some parents opt for homeschooling because of religious or ideological reasons, but most probably do it for the pedagogical flexibility. Many parents who homeschool may feel that Common Core won’t affect them, because they are “opting out” of the public school system. Is this a valid position, or do you think that homeschooling parents should be also oppose Common Core?

ON: Homeschoolers should definitely be worried about Common Core. Just two weeks ago, it was announced that New York was now storing homeschoolers’ information in their state-wide database that they’ll be using for Common Core tracking. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association has come out and taken some fairly strong positions against Common Core because of some of these issues, including the alignment of ACT/SAT exams, so that if a homeschooler wants to get into college, they’re essentially going to have to pass a Common Core test.

LI: How would Utah’s extrication from the Common Core be any different? If the ACT/SAT are still Common Core-aligned, and public school students in Utah are not using that system, doesn’t the same concern raise itself?

ON: Yes and no. This same anti-Common Core movement and strengthening of local control is happening all over the country right now. Utah is not alone in this fight. Just this past week, the governor of Indiana put Common Core on hold because of all of the raised concerns. Similar things are happening in a number of other states. There are still five states that never adopted Common Core, including Virginia and Texas. If this backlash continues to grow, I hope it will ultimately overthrow this agenda and return the SAT and AP tests to the traditional role that they’ve had in testing students’ broader knowledge.

LI: Dr. Carla Horwitz of the Yale Child Study Center notes that many experienced and gifted teachers are giving up in despair. “They are leaving the profession,” says Horwitz, “because they can no longer do what they know will ensure learning and growth in the broadest, deepest way. The Core Standards will cause suffering, not learning, for many, many young children.” Do you agree? Have you seen this with Utah teachers?

ON: Yes. I’ve heard from well over 100-150 Utah teachers so far who are alarmed about Common Core, the way it’s been implemented, what it’s doing in the classroom, both to them as teachers and their ability to teach their students. They’re being forced to teach at a certain pace in order to hit the new benchmarks of Common Core, and it’s leaving some students behind because the teachers don’t have the flexibility that they used to have to customize education for some of those children.

Regarding the suffering, Dr. Gary Thompson is a psychologist in South Jordan and his clinic is already bringing in students who are (as he describes it) being psychologically damaged by the Common Core push. These are children that don’t test well, being a part of the population that doesn’t have the ability to perform well when sitting down to take a test. He’s raised quite a few concerns for those children.

LI: There seem to be many teachers who object to Common Core yet remain silent for fear of being targeted by administrators or ostracized by their peers. Are teachers justified in worrying about speaking out? What contributes to this concern?

ON: Their jobs are on the line. There are quite a few teachers who have contacted me yet refuse to allow their names to be used. They’ve indicated that they are afraid to speak out, or maybe they have spoken out and were punished for it. Even during the Investigation Math fight in Alpine, I had a teacher tell me that she had been punished, and another told me that her contract had been threatened, along with others who had tried to go against what the administrators had told them to do (which was to not teach the times tables).

My very first political lesson was learned when I presented some information to the school board.

A lady who that night had been awarded the teacher of the year approached me in the hall afterward and said to me: “Oak, I used to shut my door to teach the times tables to my children.” I made the rookie mistake of publishing that account to my email list. One week later, I received a letter from this teacher on school district letterhead that said I misunderstood and that she had been explaining something different. That’s when I realized I needed to be careful with what I publish and how I treat information that I get from teachers.

LI: Finally, if you had the attention of Utah legislators for two minutes to discuss education policy, what would you say?

ON: The most important thing that we can do for education in Utah is to restore local control, where parents and teachers have the full ability to do whatever they think is necessary for the education of students at their school. I believe that education should follow five principles:

  1. Must be based in choice and not compulsion
  2. Helps develop an internal moral compass as one fosters a recognition and love of truth
  3. Truth best inspires when sought from original source materials
  4. Should be individualized to allow children to identify their gifts and talents and discover their life’s missions
  5. Must recognize that parents have the sovereign stewardship to guide their children’s educational journey

In Utah, we have a law on the books that says that parents have a fundamental liberty interest in the education of their child. I believe that compulsory education laws violate that fundamental right that we have as parents and should be repealed.