AUGUSTA, Maine — A discussion about whether Maine will become the latest state to dump national Common Core public school standards began in earnest Tuesday at the hands of a fast-tracked new panel whose recommendations will go to the Legislature next year.
Education Commissioner Jim Rier told the group Tuesday morning that the Common Core standards — which are part of a wider set of standards called the Maine Learning Results — are a crucially important foundation on which public education is based, though he said that fact is obscured in misperception among many parents and educators.
“It’s hard to get the public engaged,” Rier said. “I want to take advantage of the attention that [the Common Core] standards are getting right now so we can get this [review] done.”
The Common Core State Standards detail what public school students should know at the end of each grade through their high school graduation. The standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with participation from all but a handful of states.
Currently, 43 states, including Maine, use the Common Core standards in English/language arts and mathematics. In Maine, those standards were incorporated into the state’s Learning Results through unanimously supported legislation that Republican Gov. Paul LePage signed into law in 2011.
Since then, however, controversy surrounding Common Core has grown. Nationally, at least three states have repealed incorporation of the Common Core and according to some sources, more than a dozen other states are considering doing the same. In April 2013, the Republican National Committee adopted an anti-Common Core resolution.
Though LePage hasn’t voiced a complete about-face on his early support of Common Core, he told a reporter from Bloomberg News a year ago that “I don’t believe in Common Core. I believe in raising the standards in education.”
That statement came about a week after members of the Maine Equal Rights Center and a new group called No Common Core Maine announced during a news conference at the State House that they were gathering signatures to force a statewide referendum that if successful would pull Maine away from the Common Core. That petition effort has not reached completion.
Also in August 2013, a dozen Republicans who resigned from the state party en masse cited LePage’s support of the Common Core among their reasons.
Paul Hambleton, deputy director of the Maine Education Association, which represents most Maine public school teachers, said both conservative and liberal groups have shown resistance to the Common Core standards, which states adopt voluntarily. Hambleton said many are questioning whether they represent an overreach into states’ rights and to what degree the standards are corporately influenced.
“This is a big-money operation,” he said.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett wrote in response to questions from the BDN Tuesday that “we need to have a standard that will challenge our students, and we need to make sure the standard works. It is crucial that our students are prepared to move on to a pathway, which will lead them to success, whether it be in post-secondary education, trade schools, apprenticeships, and/or military training.”
Bennett did not address questions from the BDN about whether LePage does or does not supports Common Core for Maine.
Rier said in an interview that Maine’s education standards are being reviewed now because they haven’t been assessed since 2011 and the standards are important in a range of fledgling state initiatives ranging from the A-through-F school grading system to the implementation of a proficiency-based high school diploma to the incorporation of a new teacher and school administrator evaluation system. All three of those initiatives have come during LePage’s first term.
The 24-member panel will evaluate the English/language arts and math portions of the state’s 8-tier Learning Results system. English/language arts and math are the only two areas of the Learning Results aligned with the Common Core.
Rier said that asking a stakeholders’ group to develop recommendations — which in state government is called consensus-based rulemaking, a rarely used process — will ensure transparency and an open debate of the issues. The department hopes to complete its writing of the new rules in time to forward them to the Legislature by Jan. 9 for approval.
“This is very critical work and I want to emphasize the need and timing of this happening now,” Rier said to the group on Tuesday morning. “These standards underlie everything we’re doing moving forward. … There are two things I want you to keep in the back of your mind: Are [these standards] going to create critical thinkers? … and are we encouraging students to be innovative and creative?”
The stakeholders panel, which is charged with developing recommendations by late October, is made up of people with differing views on the Common Core, including Heidi Sampson, a state Board of Education member and founder of No Common Core Maine.
“My concern is that with these standards, we’re diluting a lot of quality instruction,” Sampson said. “Teachers are so busy trying to accomplish all of these standards that important things are slipping through the cracks. I would like to see a broad foundation laid so students can go in a variety of directions.”
Sampson said her fervent opposition to Common Core probably puts her in the minority on the committee.
“I know I’m in the fringe element in there,” she said.
Some members of the committee, including Heidi Goodwin, a teacher in School Administrative District 54 in the Skowhegan area, said having rigorous standards in place — including the Common Core — is valuable because they make expectations clear and ensure that when students leave public school for work or higher education, they’re on par with students from across the country.
“Some teachers feel that Common Core is a blessing in a way because it’s holding us all accountable,” Goodwin said. “There have been concerns that by trying to meet the standards we’re overtaxing some of our youngest learners, but so far that’s not what we’re finding. They’re up to the challenge.”
Mary Nash, superintendent of Regional School Unit 35 in York County, agreed that the Common Core standards are improving education.
“I don’t think these standards are at all unattainable,” Nash said.
Rier said that input from parents and educators from across Maine is of crucial importance and that the DOE has developed a website — www.maine.gov/doe/standardsreview — to collect comments, any of which submitted prior to Oct. 1 will be reviewed by the stakeholders’ panel.
Bangor Daily News writer Nell Gluckman contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Heidi Sampson is a former member of the state Board of Education. She is still on the board.