Critics of the Common Core State Standards in Massachusetts are trying to get the increasingly controversial academic benchmarks on the 2016 state ballot, the first time voters would decide whether to keep the K-12 math and reading standards.
“We want to give the people of Massachusetts a voice in their educational standards,” said Donna Colorio, who chairs End Common Core MA, a group that wants the state to return to the standards it used before 2010, when it joined 42 other states and the District in adopting the Common Core.
The previous Massachusetts standards were widely recognized as among the nation’s best, and Colorio said the Common Core is a weak replacement.
“Why would Massachusetts choose to go backwards, when we were number one in the country?” said Colorio, a former Worcester School Committee member whose youngest child attends public high school. “We are paying Massachusetts taxes for Mississippi standards.”
A ballot initiative on the Common Core is a novelty, said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which worked with the National Governors Association to create the Common Core.
“More involvement is always a good thing,” Minnich said. “If we can get more parents and teachers and kids into the conversation, that’s a good thing. If it’s just a political stunt, I’d be concerned that it ends up being politics as usual, which is what this sounds like.”
Colorio’s group has held dozens of public meetings across the state, several featuring Sandra Stotsky, an architect of the earlier Massachusetts standards and a vocal national critic of the Common Core.
“We went throughout the state and educated people — parents, grass roots, teachers,” she said. “We realized this is a lot larger than we anticipated.”
The Common Core standards spell out the skills and knowledge every child should possess by the end of each grade from kindergarten through high school. They grew out of a desire by a bipartisan group of governors and top state education officials to inject some consistency into state standards, which had varied wildly. The standards are not a curriculum; classroom materials and teaching methods are left up to school districts and states.
Last week, the state attorney general certified the Massachusetts ballot question as constitutional, and now, organizers must collect 65,000 signatures to get the measure on the 2016 ballot. Colorio said the campaign could cost an estimated $100,000; the group is seeking funders.
Colorio said voters should be given the opportunity to weigh in on the academic standards in place for the state’s children. In Massachusetts, state law gives authority for setting K-12 standards to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, whose 11 members are appointed by the governor and serve staggered terms.
In 2010, the board approved the Common Core after a lengthy public process, said Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state education department. State law puts the power to set standards in the hands of the board of education to insulate the process from politics, she said. “And we’ve been well-served by that,” she said. “It keeps our teachers and administrators moving in the same direction and gives us continuity.”
Letting voters choose academic standards could disrupt that continuity, she said. “All those educators would have to change what they’ve been working on for years,” she said.
In Massachusetts, as in other states, opposition to the Common Core is tangled with public upset over new tests related to the standards. Massachusetts has been using the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers) exam, one of two created with federal grants to measure how well students are learning.
PARCC has been unpopular among some parents, teachers and school leaders, for different reasons. Initially, 26 states had joined the effort to develop and use the PARCC exam, but just 11 states and the District administered the test in the spring. Three more states defected, bringing the remaining total to eight states and the District. Massachusetts officials are expected to make a decision in November about whether to stick with PARCC or seek out a different test.
Karen Nussle, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a pro-Common Core group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropies, said Massachusetts adopted the Common Core standards because they were an improvement.
“Now is not the time for Massachusetts to revert to outdated standards for their students,” Nussle said.