A forum on the Common Core State Standards Initiative Sunday In Howard County drew a moderate crowd who listened to a panel of national experts — most of whom were critical of the controversial education reform.
Over the course of three hours, the panelists discussed the Common Core, a set of academic standards adopted by 45 states and Washington, D.C. The initiative was developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.
The forum included panelists Michael Brickman, national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; Sandra Stotsky, one of five members of the Common Core Validation Committee who did not sign off on the standards; Stephen Wilson, a mathematics professor at the Johns Hopkins University and former senior adviser for mathematics for the United States Department of Education; Morna McDermott, associate professor of education at Towson University and co-founder/administrator of United Opt-Out; and Christopher Tienken, assistant professor of education administration at Seton Hall University and co-author of "The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myth, and Lies."
About 80 parents and community members from Howard and neighboring counties were at Reservoir High School in Fulton. Several elected officials and candidates were also present, such as State Sen. Allen Kittleman, Delegate Pat McDonough and several Howard Board of Education members.
Brickman tried to debunk some myths about the Common Core, like that it was a federal initiative, that it opens the door to invasion of student privacy and that the standards are designed to "indoctrinate rather than educate."
The Common Core is state-led, Brickman said, created because the National Governors Association thought state standards held the bar too low. The standards might not be federally based, but McDermott said they were "federally led, corporately fed heist." She presented a large, crowded map of Common Core's corporate backers, illustrating how they were connected.
Tienken argued that the public education system — while not perfect — didn't need a massive overhaul. The idea that the United States is "competitively lagging," Tienken said, is a flawed argument.
For 50 years, U.S. students have scored low on international tests, but the U.S. economy is the best in the world, he said. Furthermore, Tienken said, 33 people have won Nobel Prizes since 2000, 20 of whom were Americans, and 60 percent of whom were educated in public schools. He also gave patents as an example: in 2012, 121,026 utility patents were issued in the United States, and 132,129 were issued around the rest of the world.
Stotsky called the Common Core "a sticky jar of molasses," and called the validation committee she sat on "invalid." Parents, teachers, local legislators and local school board members weren't involved in the Common Core creation process, she said. The caliber of education has been declining for 50 years, she said, but the Common Core "simply aggravates it."
"We don't have first-class standards in Common Core, and we don't want to see mediocre standards frozen in time," she said. "It's a total lock-in at the bottom of a well."
Wilson, who wrote several reports for the Fordham Institute evaluating math standards like those in Common Core, said his concern was with content. There's a history of "really atrocious math standards" he said, and while the Common Core "is vastly better than most states," it's "nowhere near as good as the top states."
Wilson said he took issue with people blaming the Common Core for curriculum problems, because it's not a curriculum but a set of standards. If the Common Core isn't working, it's the fault of local districts' curriculum, he said.
After a series of at-times heated questions and statements from the audience, and final thoughts from panelists, HCEA President Paul Lemle offered some closing remarks.
"The big thing here is that our public schools are not the problem, they are the solution," he said. "The elephant for me in this room is the three million teachers that are not organized about this yet. You've asked what you can do. Our union is going to start working with you directly to organize around this issue and others."
Lemle said HCEA and the PTA Council was forming a parents advisory council so parents "could talk directly to teachers about education issues," and that the union would create an email blast list, similar to the one used by the district to send out school news.
Lemle said the "twin legacies of this era" are Common Core and standardized test-based evaluation systems for principals and teachers. Lemle has repeatedly spoken out against using test scores in teacher evaluations, but the union has not taken a position for or against Common Core.
"That's the reason (the Howard County Public School System) and (the Maryland State Department of Education) aren't here," Lemle said. "These reforms are indefensible and the current leadership is bereft of vision."
State Superintendent Lillian Lowery was scheduled to attend the forum originally set for last December, which was postponed because of snow, and the local school system was set to send a representative. Neither group was represented at Sunday's forum, and of the five panelists, three were vehemently opposed to the reforms, one — Brickman — was in favor, and one — Wilson — expressed ambivalence.
"We invited both Dr. Lowery and (Howard Superintendent) Dr. (Renee) Foose," said PTA Council President Christina Delmont-Small. "They both declined. ... I designed this to be balanced. If the people who made these decisions to send our students down this road don't feel comfortable standing up for their decisions, what am I supposed to do?"
Delmont-Small said after the invitations to Foose and Lowery were declined, she tried to get other pro-Common Core camps at the forum — the National Governors Association, PARCC, the Chief Council of State School Officers, among others — but those groups wouldn't send anyone.
"We wanted to provide parents with differing views so they can make their own decisions, because these are their children," she said. "We didn't want to give one side, we wanted to give all sides. If the individuals who created this and who made the decision that our students will have to learn the Common Core don't want to come and explain the benefits and reasons for it, I think that speaks volumes."
The state department has held numerous forums and information sessions across the state in the last year — one of which, in Towson, saw the arrest of Delmont-Small's husband, Robert Small, after he spoke out of turn, disrupting the forum and being led out of the room by a police officer. Charges were later dropped. The Howard district also just wrapped up a series of parent information nights on the Common Core, but Delmont-Small said she felt those events weren't balanced.
Howard spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said the district originally planned to send a representative to the snowed-out forum because it preceded the district's information sessions.
"But since then we've held four regional sessions that talk about our curriculum and its alignment with Common Core," she said Monday. "We weren't interested in participating in a partisan debate about the standards. They were adopted by the state several years ago and they've been phased in over the past three years.
"Our role is to ensure we have a robust curriculum and instructional program where students are learning. Debating the validity of the standards didn't seem appropriate. ... We want to make sure our parents understand what's being taught and why, and we're happy to engage in discussion with the community about that, but this forum seemed to be stacked with people who are participating in a national, partisan debate and that's not something we wanted to be involved in."
MSDE spokesman Bill Reinhard said Monday that MSDE's focus is on continuing to implement the Common Core, and so far the department has received a lot of "good feedback" from classroom teachers and parents. MSDE was unable to send a representative because the forum's new date fell in the middle of the General Assembly in Annapolis.
"As we told the PTA weeks and weeks ago, this is our busy time of the year," Reinhard said. "We have staff testifying in Annapolis, Dr. Lowery is at the National Governors' Association meeting (in Washington D.C.), and we try to make as many events as we possibly can. We were unable to make this one. We do what we can, and our focus right now has to be Annapolis."