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."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com