By Katie Lannan
TEWKSBURY -- As a member of the national Common Core validation committee, Sandra Stotsky was part of the team helping to develop new curriculum requirements for the nation's students. Unhappy with the final English language arts results, she refused to sign off on them.
Now, Stotsky says, broader opposition to the curriculum program is bubbling up.
"There are pockets of resistance beginning to emerge in school committees across the state," said Stotsky, a former senior associate commissioner of the state Department of Education. "People around the state are beginning to worry, and School Committee members are trying to figure out how they get out of this mess."
Stotsky, along with Pioneer Institute Center for School Reform Director Jamie Gass, is scheduled to speak at a Common Core informational forum Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Tewksbury Country Club.
Since 2010, all but five states have signed on to the national education initiative intended to prepare students for college and a 21st century workforce.
Whether the curriculum standards accomplish that goal has become a question up for debate among educators, researchers and parents.
The upcoming event, presented by the Tewksbury Republican Town Committee, arose after discussions of the curriculum standards during last year's school committee race.
"There wasn't a lot of parents or even the electorate that really knew what Common Core was, so we decided that maybe we should inform the residents what was going on in the school system and what our tax dollars are funding," said Ruth Chou, a committee member and one of the forum's organizers. "It's not a partisan issue. There are people across the board that have some concerns, and there are people across the board that are completely on board with Common Core."
Chou said she emailed state education officials to ask if they'd attend alongside Stotsky and Gass but did not receive a response.
Critics call Common Core a step backward from the previous Massachusetts standards, while those supporting the implementation say it's more academically rigorous.
"We felt that we did a pretty thorough job back in 2009 and 2010 in making sure that these standards were sort of building upon what we already have," said state Department of Elementary and Secondary education spokesman JC Considine. "At the end of the day, we would not have done that if this did not build on what was already in place. We have a level of excellence in place in Massachusetts already, but at the same time, we cannot stand still."
Considine said that although Massachusetts typically receives among the highest test scores in the country, students here still lag behind some of their peers in other countries. More focused and coherent curriculum standards, he said, will help them compete internationally.
One aspect of the curriculum that's drawn criticism is its focus on writing, which Stotsky said comes at the expense of the development of reading skills and the corresponding critical thinking.
"A lot of time is going to be spent in classrooms from kindergarten on, trying to get kids to do a lot of writing that they're really not capable of doing because reading is much more important," she said. "You can't become a good writer unless you are a good reader."
Gass, of the Pioneer Institute, said the English curriculum moves away from classic literature, focusing instead on non-fiction texts like historical speeches and political documents.
According to the Tewksbury Republican Town Committee, Saturday's event will provide background on the curriculum's origins, compare it to the previous state standards, discuss data-gathering and use in Common Core and analyze the impact of the curriculum in terms of cost and local and parental control.
Gass said the Pioneer Institute has done "more independent research on Common Core than any other entity in the country," including an analysis that shows the curriculum will cost the state a total of $350 million to fully implement.
The Boston-based think tank has done work with Common Core in around 20 states and recently has been receiving more and more requests to discuss their finding locally, Gass said.
"We're seeing this enormous grassroots movement where, primarily, moms are coming to us as they're seeing the poor quality of things being taught in the schools," he said.
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