State Ed Commish ‘Schooled’
According to 20th century philosopher William Butler Yeats, education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. Whether intended or not, New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John King lit the fire of more than 1,500 parents at a Common Core hearing in Setauket last night, when administrators, teachers and parents from school districts across the island feverishly objected to the hurried implementation of the new educational standards.
Parents picketed outside, packed the auditorium and watched the hearing live, streaming from a TV in the Ward Melville High School cafeteria as Senator John Flanagan (R- East Northport) sponsored hearing on Tuesday. He invited speakers from the various school districts he represents to present two minutes of testimony on the impact of the Common Core.
“Our children are the victims,” said Allison Noonan, a parent of two fourth-graders in the Northport-East Northport School District. “In the name of raising standards and rigor, and college and career readiness, we’re really forgetting that we’re talking about children.”
Noonan brought her two children, Franklin and Eleanor, to the forum where they watched with wide eyes as dozens of adults took to the podium in their defense.
Mary Lou McDermott, superintendent of the Northport-East Northport School District, succinctly—and in a more reserved fashion than many of the other speakers—told the commissioner to exercise sensitivity to children and adults’ emotional needs when faced with high-stakes testing. McDermott urged King to provide districts with additional funding to support the Common Core-mandated professional development for teachers and principals, especially under the state’s 2-percent tax levy cap for school districts.
King, responding to McDermott’s plea, said he would work with the governor and state legislature to secure additional funding so districts can pay for mandated professional development programs for educators.
“The single most important thing we can do as a legislature is properly fund education; the goal is how do we get it,” Flanagan said. “There’s almost no one who believes they get their fair share, but the bulk of funding is driven to high-need districts.”
However, Long Island’s 2012 high school graduation rate of 87.6 percent, a 0.6 increase from 2011, well exceeds the state average graduation rate of 74 percent.
But King, during the boisterous two-and-a-half-hour back-and-forth, belabored the point that curriculum is set locally on the district level while standards are set by the state.
“Ultimately, much of the testing climate that we are all concerned about is bound up with a series of local decisions, and we’re working with districts now to review their APPR plans,” King said. “We will continue to work with districts to reduce those assessments…where the shoe fits.”
New York State, the commissioner added, only requires two more tests—regents history exams— than required by federal law.
A fractured chorus of parents booed the state education commissioner and resounded what became rhetorical questions out of turn, asking “What about the kids?” and “What about their privacy?”
King, at the end of the meeting, underlined his dedication to successfully “phase in” of the Common Core standards, implemented throughout New York in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics curriculum for grades 3-8.
Fending off criticism from visitors who presented passionate concerns over the sharing of student data through a data collection company, inBloom, King said the department is 100-percent committed to protecting student information. The purpose of inBloom, the commissioner said, is to try and create a system where parents and teachers can communicate and access tools through an online portal. All “private” student data, he added, is encrypted.
The commissioner said that the education department has also taken steps to authorize waivers for students with disabilities and English language learners to close the achievement gap and reduce academic stress on those populations of students.
Commack Superintendent Donald James, with Mandracchia Sawmill Intermediate School fourth grade teacher Robert Ciani at his side, told the commissioner that the hasty implementation of the Common Core standards put both students and teachers in a high-stakes climate no one was prepared for.
“In Commack, I’m no stranger to high standards. But the trade secret is meeting the needs of each child,” Ciani added.
The educator compared students taking a Common Core ELA test, which King said measures cumulative learning, to taking a test after only reading three chapters of a book.
“Even after all that work, the scores dropped precipitously. It’s with a heavy heart that the state’s adoption of the Common Core curriculum has made my classroom less flexible to students needs. You need to tailor the curriculum around the students’ needs, not the other way around.”
Huntington Superintendent Jim Polansky in September met with King and other area administrators for a closed hearing at Oyster Bay High School, where frustrations over rushed implementation were apparent, he said.
“There are obvious benefits to doing it in a controlled and incremental manner… I’d like to think something is sinking in [with the commissioner] but it’s very hard to say,” Polansky said.
The Huntington superintendent also pointed out flaws in the Academic Professional Performance Review (APPR) process, which he said often gets overlooked in the broader conversation on the Common Core.
“It’s a flawed process that lends itself to false positive and negative outcomes,” Polansky said.
South Huntington Superintendent David Bennardo, who attended Tuesday night’s hearing at Ward Melville but did not speak, said after the meeting it was difficult to determine “what if anything will change” as a result of the dialogue.
“We will continue to make our opinions known at the [New York State] level, while maintaining a calm, contemplative approach…regardless of the political battles raging in Albany,” Bennardo said in a statement.
King said Tuesday if he could do anything differently, he would have started working heavily with districts in 2010 to oversee and begin the implementation process in a more timely fashion.