ELLICOTT CITY, Md. – Robert Small wasn’t looking for media attention or to become the face of a Common Core countermovement when he attended an informational meeting about the nationalized learning standards arranged by the Maryland State Department of Education last September.
But that’s exactly what happened.
The father of two school-age children was thrust into the national spotlight after a video was released of him questioning the Common Core panelists – a group that included Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery and Maryland PTA President Ray Leone.
In the video, Small asks Maryland education leaders if the ultimate purpose of the “college- and career-ready” learning standards is to prepare high school graduates for a job training program at a community college, rather than for study at a competitive, four-year university.
The video also shows Small’s subsequent arrest, after he refused to leave the meeting despite being told to do so by an off-duty Baltimore County police officer.
The “official” version of events is that Small was disturbing a school activity by addressing the Common Core panelists directly (questions were supposed to be written down and submitted in advance) and that his refusal to leave the meeting peacefully constituted second-degree assault of a police officer.
Because of the severity of the charges, Small faced the possibility of prison and thousands of dollars in fines.
The millions of anti-Common Core Americans who saw the video had a completely different take on the incident. To them, Small was thrown out of the meeting and arrested for trying to get answers from school leaders. The incident seemed to confirm their suspicion that Common Core is an attempt by powerful forces to seize control of the nation’s public education system.
As a Baltimore Sun editorial noted, Small “engaged in no name-calling, made no threats and was asking a question directly related to the topic at hand.” His sole transgression was a “breach of protocol.”
At one point while being led out of the meeting by the off-duty officer, Small asked the mostly passive audience a rhetorical question that cut to the heart of the controversy: “Hey, is this America?”
Millions of viewers were probably wondering the same thing.
A different kind of activism
After the video went viral, Small was seen as a hero for taking on the Common Core machine, and treated as the unofficial spokesman of the burgeoning countermovement.
Many Americans identified with Small because they’ve also been ignored or mistreated by officials when they’ve attempted to get answers about the education overhaul that’s occurring in their states and school districts.
But Small’s time in the national spotlight ended almost as quickly as it had begun. He turned down numerous, high-profile media interviews in the days following the arrest. And when the authorities decided to drop charges against him four days after the meeting, Small quietly returned to private life.
In his first public interview since the episode, Small tells EAGnews that his low profile over the past seven months should not be interpreted as a retreat from the Common Core fight. He’s as actively opposed to nationalized learning standards today as he was at the Sept. 19 meeting.
“The more research I do about Common Core, the more concerned I get,” Small says.
According to Small, his current form of activism is more in keeping with his private personality than being a national spokesman would have been. His current focus is on getting information to other parents, organizing forums, contacting state lawmakers and creating StopCommonCoreMaryland.com.
Small and his wife are also monitoring how Common Core is being implemented in their children’s schools. Like a growing number of parents, the Smalls have refused to let their children take related standardized tests, and so far their local schools have respected their wishes.
He says teachers and school leaders have been very “supportive” and “cooperative.”
‘You have questions … confront them’
Small tells EAGnews that his decision to stand up and address the panelists was not as random as it may have seemed from the video.
Earlier in the program PTA President Leone had responded to a question about how the nationalized math and English standards might affect local control of schools. During the course of his answer, Leone challenged parents to share their concerns with their local school officials and to keep them honest.
“It was toward the end of the session – there were only about 15 minutes to go – and I wanted to make sure they heard my concerns,” Small says. “He encouraged us to ask questions directly, so I took advantage of the offer.”
His decision caught everyone off-guard, especially Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance, who was choosing which pre-written questions were posed to panelists during the question-and-answer portion of the forum. Dance tried to reassert control of the meeting by talking over Small.
But Small would not yield the floor. After he posed his question directly to the panelists, he decided to engage the other parents. It bothered him that the “experts” were using the forum to lecture parents and taxpayers like they were a bunch of school children. He was also bothered by the fact that nobody was standing up to them.
So Small began addressing others in the audience to see if they shared his concerns.
By that point in Small’s performance, the off-duty police officer stepped in to remove him from the meeting. When it became apparent Small would not shut up so easily, the officer began pulling and pushing him to the back of the room.
“Don’t stand for this,” Small told the audience. “You’re sitting here like cattle. You have questions… confront them. They don’t want to have to do it in public.”
Small offers no apologies for the confrontation.
“The truth is they don’t respect parents,” he says, referring to officials who’ve forced Common Core into classrooms. “Parents weren’t involved in the process (that led to the adoption of Common Core) and they don’t care to hear what we have to say now.”
While getting arrested and being at the center of a media feeding frenzy proved stressful for Small and his family, he’s pleased to see that others are starting to stand up against the Common Core experiment.
He cites the parent uprising in New York as an example, and says people are inspired to take a stand when they see others doing it.
“It makes people realize they’re not alone.”
‘Challenge them to give direct answers’
One of the things that has rankled Small most about the entire episode is the media’s insistence on portraying him and other Common Core opponents as right-wing Tea Party supporters. He feels political labels don’t really belong in the conversation.
“We’re not with the Tea Party. We’re just parents,” Small says. “There’s enough in Common Core to upset everybody, regardless of their political persuasion.”
He cites the tracking of student data, standardized testing, and Common Core’s overall quality as examples.
In his view, more parents need to get informed about Common Core. And since coverage in the mainstream media is usually nonexistent or incomplete, parents will have to scour the Internet for the inside scoop about what’s really going in with the K-12 experiment.
He says parents can help spread the word about what’s going on in their own school district by getting connected through Facebook or another type of network. Parents possess a lot of power when they get united, he notes.
Small also advises parents and taxpayers to hold their education leaders accountable for their decisions.
“These people insulate themselves,” Small says. “Parents have to call them out in public, respectfully and civilly, and challenge them to give direct answers.”