By Gary Stern
New York state’s Great Education Wars may be reaching a pivotal stage.
Legislators are breathlessly promising to support all sorts of freezes and reviews of the Common Core standards, new state testing and plans for student data collection. A committee of the Board of Regents is preparing to release an “action plan” early next month that is sure to recommend some sort of change. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who hardly acknowledged the wars for months, is appointing his own task force to survey the damage.
Why is so much happening? Because everyone involved has heard the roar of parents and teachers who are ticked off. I know I have.
Thousands came out to Education Commissioner John King’s forums across the state. Some 700 people cheered Diane Ravitch in Bedford two weeks ago as she ripped New York’s education policy. About 200 parents came to Ardsley on Thursday might, despite single-digit temperatures, to hear detailed presentations on what organizers called our “runaway reform.”
Also Thursday, state Sen. John Flanagan, R-Long Island, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told King that he and the state Regents better act soon to rein in their high-speed reform agenda or the Legislature will. Sen. George Latimer, D-Rye, told King: “Hit the delay button. Hit it.”
Having talked to many, many parents, educators and others about these issues, I’m going to attempt to categorize some of the main changes that people want. Here we go:
1. A review of the Common Core standards themselves. The Common Core isn’t going anywhere. But many educators want to see a grade-by-grade, standard-by-standard review, involving teachers and administrators and resulting in revisions for New York. Would this require a freeze of the roll-out? I can’t see it happening.
2. A freeze on standardized tests. Lots of legislators are calling for a “moratorium” on high-stakes testing. But states have to do testing to comply with federal law. A moratorium would be a complex undertaking. Would the new, Common Core-based tests be replaced by others? A review of the controversial “cut scores,” which produced a high failure rate, seems more realistic.
(ADD: I heard this morning from Ken Mitchell, president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents. He believes that legislators should repeal or amend Education Law 3012-c, which set up the new teacher evaluation system, so that teachers won’t be graded based on student test scores “until there is incontrovertible evidence that it works.” He also noted that the U.S. Education Department has allowed school districts in California to use “internal accountability systems” and to develop their own tests linked to the Common Core. He wonders why New York did not seek the same flexibility.)
3. A halt to plans to ship identifiable student data to the inBloom cloud. Many parents, educators and legislators have questions about security and privacy. I could see the whole thing being postponed — or at least the passage of an opt-out option for parents. Recently, though, people on all sides have urged a broader discussion about the use and security of student data. The inBloom debate and a recent Fordham Law School study have revealed how little educators know about other forms of data collection and deeper privacy concerns.
4. A look at the costs of reform. School districts are steaming over the dollars they’ve had to spend on developing new teacher evaluations, providing Common Core training and materials, and more. Districts have been cutting back for years, now operate under the property-tax levy cap and have to use 15-20 percent of their budgets for state requirements. But anyone who has been waiting for the Legislature to reduce unfunded mandates knows that it just doesn’t happen.
5. Better communication and leadership from the Regents and King. In recent weeks, a bunch of people have told me that the problems caused by the implementation of the Common Core and other reforms can be fixed without tremendous hardship. But they say that King and the Regents need to sincerely acknowledge the most common criticisms they face and then be willing to sit down with educators to hash out what must be done. I’ve talked to a few moderate, measured types who say they are mystified by the state’s lack of public-relations savvy.
There is a definitely growing optimism out there that the Legislature will slow down the reform train. If lawmakers and the Regents work out a compromise, will it be enough to quiet the parental unrest? We should know soon.
ADD: I forgot to mention some very interesting comments made by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Thursday night during a “Runaway Reform” discussion at Ardsley Middle School. She noted that when New York state did not aggressively seeking Race to the Top funds during the first round of applications, legislators and state officials got “berated.” The state economy was in terrible shape.
“We were lambasted every single day,” she said.
So New York turned up the heat during the second round of applications and won $700 million in federal dollars.
“In our aggressive desire to get this money, we promised to do (everything the feds wanted) and we promised, because we’re New York, to do it faster than everyone else,” Stewart-Cousins said.
The Senate Democratic Conference leader then told all the parents in attendance that she and the other legislators have heard their cries. She said she favors letting parents “opt out” of the inBloom project and imposing a moratorium on high-stakes testing.
“We can make sure it’s done in a clear and comprehensive way and that we not evaluate anyone — students or teachers — until we get it right,” she said.