When scores of Jefferson Parish educators and residents gathered Tuesday night in Elmwood to discuss a set of new academic standards known as Common Core, they did so across a divide that appeared just as wide at the end of the meeting as at the outset three hours earlier.
The town-hall style meeting was organized by state Reps. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, and Nick Lorusso, R-New Orleans.
It was billed as an informational session in which panelists would answer questions and try to assuage concerns about Common Core, a set of standards embraced by most states as a way to improve student achievement and allow state-to-state comparisons on how students are doing in the classroom.
In a digital world, however, information is not what it used to be.
“I’m telling you, this is evil,” said audience member Denise Fisher, who asked the panel whether eliminating the teaching of cursive handwriting might be an attempt to keep children from reading documents written by the Founding Fathers.
Educators on the panel said that Common Core does not prevent the teaching of cursive writing, but like other facets of the discussion, many listeners appeared to leave with the conclusions they arrived with.
Jim Garvey of Metairie, a Republican member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the group that he’s made it a point to research about 40 of the complaints about Common Core.
“I’ve researched every single one, and so far I have not found one that has turned out to be true,” Garvey said, noting along with educators on the panel that the curriculum states will use to achieve the new standards will be determined at the local level.
But audience members and Common Core opponents on the panel warned of a near future in which wristbands could monitor children’s biometrics.
They spoke of YouTube videos showing people being arrested at meetings for exercising free speech, and of recordings they said prove Microsoft founder Bill Gates has an ultimate goal of subjugating the population through Common Core.
Panelist Terri Timmcke, of Stop Common Core in Louisiana, said the initiative’s real purpose is to “select winners and losers in a centralized economy” by letting corporate and state interests seize control of the education system and use it to create a managed workforce through the collection of private data.
Panelist Monica Candal, a former math teacher and Jefferson Parish director of the group Stand for Children, tried to assure the audience the motives of Common Core backers are not that nefarious.
“I have not received some grand message from Bill Gates about these methods,” she said.
Panelist Mary Kass, also of Stop Common Core, said for her, the issue is that the standards originate from the federal government, operating through a handful of corporations and foundations with ulterior motives.
“It’s really who controls the standards, where they came from,” Kass said, claiming along with Timmcke and fellow Stop Common Core member Sara Wood that federal standards inevitably will lead to a federally mandated curriculum.
Garvey told the group his understanding is the personal information collected through the annual tests will not be the kind that can be tied to an individual’s identity, a belief many in the audience scoffed at.
Audience members in favor of Common Core included about a half-dozen local teachers and educators, who said the fact that Louisiana ranks near the bottom among U.S. states on many educational measures is simply a clear call for change if the state wants to be able to compete in a new economy.
“All we’re trying to do is make sure our kids in Louisiana can compete on that global scale,” said Charmain Carter, a vice principal at a local charter school.
Greta Anderson, a math department chairwoman at a charter school who has taught for eight years, spoke of the embarrassment of using fifth-grade textbooks from California to teach seventh-grade students. Another teacher spoke of teaching things to high school students that she learned in middle school.
Panelist Gayle Sloan, of the state Department of Education, said one of the things she likes about Common Core is it gives local governments and parents leeway in how they shape the curriculum to attain the higher standards.
“The curriculum or the day-to-day lessons that will be used to teach the students in line with these standards are being left to the states and to the local school districts to design,” Garvey agreed.
Timmcke and Kass said Louisiana is capable of coming up with its own standards — a choice they said would ensure Louisiana retains the autonomy it would lose by being part of the PARCC consortium, the group of roughly 20 states drafting the Common Core exams using money from the federal government.
PARCC is widely regarded by opponents of Common Core as a key tool in a corrupt enterprise.
“You can’t make something good out of something that is inherently bad,” Wood said. “We want something that is created in Louisiana by Louisiana people.”
Hy McEnery, chaplain at LAMB Ministries in New Orleans, asked about an anecdote interpreted by Common Core opponents as saying that children will be allowed to say that 2+2=5 and still be correct.
“Postmodernism is taking over our government, our culture and our education system,” McEnery said. “And basically postmodernism is: If it feels good, do it.”
Candal said the anecdote likely stemmed from a principle of Common Core that students should not just get answers right, but should be able to explain how they got them.
Talbot tried to reassure the group, many of them his constituents, of his political conservatism. “We are not going to give up our power to the federal government, I assure you,” he said.
Garvey said several times that the state is free to opt out of Common Core if the program ends up having unacceptable strings attached.
Keith Chatelain of Ponchatoula was not convinced. “You’re going to be standing side by side with me saying, ‘What have we done?’ and it is too late,” he said.
After the meeting, Talbot said he supports higher standards but is wary of ill-advised methods of attaining them. He mourned the level of mistrust that seemed to make a common understanding of the issue based on mutually agreed-upon facts all but impossible.