BANGOR, Maine — Amanda Cooper understands the backlash against the new education standards known as Common Core.
She recently sat down at a computer with a fellow teacher to practice an eighth-grade reading assessment meant to gauge student progress toward meeting the standards. After reading a set of “very visually dense” passages, the two teachers took 25 minutes to answer four questions about what they just read.
“We weren’t very confident with our answers,” Cooper admitted.
Despite the difficulty of the online test, the Gorham Middle School English and social studies teacher said she sees value in the Web-based student assessments and the “higher-order” thinking Common Core is designed to elicit in young students. She doesn’t want to see it abandoned.
If a grass-roots effort to kill Common Core in Maine is successful after more than four years of work to implement its standards, Cooper and other educators worry the fallout could be damaging, resulting in confusion and more uncertainty in Maine’s education system.
“I will tell you that teachers will lose their minds,” Cooper, a member of the Maine Educational Association board of directors, said.
Common Core has enemies in Maine. A conservative think tank has joined forces with a group of Common Core opponents in hopes of rekindling the effort to override the controversial education standards through legislation proposed this session.
No Common Core Maine, formed in the summer of 2013, launched a public campaign decrying Common Core as an “undemocratic, uncontrolled” federal experiment. The group aims to “protect the children of Maine from a massive trap designed to limit the potential of our future generations,” according to its mission statement.
During a late February luncheon in Portland, Matthew Gagnon, CEO for Maine Heritage Policy Center, a right-wing advocacy group, announced his organization would join forces with No Common Core Maine to support anti-Common Core legislation up for consideration this year.
“This is something we care about an awful lot,” Gagnon said, adding that the group looked forward to working with state lawmakers to “fight back against Common Core” in favor of a “locally developed” alternative.
In his Bangor Daily News blog, Gagnon included Common Core’s demise in Maine as one of his 15 “bold predictions” for the Maine political scene in 2015.
The voluntary Common Core State Standards were implemented in 2010 in response to increased calls for proficiency-based education, which means students leave their public school with certain knowledge and skills in common with all other students. The intent was to ensure that all schools follow the same guidelines when teaching their students. Maine, which officially adopted the standards in 2011, will launch Smarter Balanced testing, an assessment based on the Common Core standards, this spring.
All but four U.S. states — Alaska, Texas, Nebraska and Virginia — have adopted Common Core standards. Minnesota adopted only the English Language Arts standards.
Some states have begun to push back. Oklahoma, South Carolina and Indiana withdrew in 2014. Legislation and discussions have been introduced in other states to do the same. Most of those states are using Common Core standards as a prompt to explore their own standards changes.
Common Core opponents cite a litany of concerns about the standards, ranging from overzealous expectations of students at lower grade levels and failing to challenge older students to complaints that the federal government shouldn’t be determining state education standards.
Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, a policy research group based in Boston. The oft-quoted Common Core critic spoke during the Maine Heritage Policy Center luncheon in Portland last month.
His group is active in pushing back against the standards nationally. Gass spent much of his time discussing the situation in Massachusetts, where the state’s efforts to improve academic performance in the 1990s showed strong results, with the state climbing performance rankings.
“[Massachusetts] provides an example that states can do this work,” Gass said.
When Common Core arrived in the late 2000s, Massachusetts signed on, resulting in a dramatic dip in the teaching of classic literature, an “experimental form of geometry that has never succeeded anywhere” and generally lesser standards than what the state had before, according to Gass.
Some Common Core opponents argue that the federal government has no place in guiding education.
“There is no topic [more] dedicated to state and local government than K-12 education,” Gass said, adding there likely is a reason the drafters of the Constitution didn’t mention education — they wanted that to be left up to the states.
Some concerns are shared even by groups that support the premise behind Common Core. The Maine Education Association, for example, supports the “laudable” concept of more uniform, rigorous standards to help ensure quality education and higher-level thinking, which is the aim of Common Core standards. Even so, Cooper, a board member, recently spent 40 minutes discussing the complaints and concerns shared by teachers and administrators regarding the standards and related testing.
The tests also ask young students to think on a higher level. For example, third-graders are asked to read a passage and “describe the author’s intent,” Cooper said.
The testing that stems from the adoption of Common Core standards is facing challenges of its own, with some lawmakers and school districts pushing to notify parents and students that they have the right to opt out of standardized testing, including the new Smarter Balanced tests stemming from Common Core.
Many teachers and administrators across the state have expressed concerns that restrictions on technology will affect student performance on the new test. Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb, for example, has said that she has “concerns that the test this year will not truly test students’ knowledge and that some of it may have been hindered by the technology and the process.”
For example, younger students may not be skilled at typing out answers or using a mouse if they’re used to tablets, instructors say. Other schools are struggling to schedule all the needed testing with limited bandwidth capacity at their buildings.
Still others are concerned about the amount of testing and performance data collected on individual students and whether government agencies really need that information.
There are four bills in the works that aim to hamstring or reduce the influence of Common Core in Maine. No Common Core Maine had an integral role in forming each of them, according to Heidi Sampson, a member of the group’s executive committee. No Common Core Maine will continue to drive the pushback “in word and deed,” according to Sampson, who also serves on the state Board of Education and is a veteran home-schooler.
Language is available for one of the bills, LR 866, An Act to Allow Teachers to Teach and Students to Learn. The three others are being processed through the Legislature’s revisor’s office, so the text has not been released.
LR 866 would repeal the requirements for a system of proficiency-based education standards in Maine that are scheduled to become effective in 2017.
LR 1487 would have the state adopt “best practice” English Language Arts standards from other states that have demonstrated success in those areas, such as Massachusetts, California and Texas.
One of the most dramatic pieces of legislation, LR 1318, An Act to Improve Educational Assessments, essentially would do away with Smarter Balanced testing and replace it with some other form of assessment.
LR 839, An Act to Safeguard Student Information, aims to “protect student and family information” gathered from pre-K through entry into the workforce from misuse.
Sampson said her organization and others, including the Maine Heritage Policy Center, would be pushing hard to advocate for these pieces of legislation this year.
“The game is set, it’s time to get up and bat,” Sampson said.
Some proponents of Common Core, including the Maine Education Association, acknowledge it’s far from perfect but say doing away with it could do more harm than good, now that the state and school districts have been working to implement it for more than four years.
“You can’t just pull Common Core, too many things are wrapped up in it now,” Cooper said, citing the need for assessments, a plan for strong state standards and Common Core’s ties to teacher performance measures and proficiency-based diplomas. “Do they understand that they pull that thread and they unravel a whole host of things?”
The Maine Department of Education also warns that a Common Core split could be damaging for statewide education.
Before the appearance of Common Core, Maine had its own set of standards known as the Maine Learning Results, which were revamped on occasion to meet the needs of the workforce and higher education institutions.
Samantha Warren, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said in a recent email that Common Core standards have been incorporated into existing Maine Learning Results through rulemaking, so Maine technically didn’t adopt Common Core but did adopt its updated set of standards.
“Unless Maine wanted to do away with statewide academic standards entirely — if the standards some refer to as the Common Core were repealed — they would need to be replaced either with a new set of rigorous college- and career-ready standards or we would need to revert back to the ones we used prior to 2011, which are outdated and which we believe would no longer adequately prepare our students for the current expectations of post-secondary institutions and the workforce,” Warren wrote.
Cooper said a return to past standards might prompt some teachers to “breathe a sigh of relief” but others might pull their hair out.
The department has been frustrated with the apparent lack of public interest in Common Core standards, especially early in the process, “given its incredible importance to our students and our state’s economic future,” Warren added. Warren said only a handful of people showed up at a public hearing on the standards four years ago, and “no one testified in opposition.”
She said the fact that more people are becoming interested and engaged in the issue “can only be a good thing for our kids.”
Last fall, a panel convened to review the standards and determine what improvements might be needed or whether the national standards should be dumped. That group provided feedback to the Department of Education, which says it’s “deciding how to best move forward” under the oversight of Acting Commissioner Tom Desjardin. That includes whether the state should engage experts in English or math to gauge if Maine’s standards are sufficient.
Former Commissioner Jim Rier, who led the panel initiative, was out on medical leave when this feedback arrived, which slowed the department’s response.
“One specific area of interest for our department is possibly redrafting the standards so they are in plain language so students, parents, the public and all educators can actually understand them,” Warren said.
Sampson, who served on that panel, was critical of the work it accomplished, arguing the reviews weren’t thorough enough and had a predetermined outcome. She and Cooper used the same words to describe the panel process: “a farce.”
“We believe that the current standards are better than the ones that were in place before them,” Warren said. “While we must be sensitive to the strain moving the bar too frequently can put on our students and schools, if we can do better, we must.”
Cooper said standards evolved before Maine’s Common Core standards adoption and will continue to evolve after.
“This never seems to stop in education,” Cooper said. “We haven’t had enough time to put [Common Core standards] into place to really assess whether it’s working.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.