Amanda Ward

Amanda Ward, a fourth grade teacher at Marley Elementary School in Glen Burnie, talks to students about the book, "Shiloh" by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. (Liz Bowie, Baltimore Sun / October 3, 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.