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Common Core opponents continue fight against new education standards

Manchester has become a battleground over the Common Core State Standards, as a school board committee has twice pushed off a vote on accepting new English and math curricula aligned to the latest reform movement. For anti-Common Core activists who have been trying to start a debate on the standards for years, the action playing out in Manchester is a sign that people are finally listening.

“I think it needs public debate,” said Ann Marie Banfield, education liaison for Cornerstone Action, a group opposing the standards. “This has been under the radar screen.”

Common Core is a set of new English and math standards developed by governors and states’ top education officials aimed at better preparing U.S. students for college and careers. It’s been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia; New Hampshire’s State Board of Education approved it in 2010.

In math, the standards expect teachers to cover fewer topics per grade level but in greater depth. In English, there will be a greater focus on reading nonfiction and using critical analysis in writing. Although the standards set common benchmarks for achievement, it’s still up to local school districts and teachers to determine what curricula they use to get there. In the Concord area, school officials say their teachers are largely supportive of the new standards. New testing based on the standards will begin in spring 2015.

In New Hampshire, aside from a few pieces of failed legislation in 2011, Common Core has stayed out of the spotlight. Nationally, a Gallup poll released this summer found that two-thirds of Americans had never heard of the Common Core.

But within the past six months, as the 2015 mark for new testing approaches, Banfield said attention to the Common Core is increasing. It’s hard to measure the actual scope of opposition across the state, but at least two school boards are taking notice.

In Alton, the school board voted recently to reject the new standards, leaving questions about what that means for new lesson plans and curricula the teachers have already developed. In Manchester, the board’s curriculum and instruction committee decided Tuesday not to vote on the standards for the second time, instead sending the matter to the full school board, which meets Oct. 15, without a recommendation.

The two main groups driving opposition here are Cornerstone Action and New Hampshire Families for Education. Representatives for both organizations attend all public meetings of the Department of Education and of the House Education Committee where the standards might be discussed. They also run a Facebook page called “Stop Common Core in New Hampshire” and have garnered 500 signatures on a petition rejecting the “federal government’s intrusion into our education system.” Most recently, Cornerstone held a forum with four speakers who travel the country speaking against the standards and has called on the state Department of Education to host a debate on the issue.

“There are two sides to this,” Banfield said. “It would be nice to have people listen to both sides.”

These groups say the Common Core is an unconstitutional infringement on state and local rights by the federal government, and that the standards are not as rigorous as proponents say. Sandra Stotsky, an English language arts expert, served on a committee of national experts that validated the standards in 2009. She was one of five people on that committee who refused to sign off and now travels the country explaining why she doesn’t think the English standards are rigorous enough. Under Common Core, at least 50 percent of all reading is supposed to be informational, which Stotsky said is not appropriate and reduces critical thinking. She encouraged attendees at the Cornerstone forum to ask their legislators to find a way to withdraw from the new testing.

“It is a waste of taxpayer money to base your assessments on standards that need to be revised, if not abandoned,” she said.

Opponents of the standards also don’t think the state Department of Education has provided appropriate answers on costs of implementing Common Core, and fear that the new test will bring mass collection of sensitive student data.

Several members of the House Education Committee said they felt the state was creating an unfunded mandate by forcing districts to use the new computer-based test and by creating a potential need for new textbooks and teacher training. Proponents of the standards respond that curriculum development and teacher training is an ongoing process, and in many cases money would be spent on this whether Common Core existed or not.

Banfield said the quality of education in New Hampshire needs to be improved. She said she’d like to see districts make their own comparisons between the old state standards and high-quality standards elsewhere, rather than adopting Common Core. She and other Common Core critics often point to Massachusetts’s old curriculum as the gold standard, even though Massachusetts also adopted the Common Core in 2010.

Districts are not being forced to adopt the new standards, but all districts will have to give the new tests starting in 2015 and state officials believe these standards are the right ones for New Hampshire schools. Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry told lawmakers Tuesday that the department is still determining how to best work with districts that decide not to use the standards. Any district is free to develop an alternate set of standards, she said.

In interviews earlier this month, administrators and teachers from Concord, Merrimack Valley, Bow, Hopkinton and Pembroke said educators in their schools are largely supportive of the standards. None of the school boards in any of those districts have expressed concerns about the standards. The state chapters of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association support the standards, while also stating teachers need appropriate time and resources to implement them effectively.

Barry has acknowledged the state’s long history of local control, but also urged lawmakers not to think about politics when evaluating Common Core. The new standards are significantly more rigorous than the state’s previous standards in both English and in math, she said, and will better prepare New Hampshire students to be successful.

“This is about children, and it’s not about politics,” she said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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