Common Core education criticized as well intended but insufficiently rigorous

LACONIA — A panel of critics of the Common Core State (education) Standards Initiative (CCSSI) preached primarily to the choir at a forum sponsored and hosted by the Belknap County Republican Committee that drew 65 people to the Beane Conference Center this week.

Almost four years after the New Hampshire Board of Education adopted CCSSI — along with its counterparts in 44 others states — a groundswell of opposition is gathering momentum just over a year before students are due to be tested to the new standards. In July, New Hampshire Public Radio reported that the "backlash in other states hasn't really caught on in New Hampshire," where the issue "remains under the radar."

Two months later the Alton School Board voted three-to-two to reject CCSSI and in October, the Manchester school district, the largest in the state, followed suit when the school board voted 13 to 1 to develop its own standards. By now the debate is underway in numerous school districts around the state, including Nashua, the second largest, as well as in the Legislature, where a bill to jettison CCSSI has been filed.

Alan Glassman, chairman of the county GOP, said that his aim in organizing the forum was to present the facts about an issue that has aroused as much confusion as concern. Two of the panelists — Sandra Stotsky and Jamie Gass — were veterans of the successful educational reforms introduced in Massachusetts between 1999 and 2003. Both said that they have testified against CCSSI in some 20 states.

Stotsky, who recently retired after a long career in teaching and consulting, was among the 29 members of the committee that validated the CCSSI standards and was one of the five who dissented. She claimed that there were no teachers or English experts and only one mathematician among those who wrote the standards. The standards themselves, she described, as less rigorous than those of several states, including Massachusetts, and stressed that since they are not internationally benchmarked, they would do nothing to improve the competitiveness of American students. Stotsky feared that the standards would lower the performance of high school students two grade levels.

While Gass shared Stotsky's misgivings about the standards, he also expressed concern about how CCSSI was developed and introduced. Federal law, he noted, expressly forbids the federal government from imposing national educational standards. He said that CCSSI originated with the National Governor's Association, with funding from private foundations, chiefly the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Although the Obama Administration inherited the program, it supplemented it with $4.3 billion in grants distributed among the states. Gass questioned the legitimacy of this approach, which circumvented the legislative process at both the federal and state levels, calling it "a horrendous misuse of the public trust."

Ann-Marie Banfield of Bedford, the educational liaison of Cornerstone Policy Research, addressed the privacy issues raised by CCSSI, noting that students will be required to complete questionnaires with 400 data points. She said that parents should be concerned about the nature of the information that will be collected as well as how it will be shared and used. Banfield noted that Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a Democrat, has written to the United States Department of Education to voice his concerns about encroachments of the privacy of students and their families.

Representative Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro), the fourth panelist, recalled that the state board of education adopted CCSSI after only two public hearings, one attended by six people, within weeks of the standards being published. "The Legislature was cut out of the discussion," he said. Cordelli anticipated that the Legislature will consider 10 bills dealing with CCSSI when it convenes in January, including at least one to repeal it and several addressing testing and privacy. Noting that the cost introducing CCSSI in New Hampshire has been estimated at $85-million, he said that he has filed legislation to require a fiscal analysis.

In response to a question from Norm Tregenza of Tuftonboro, a former state representative who said he has been following the issue through the publications of the John Birch Society, Gass said that CCSSI has nothing to do with the United Nations or Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, he reminded the audience that the impetus toward national standards began during the Reagan Administration. "These are peripheral concerns," Stotsky remarked.

Gass pictured the advocates of CCSSI as "misguided," but insisted that "they are not trying to do harm. All the people who advocate this are not malevolent." He explained that there has long been a rift among educators between those who favor fostering competencies to prepare students for employment and others preferring an academic approach marked by content, especially the classical disciplines of literature and history. The debate about CCSSI, he said, was the most recent manifestation of these differences.

Patty Humphrey of Chichester, a staunch advocate of local control of education policy, chided the panelists, particularly Stotsky, for endorsing the concept of national standards while rejecting CCSSI. Taking a more libertarian approach, she urged resistance to any and all federal intrusion in elementary and secondary education, which should be the responsibility of local communities. Stotsky replied that she thought it possible to employ "common standards," but those of CCSSI.

Doris Hohensee, the last panelist and longtime champion of home schooling, said that CCSSI was another assault on local control and parental rights and welcomed the mounting grassroots campaign against it. "It's the mothers taking back local education," she said.