East End School District Officials Question Implementation Of Common Core Curriculum

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Dr. Jennifer Morrison Hart, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Eastport South Manor School District, had some choice words for the New York State Education Department—and Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King Jr. in particular—when discussing the new Common Core learning standards and the sharp drop in scores on state exams during the last school year.

At a recent Board of Education meeting, Dr. Hart blamed state education officials for purposely “humiliating” educators, noting that Albany rolled out the new exams too early and even predicated a sharp decline in last year’s assessments. She also criticized the same officials for forcing children to sit for hours while taking the more difficult exams and damaging their confidence by having their scores drop so drastically in one year.

“That’s not the way that you build a child’s confidence, and there is more than one measure when it comes to showing student growth,” Dr. Hart said at the time. “It’s just not healthy.”

Across the East End, school administrators are echoing Ms. Hart’s objection to the rushed manner in which Common Core standards were implemented, and are also expressing concern that the drastic drop in test scores—some local districts saw a 50-percent plunge in the percentage of passing students—does not truly reflect how well teachers, who are being forced to modify lesson plans on the fly, are preparing students for college and, afterward, careers.

“I think when you administer an assessment, and the commissioner says he expects a dramatic drop in student performance, it makes you question what the motivation is,” Robert Tymann, the assistant superintendent in the East Hampton School District, said during a recent interview.

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers developed Common Core learning standards to better prepare students for college and careers by focusing on a deeper understanding and analysis of texts and math problems. As part of its “Race to the Top” initiative, the federal government awarded New York state a grant of nearly $700 million to support its new educational agenda, which included the adoption of the Common Core standards, as well as the state’s new teacher evaluation system. A total of 45 states, including New York, have adopted the standards thus far.

While Mr. Tymann and other administrators think the new standards, though challenging for both students and educators right now, will have positive long-term effects on student achievement, they are also stressing that administrators for the East End’s school districts must take a number of crucial steps to help teachers implement them in the classroom.

To help educators learn the standards and develop lesson plans in order to teach them, East Hampton has hired Victor Jaccarino, a member of the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services Network Team for “Race to the Top.” District officials did not return calls or emails seeking the cost of Mr. Jaccarino’s contract.

The Westhampton Beach School District, meanwhile, took a similar step last month when it contracted Odell Educational Services in Maryland for $9,300 to help with professional development, and teachers in the Southampton School District will receive professional development services through the Peconic Learning Center, which is located at that district’s high school. It was unclear what the district paid for those services, as school officials did not return calls.

Charisse Miller, the Westhampton Beach Middle School principal, explained that a grant will cover the costs of the contract with Odell Educational Services, which works with many other districts across the state. As part of the training, the district’s English Language Arts teachers for grades six, seven and eight will attend six days of workshops—some at other school districts and some in Westhampton Beach classrooms—over the course of the year to improve their skills in teaching literacy, she said.

Both Ms. Miller and Mr. Tymann explained that one of the biggest changes with Common Core standards is the requirement that teachers of all subjects integrate literacy into their lessons. Mr. Tymann noted that science, and even math and music teachers, now must learn how to teach literacy as it relates to their subjects, which wasn’t previously an expectation. It takes time for teachers to study that new expectation, learn it and prepare lessons, he added.

“It’s going to take a while for us to get good at it,” Mr. Tymann said. “There is an incredible amount of learning going on right now amongst the staff and it’s great and it bodes well for the future, but it’s a tough, painful process.”

During Monday night’s Westhampton Beach Board of Education meeting, Dr. Thomas Short, the district’s director of math, science and instructional technology, explained that the district has started using a computer program called Odyssey, run by a company called Compass Learning, which assesses students’ strengths and weaknesses and then develops an individualized learning path that should allow them to maximize their education.

The East Hampton, Westhampton Beach and Southampton school districts have also begun implementing the state’s Common Core learning modules for ELA and math, which are units of study that teachers can use and adapt to the needs of their students.

“This is the first time the state has tried something like this and it is working well,” Mr. Tymann said of the modules. He added that they are being implemented slowly and thoroughly so that teachers have a chance to determine what works and what does not.

Southampton Schools Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina explained that his district is also using data from the prior year’s assessment scores to determine weak areas that can be improved upon.

“I do believe that this could have been implemented differently and even with a different time schedule, but on the other hand, I don’t think school districts can hide from accountability, and I think that’s something that we have to keep in mind,” he said.

East Hampton fared well compared to averages for Long Island and the state, with passing rates as high as 53.1 percent on the eighth grade math exams and 50.9 percent on the seventh grade ELA exams. Mr. Tymann added that the only way to compare the 2012 test scores to those released this summer is to see where they fall compared to those averages.

Southampton’s highest passing rate was 51 percent for sixth grade math and eighth grade English, and its lowest was 14 percent for third grade math. Westhampton Beach’s highest passing rate was a 75.6 percent in third grade math and 57.6 percent in third grade English. Its lowest passing rates were 37.3 percent in eighth grade math and 32.3 percent in sixth grade English.

Dr. Hart made her remarks after Ken Colvin, whose children attend the Eastport South Manor Junior-Senior High School, approached the board during a board meeting last month and asked administrators to address the district’s assessment results, which lagged behind the Long Island average in almost every grade.

“What I am concerned with is how we are doing compared with other districts,” he said. “That’s somewhat alarming to me.”

In an interview this week, Dr. Hart said her district has brought in consultants through Eastern Suffolk BOCES, and its teachers attended training from the facility, both of which were paid, in part, through some $14,000 in state grants secured by ESM over the past four years.

ESM Schools Superintendent Mark Nocero said the district has spent tens of thousands of dollars so far to implement the new standards, including paying teachers during the summer to rewrite the curriculum. He added that school districts received only a small portion of the $700 million the state received from the “Race to the Top” grant.

“That’s what’s disgraceful about it,” Mr. Nocero said.

On October 2, the ESM Board of Education joined other districts across the state by passing a resolution that calls on Dr. King and the New York State Board of Regents to “stop the overreliance on standardized tests as a measure of student performance and principal/teacher effectiveness.”

“If we all speak up, maybe somebody will hear us,” Mr. Nocero said.

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