SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 11, 2014

With Common Core on the way, committeeman sounds an alarm

McGeney invites opponent of national standards to speak

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — PEABODY — Dave McGeney is seeking a cure for the Common Core.

The veteran school board member is speaking out against Common Core, the federally sponsored effort to promote common educational standards and testing across the country. Already approved here in Massachusetts, Common Core testing will begin this spring on a trial basis in schools in Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Middleton, Salem Academy Charter School, Swampscott and Peabody. Eventually, Common Core is slated for use in every city and town in the state.

The new test, known as PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), is seen as a replacement for the MCAS — something McGeney feels is a mistake. With MCAS, student test scores in Massachusetts have climbed to the highest level in the nation, he said. He also is wary of a loss of control by local boards and the potential for abusing student information. Consequently, he’s asked Common Core critic Sandra Stotsky to speak at the Higgins Middle School tonight at 7.

Stotsky, he said, was involved in education reform in Massachusetts in the 1990s and was also part of the team developing Common Core before turning against it.

So exactly what is the Common Core?

Megin Charner-Laird, an education professor at Salem State University, explains it as “an effort to bring a core set of standards to as many states as possible. ... It’s called a core because it’s a core set of knowledge and skill.” It was designed in the early 2000s, she said. So far, 45 states plus the District of Columbia have opted into the program.

Charner-Laird, a former elementary school teacher who holds a doctorate in education from Harvard, is already preparing would-be teachers to respond to the requirements of Common Core.

She sees in Common Core the potential to accomplish something vital by helping teachers and administrators set a direction for education nationwide. The program won’t be telling them how to teach, she says: “There still is a lot of discretion at the local level.”

According to the Common Core website, the standards will mean that students around the country are learning the same skills at approximately the same time, so some schools may need to make changes such as the grade level when a certain math skill, for example is taught, if children are going to do well on the tests.

Common Core has set standards only for English language arts and math, because the skills developed in those areas are used to learn in other areas, such as social studies and science, according to Common Core’s website. They’re also the subjects that are most commonly tested for accountability purposes.

Charner-Laird is neither an advocate nor opponent of the program. She’s taking a wait-and-see attitude, which she believes is a common one in the education establishment.

“People are withholding judgment for a while to see how things work out,” she said.

At the same time, she has no illusions regarding why a majority of states, including Massachusetts, have agreed to sign on. “The state has adopted it because it comes with a large amount of funding. People at the state level always have to be thinking of how to bring in a large amount of money.”

McGeney complains, however, about tying Common Core to “Race to the Top” grants. “This was so set up,” he says. Eventually, he worries, school budgets of cities and towns will drift beyond their control.

Explaining that he’s given the topic more research than anything in his 20-year career on the school board, McGeney told colleagues at the Feb. 25 meeting of his concerns about a nonprofit company, inBloom Inc., that hoped to support Common Core by gathering student data.

“They are storing an unprecedented amount of personal information,” he said. “Personal information about 11 million students.”

Only a handful of states agreed to participate with inBloom in a pilot program aimed at standardizing student record-keeping.

“One of them — this might surprise you, it shocked me — one of them is Massachusetts,” McGeney told his colleagues. “Now I could ask the superintendent to go through the minutes of the meeting to find out when we voted to give all of the students’ personal information to inBloom, but there’s no point. We never voted on that, and we never would vote on that.”

McGeney said later, however, that it is not clear that inBloom ever got any information from Massachusetts. Only one community, Everett, had opted in by last May and did not turn over any student information. Concerns about privacy and security of data have pretty much derailed the program nationally, and it is not clear whether Massachusetts will be participating in the future.

While he is also reserving judgment about Common Core, Danvers school board member Eric Crane sees politics in the opposition to it.

“I’m not one of those people living in fear of the federal government,” he said, noting that those wary of a big central government tend to dislike the program. But, he points out, five people on a school board could also inflict damaging decisions on a school system. “It might be safer to have a national standard.”

On the other hand, he also points to the high standards already in place for schools like Danvers, and he concedes that he expects some difficulties in adjusting to changes.

“I would take a step back and see how this is going to work,” he said, adding, “Our students are going to do fine.”

Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.