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State superintendent defends school initiative

State superintendent of schools Jim Phares answered to criticism of West Virginia's new education standards Tuesday, dodging assertions they represent a top-down approach to education.

The new standards, West Virginia's version of the federal Common Core state education standards, have been in development since 2008 - West Virginia's version is called the Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives.

Adoption began in 2011, and the new system for teaching and evaluating West Virginia's students is slated for full adoption by the 2014-15 school year.

But despite the relatively uncontroversial adoption and development of those standards, in recent months there have been murmurings about the new system in the political sphere.

On Monday, at a meeting of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability during the legislature's interim session this week, Superintendent Phares was confronted by one of those opponents - Republican state Sen. Donna Boley, who has been outspoken in her criticism of the new standards and is heading an initiative, "West Virginians Against Common Core."

Boley took issue with state Board of Education President Gayle Manchin's characterization of the standards as being "developed" by West Virginia teachers in a public statement last month.

"It's my opinion, respectfully, that these standards were not developed by West Virginia teachers," she said. "They were developed by a consortium and all 45 states that adopted them."

The standards, which aim to standardize benchmarks for students in schools across the state and country in the name of increased efficiency and accountability in education, were developed by groups of educators across the nation with support from education groups. So far, 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards - though many have tweaked them to meet their state's needs.

States are allowed to add up to 15 percent of their own material to the national standards.

Phares maintains that that 15 percent represents a sizable chunk of input on the local level.

"It's my belief as someone who was a local superintendent, and it's the belief of many, that our teachers played a significant role in forming these standards," Phares said.

"We didn't want them to feel like it was something pressed on them from the outside so on every level the standards had input from teachers."

Phares also tried to put some distance between the standards and the Obama administration, which has been pushing their adoption. Nearly all of the criticism of the standards has come from conservatives in the political sphere while there has been relatively little controversy surrounding Common Core in the education community.

"We couldn't have afforded to do this work on our own, developing (the standards), so we used the consortium's work," Phares said. "But the actual initiative didn't begin with the Obama administration. They tied their coattails to it . . . but we were on board far before that."

Delegate Mary Poling, Education Committee chairwoman, defended the new standards, saying the goals of the national initiative lined up too closely with West Virginia's homegrown standards to be cause for alarm.

"It was my understanding that West Virginia has been in a constant state of developing curriculum," she said. "And when it came to Common Core, it was just making it align with what we were already doing . . . and we found that what we had was actually closely aligned to what Common Core is doing."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.


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