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October 17. 2013 9:01PM

Common Core moves continue in Manchester, Nashua

MANCHESTER — Critics of Common Core are cheering the decision by the school board in the state's largest city to forgo implementing the education standards promoted by state and federal officials.

The Manchester Board of School Committee voted nearly unanimously Wednesday to develop "Manchester Academic Standards" that would make us of the Common Core State Standards, but only as a foundation for a district-wide overhaul of the curriculum, which would draw from multiple sources.

In addition, the board backed the recommendation of Superintendent Debra Livingston to hold off on any decision on whether to transition to the Smarter Balanced test, the assessment exam derived from the Common Core standards that the state Department of Education intends to use in place of the NECAP. The first Smarter Balanced test is scheduled to be offered in the spring of 2015.

Ann Marie Banfield, the education liaison for Cornerstone Action, a state-based conservative advocacy group, praised the "leadership" of Mayor Ted Gatsas and the superintendent to forge their own standards.

"I think the question we need to ask is why aren't (other communities) doing the same thing. Why aren't they opening up a dialogue? (Education Commissioner) Virginia Barry has very clearly stated districts don't have to adopt the standards. What Manchester simply did was look at them and say we're not going to pursue it," she said.

On Tuesday, school officials in Nashua agreed to discuss a proposal from a school board member to put off fully adopting the Common Core standards and the Smarter Balanced test for two years. Previously, the Alton school board was the only one in the state to vote against implementing Common Core.

Opponents of Common Core had made Manchester a frontline in the battle over the standards, which they charge mask a progressive political agenda, are based on unsound educational principles, and would undermine local control.

Manchester board's vote on the district-based curriculum came after nearly two hours of public comments, during which opponents of Common Core railed against the standards. In smaller numbers, people spoke in support of Common Core, including several city teachers.

Livingston's proposal for city-based standards was something of a departure from her earlier stance on Common Core. She and her staff had defended the rigor of the standards, and had indicated that not adopting the state assessment could jeopardize both state and federal funding, which makes up more than third of the district's budget.

The administration will be taking on the curriculum overhaul as it grapples with other challenges, including large class sizes and the departure of tuition paying sending towns. Seven district schools have been targeted for special intervention by the state DOE.

Livingston did not return calls on Thursday.

The Manchester district was poised to move forward with curriculum guides developed over the summer to align its curriculum with Common Core. The district paid a Boston-based consulting company $84,000 to assist in the process.

Curriculum changes can be costly, both for classroom materials and professional development time for teachers.

Ben Dick, the president of the city teachers union, said the new proposal has "the potential to be something great."

He added, "If we move forward with Common Core, it would be a massive overhaul. We need the tools to implement any program, and part of that includes professional development."

Banfield of Cornerstone Action said that she and others would be watching closely to ensure that Manchester develops a genuine alternative to Common Core and not the same standards by another name.

"I think people were at the concerned phase. I think if they tried something like that, it would turn to outright anger," she said.

Calls to Deputy Education Commissioner Paul Leather were not returned. tsiefer@unionleader.com


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