As housing costs in the New Hampshire Seacoast began to soar in the 1980s and 1990s, middle-class families began to migrate from Portsmouth and Dover northward to Rochester in search of more affordable options, helping the border town grow to the sixth-largest city in the state.
A Rochester elementary school teacher at the time, Laura Hainey began to notice significant differences in the readiness of transient students for the curriculum in place at the Lilac City. It wasn't a matter of ability, but timing. The students had either not yet been exposed to certain material or were already familiar with it, forcing her to spend a lot of time in remedial work with some or advanced work with others.
If teachers in the same state, working in essentially the same section of that state, see differences as students move from district to district, you can imagine how vast the differences can be when they move from state to state. Having seen those differences firsthand, Hainey, now the president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, is a big supporter of the Common Core State Standards, an effort to create consistency in academia not only within each state, but also across the nation.
"We'll have this set of standards that will be followed with some uniformity," she said, "so I think it's going to help those kids who move."
Establishing uniform goals for math and English K-12 education for a highly mobile society was only one of the motives behind creation of the Common Core State Standards. Another key objective when the project was launched in 2008 was to improve educational outcomes so that more high school graduates would be truly ready for college or the workplace without extensive remedial work.
The effort proceeded without much fanfare as the nation was distracted by the economic collapse of 2008 and the recession that followed.
In 2010, the New Hampshire Board of Education voted to replace Grade Level Expectations, which had been the foundation for curricula statewide, with the Common Core, as did most other states. By the start of 2013, it looked as if all the states except Texas, Alaska, Nebraska and Virginia would adopt the standards.
Then the opposition began to mobilize. In April, the Republican National Committee criticized the initiative as a "one size fits all" approach and an "inappropriate overreach" by the federal government, despite continued support among leading Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The Tea Party has latched on to Common Core with passion not seen since the early days of Obamacare. "This is the issue that could change things for the Tea Party movement," Lee Ann Burkholder, founder of the 9/12 Patriots in York, Pa., said in a recent interview with the Washington Post.
Now the initiative is in trouble in several states. Indiana has suspended implementation, and repeal legislation has been filed in Alabama. Florida has withdrawn from Common Core-related testing and is reviewing the standards.
Lawmakers in New Hampshire are following suit. House Republicans Lenette Peterson of Merrimack and David Murotake of Nashua have introduced bills to delay or prohibit Common Core. Lawmakers from Keene and Tuftonboro have filed similar bills.
"Nobody knew what was going on," says Ann Marie Banfield, education liaison at Cornerstone Policy Research, a conservative advocacy group that has emerged as a major voice against Common Core in the Granite State. "Finally, people woke up. The curriculum started coming into the school. The new textbooks have come into the schools. People are seeing the questions to their kids that they don't understand themselves. When the kids started bringing this stuff home, we started hearing from concerned parents."
Opponents allege that Common Core is an attempt to create a federal education system; that its standards in some cases are actually lower than existing standards; that it amounts to an unfunded federal mandate; that the Smarter Balanced or PARCC tests (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) designed to accompany Common Core are convoluted and raise privacy concerns.
The more extreme opponents claim the standards undermine the Second Amendment, promote socialism and, according to one conservative blogger, "teach second-graders to be good union comrades."
The issue has now moved front and center across the state. The Alton and Manchester school boards voted to develop their own standards, which they say will exceed Common Core. Nashua, whose school district was at the forefront of the effort, has now been asked to delay implementation. Supporters and opponents squared off at a legislative forum at the State House on Oct. 29.
In the same week, the Business and Industry Association (BIA), known as the statewide chamber of commerce, took a public stand in support of Common Core, calling the standards the key to creating an educated work force.
An economic issue
Support from the BIA should come as no surprise, since Common Core emerged largely out of economic development concerns at the state level and among large employers.
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, was the keynote speaker at the Oct. 29 State House forum. He described how the initiative began as a collaboration between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
"Governors were being held increasingly accountable by their constituents for economic development," he said. "But the companies they were trying to recruit were telling them that they would not come unless the governor could convince them that the quality of education in the state would radically improve. ... The governors began to clamor for higher standards in the United States and, if possible, uniform standards."
At the same time, Tucker said, the first round of scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) were beginning to come out. State commissioners from the lowest performing states were concerned, but were unable to raise state standards on their own.
"They went to their association and said, in effect, 'We need to work together, as an association, to come up with some common standards,'?" Tucker said.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the effort, involving teachers, administrators, parents and state leaders from across the country, to develop the new standards. Professor David Pook of the Derryfield School and Granite State College helped write the English standards.
While opponents and supporters of Common Core share a belief that public education in the United States is in need of improvement, they agree on little else.
In a series of articles starting today and continuing this week, the New Hampshire Sunday News and the Union Leader will examine the content of the Common Core State Standards and the arguments on both sides, including a look inside a classroom in Amherst, where the standards have been embraced, and one in Manchester, which has pulled the plug.
The stakes could not be higher, especially in Manchester, where a decision to forgo Common Core in favor of local standards has pushed the state's largest city into uncharted territory when it comes to compliance with state and federal requirements for standardized testing.
"These are hysterical times," said Tucker, calling on people to "set the hysteria aside" and engage in a good-faith conversation about where these standards come from and what they might mean for the future of the country.