Ann Marie Banfield
Tonight I attended and listened to a presentation by two State Reps. from Hollis-Brookline on Common Core.  Both Rep. Carolyn Gargasz and Melanie Levesque voted against HB 1508 which would have terminated Common Core in New Hampshire.  It seems since then, they’ve been trying to justify their vote which happens to be at odds with the people they represent in their district.

A short time ago, the good people in the Hollis-Brookline School District voted against using Common Core Standards through a non-binding resolution that was placed on the ballot at the last election.

While the message was clear, it appears as if those voices are going ignored.  In fact, one of the questions at the end of the presentation asked why their vote is not being respected?

Several months ago, a few residents held a forum on Common Core and made every attempt to present both sides of this issue.  Multiple attempts were made to include members of the School District, the New Hampshire DOE and legislators.  The only one willing to offer any support on Common Core was Rep. Gargasz.  The other three expert panelists explained why Common Core was not good for public schools.

Tonight it appears as if this was a one-sided presentation without any critical analysis on the Common Core Standards.  That seemed odd since one of the dominant themes throughout tonight’s presentation was that Common Core was finally going to teach our children how to think critically.  Yet no one tonight had the capability or the willingness to offer a critical analysis on Common Core.

The participants were:
Tom Raffio: NH Board of Education & CEO Delta Dental
Heather Gage: NH Department of Education
Lucille Jordan: President Nashua Community College
Mr. Fred Kocher: Host of WMUR NH Business Former President NH High Tech Council
Jennifer Manning: BA Elementary and Special Ed, Kindergarten teacher Memorial Elementary School, Sanborn Regional District
Greg Snoke: BS Ed, MA (Mathematics Education, Grades 4-9) Sixth Grade Math, Captain Douglass Academy, Brookline
Evan Czyzowski: BA English MA Literature – English teacher, drama program director, president of Sanborn Regional Ed. Assoc.
Tammy Leonard: MAT (Master of Arts in teaching with emphasis in curriculum and instruction) University of Mississippi, BA Wesleyan University, Math Teacher HBHS

Dot Ball: BA Mathematics MA Teaching and Learning, Math Teacher HBHS

REMEMBER, this is supposed to be about a “set of academic standards”.

A side note: I should mention that while I have not taught in a classroom, I have tutored students in mathematics in the past.  That includes college freshman in need of remedial math.  Remedial math tends to be k-8 math.  In other words, students who never mastered arithmetic and basic math.

Remedial math was one of the big issues that seems to be driving the supporters of Common Core.  This was their way of attempting to fix this glaring problem.  How do they fix a problem of illiteracy among the graduating high school students who never mastered basic math?  The answers tonight never really delved into the math skills that were lacking among those students who needed remedial math classes and instead offered up solutions that avoided what was truly needed.  Going BACK to the basics in arithmetic and making sure kids knew basic math and mastered their math facts.

In fact, I was seated next to Kevin Avard who mentioned he was in a meeting several years ago with one of the panelists and members of the business community.  They identified problems among the graduating students who didn’t know arithmetic.

This came as no surprise to me because I’ve been trying to point to that problem for YEARS.  One of the questions asked why no one raised a red flag on this obvious problem prior to the Common Core Standards being released.

Prior to Common Core, I wondered the same thing.  Where was the Chairman of the Board of Ed, The President of Nashua Community College and the teachers demanding better State Standards if the old New Hampshire Standards were unacceptable?  If it led so many students to remedial classes after graduating?

As an education activist, I would raise these concerns during hearings in Concord on education legislation and members of the New Hampshire Dept. of Ed would sit there and never mention that we had any problems that needed to be addressed.

I asked Commissioner Barry one day if she knew how many graduates were in need of remedial classes after graduating high school and she couldn’t point me to that statistic.  I told her that in Kentucky, their rate was about 20%.  She seemed to be shocked by such a large number and indicated New Hampshire was no were near that amount.  How would she know?  The New Hampshire Department of Education failed to collect that important information while other states did.

So how will Common Core fix this problem?  By ignoring it I’m afraid.

Instead they told us how they were now going to focus on the “Common Core Practice Standards”.  This is where they get to tell the teachers how to teach.  This brings me to my first example of a “contradiction”.  You see at the beginning of the presentation, Heather Gage stated that the Standards do not tell a teacher how to teach.  I sat there wondering if she had ever read the Math Practices that go along with the Common Core Math Standards.

We all know what the Math practices mean and later on in the presentation Tammy Leonard talked about how they were  now going to follow the Math Practices that tell teachers how to teach.

She even went through the list: Make Sense of a Problem, Persevere, Viable Arguments, Model With Mathematics (calculators)  You can listen to this high school math teacher in Manchester use her “critical thinking skills” to explain how this “tells teachers how to teach” and why this new method would not help her students to master the math knowledge they needed.

Even though there was a contradiction in what Heather Gage said vs Tammy Leondard, we pretty much know that Common Core does mandate how a teacher teaches.

Barry Garelick, a high school math teacher explains it in this piece where he says:
For those who may not know what these are, the SMPs are eight practices that 1) supposedly embody the work habits and general mode of thought of mathematicians, 2) were defined largely by non-mathematicians, and 3) which most real mathematicians believe are nonsense. Yes, criticizing and analyzing the reasoning of others (one of the SMPs) is what mathematicians may do, but it is something learned through accumulation of expertise in the subject area. But distinctions between novices and experts have never bothered the non-experts who write this stuff and even some mathematicians are swayed by the “wouldn’t it be nice if students could do this” quality of such daydreams.

Garelick who is one of the leading voices from U.S. Coalition for World Class Math, has seen what an emphasis on faddish pedagogy can do in a math class and has written extensively on this subject.

For instance Tammy Leonard made a plea to the audience that MORE Professional Development would be needed so that teachers could learn how to use “project based learning” in their classes.  I noticed she offered no statistical data on how that teaching method has been used in the past and successfully elevated academic achievement.  In fact, I hope someone who can critically think will ask that question in the future.  Especially the taxpayers who will have to fund that Professional Development.

Project based learning for learning math?  I thought this was about a set of standards?  They weren’t going to tell teachers how to teach.  I thought that what they were proposing would cure the remedial math crisis the President of the Nashua Community College was seeing when she accepted the graduates from Hollis-Brookline?  Remember, remedial math tends to involve illiteracy in k-8 mathematics.  Not the inability to work as a team or collaborate.

That’s the new skills that your kids will be working on too.  Someone mentioned they would focus on “life skills”.  Fred Kocher mentioned how students visited a manufacturing plant so they could see how their knowledge could be applied.  However going back to the President of Nashua Community College, her concern was on the remedial classes students were required to take.

What they failed to mention was the root of the problem and that boils down to illiteracy.  Illiteracy in mathematics and other core subjects like English/Language Arts.

If Common Core focused on giving students the academic foundation they needed, this might actually work.  However we know that this is all workforce training so the focus shifts from academic content to workforce training.  What is workforce training?  A new focus on workforce skills like, collaboration, team-work, etc.

How does a math teacher who is now required to focus on project based learning, team work and collaboration fix an illiteracy problem?  Where is the data and statistics that shows this shift away from academic content to workforce training has a positive impact on academic achievement?

One of the panelists even said Common Core forces them to teach in a new way.  If that’s the case, the parents and residents  need to DEMAND proof that this new way has been shown to improve academic achievement and eliminate the need for remedial education.

Some of these points could have been challenged if the two State Reps. had the courage to offer the audience an opposing view.  In other words, if those who think critically were allowed on that stage, the audience could have been offered information that helped them to think critically about Common Core.  That begs the question, did Reps. Gargasz and Levesque want that kind of critical thinking presented or was it better to keep the audience in the dark?

At the end the questions from the audience really challenged the panelists.  Based on those questions, I find it hard to believe that anyone was convinced this NEXT reform in education was going to be any better than the numerous education reforms that left many children “behind.”

One question asked about a waiver from the new national assessment (Smarter Balanced Assessment) and could a school be issued a waiver from the NH DOE?  It appears as if the NH DOE has no intention of issuing any waivers based on the current law that requires them to administer an annual assessment.

However we have the U.S. DOE ignoring federal law and issuing waivers to No Child Left Behind.  In fact, the NH DOE applied and received a “waiver” from that federal law.  So why can’t the NH DOE issue a waiver from the law that requires them to administer an assessment that hasn’t been validated and schools are now trying to reject?   If waiving a law is good enough for the US DOE and NH DOE, why isn’t it good enough for our local schools?  Seems like a contradiction that the US DOE will ignore federal laws, the NH DOE will go along with it, but when schools want the NH DOE to issue a waiver, they are unwilling to do so.

We kept hearing how Common Core is the “floor” and schools can build upon that floor.  In fact they kept telling us how schools can reject Common Core completely and use better standards.  That’s exactly what the voters said they wanted.  However it looks like there is an unwillingness to do just that.  One School Board Member explained that he didn’t know if they had the “authority”.  However he just sat there and listened to the panelists tell him he could reject the CCSS.

Another School Board Member acted like he was going to listen to the public but then went on and said something about also listening to the teachers.  Well we all know that teachers are reluctant if not fearful of speaking out against Common Core so I’m not sure who he thinks he’s fooling by thinking he is going to get a wave of teachers willing to speak out against Common Core.

Yes, it sounds like the current board members, or at least some of them are making excuses on how they will ignore the public who said they wanted better standards for their children.

We have members of the NH DOE and BOE telling school districts they can reject Common Core Standards and use better ones.  We have voters in the district saying they want better academic standards for their children.  We have pro-Common Core supporters like Fordham identifying better academic standards schools and states could be using.  However we continue to have people refusing to raise that bar in public education.

If the New Hampshire Department of Ed refuses to do their job and develop state level quality academic standards, then it is up to each individual school district to do that.  It is unfortunate that the Hollis-Brookline leaders seem unwilling to do what everyone knows should be done.  That’s not leadership, that’s settling for mediocrity.

While other schools and states continue to reject Common Core and work towards better standards, these students will be at a disadvantage.  It’s time to accept that harsh reality or replace the people who’ve become obstacles to excellence in public education.

Ann Marie Banfield is an education activists and volunteers her time for Cornerstone Action as their Education Liaison.  Her focus is on academic excellence, literacy and empowering parents.