By Tessa Raebeck
Tests with a sole purpose to judge teachers; educators of 40 years who must submit lesson plans to the state; children crying to their parents every night that they are “stupid”— this is the picture of New York’s public education system painted by the students, teachers, administrators, parents and even public officials who attended a forum with New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John King on November 26.
Dr. King sat on stage overlooking the auditorium at Eastport South Manor Junior-Senior High School — filled to capacity at 1,000 — with Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Roger Tilles, a regent who represents Long Island.
During the forum, Long Islanders questioned and even heckled the state officials who appeared at times to be distressed, annoyed or un-phased.
A sign held by many read, “We Are All More Than a Score” on one side and “Parents, Teachers, Students, Principals — United” on the reverse.
One man had a poster with photos of his children and the words, “These are my special interests.”
Gary Karlson, a parent, third grade teacher and union vice president in the Riverhead school district, held a sign saying, “If you want to wage war on public education, keep my children out of it.”
When asked why he was there, Karlson said, “I don’t like feeling like a substitute teacher every day.”
Questions were submitted prior to the forum and about 30 speakers were permitted to address the commissioner directly from podiums below the state officials. All but two of the speakers were overtly critical about the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards, the testing of students, the APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) teacher evaluation system, the use of a for-profit data warehousing company to store information on students and alleged corruption in the state’s decision to use educational publishing giant Pearson in implementing Common Core.
Sag Harbor’s interim superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso and Bridgehampton superintendent/principal Dr. Lois Favre have expressed their support of a letter drafted by Suffolk County superintendents asking the state to stop over-testing and slow down Common Core implementation.
“The relevance and developmental significance of the new curriculum for our more accomplished students is questionable,” said Jan Achilich, director of special education in the Remsenburg-Speonk School District, “and that concern is amplified tenfold for our students with cognitive and developmental challenges and our English language learners.”
Several speakers asked the commissioner why he refused to admit the flaws of the implementation, which educators across the state have said was haphazard and harmful to children because they were assessed on things they had not yet learned proficiently. Although many admitted benefits in the educational philosophy of the Common Core, critics have maintained these were eradicated by the mismanaged rollout.
Dr. King replied the state has asked the US Department of Education for permission to curb some of the testing by allowing accelerated eighth grade math students to opt out of the state test in favor of the regents exam and to allow for two percent of students to take tests at their instructional level, as opposed to the one percent currently permitted.
“Get the feds out of it!” a heckler yelled. Another said that by no longer accepting federal Race to the Top funding, “we could do what New York does well for New York.”
Bill McGrath, a Shoreham Wading River trustee and president of the district’s school board, quoted Dr. King’s position on how the state is unable to slow down implementation and the importance of the new curriculum.
“If all this is true,” McGrath asked, “how can it be that you — as well as every regent but one — send his or her children to private schools? If these reforms are so vital to every student’s future, why shouldn’t the regents and the commissioner want their own children to experience them?”
Westhampton Beach school superintendent Mike Radday said it is misguided to believe a student who has always learned under the old standards should be given an exam aligned to the new standards immediately.
“It is even more misguided,” said Radday, “to then take the results of those exams and tie them to a teacher’s evaluation.”
Less than a third of students statewide met the new standards in the tests administered last spring.
Connor Sick, a senior at Rocky Point High School, asked the commissioner, “If you have anything to say about why failure is being used as a weapon to motivate these students?”
The NYS United Teachers Union has asked for a three-year moratorium on the use of students’ test scores in
teacher and principal evaluations.
Jim Kinnear, president of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, asked the commissioner if he would commit to having three teachers, two principals and one superintendent on the body that makes decisions on educational curriculum.
“Of those that are on the board that are making these decisions, including the commissioner, none have teaching experience,” Sag Harbor school board vice president Chris Tice, who also spoke at the forum, said at Monday’s school board meeting. “My impression was that very little was heard and very little constructive feedback was provided back, unfortunately.”
During the forum with Dr. King, Tice and others questioned the use of a third party data warehousing company, In Bloom, to house students’ scores and private information. Of the nine states that originally hired for-profit data companies, New York is the only one that does not offer parents the ability to opt out.
“New York has usurped my parental authority,” said Mount Sinai’s Candice Donin. “These are my children, not property of the state.”
A group of New York principals sent the state a letter of concern regarding APPR regulations, which has been signed by over 8,000 New Yorkers.
In addition to outlining extensive educational research showing student test scores are not a strong predictor of quality teaching, the letter says vital tax dollars are being redirected from schools to testing companies, trainers (the state recommends administrators undergo up to 17 days of training, with sessions typically costing $120 per day per person) and other vendors.
Michael Friscia, president of the Rocky Point Teachers Association, said corruptness is at the core of the new curriculum’s existence.
“Besiege our last hope — our lawmakers — to force the change necessary to save public education,” said Brian Snow of the Port Jefferson Teachers Association, calling the regents’ reforms “the privatization of education for their own profit.”
Cyndi McNamara, a mother of two children at East Quogue Elementary School, pointed to substantial teacher layoffs and program cuts across Long Island.
“We didn’t need it, we didn’t ask for it, but we’re going to pay for it,” McNamara said of the reforms. “We don’t need more testing … we simply need you to return the programs, teachers and supplies that have been taken from our schools and let our teachers teach.”
At the forum, some residents also criticized the state’s relationship with Pearson Publishing.
As the world’s largest for-profit education business and the largest educational publisher in the country, Pearson sells tests, curriculums, textbooks, training and other programs. New York State signed a five-year $32 million contract with Pearson to produce standardized tests in 2011.
That same year, Pearson reported North American education was its largest business, with sales of nearly $4.3 billion and an operating profit of about $800 million.
Following several allegations that Pearson financed lavish international trips for education commissioners whose states do business with the company, in December 2011 New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued subpoenas to the Manhattan offices of Pearson Education and the Pearson Foundation, the corporation’s nonprofit arm.
New York’s $32 million contract with Pearson was awarded after former state education commissioner David Steiner attended a conference in London in June 2010 underwritten by the Pearson Foundation.
The inquiry is ongoing.
“I can’t say calm down because I agree with you,” Regent Tilles told the riled up crowd at the forum. “But I can say you might be more effective if you work within the system, work with your legislators, work with the government.”
Dr. King said the department has made some adjustments and will continue to make others, adding, “Disagreeing isn’t the same as not listening.”
“I hope,” State Senator Kenneth LaValle told the commissioner, “that within a very short period of time you can reinstate the hope and faith that people have in our government system – that their input counts and that they can make a difference.”