MANCHESTER — With one daughter who graduated from Memorial High School in June, another in her freshman year, a third at Henry J. McLaughlin Middle School and the fourth a first-grader at Green Acres Elementary, Jon DiPietro has an obvious interest in public education.
"The entire spectrum of my kids represents 25 years of education in Manchester schools," said the 45-year-old electrical engineer, who runs his own Internet marketing and Web development business from his family's comfortable home at the end of a quiet cul de sac in the city's east side.
DePietro's personal connection to local schools has fueled his public opposition to Common Core, but he has had an interest in education reform for much of his adult life.
His Oct. 18 blog post on a website hosted by a local radio talk show host, titled "Stop Experimenting with My Children," expanded upon his impassioned plea to the Manchester Board of School Committee at its Oct. 16 meeting and has since gone viral among Common Core opponents nationally.
After hearing from DiPietro and many other like-minded speakers for nearly two hours, the committee voted, 13-1, to join Alton as the second New Hampshire school district to formally vote against the standards recommended in 2010 by the New Hampshire Board of Education.
DiPietro shares all of the concerns raised by opponents regarding federal over-reach, the quality of the standards, threats to privacy from the testing protocols, and the lack of planning that has gone into implementation. But most of all, he fears they take us down a path we've been on since the founding of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979.
"Ever since, we've been experimenting with our children," he said during an interview at his office. "We keep moving further away from the basics that worked so well for generations. Whether they call it "Everyday Math" or "Whole Language" or getting rid of phonetics. We just keep trying the same thing over and over again."
Back to basics
Ann Marie Banfield, education liaison at Cornerstone Policy Research, a statewide conservative advocacy group, says the frustration of parents such as DiPietro is understandable. Her three children attended parochial schools, she said, and after years of researching education, she now wishes she had home-schooled them.
"There's a lot of writing going on, but there's not a whole lot of grammar going on," she said. "In math, there is a de-emphasis on facts and memorization. Memorization is important; math facts are still important, and these reformers are pushing constructivism, where students are left to learning situations in which they are taught multiple methods to add, subtract, multiply and divide. When you do something in so many different ways, one way doesn't stick in your head."
The "constructivism" Banfield alludes to puts an emphasis on hands-on, collaborative, project-based and task-based learning.
DiPietro says he has seen the outcome firsthand, as his children come home with homework that suggests process is more important than getting the right answer.
"One homework assignment was to solve 12 + 7, and to explain how you got the answer. One student drew a brain with an arrow pointing to it," he said. "In her first or second week at the middle school, my daughter took a math quiz. She got the right answers, but was graded wrong for using the wrong method."
Banfield, DiPietro and other like-minded opponents aren't calling for restoration of the previous Grade Level Expectations, which drove state curriculum and testing for the past decade. Those standards were also a reflection of years of educational fads and experimentation, they said.
Made wary by the past
Mayor Ted Gatsas, who is taking on the Department of Education over testing protocols, said he had been made wary by past experience.
"In the 1980s, there was an experiment to build schools without classroom walls," he said. "I still have a school like that in my district at Beech Street. The only thing that separates classrooms is file cabinets. Go in there and see if you can pay attention."
Educational traditionalists such as DiPietro and Banfield are also concerned by the emphasis on work force development in the Common Core standards, which have won widespread support among business groups including chambers of commerce and the statewide Business and Industry Association.
"If kids develop a thirst for knowledge and know their basic subjects, they'll be fine," he said. "We are graduating kids who can't do basic math or read at an acceptable level. Why are we worrying about work force development when our kids are illiterate? The students who graduated from 1945 to 1975 were a lot more work-force-ready. They put a man on the moon using slide rules."
DiPietro welcomed the vote by the Board of School Committee, which he said was needed to put a halt to the "last-minute and chaotic" introduction of Common Core in Manchester.
The controversy surrounding the education standards and related tests is actually a good thing for education, DiPietro says, because it has mobilized parents. "Now, there's a door that's been opened," he said. "Thanks to Common Core, parents like me can make our case that we've been going the wrong way for the last 30 years."