State Education Commissioner Fields Questions On Common Core

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Angry parents berated the New York State Education Commissioner during a forum in Manorville last week, heckling him from the audience while he responded to concerns about the implementation of the Common Core learning standards, state assessments and teacher evaluations.

Parents and educators sharply criticized the new standards for taking the joy out of teaching and learning. They argued that the state assessments, which began testing students on the new standards this past spring—before teachers had time to learn the new curriculum—set children up for failure.

“Parents all over New York are asking you, begging you, why don’t you recall Common Core?” Julie Lofstad of Hampton Bays said while directly addressing Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King from the podium on November 26. “But you aren’t listening. Why aren’t you listening?”

Ms. Lofstad, who has a child attending the Hampton Bays School District, also described the Common Core curriculum as “flawed” and stated that, in her opinion, it needs to be replaced.

Chris Tice, the vice president of the Sag Harbor Board of Education, who also has children in that district, also described the implementation of the new standards as flawed during the forum. Students who once loved math now hate it, she added. “Why has this happened? The Common Core math curriculum simply has more required math material to cover than time available,” Ms. Tice said. “The pace at which teachers and students must cover the material is simply too fast for most students to successfully master.”

Mr. King, who has planned about a dozen such forums through the state, including last week’s event held at the Eastport South Manor Junior-Senior High School, appeared solemn, though calm, despite the commotion.

“I will say that these forums, although contentious, clearly have generated important conversation,” he said, after nearly three hours of questions and comments from the audience that included hundreds of parents, teachers and administrators. “And I want to make the distinction between disagreeing and not listening.”

Some parents held up signs brandishing a giant letter “F” while the commissioner spoke, and shouted such jeers as “Shame on you!” and “You’re not listening!” from their seats.

Dr. King said the New York State Education Department has made a number of adjustments to help resolve issues parents and educators have raised over the past year. For one, his department is working toward allowing children with disabilities to take assessments at their instructional levels, rather than the levels that correspond with their ages. Such a change would require permission from the U.S. Department of Education, he said.

The State Education Department has also reduced the length and number of questions on the state exams, and has allowed eighth-graders now taking algebra to take a Regents exam in lieu of the eighth grade assessment.

New York is one of 45 states that have adopted the Common Core learning standards, which were established by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to better prepare children for college and careers, and to provide consistency among state education policies.

New York has received nearly $700 million from the federal “Race to the Top” program, in part because the state adopted the standards, but also as a result of its new teacher and principal evaluation system that factors in how well students perform on state assessments. That system is called the Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR for short.

The New York State United Teachers union has called for a three-year moratorium on the use of student assessment results in teacher and principal evaluations, which would require an amendment to state law. During last week’s forum, Dr. King dismissed that suggestion as moving backward, and explained that the state should instead invest more in professional development for educators.

He also stressed that assessment scores account for 20 percent of teacher and principal evaluations, while the remainder is determined through collective bargaining between school districts and the employees. “It’s a local-control law,” he said.

New York began aligning the state assessments in English Language Arts (ELA) and math for grades three through eight with the new standards last spring. Parents and educators across the state have bitterly opposed that change and are alleging that the tests have been the source of anguish and anxiety for students. Only about 31 percent of students statewide in grades three through eight met or exceeded the new ELA and math proficiency standards, down from about 55 percent the previous year. In some districts on the South Fork, the passing rate dropped by nearly 50 percent in a single year.

“Any potential good in the Common Core is at risk of being lost because of the rush to implement these new assessments, and the rush to tie the results to APPR,” Westhampton Beach Schools Superintendent Michael Radday said while speaking at the forum. “I implore you and the Board of Regents to slow down the implementation of the Common Core …

“Furthermore, I ask that you more seriously consider the input of those of us in the field, rather than relying so heavily on the input of your team of research fellows,” he continued. “My colleagues and I stand ready to engage in substantive conversation about the future of our schools and reforms that will best serve our students.”

Administrators from across the East End, as well as local legislators, including Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth LaValle, also attended the forum. Dr. King appeared alongside Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Roger Tilles, a member of the Board of Regents who represents Suffolk and Nassau counties.

“Now is not the time for retreating from higher standards for college and career readiness,” Dr. King said.

The commissioner also assured parents that the local boards of education and school administrations maintain complete control over the curriculum that are taught in each district. He explained that students view the low numbers they receive on their assessments “as a function of how we, as adults, frame the assessment results.”

Responding to critics who questioned why the state began testing students on the new standards so quickly, Dr. King said it would be illogical to test them on outdated standards.

The crowd’s jeering grew so loud at one point that Eastport South Manor Superintendent Mark Nocero stood and pleaded with parents to respect the commissioner and others by letting them speak. “Please, we’ve got kids here,” he said.

Despite the criticism, the commissioner maintained that the new standards will improve the education of students.

“You’re going to have challenges and difficulties along the way, but ultimately I think everyone wants their children to be prepared for college and career success,” he said. “And the Common Core will help us get there.”

But most people in attendance still were not convinced.

Jan Achilich, the director of special education for the Remsenburg-Speonk School District, said she questioned the “developmental appropriateness” of the new standards both for advanced children and those with special needs, drawing applause from the audience.

“Would it not have been better practice to introduce new curricula at the primary level and then work forward up through the grades as the kids progress forward?” she asked. “Because what we are doing to our upper-grade children now by throwing them into an entirely new curriculum mid-stream is tantamount to physically throwing them into a rushing river without a life preserver.”

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