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Robert Small deserves an apology

In the grand scheme of obstructions at public meetings, Howard County parent Robert Small's insistence on challenging state and local education officials about the new curriculum being implemented based on Common Core standards barely registers. He engaged in no name-calling, made no threats and was asking a question directly related to the topic at hand. Had Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance overlooked Mr. Small's breach of protocol — questions were supposed to be submitted in writing rather than called out by members of the audience — he and the others on the panel might have been able to dispel some myths about what the Common Core entails. Instead, Mr. Small's arrest by an off-duty Baltimore County police officer, which was captured on video, is serving only to fan a misinformed but growing backlash to the new standards.

The likes of Glenn Beck are attacking the Common Core as a federal takeover of the nation's education system. Though that's hardly accurate, it's a narrative that is helped immeasurably by what happened to Mr. Small. At a public forum in Towson on Thursday, Mr. Small stood and asked the panel to respond to his concern that the Common Core would lower standards and prepare students for community college rather than four-year universities. Mr. Dance can be heard on a video recording of the incident seeking to silence Mr. Small and promising that his question would be answered. Mr. Small would not yield the floor, and shortly thereafter a security guard approached him and said, "Let's go." Mr. Small kept talking. The security guard showed him his badge, grabbed Mr. Small's arm and forcibly pulled him into the aisle.

Mr. Small persisted, urging the other parents not to put up with being treated like "cattle," but he also generally backed toward the door. Any contact he made with the officer, at least during the period captured by the video, was incidental and not aggressive in nature. Yet he soon found himself handcuffed and sitting on the curb outside. He was taken to the Towson police precinct and charged with second-degree assault of a police officer and disturbing a school operation. Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger wisely announced Monday that he would drop the charges. But for those who see the Common Core as something being shoved down the public's throats by an overbearing government, the fact that Mr. Small was arrested in the first place provided the ultimate proof.

What's worse, it comes at a time when the implementation of the Common Core is experiencing some significant snags. The federal government has not relaxed its requirement that students be given annual assessments, even though tests geared to the new standards are still in the development stages, so Maryland and many other states plan to continue giving their old exams this year. Teachers remain unsure whether their performance evaluations will be based in part on the results of those tests, and many are experiencing frustration in trying to adapt their lesson plans. In that context, the video of Mr. Small's arrest has quickly gone viral.

The real shame of the incident is that Mr. Small has it backward when it comes to the Common Core. It is designed to increase academic rigor, not to reduce it. Mr. Small's contends that "you're not preparing them for Harvard," but the old curriculum certainly wasn't either. The Common Core standards emerged out of an unprecedented collaboration between 48 states, Washington D.C. and two territories to determine what students need to know to prepare them for higher education and careers in an increasingly competitive global economy. The work was validated by teachers, principals, state education officials and researchers — including, for the record, at least one from Harvard's Graduate School of Education. It focuses on developing critical thinking and problem solving skills and seeks to correct flaws in existing methods that often led to students covering large amounts of material with little depth or understanding.

Moreover, it is important to note that the Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum. Individual states and school districts are developing their own curricula to meet those standards, so Mr. Small, who said he moved to Howard County because of its excellent schools, need not fear that his children's education will be "dumbed down" to some lowest common denominator. Finally, the standards do not represent limits on what students can or should learn in school. Those who are seeking admittance to competitive colleges will be expected to exceed the minimum standards under the Common Core, just as they have always done.

There is probably little that Mr. Dance can do now to reverse the damage caused by Mr. Small's arrest. But issuing a statement on Monday, as Mr. Dance did, that acknowledges the need to better explain the Common Core without even mentioning Thursday's incident only makes matters worse. Mr. Dance and the rest of those involved owe Mr. Small an apology.

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