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Our Kids’ Education: Who’s The Real Boss?

The outside protesters and inside speakers at recent local hearings featuring State Education Commissioner John King didn’t rail against his test-intensive approach to schooling in vain. Soon after the raucous event at Mineola High School, the Board of Regents announced that 20 minutes would be trimmed off the upcoming state math test. Ten minutes off the English exam.

Of course, in context, it’s not much. Our kids still can expect to sit through nearly three hours of testing in April.

Like so much of the “school reform” underway in New York and the rest of the country, the new testing and curriculum are imposed from above and not subject to much change. It’s par for the course that King & Co. make only slight (and perhaps patronizing) concessions to the moms and dads and teachers and district superintendents who question the state’s mania for testing and immediately implementing the Common Core curriculum. It is, however, understandable once you recognize that King and his kingdom don’t work for us.

As I see it, the New York State Education Department has three bosses:

1. The U.S. Department of Education, which awarded New York hundreds of millions of dollars in Race To The Top money in exchange for a range of “reforms,” including implementing the Common Core.

What the feds think of us, our kids and efforts to bring sanity to the testing and implementation the Common Core curriculum was perhaps best stated by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who recently said:

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said. “You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.”

Granted, Duncan quickly backpedaled, but clearly, state Commissioner King got that memo.

2. The testing companies. Various outfits, many big, international operations, not only prepare and grade the tests, but also supply the textbooks and other material needed to implement the Common Core curriculum. Without them, the state and its standards are nothing but Big Ideas. In fact, cutting the test time on this spring’s exams means $12 million more for the testing companies, since, we are told, it will make it harder for them to develop future tests. (Are we in the wrong business, or what?)

3. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s presidential ambitions. To be a strong national candidate in 2016, Cuomo can’t be a weak-kneed liberal. He has to prove that he is a new kind of Democrat — fiscally prudent, business-friendly and tough on education. (Remember when we were tough on crime?) The governor must show that he isn’t cowed by the “powerful teachers’ unions” (who are the current-day equivalent of the ‘80s much-hated “welfare queens”) and others who resist making our public school graduates the standardized test equals of any kids on the planet (Take that, China!). It’s an approach that has made many pundits label quick-tempered, teacher-bashing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie presidential timber.

New York must — the thinking seems to go — move quickly to implement the Common Core so that no one can accuse Cuomo of coddling our kids and teachers. Plus, the worse we do starting out, the more we are destined to see (and our governor get credit for) a huge jump in test scores over the next few years. That our kids did terribly last year on new state exams based on material they hadn’t studied is no surprise. And there is no place to go but up as the students are prepared for the tests. In our world of sound-bite politics, those subtleties will be lost, and Cuomo will be seen as an education miracle-worker. Of course, our “Education President,” George Bush, was said to have a similar record when he was governor of Texas, and his wizardry gave us the disastrous No Child Left Behind.

Parents, teachers, superintendents and others will continue to challenge these “reforms,” but obviously, King and his department know who is — and isn’t — the boss.

John Owens is editor in chief of Anton Community Newspapers, and author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth From the Front Lines of American Public Education (Sourcebooks, 2013). Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it