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Morning recess was over at Highland Elementary School and Dean Lapke directed his class of fifth-graders back to their desks. It was time for math. 

"Class, what are we working on?" Lapke called out.

"Order of operations!" the 18 fifth-graders shouted back.

Lapke wrote out a long problem on the whiteboard that included multiplication and division, a parenthetical statement and addition and subtraction.

And then Lapke added a twist, placing an exponent on one of the numbers in the problem. It's a degree of difficulty in math that in the past didn't come up until middle school.

However, on this recent Thursday morning, the fifth-graders puzzled through the exponent, solved the problem in the correct order and got their answers right. 

Much has changed with the district's adoption of Common Core curriculum two years ago. And perhaps nowhere is it more apparent than in the elementary school classroom. 

"Everything is up a level," Lapke said. "It's much more in-depth now."

Common Core — a set of nationwide curriculum standards — has toughened up math and reading requirements in Montana, and aims to bring schools all across the country to the same level of competency on core subjects. 

Backlash

But it has also created a backlash among a small group of concerned parents and lawmakers who distrust the new curriculum and see the national rollout as an infringement on state sovereignty. 

In fact, the hectoring from Common Core detractors has been pervasive enough that both local and state educators have held meetings with concerned parents and the community to answer questions.

Elder Grove School, west of Billings, put together a community meeting on the topic last month. Dennis Parman, assistant state superintendent of schools has traveled the state attending this meeting to help debunk the myths.

And the more they hear, the more comfortable they've become publicly dismissing the complaints outright — no parsing, no trying to state things diplomatically.

"There is no factual basis" to the claims they make, said Denise Juneau, state superintendent of schools.

Carrie Heath Phillips, director of Common Core State Standards for the Council of Chief State School Officers said it's frustrating to have detractors spreading basic "untruths" about the program.

The biggest claim, that Common Core is a federal mandate forced onto states, is demonstrably false. 

"It never was a federal mandate," said Kim Anthony, director of Curriculum for Billings School District 2. "Our state had the choice."

Detractors have been active, too, meeting in hotel conference rooms and town halls across the state to share their concerns about the new curriculum. Debra Lamm, a state lobbyist for the Montana Family Foundation and a member of Montanans Against Common Core, led a meeting in Billings last month.

When she first heard about about Common Core two years ago, she heard the good things about it, the promises the program made to "raise the bar" on public education.

"In reality it hasn't turned out to be good," she said. 

And for her, it stretches beyond Common Core.

"It's important, in my opinion, to look at the whole system," she said of modern public education.

Billings parent Laura Needham was in Helena last week, meeting with state lawmakers and voicing her objections to Common Core.

On a macro level, she feels the new curriculum infringes on states' rights. On a micro level, she believes it's not good for student learning. 

"Their brains just aren't ready," she said. 

Anthony disagreed. 

"We totally underestimated our students," she said. "The kids are totally stepping up to the plate."

Needham wasn't convinced. She saw her son struggling with the new math requirements and moved him into a private school. And still he's likely to struggle, she said. 

As most states have adopted Common Core, education publishing houses stock only material that meets Common Core standards. Private schools will be hard-pressed to find an alternative, she said. 

State rights

That the new curriculum has been adopted by so many states is part of what makes her uncomfortable.

"Montana's educational sovereignty needs to remain intact," she said. 

Common Core curriculum originated not from the U.S. Department of Education, but from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, both private organizations.

Adopting Common Core curriculum was voluntary. Once the program had been crafted by educators and education experts, members of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers took it to their home states for adoption beginning in 2010.

The U.S. Department of Education offered financial incentives to states that adopted it through President Barack Obama's Race to the Top program. 

Montana was the final and 45th state to the adopt the curriculum in late 2011. Texas, Alaska, Nebraska, Virginia and Minnesota have not. 

"It's good for our state and it's good for our students and our schools," Juneau said. 

Land of confusion

Montana's adoption of the curriculum has been another point of confusion for Common Core detractors. 

They've complained that its adoption broke state laws and that the state legislature was left out of the process. 

Juneau explained that Montana's Constitution requires that curriculum taught in public schools be approved by the state board of public education. 

In 2011, the board held a dozen public meetings and worked closely with its corresponding legislative committee as it looked at adopting Common Core. The board also injected a little Montana flair, adding the state's Indian Education for All curriculum to its version of Common Core. 

"We added our own Montana twist," Juneau said. 

Once the state adopted Common Core, school districts around the state began doing the same. The SD2 board met during its regular monthly board meeting in April 2012 to discuss the change and then adopted the curriculum. 

Pressure

The process of creating Common Core started in 2007. Business leaders were pressuring the governors association to do more to improve public education in their states, said Phillips, the director of Common Core State Standards for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

These business groups were seeing graduates leave high school woefully unprepared for the workforce. Rates of students required to take remedial classes when they started college had also grown, she said.

"That was frustrating to parents and to students who said, 'I thought I was ready and I'm not,' " Phillips said. 

Lamm looks at those complaints and sees something darker. She's worried that simply educating students is no longer the goal of public education.

"It's not education anymore, it's training," she said. 

The stated goal of Common Core is to raise educational standards across the board and introduce a uniform curriculum that remains the same from state to state, something borne out of educators' discontent with the federal No Child Left Behind Law.

Under NCLB, states were required by the federal government to meet the law's requirements — that each child test proficient in math and reading — but left each state to decide what "proficient" was. 

That meant some states, like Montana, had a lower standard of what proficient was compared to other states with more rigorous standards.

"Having a differing of expectations isn't fair to kids," Phillips said.

Common Core set out to change that.

A fifth-grader who moves from California to Montana will be at the same exact spot in her math and reading lessons in her new class as she was in her old. 

It also means that a student from Montana who applies for college does so with the same curriculum foundation as a student from Maine or Massachusetts. 

For Lamm, the change means that teachers lose the flexibility to teach what's needed for their specific classroom.  

Juneau said expecting students to reach higher and achieve more has no bearing on classroom flexibility. Teachers are still free — and encouraged — to tailor their lessons to the needs of their students, even if those lessons teach to a higher standard.

"Grade by grade for the first time there's a clear pathway," Juneau said.

Up and running

Common Core has been in place in Montana for two years. 

"We're totally implemented," SD2's Anthony said. 

Math standards have jumped considerably and reading standards now place more emphasis on reading and comprehending nonfiction writing along with fiction. 

Students are asked to read informative and fact-based narratives and then interpret and draw conclusions from what they've read. 

"It's allowing us to teach critical thinking," Anthony said.

She acknowledges that the learning curve is steep. Students will begin testing on it this year and educators expect to see a dip in test scores. Common Core is more rigorous than the state's old standards, she said. 

And that's a good thing. 

"We want our students to be college- and career-ready," she said. "Our kids are going to be well-served by this."

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.