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Parents Push Against Common Core

Massapequa protestors stood outside Mineola High School during a lively forum on Wednesday, Nov. 13, leading calls to end the vastly criticized common core standards in schools throughout Long Island and beyond.

Amid calls of “1,2,3,4, we don’t want your Common Core!” Massapequa Teachers’ Union President Tomia Smith said the common core forces undue stress and confusing test preparations on the minds of the island’s young people, as well as the teachers.

“I am seeing so much anxiety, so much depression, so much loss of creativity,” said Smith, who is also a speech and language therapist, aside from her full-time career as a parent. “I have so many teachers calling me to find out what their options are; younger teachers are calling to ask how many years they need before they are vested. These are amazing educators who are calling me, saying, ‘I never considered retirement, but i can’t do this anymore.’”

During the forum, parents, teachers, taxpayers and students from Mineola and other local 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.

“If the point of elementary education is to teach children how to think creatively, problem-solve and learn from their mistakes,” asked East Williston parent Christine Cozzolino, “how can we expect our children to be innovators when they are subject to scripted lessons and the rigorous testing of the common core?”

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. Mineola parent Gina DaRocha noted that the new state standards will hinder teachers instructing students with disabilities, who need extra help.

“Please tell me how those [common core] lessons are useful, meaningful and appropriate for students who are cognitively functioning at a 5-year-old or younger level?” she asked, sparking the first thunderous applause of the night.

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 DeRocha replied that the system does “not meet the needs of the students” and “is pretty much useless at this point.”

A second key issue was teacher evaluations. Twenty percent of a teacher’s or principal’s rating is linked to state test scores. The state reported a 40 percent drop in test scores of third- through eighth-grade in the new roll-out of the English and math curriculum.

“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 of their evaluation is based on these scores. How do you mitigate that?” Nagler suggested a three-year aggregate chronicling student achievement to determine educator performance.

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.”

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.

Corbett was curious as to when it became “sound to ignore the whole child in an effort for students to be college and career ready in elementary school?”

King was adamant that it’s not the goal of the standard to lose student interest.

“When we talk about college and career readiness, we’re not just talking about the skills in math and English,” said King. “In all the work we do, our emphasis is to address the needs of the whole child.”

Corbett argued that the common core roll-out should have been started from the beginning, not in third grade, and that it was rushed.

Martins interjected, asking King if he’d reevaluate the progress of the common core in full. The commissioner said he didn’t think Corbett’s claim that students are losing interest is “true everywhere,” igniting parents to stand up, heckle and point fingers.

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. A district will be able to see the performance of other students in other districts, but not students’ names.”

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, data collected through 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. “They want the data and that’s what is driving the entire system.”

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.

One teacher prostesting outside, who chose not to give her name, said students are being bombarded with common core stress, even in classes like art, music and library, where they are being tested accoring to common core preparations. “I don’t think that the parents know the amount of testing that the children go through, even before they get to that third grade ELA,” she said. “My children grew beautiful over the past 15 years that I have been teaching, I don’t know why I have to give test after test.”

— with additional reporting by Steve Mosco and Christy Hinko