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Common Core Skeptics And Supporters Cut Across Political Boundaries

Sam Evans-Brown

The Common Core State Standards, a set of goal posts for public school students that have been adopted by 45 states, are well on their way to being implemented in New Hampshire. But those same standards are at the center of a widening backlash in other states that hasn’t really caught on in New Hampshire.

Support and opposition to the Common Core does not break down cleanly along party lines. On the one hand, Florida’s former Republican governor Jeb Bush is a big supporter of the standards, as are many liberal politicians.

On the other hand, many educators are skeptical of the entire "education reform" movement, and while their reasons different they find that they have some strange bedfellows. Folks like conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck have been hammering away at the Common Core and its associated testing for some time. “You are going to be data-mined; your kid is going to be monitored; their brains are going to be scanned by FMRIs!” Beck declared on a recent show

With this type of talk, you can see why some are agitated.

Data-Mining… in New Hampshire?

Last week, a Manchester Curriculum and Instruction Committee heard from about a dozen concerned citizens. Most of those in attendance were concerned that during standardized tests students would be asked invasive questions; that’s the data-mining that Beck has latched onto.

Manchester resident, Lisa Gravel turned to address a group of students who came to protest the cutting of AP classes. She told them “they’re going to be asking you information about your parents like what kind of political signs do you put in their yard. You know, that’s none of their business.”

That statement, by-the-way, is not true in New Hampshire. The state’s Department of Education says that it has not signed on to any additional data collection in conjunction with the new standardized tests, called the Smarter Balanced test. The test will ask students for their name, grade and birthday, just like with their current test, the NECAP. Keeping this data anonymous has been a personal mission for long-time State Representative and privacy watchdog, Neal Kurk, R-Weare.

The activists file out as soon as the public comment session is closed, and outside the chambers Gravel doubles down. “I feel like this Common Core thing is just evil, I’m going call it what it is I think it’s evil.”

In other states, opposition to the Common Core has a more solid-toe hold. In Michigan lawmakers passed a budget that prohibits spending money on implementing the standards. In Indiana, they have voted to delay its roll-out and have more public meetings on whether to stick with the standards. Some other places – Utah, South Carolina, Alabama, Kansas and Missouri – have introduced similar anti-common core legislation, but it hasn’t gone anywhere in those states.

Long after Lisa Gravel and other activists leave the Manchester Curriculum and Instruction committee, 

"From everything I've seen there's no validity to this. This issue with the data-mining is not founded."

  discussion continues. After a little while, School Board member John Avard takes up their concerns.

He says he looked into reports that the state would be gathering data on “political affiliation, religion, voting habits, shoe size and bad breath it sounds like. From everything I've seen there's no validity to this." He tells the rest of the committee, and whoever might be watching on Manchester Public access television, “This whole issue with the data mining is not founded.”

“Child of No Child Left Behind”?

The criticisms aren’t all so wild-eyed.

Opponents complain that appointed state-level bureaucrats adopted the standards and not local school boards or legislatures.  They claim that states were bribed into adopting the standards when the Feds dangled billions of dollars in competitive Race to the Top education grants in front of them.  And they call the standards an unfunded mandate.

Some of these critiques are on target.

For instance, the state has not done any calculations but between new textbooks, teacher training, and technology investments implementing the common core won’t be cheap. And schools have been given no 

The idea that this is a bitter pill that education officials have swallowed to get funds doesn't seem to line up with their genuine enthusiasm about the initiative

  additional funds to support the transition.

And Paul Leather – New Hampshire’s deputy secretary of education – says, yes neither legislators nor school boards got to vote on the standards. Though he notes, that’s just the way it works in New Hampshire: the governor-appointed State Board of Education voted to adopt the standards, just like when it voted to adopt the New Hampshire standards that preceded the Common Core.

“That was the process that New Hampshire has used,” says Leather, “It was only after that that we started to hear from certain members of the legislature that they had a concern about that.”

But Leather denies that being eligible for Race to the Top funding was a major factor in choosing to adopt the standards in 2010. To get those funds the state could have adopted any Standards that the feds deemed to be “College and Career Ready”.

“We were applying for Race to the Top funds at the time, and since we were going through that adoption process anyway, we didn’t see it as one causing the other, they were happening simultaneously,” he explains.

Once when I was reporting an unrelated story, Leather told me that he thought the Common Core is the most exciting education policy happening today. The idea that this is a bitter pill that education officials have swallowed to get funds doesn’t seem to line up with their genuine enthusiasm about the initiative.

But whether or not New Hampshire officials felt coerced, it’s clear that President Obama considers the adoption of the Common Core to be an education policy victory; one that was driven by Race to the Top.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama called Race to the Top “the most meaningful reform of our Public Schools in a generation,” and said, “For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. And these standards were developed not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors around the country.”

Concerns About the Standards Themselves

But what about those standards? What do opponents say about them?

Conservative critics like Ann Marie Banfield, with the New Hampshire conservative advocacy group Cornerstone Action, say the common Core is not rigorous enough. “That’s the question I think every parent should ask. Why are we settling for mediocrity?” she said in a recent interview.

That’s a direct contradiction to what many educators are saying.

For example, Thomas Newkirk is the founder of the UNH Literacy Institute and used to teach of at-risk high school students. He says on the reading side, the standards ratchet up the difficulty of texts and adds more emphasis on non-fiction in an effort to improve students’ reading grade level. But Newkirk says this ignores a more fundamental problem in public education today.

“I think it misdiagnoses the problem with reading in the schools,” he explains, “Kids just don’t read enough, and if you don’t read enough and you put a hard text, you know the Grapes of Wrath in front of someone who just sailed through middle school. They’re just going to be defeated by it.”

Newkirk couches his dislike of the Common Core in pretty simple terms: he sees it as an extension of Bush era education policies. “Common Core is the child of No Child Left Behind,” he says.

Putting Faith in the Educators

Despite all of the heat the Common Core has engendered in certain circles, for many whom this change will actually affect, it remains under the radar. The New Hampshire “Stop the Common Core” facebook page has only about 400 “likes.”

Last month, the Raymond School district in Southeastern New Hampshire hosted a parents’ information night. Past the packed Zumba class, and the kids dribbling a basketball in the hallway, administrators gave a talk about the Common Core, as well as some changes being made to student report cards.

At that presentation, there were five administrators, but only one parent made it out, Karen Jones. I asked her how she felt about the new standards. She lets out a long “umm” before saying, “it’s worth a shot, and I have faith in the people that run that committee that put all the work into it. So I’m putting my faith in them and I think it’ll be a good thing.”

Ultimately, every parent has to put their faith in the people educating their kids, and as the common core rolls out, it will be no different. And controversy aside, at this point the Common Core is going forward starting this fall. School by school, there will be a lot of variety in how these standards are implemented. And that’s what we’ll look at tomorrow: what will the Common Core look like in the classroom?

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