Attleboro-area lawmakers get an earful, for and against, Common Core

Originally published for the Sun Chronicle on March 25, 2016.

BOSTON – As the Legislature wrestles with a response to a proposed ballot question that would repeal Common Core educational standards in Massachusetts, area school officials, teachers and parents are weighing in with plenty of opinions.

And, they range from support of the repeal to keeping the standards intact.

“The debate about Common Core seems to be based on a misunderstanding, as the rhetoric often utilized, borrowed from other parts of the country, does not match the context in Massachusetts, which is the national leader in public education,” said Attleboro Superintendent-elect David Sawyer, who believes Common Core standards are improving student achievement.

But Bruce Cates, a Plainville parent, said his three children are often frustrated with new, complex curriculum developed to meet Common Core standards.

“It now takes 17 steps to do 3+2, where it used to be a one-step process,” he said. “The kids are frustrated. What they’re asking the lower-level kids to do is inappropriate for their age level.”

A Sun Chronicle survey of 10 area school districts found three superintendents support Common Core educational frameworks, while superintendents from four districts declined to comment and the remaining three did not respond to the survey.

Common Core standards were adopted by the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in July 2010 following recommendations for nationwide education standards by the National Governors Association.

The standards outline a list of skill sets students are expected to know and be able to perform at each grade level, but do not dictate how the material must be taught.

Opponents of Common Core argue that state assessments linked to the standards require students to use certain methods to show their work. As a result, so the argument goes, Common Core actually dictates the overall curriculum in Massachusetts.

“I believe we need to take this to the people it affects the most, which are teachers and parents,” said Donna Colorio, a Worcester school committee member and chairwoman of the End Common Core MA campaign. “It doesn’t matter how much the special interest groups spin it, teachers and parents know the truth: Common Core has failed our kids.”

The campaign has collected over 80,000 certified signatures in support of their initiative since June, enough to have the question considered for placement on the November ballot.

Colorio said the state board did not consult with parents and teachers before adopting the standards, and instead was swayed by money from special interest groups and federal grants.

“This movement started about three years ago when homework was being sent home to parents and they were having a hard time trying to understand how to help their kids. There is not a single shred of evidence that Common Core is working anywhere,” she said.

Colorio said Massachusetts is a national leader in education, but since Common Core, students have struggled with education. Meanwhile, scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress exams have dropped 5 points.

She hopes to see education standards returned to a pre-2010 framework, based on 1993 education reforms passed by the Legislature after a public forum process.

But the repeal movement is opposed by a new group that favors Common Core.

Led by Robert Antonucci, former Massachusetts education commissioner and president of Fitchburg State University, the Committee to Protect Educational Excellence in Massachusetts formed last week to oppose the ballot initiative.

In a statement last week, Antonucci said repealing Common Core would be “financially devastating and horribly disruptive” to the state education system.

Plainville Superintendent David Raiche agrees, saying that going back to the pre-2010 standards would be disruptive for students and teachers who have spent the past few years adjusting to the new curriculum.

“As someone with 40 years of experience in schools, I find the current Massachusetts ELA and math frameworks to be extremely comprehensive, as they contain the level of rigor needed for students to succeed beyond high school,” he said. “To revert to sets of standards that were previously adopted would squander much hard work and investment.”

Norton Superintendent Joseph Baeta does not, in general, support ballot questions to determine educational standards because voters might not understand the process or be misinformed by various campaigns, which can sway their vote.

“The process in place is to allow for educators from various backgrounds to develop, review, enhance and change the standards as needed, and then the board reviews and votes. That happened,” he said.

Superintendents from Wrentham and Mansfield declined to comment.

Superintendents from Seekonk and Foxboro said they did not have time to prepare a statement. Superintendents from North Attleboro, Norfolk and Rehoboth did not respond to requests for comment.

But, some area teachers are opposed to Common Core.

Seekonk High School history teacher Peter Hoogerzail said he thinks Common Core standards remove creativity and critical thinking from the learning process by replacing literature and poetry content with non-fiction text.

Under Common Core, half of reading materials in English classes are required to be informational texts and manuals, which, Hoogerzail said, combined with science and history material means around 70 percent of the high school experience is now spent looking at fact-based information.

“A lot of that literature and poetry that teaches you to read between the lines is missed and is not being taught anymore,” he said. “I notice that kids are now more focused on the process of writing than what they’re actually writing about. They’ll write something that looks good, but it doesn’t really say much.”

Some parents, such as Cates, say Common Core advocates aim to make students college- and career-ready, which they fear frustrates students.

“Even at a very early age, they’re talking about career ready – my second-grader doesn’t need to be career ready,” he said. “He needs to learn his math facts and his phonics and the basics of reading and writing and arithmetic.”

Repeal campaign members testified last month before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, which can bring the issue before the Legislature in the form of legislation.

If the Legislature fails to take up the initiative by May 3, Colorio said the repeal group is ready to collect the 11,000 additional signatures needed to secure a spot on the ballot.

State Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, said he has received calls from constituents in favor of the ballot initiative.

Although he said he believes education standards should be decided by local teachers, administrators and school boards, he doesn’t believe the Legislature will take up the issue this session.

Whatever the outcome, Dooley said he hopes the ballot question will spark a conversation about education standards.

“Even if it gets defeated, I think it’s great having it on the ballot because it will bring more people’s attention to what Common Core is,” he said. “It will develop more of a conversation, and I think in the long run, no matter what happens, Massachusetts schools will be the winner here.”

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