Education

Education Advocates Balk at New York’s Common Core Tweaks

Though billed as a game changer, the new provisions pushing back on the Common Core in New York State may be all smoke, no fire.

Photo Credit: Arvind Balaraman via Shutterstock.com

Glancing at headlines last week, one could reasonably conclude that New York had leveled a mighty blow against the Common Core standards. The New York Post screamed, “Cuomo rips Regents for watering down Common Core.” The Daily News declared, “New York teachers get five years to fully enact Common Core.” The Board of Regents, which determines state educational policy, boasted of “significant and timely changes.”

But those who have been agitating for a reappraisal of the standards found little to cheer in the new recommendations from the Regents subcommittee that evaluated Common Core implementation. New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a parent group critical of state testing policies, expressed “extreme disappointment” with the Regents’ measures, which they said “made only minor tweaks to current policies.”

“They’re not addressing the real change that parents are asking for,” says Lisa Rudley, a mother of three and spokeswoman for NYSAPE.

More than half the recommendations consist of polite requests for other agencies to enact policies where the Board lacks authority. The more substantive measures note failings in implementation, but only tinker at the edges of a system that ties teacher evaluations to test scores and pegs classroom curriculum to the Common Core.

The most far-reaching measure the Board accepted postpones for five years, until 2022, the requirement that high schoolers pass Common Core-aligned tests to graduate (and even this provision subtly bolsters the standards). Other recommendations include a prohibition on testing in grades K-2 and expanded assessment options for English language learners and kids with disabilities.

Corporate reform mainstays like the pro-Common-Core StudentsFirstNY celebrated the Regents’ general support of the standards while decrying the graduation requirement delay. Though the group was “pleased that the Regents reiterated their support for moving forward with higher standards,” they lamented that “more than one million children will graduate high school and not be ready for college.”

But stakeholders on the other side of the issue consider the changes small beans. “It was a brilliant press release,” says Bianca Tanis, a special education teacher, “but it will not affect my work at all.”

Tanis, the mother of a boy with autism, worries that the new standards and associated high-stakes tests impinge on the education of students like her son. “We throw things at them that are developmentally inappropriate,” she says, “and they try, they really do—but the joy of being in school and learning is gone.”

Her concerns echo those of Betty Rosa, one of only two Regents to vote against the recommendations. A former teacher, principal and superintendent in the Bronx, Rosa says “we are overwhelming our poor kids with all of this testing and evaluation.”

Since the state first adopted the Common Core in 2010, Rosa has been airing her doubts. “These standards haven’t been tested or piloted,” she told AlterNet. “How do we know we have the right standards in place?”

“Is this just an experimental drug that we’re piloting?”

Pounding on the Door

State officials convened the special Regents committee in response to a groundswell of criticism from teachers unions and grassroots groups. Their main beef was the Common Core, a set of learning standards adopted by over 40 states that aims to raise academic benchmarks while fattening the market for testing services. Its proponents claim the Common Core “imparts the knowledge and skills most valued by employers and higher education.”

New York is halfway through a bumpy seven-year implementation of the standards, a process punctuated last year with the administration of the states’ first Common Core-aligned tests. Just as officials predicted, aggregate scores plunged by about 30 points on the new assessments.

Last fall, state education commissioner John King gritted his teeth through a circuit of public forums brimming with ire and ferment. Parent and teacher grievances were manifold: promised curriculum guides never arrived; testing pressures had students exhibiting emotional and even physical distress; communities lacked say in the development or implementation of new standards; students in higher grades, only one year into standards designed to begin in kindergarten, were being set up to fail.

Following King’s dismal tour, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch formed a subcommittee to mollify outrage and address the state’s widely lambasted implementation goofs. Parents hoped the committee would improve the Common Core rollout, but also reconsider the wisdom of even using the standards. Educators imagined a process by which communities could contribute to the evolution of learning guidelines.

“In education you’re constantly thinking, changing and assessing,” explains Tanis. “But we adopted standards that we do not have the ability to question, reflect on, revise or change.”

Rosa feels that the tussle over the Common Core stems from a perceived lack of local control. Drafted largely by private nonprofits, the standards were adopted by states hoping to qualify for federal Race to the Top dollars. “You’ve got have conversations with the locals,” she says. “You can’t just go, ‘Oh, we’re hearing your voice, we think this is what you want.’”

She understands the outrage. “When you get excluded, you pound on the door.”

Testing Teachers

Only one of the committee’s 19 recommendations addressed contentious test-based teacher evaluations imposed to meet Obama’s Race to the Top specifications. The Regents’ new provision would permit teachers rated ineffective to object on the basis that districts failed to provide promised curriculum—a charge the state concedes.

According to New York State United Teachers, the law already allows teachers to raise such objections, which they’d pursue “with or without 'permission' from the State Education Department.” Little empirical evidence justifies tying test scores to high-stakes staffing decisions and monetary rewards, and the union opposes any test-based evaluations.

But Governor Andrew Cuomo, who considers teacher evaluations his legislative touchstone, wasted no time cobbling together a press event to deride the proposed measure, which he characterized as “yet another excuse to stop the teacher evaluation process.” StudentsFirstNY concurred, claiming the Regents “went too far to appease the teachers union.”

The day after the governor’s tongue-lashing, the full Board of Regents rejected the evaluation measure, the only one of 19 that didn’t pass.

The stakes attached to student test scores strike some as the crux of the issue. “If we didn’t tie teacher evaluations to test scores, it would give teachers some autonomy,” Tanis says. “Education has always been considered an art and a science. With what’s happening now it’s just a scripted implementation.”

It’s not just teachers who oppose test-driven teacher evaluations. Parents fear the stultifying effects of classrooms geared toward test prep. “As long as the standardized tests are linked to teacher performance,” says Rudley, the NYSAPE member, “we will continue to have a curriculum driven by making good test-takers.”

A Major Leap

Though presented by the Regents (and received by most media outlets) as sweeping revisions to New York standards policy, the lukewarm recommendations will have little impact on current implementation. The fact that headlines trumpeted the new measures as game-changers indicates how rapidly the cognoscenti have come to accept a test-based evaluation apparatus unprecedented in the history of New York education.

The same parents and educators who called for a review of the standards still see them as a fait accompli, hustled into state education law without substantive community input or pilot testing. If anything, the Regents decision further entrenches the standards as tools of assessment, evaluation and sanctions.

In its recommendations, the Board surreptitiously nudged upward the minimum graduation score on Common Core-aligned tests. Though an October Board decision held that students could clear the bar with a grade of 65, today’s 4th graders will need to score at least 75 and 80 in math and reading, respectively, to graduate in 2022.

But “no research,” says Tanis, “shows how [the Common Core] is going to affect our learning four or five years from now.” She sees a public debate “completely devoid of any empirical evidence.”

In fact, the research base that Common Core proponents use to justify the standards includes no peer-reviewed studies, and consists mostly of surveys and missives from Common Core-affiliated groups like Achieve. Only a smattering of evidence suggests higher standards necessarily improve learning outcomes. One study oft cited by Common Core backers plainly notes that “changes in the quality of standards have little impact on overall student achievement.”

Tanis supports “an immediate stop, not just to the high-stakes consequences of the Common Core, but the tests themselves,” a position mirrored by state legislators in a proposed two-year moratorium on Common Core-related sanctions.

But Tanis and like-minded individuals don’t oppose learning standards in toto. More than anything, they want a process that allows practitioners and parents to engage with standards in a democratic, research-based manner. Rosa imagines “parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, and community organizations” banding together to mold the standards, a process she feels would engender “a renewed sense of ownership.”  

“We made a major leap,” Rosa says of the Common Core. At this point, it will take an even greater leap to find common ground.

Owen Davis is a New York-based writer and former intern at The Nation magazine. He writes curriculum for the alternative children's magazine IndyKids. Davis blogs here and tweets @of_davis.

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