CONCORD — Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry came ready for a fight at a legislative hearing Thursday, calling opponents of Common Core “misinformed.”
She accused them of attempting to deny local control to school districts that have been putting the standards in place for the past four years. “Asking for laws that prevent implementation flies in the face of local control,” she said.
Her passion was not lost on opponents at the House Education Committee hearing. “I have never seen Virginia Barry so fired up,” said Doris Hohensee, chairwoman of N.H. Families for Education.
The large hearing room in the Legislative Office Building was filled, with some of the 60 to 70 people lining the walls, as speakers took turns deriding or supporting two bills.
The hearings focused on one bill (HB 1239), which requires a cost-analysis of the educational standards adopted in 45 states, and another (HB1508) that would forbid the Department of Education from implementing them.
Barry’s testimony came at the end of a long line of speakers, including school superintendents, current and former teachers, at least 10 state representatives, and moms with children in tow, sporting “Stop Common Core” name-tags.
Common Core opponents, fresh from a news conference in the lobby of the building, said the standards were adopted in a closed process, the costs are unknown, the approach is untested and unproven, and could prove harmful to children whose privacy could be compromised.
Joseph Mendola of Warner, who recently filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office to create a group called Grandparents and Parents Opposed to Common Core, raised the specter of “children vomiting and losing bowel control” over the stresses imposed by the new standards and related tests.
“Our children need to go through K-12 with an appetite to enjoy education, not to hate it,” he said to loud applause, prompting committee chairwoman Mary Gile, D-Concord, to call for decorum.
Speakers focused on the technical arguments for and against the standards, and the concerns about protecting the privacy of students who take the tests.
“If you support Common Core, some day when my child’s information is used in a way that is detrimental to my child or to me, I hope you can look me in the eye and explain why you gave my information away,” said Laura El-Azem, a mother of five from Londonderry.
Two sides far apart
Supporters argued that the standards were well-vetted and supported by the majority of professional organizations representing teachers and school boards in the country.
Representatives of the Business and Industry Association and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education spoke in support of the standards, as did all of the school superintendents who testified.
“We are now three-and-a-half years into implementing the Common Core,” said supporter Bill Duncan, founder of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education. “It costs nothing. There is no new textbook demand; no professional development demand, so the Common Core, just like all the standards that preceded it, gets metabolized into the public school system in the normal fashion.”
At its core, the debate came down to whether consistency among the states in educational standards is desirable in the face of declining test results and growing international competition, or whether it represents federal intrusion into a state prerogative.
Teaching style, with old-fashioned memorization versus conceptual learning, was also at issue.
State Rep. Lenette Peterson, R-Merrimack, gave an example of how a math question would be handled by Common Core: Mrs. Jones had 18 students and she wanted each of them to become a number so that the room would equal 90.
“In Common Core, they would arrange 18 rows, each with five dots, to come up to 90,” she said. “In old math, they would have learned their multiplication tables and division, take 90 and divide by 18, to come up with five, which is quicker and way more efficient.”
Other parents handed out student work samples to the committee to make their point.
State Rep. Chris Muns, D-Hampton, who also serves as chairman of the Winnacunnet School Board, testified that the new standards are needed to keep America competitive in the global economy.
“The Common Core will better prepare our students for the realities of the current economic environment in which our kids are not only competing with other kids in New Hampshire or New England, they are competing with other kids across the country and around the world, and these standards will do a much better job at helping them deal with that reality,” he said.
State Rep. Peter Hansen, R-Amherst, countered, “You want to be concerned about the education system of the U.S. versus the rest of the world? Once they put a man on the moon, we can be concerned about that.”