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Parents Vs. Common Core

During a lively forum on Nov. 13, parents, teachers, taxpayers and students from Manhasset and other L.I. towns took State Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch to task over the “common core” standards, venting their concerns and outrage about testing, evaluations and student privacy.

State Senator Jack Martins of the 7th Senate District moderated the talk. Martins’ team selected 38 questions out of 250 submitted by interested parties. The primary concerns stemmed from four main issues: application of the standards, teacher evaluations, testing and student privacy.  

Parents angrily questioned the one-size-fits-all approach that seems to underlie the standards—the “common” in common core. These tests require students to read and comprehend English, refer to informational text and provide text-based answers in their writing.  

The first speaker said the new state standards hinder teachers instructing students with disabilities, who need extra help. “How are school districts supposed to budget for [special education] services for students who score at level 2 or below in the tax-cap world that NYS school districts are living in?" demanded Mimi Donohue, a Manhasset parent.  

King said the alternate assessment design is “challenging,” acknowledging that devising one test to serve all levels is a tall task. State reps are discussing possible remedies.

“What the education department tried to do with an alternate assessment, based on feedback from educators around the state, was for every standard to have a range of [educational] paths,” he said.

The crowd was unmollified, erupting when a parent called the system “pretty much useless at this point.”

Manhasset Board of Education President Regina Rule raised another key issue: resources—of both time and money—for teacher training and an orderly roll-out. "I urge you to slow down the implementation of the Common Core standards and attendant testing, so that local leadership can work with faculty to implement the standards well," she said.

Rule also gave a nod to the problem of unfunded mandates. "How do you suggest that cash-strapped districts find the necessary resources to allocate to this critically important component of professional development and curriculum writing?" she asked.

If teachers aren't trained for common core, then how can they teach the students to do well, and how can we hold any of them accountable for results? Another common-core sore point was the testing and its use in teacher and school ratings. The state reported a 40 percent drop in test scores in the new roll-out of the English and math curriculum.

King said the role of student performance via test scores is established in state law, yet the majority is in school district hands.

“Eighty percent of the evaluation is determined locally through collective bargaining,” King said. “For the 80 percent of teachers who don’t teach students in grades three through eight ELA and math, the gross portion is determined by the school districts.”

But to those on the ground, the test play an outsized role.

“With the anxiety of levels of these exams, it feels a lot more than [20 percent],” said Mineola Superintendent Michael Nagler. “It feels like 100 percent.” Nagler suggested a three-year aggregate chronicling student achievement to determine educator performance.

Cheers and jeers were the norm, and especially rose when Westbury Teachers Association Christine Corbett stepped up to discuss students losing interest in school because of rigid testing regime.

“When did it become sound to ignore the whole child in an effort for students to be college and career ready in elementary school?” she asked. “Are our state leaders willing to gamble the childhood of students, some as young as 8 years old, who have already being turned off to school?”

King adamantly denied that intent: “In all the work we do, our emphasis is to address the needs of the whole child.” The commissioner rejected Corbett’s claim of disaffected students, igniting parents to stand up, heckle and point fingers.

“The problem, is [King] is living in the world of theory,” Corbett said. “The way this whole process was rolled out and shoved down these kids throats...they weren’t ready for this. Step back, and halt or people will opt out.”

The final topic of the forum focused on student privacy, specifically inBloom, a nonprofit organization the state is using to mine student testing data and personal information. Manhasset Data Coordinator Colleen Leon questioned why student data would still be provided to inBloom even if a district did not participate in Race To The Top, a federal grant program to spur innovation and reforms in schools.

“The only use of data that is allowed is data that is being used to provide a service,” King said. “Now, aggregate data will be available through the portal.”

Outside the forum, Jeanette Deutermann, founder of the Facebook group “Long Island Opt Out,” now more than 12,000 members strong, was among the protesters. According to Deutermann, inBloom catalogs an individual’s information from birth to age 20 and includes not just names, but address, birthplace, economic status, race, ethnicity, disabilities, and other information that some parents may wish to keep private.

“Data mining is across the board all kinds of wrong,” Deutermann said.

The challenge for school districts is to keep families from opting out, which impacts state and federal funding. With groups like Deutermann’s gaining steam, that challenge is growing.