By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun
7:34 PM EDT, October 5, 2013
Robert Small, the Howard County parent whose name became known from Maine to California when he protested new nationwide education standards, is part of a chorus of increasingly strident voices rising up against the initiative — from both ends of the political spectrum.
The far right believes standards known as the Common Core will mean federal control of schools and a chance for the government to collect reams of information about every child, perhaps even fingerprinting them.
Joining them from the far left are a group of parents and education advocates who are opposed to standardized testing in schools. They believe big business and powerful nonprofits such as he Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are driving education reform through large grants, and they want to stop those efforts.
"This is a disaster. ... I have yet to come across one person who said, 'I am glad we did this,'" said Morna McDermott, a Baltimore County mother who is a founder of United Opt Out National, which is opposed to the Common Core and instructs parents on how to remove their children from testing.
Though early discussion about the standards had been largely left to education policymakers and teachers, today the words "Common Core" are increasingly prominent on the airwaves and on social media. Discussions on conservative talk radio shows explore not just Obamacare but the educational standards — dubbed Obamacore by those fighting it.
Meanwhile, two education books coming from different sides of the debate have hit The New York Times best-seller list. "Reign of Error" by Diane Ravitch argues that privatization and testing are harming public education; "The Smartest Kids in the World" by Amanda Ripley says foreign countries are getting ahead in the education race by adopting practices similar to those of the Common Core.
Even in liberal-leaning Maryland, where no one expected a backlash against the standards, there's been growing opposition. At several public meetings held by education leaders across the state, conservatives have turned up to voice concerns. And a new Facebook page called "Don't be Cattle! Fight Common Core!" has gained about 3,500 members in the two weeks since Small shouted those words to the audience at a forum on the issue.
Teachers and school administrators generally support the new standards — a list of skills that every child should know in reading and math from kindergarten to 12th grade. They say the Common Core will raise the level of instruction and give students 21st-century skills that allow them to succeed in a global market. And they accuse the opposition of spreading false information that has been hard to combat.
"I think [educators] are trying to deconstruct this and understand why it is causing such a brouhaha," said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan research organization. "The drama is not coming from the educators."
On the sidelines are most Americans — about two out of three — who told Gallup pollsters this summer they have never even heard of the Common Core standards, even though 45 states, including Maryland, committed three years ago to use them in classrooms.
Small, 46, was charged in Baltimore County last month with assaulting a police officer and disrupting an educational activity; the charges were dropped. He believes that the Common Core standards are dumbing down education and that educators are aiming to prepare his children for a community college rather than a four-year college.
Versions of that argument are being echoed by others around the region.
Cindy Sharretts, a Harford County mother who decided to home-school her children because of concerns about public schools, said she doesn't like the measures being implemented with money that comes in part from the federal government.
"It is big government on a federal level reaching down into the state and then into small communities," said Sharretts. "I believe it has big ramifications on our lives."
She also believes the standards will de-emphasize the content that students learn. Instead, she said, they will spend time working in groups and learning to analyze "their own thought processes. ... They are being robbed of an academic rich education."
The Carroll County commissioners, meanwhile, are putting together a task force to examine the Common Core, and some residents there have raised a concern, now circulating nationally, that the standards will lead to biometric scanning of children.
Some opponents believe the state is amassing large amounts of personal data on children in public schools and are fearful of how it may be used. In fact, the state began a longitudinal database some years ago to collect data on students, but it is limited to certain subjects and is detailed under Maryland statute.
Long before Maryland conservatives took issue with the Common Core, advocates in the state were working on a campaign to persuade parents to have their children opt out of taking the federally mandated state tests, according to McDermott of United Opt Out National.
She said members of the organization are opposed to the Common Core because it "includes more testing, more rigid standards, more top-down intimidating strategies that harm children."
Shaun Johnson, another founder of the group from Prince George's County, said there hasn't been much interaction, except through social media, between the far left and the far right.
Factions of both conservatives and liberals agree, he said, that they don't like "these top-heavy mandates that come through the state" and believe there should be a stronger local voice in teaching and learning.
In the classroom
Out of earshot of the strident voices are the teachers in schools trying to make the Common Core work. At Marley Elementary School in Glen Burnie, fourth-grade teacher Amanda Ward sat with a group of students Friday and peppered them with questions.
The class read "Shiloh," a novel about a boy who befriends a dog and discovers it is being abused by its owner. The boy steals the dog and lies during the course of the story. The students will also read nonfiction about animal rights and what to do if they find an animal is being harmed. But Friday's lesson also explored lying.
On the board, Ward had written the pros and cons of lying. The cons included: the death of trust, lies are painful, lies hurt and create fear. On the pro side she wrote: "It is better to lie if someone will get hurt." One girl said she believed one lie could lead to a person having to keep lying. "Good. What evidence are you going to use to support your position that he should stop lying?" the teacher asked.
Before the introduction of the Common Core, said Kristin Addleman, a Marley Elementary reading teacher, the students would have read "Shiloh" but would not have been asked to read nonfiction in combination with it, construct an argument supported by facts, or write as much.
In prior years, the teacher would have focused on one literary concept in each chapter. For example, in the first chapter, students would have talked about the main idea, and then would have moved on to comparing and contrasting characters. Ward said basic reading instruction at each grade in elementary school has not changed.
The Common Core is designed to increase the emphasis on analytic thinking, synthesizing factual material and writing.
"So far I really like it because I think it gives teachers a little more freedom," said Jillian Riley, a second-grade teacher. She said she now can slow down and go into greater depth on some concepts when students aren't understanding them.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and the state board of education have expressed their full support for the new standards, and most school districts around the state are implementing them this year. Although the standards specify what children should know, they do not include lesson plans or curricula that would tell teachers how to teach to the standards.
Every district in Maryland has completed or is writing its own curriculum to guide teachers on the new standards. While there has been considerable concern by teachers in Baltimore County about the curriculum there, many teachers support the standards.
A poll by one of the largest teachers unions in the country showed that three out of four teachers support the Common Core, although they have serious concerns about the training they have received and materials available to implement the standards. And a survey by the Center on Education Policy showed that 37 of 40 states that responded indicated there was no or little chance they would retreat from implementing the program.
Still, some states, including Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia and Alabama, have decided to withdraw from the consortiums of states that are now developing tests to go with the Common Core. Maryland is fully supportive of the effort.
'Levels of misinterpretation'
Much of the opposition, Ferguson and others believe, is based on the lack of information or wrong information.
"There are so many different levels of misinterpretation," she said. "Fundamentally, people do not understand how public education in the United States works."
She points out that the standards are much more rigorous than those in effect last year. In fact, one of the concerns of teachers is that lower-performing students will have trouble making the leap from last year's expectations to this year's.
Ferguson said the new tests are going to be far better than the old ones. Rather than filling in bubbles, she said, students will have to write essays and do more analytical thinking to pass.
"For teachers, these assessments are a gift," she said, adding that they should cut down on complaints of "teaching to the test."
Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and author of a book on the Common Core, said the standards began to be developed during the George W. Bush presidency by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The federal government was not part of the move toward the standards until the U.S. Department of Education gave financial incentives to states that adopted them as part of the federal program called Race to the Top.
But the standards are voluntary, and several states, including Texas, Virginia and Alaska, have decided not to use them.
In the end, Ferguson believes that the coalition of support is strong even if "the muckrakers may dominate the bookshelves and ... the airwaves."
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