Pulse of the Peninsula: Common Core task force needs input

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Great Neck’s public school leaders came away from a UPTC panel discussion encouraged — encouraged that there is broad, bipartisan recognition that the so-called “reforms” have made  (to quote) “a mess” of public education, and that there is a growing consensus to return education policy to the educators. 

They point to the likelihood of a moratorium on using high-stakes tests as the determining factor in teacher evaluations — there is already a moratorium on using the tests for student promotion. 

And they were encouraged to hear state lawmakers determined to restore funding cut during the economic crisis, which could restore $1 million to the Great Neck School District. There even seems to be recognition that there are simply too many tests, putting students under constant stress.

They were heartened by acknowledgement that there is no such thing as “one size fits all” in education, and most significantly, that if there is a moratorium on the tests being used to evaluate students, they should not be used against teachers.

“It’s incredible to me that we have decided that children will take exams, but not use them to evaluate the students but the teachers,” state Sen. Jack Martins said at the UPTC panel. “If [the tests have] no educational purpose, then how can we possibly use it against teacher?”

They were also encouraged to hear state legislators promise to finally make up for the cuts to state aid that were so draconically made during the recession (the so-called Gap Elimination Adjustment) — an amount that could bring $1 million to Great Neck schools. 

There was even some discussion of the harsh impact of the 2 percent property tax cap in relation to some kind of acknowledgement of the need to address unfunded mandates in how the tax cap is calculated. (No chance of ending the property tax cap, which has become a “third rail” of state politics.)

It boils down to some recognition of the need to restore local control, in order to save public education.

The atmosphere at the Education panel held by Great Neck’s UPTC was very different from another panel held just about a month earlier, by the League of Women Voters of Port Washington-Manhasset, at the Landmark in Port Washington. 

There, the atmosphere was more hostile, and there was more focus on possibly bringing a lawsuit, challenging Gov. Cuomo’s overreach in commanding education policy, out of the hands of the Board of Regents, which as Regent Roger Tilles noted, was created in 1784 by Alexander Hamilton to be independent.

But in the intervening weeks, it seemed that Gov. Cuomo, who had installed himself as the “czar” of the state’s public education system, had “softened” somewhat — appointing a Common Core Task Force 2.0 (though once again headed by businessman Richard Parsons, Senior Advisor, Providence Equity Partners Inc. and head of Time Warner and Citigroup), and pulling back on the role that standardized tests would play in teacher evaluations, even acknowledging (as the federal Department of Education has) that there is too much standardized testing going on.

The stated mission of the new task force is to “perform comprehensive review of learning standards, instructional guidance and curricula, and tests to improve implementation and reduce testing anxiety.” 

What is more, this new task force is set up to encourage public participation (send comments to the website, www.ny.gov/programs/common-core-task-force).

“The State’s learning standards must be strong, sensible and fair, and parents and teachers should be able to have faith in those standards,” Gov. Cuomo stated. “This Task Force will ensure that this becomes the reality.”

In this, Cuomo seems to be responding to the overwhelming opposition by middle class parents to how standardized testing is dictating the tenor of teaching. More than 200,000 of the nearly 1.2 million students opted out of the high-stakes reading and math tests in 2015. 

At some schools, as many as 75 percent of students opted out. Much of the protest was centered on Long Island and Westchester, areas upon which Cuomo depends for support.

Indeed, the testing fetish contradicts the aim of Common Core curriculum, which is ostensibly intended to promote critical thinking skills and innovation, while the focus on national standards, going back to the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind, is intended to force school districts to invest resources in the poorest communities that do not have the same property tax base as wealthier districts. 

The thing that was supposed to make “equity” happen was standardized tests. But that has become the flaw. Because that’s not how the tests have been applied.

And it is more than just the rush to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (and its irresistible $700 million in funding). It is purposeful. Governors – mostly Republican but Democrats as well – have weaponized standardized testing in order to achieve other political objectives: namely, the “disruption” of public education and most notably, undermining teachers unions. 

And not incidentally, to justify shifting public resources (taxpayer money) to privatized enterprises (charter schools, testing companies, tutoring companies) — not surprisingly, big campaign donors —  and, finally, to get around Constitutional separation of church and state to steer public money into parochial schools (a way to appeal to a big voter block).

Any pretense that the high stakes standardized tests are to “reform” public education in a constructive way is burst by the fact that the tests don’t actually test what the students are being taught. 

But more revealing of the true intent is that the scoring does not reflect students’ performance, but is arbitrarily set in order to achieve pre-determined skews of what percentage of students show “mastery” and what percentage of students are failing, or in the jargon of NCLB/Race to the Top, are in jeopardy of failing to achieve readiness for college or career.

The way you know that the testing regimen is complete B-S is in how, since the new tests under Race to the Top took hold and was used as a blunt instrument to shift public resources to privatized systems, is the results here in Great Neck. 

Now, for decades and decades, Great Neck students have graduated from public schools and went on to college at rates of 95 percent. But suddenly, 30-40 percent of Great Neck students were branded as failing, in jeopardy of not graduating college-ready. 

Did our students suddenly become stupid? Did our teachers suddenly become inept? Did our parents suddenly decide not to care about their kids succeeding?

“The State Education department sets the cut scores,” Regent Roger Tilles said at the League of Women Voters education panel. “It had no correlation [to correct answers]. It was part of that conspiracy to show the public schools failing. Only 60 percent passed the tests that said they were college ready — the governor uses that statistic very much. The cut scores are used for political reason. …. It’s a political game, and still is a political game.”

And if education “reform” was really intended to help children achieve their full potential, special needs children would not be required to take tests at their age level rather than at their instructional level, irreparably damaging their self-esteem and sense of self-worth, while using that whole category of students to push even top school districts like Great Neck onto the “monitor” or “failing” list.

 Cuomo can “blame” a poor roll-out of the new regimen, like how Obamacare had its online glitches (corrected in a mind-boggling two-weeks time), but this is not about poor implementation. 

This is about a failed attempt to undermine public education, altogether. 

In the process, though, students and families are actually harmed.

But at both panels, the focus was misplaced. Indeed, across the country, the anger is directed at the Common Core curriculum, instead of being hurled at standardized testing and the way testing is used as a weapon to bring down public education and, to be frank, teachers unions.

The problem begins with giving control over how children are taught to politicians at the highest level, instead of where control should be, in the classroom, the school, the school district and the community. 

Scripting education takes away the classroom teachers’ ability to tailor teaching to the differentiated learning styles and needs of students, even if there is a Common Core curriculum.

“I hear people say that Common Core should be thrown out,” said Regent Roger Tilles. “The problem is not the Common Core. The standards have to be reviewed and changed — the commissioners are already doing that and by the end of year will see a review of the common core standards. 

But the assessment, the evaluation piece is what needs to be scrapped, and let teachers collaborate and work with the standards to create incredible education opportunities. That’s what I’m hoping.

“Every day I watch teachers do fabulous things with kids. I’ve seen tremendous programs using the Common Core standards,” said Tilles, who has personally visited 90 of 126 districts on Long Island, “but that’s where the teachers have collaborated to create the curriculum, not taking scripted modules from the state. Where teachers are allowed creativity, I have seen tremendous things with the [Common Core] standards.”

This is being recognized by the legislators, educators and parent representatives, who on both panels, seemed to be in agreement on what needs to be done.  Here are some of the key points that the panelists made:

One size doesn’t fit all:

“There are two areas in which a one size fits all is not a solution — education and health care — two areas where we are individuals,” stated state Assemblyman Dean Murray, who is a member of the Education Committee. “Every child is not the same — they don’t come out of a cookie cutter or mold; every child has a different home situation. They don’t grow at the same level, their minds don’t develop the same, they don’t have the same interests…To treat them as though they are and require modules the teachers must follow to a ‘T’ so that all their students pass the tests that are so important, just doesn’t make sense to me — teachers are the professionals…”

“Once upon a time, New York State was recognized — and the Regents exam — as the national gold standard, yet here we are. I would love for us to roll back Common Core, not for lack of standards, but I believe we have the ability to create standards ourselves that challenge the children, enable teachers to provide quality education, without a cookie-cutter, one-size fits all system. 

When it comes to APPR, teacher evaluations, the real crime, is not necessarily that we treat all teachers as if they are the same, but we treat all of our children as if they are robots.  

The concept of APPR is that if we provide certain inputs, every child will respond the same, in a way that can be measured- if they are automatons, we can extrapolate their success to their teachers. That’s wrong — each child is different, unique in personality, wired differently.”

High-stakes Standardized Testing is destructive:

Arnold Dodge, PhD, Associate Professor of Education and Chair of Educational Leadership & Administration Department at LIU Post, said “All the research says the stress level of kid say we are not getting optimum performance — children operate in a zone and that zone is 1) safe, 2) they will take a risk — this environment does not have either of those elements- the kids don’t feel safe, don’t think out of the box. 

So what are we creating? automatons. When you are 8, 10, 12 and are told that mistakes are outlaws — the only mistake you make in life is not learning from a mistake —  but we are outlawing mistakes. The child will shut down if you tell them ‘you are wrong’. Educators know that kids want to take risks but are told not to.”

Roger Tilles, a member of state Board of Regents since 2005, noted, “In my 10 ½ years as a Regent, I have been the only regent who had kids in public schools. That helped me to understand. I have two daughters, one was gifted but had trouble in schools because she was bored (but was ultimately able to attend Great Neck’s alternative school), and the other had a learning disability but she had to take the same test, knowing that she will fail the test. She ultimately graduated but the cost to her self-esteem was so apparent to me. I had the resources and knowledge to intervene but most parents don’t – these kids are seen as losers because of the testing in 3rd, 4, 5th grade – they are losers all their lives because they don’t usually get back that self-esteem.” 

Is public education failing?

“It’s easier to blame teachers than to address the bigger problems of why you’re having problems in urban settings,” Regent Tilles said. “If you look at 700 districts outside the Big 5 cities and total up scores, we’re right at the top, all of New York — and Long Island is top of the top. So it is not that we have a declining public education, though we do have a problem in urban areas, mostly to do with poverty.

 “We have so many successful districts on Long Island, 115 out of 126 districts are successful. We should have less stringent requirements for assessments, evaluation, and state aid should be commensurate. What districts will save on removing requirements, the state can put into districts that need more support – the kids of Hempstead are our kids just as much as Port Washington,” Tilles said.

Education policy is being directed by politicians, not education professionals:

“In the last 2-3 years, the governor has usurped the regents have had since 1784 of creating education policy in the state,” Tilles said. “He’s done it through the budget process — which the state constitution and courts have said he can. But it is dangerous because it has become a political nightmare. State legislators are caught in this. I think many legislators would like the Regents to get back to making education policy but the governor says ‘If you don’t do this, I’m going to make it worse.’”

What triggered it, though, was that the Obama Administration, through Race to the Top (intended to mitigate the worst impacts of No Child Left Behind in letting states devise their own solutions to national standards) was the $700 million dangled in front of the state. “The governor said he couldn’t afford not to take the money, which meant linking evaluation to test scores,” Tilles said. “When it came to the Regents to vote, I was the only Regent who voted no, not that we had a choice. Then they rushed out testing, standards, evaluation all in the same year.

 The state legislators on the two panels agreed they were longing for the day when education policy would be returned to the professionals.

“My hope — the Assembly’s hope — is to shift policy decision for education away from legislator back to educators,” said Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel. “I want to get out of the policy business. We  used to get policy decision from the Regents — that’s what the Assembly is pushing for— give policy back to where it belongs. Last year was the highest percentage of education funding in New York, but it was ground up by everything else. I want to get back to business— fund smart, well thought out policy that comes from the people who are supposed to make education policy, the Board of Regents.”

“State Ed has changed,” said Tilles. “When I became Regent, State Ed had 4800 employees — today it has 2700, more than half cut over 10 years. State Ed is barely hanging on, no monitoring ability, no enforcement ability. The governor has cut the budget. Most governors since the first Cuomo don’t like the idea that the Regents are independent [the way the system was established under Andrew Hamilton, he said] and not part of executive branch and have tried to pull it more into executive branch. But no governor has gone as far as this governor in creating education policy.”

Property tax cap, unfunded mandates and local control:

Assemblyman Murray said he was all in favor of the property tax cap “as long as the governor followed through on second promise which was mandate relief. We haven’t eliminated mandates — it’s handcuffed the school districts. We allow you to raise revenue by 2 percent, but we also want you to do this and this and find a way to pay for it, and if over 2 percent, to deal with it…”

“We had a debate in the senate about the tax cap,” said Latimer. “I don’t deny it’s been popular, it’s become a third rail of politics. Everyone is furious over property taxes but we asked for a simple dialogue before reauthorizing, and there was no desire to dialogue because it is so popular.”

“Having higher standards Is acceptable, but let each district determine how to reach them, use local decision making, strategies customized to their reality, not a checklist created in some other fashion. That is what has led to the opt out movement,” said state Sen. George Latimer, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “It’s meshugana to track teacher performance based on quantitative metrics..How can we de-emphasize the qualitative review and raise up metric when Bronxville is nothing at all like the Bronx in metrics. That’s just a misguided desire to say we’ve revolutionized education…”

Here’s my prescription: 

Use testing productively, to be diagnostic, not punitive. 

Restore local control, to districts, to schools, to classroom teachers. 

Use the Common Core curriculum, but enable teachers to develop the teaching modules

Restore education policy making to the Board of Regents and the education professionals

Cultivate STEM education but recognize that not every student is a STEM student, nor is every student ideally suited to pursuing college. Provide alternative paths to graduation and careers.

If the property tax cap is here to stay, at minimum, the formula has to be adjusted to take into account changes such as enrollment, demographics and student needs.

These are comments that I will be forwarding to the Task Force website. 

Make your views known while you can have impact: go to the Common Core Task Force site: www.ny.gov/programs/common-core-task-force

Finally, this week, the House of Representatives will take up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Senate is scheduled to follow suit as soon the House is finished. “The new version of ESEA, called the Every Student Succeeds Act — if passed in Congress and signed by the president — is a paradigm shift. 

In eliminating the adequate yearly progress requirement and shifting the focus away from testing as the be all and end all,” says Randy Weingarten, president of the AFT, urging us to contact our representatives to support passage.

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