CONCORD — A leading national proponent of the Common Core educational standards told lawmakers at an information session Tuesday that the controversial effort to create a consensus around educational outcomes is key to the country's economic future and political stability.
"This is not the time to abandon the Common Core or to slow it down," said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. "We are now far behind a growing list of countries that are providing a better education for a larger fraction of their students than we are. If there is something to be alarmed about it is not the Common Core, but the consequences of our failure to adopt it."
The packed hearing room on the second floor of the Legislative Office Building was largely silent during Tucker's presentation and a subsequent panel discussion, but erupted into applause later when he was challenged by Republican lawmakers including Education Committee member Patrick Bick of Salem, who called for the elimination of the federal Department of Education.
Tucker was unapologetic. "I don't know how to sugar-coat this," he said. "If you want to keep everything the way it is, you can look forward to more of the same, I can guarantee you, and this country will be in a lot of trouble."
He also alluded to efforts by some communities to back out of the standards, adopted by the state Board of Education in 2010. Alton and Manchester so far have opted to go their own way.
"If you want to have every community in New Hampshire to determine its own standards, that's fine," Tucker said. "But New Hampshire will get what it has had, and it's not good enough. It's not good enough for your kids. One country after another is going right straight past us and making the adjustments they have to make. We are not."
Tucker led government-funded research on education in the 1970s and 1980s, advised the Clinton administration on education policy and authored several books on the subject. He has become a lightning rod for opponents of Common Core, who claim he has a disdain for local control over education.
A Maine resident, Tucker was the keynote for a day-long session on education reform intended to help lawmakers make sense of several bills that would have the state abandon or delay Common Core implementation.
Tucker outlined the trends in U.S. standardized test scores when compared to leading Asian and European industrialized countries, and said scores have been declining for decades while the cost of education has continued to rise. "We need to get underneath why our results have not improved since the 1970s and our costs, adjusted for inflation, have increased by 240 percent," he said.
Much of Tucker's presentation was focused on addressing the main criticisms of Common Core opponents, and reminding the audience of the bipartisan support for previous educational reform efforts.
"What really seems to unite those who lead the opposition is their very strong antipathy toward government at any level, but most especially the federal government," he said. "They appear to be willing to say anything, whether it is true or not, to fight off what they seem to think is a clear and present danger to their freedoms as citizens of the United States. This is hardly surprising. This is a thread in the national political fabric that has been with us since the founding of our country."
In the panel discussion that followed, coordinated by Board of Education Chairman Tom Raffio, all speakers endorsed the standards, including National Education Association-NH President Scott McGilvary; Bedford School Board member and state Board of Education member Cindy Chagnon; Concord Superintendent Christine C. Rath; Bill Duncan, president of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education; and Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry.
"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that we need to take advantage of," said McGilvary, whose union represents 16,500 New Hampshire teachers.
Litchfield Republican Rep. Ralph Boehm asked whether the Common Core standards were truly voluntary, in light of comments made at a recent Board of Education meeting by board member Gregory O'Dell, who asked, "What can we make Manchester do?"
After Commissioner Virginia Barry confirmed that local districts are not required to adopt the standards, Raffio explained O'Dell's comment this way: "We've been working on Manchester issues like class size and many other things, and it's been two years of dealing with those issues," he said, "so there was a degree of frustration expressed in that statement."
Barry clarified that while the standards are not mandatory, a standardized test is required by law, and the state has chosen the Smarter Balance test aligned with Common Core as its standardized test starting in 2015. "Under state and federal law, our students must take an assessment, and the assessment the state has chosen is Smarter Balance, and there are no waivers available that I am aware of at the state or federal level," she said, eliciting boos from the Common Core opponents in the room.
Many of those opponents were told to wait outside the meeting room by State House security until it was obvious that the room could accommodate all the legislators present as well as the public. Eventually, everyone was let in, but only lawmakers could ask questions.
Republican Al Baldasaro of Londonderry urged Raffio to reconsider that policy, amid loud applause from the audience.
"Charter schools and home-schoolers are scoring so much higher on testing; why are we not doing more to find out what they are doing right before we take on a new program," he said. "There are a lot of mothers here today who came to speak, and I hope we legislators can give up some of our time to let them speak."