When Common Core Becomes a Political Football

New North Fork State Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo addressed a group of parents upset about the Common Core at a forum in Riverhead in late January.
New North Fork State Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo addressed a group of parents upset about the Common Core at a forum in Riverhead in late January.

There’s no denying that the New York State Education Department’s rollout of the new Common Core education standards has been a disaster. As public school students throughout the state bore the brunt of tests rolled out without their teachers adequately prepared to teach the material being covered, their parents angrily demanded reforms. Last year, their pleas appeared to fall on deaf ears.

But that was 2013. We’re in an election year now, and what had been an issue between parents, schools and the State Education Department is rapidly becoming a hay-making goldmine, with politicians jockeying to offer reforms and place blame on all sides in the hopes that angry parents will have Common Core on their mind when they go to vote.

But is any of this jockeying in the best interest of our kids? Should Common Core be reformed or should it be thrown out? And if it’s thrown out, what kind of standards will exist in its place?

After Education Commissioner John King was roundly rebuked at forums around the state last fall, Governor Andrew Cuomo began to backpedal on his support for Common Core in his budget presentation to the state legislature mid-January. But he wasn’t exactly taking the blame for the debacle.

“The way Common Core has been managed by the Board of Regents is flawed,” he said. “There is too much uncertainty, confusion and anxiety. Parents, students, and teachers need the best education reforms – which include Common Core and teacher evaluations – but they also need a rational system that is well administered.”

Mr. Cuomo, who said he plans to assemble a panel of legislators and educators to make changes to Common Core, also said he also wants to see a ban on standardized testing of students in Kindergarten through second grade.

Mr. Cuomo has become the favorite punching bag of freshman North Fork State Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R,C-New Suffolk), who took office in January and has two young children in the New York school system. Mr. Palumbo is hopping mad over Common Core.

At a discussion hosted by opponents of the Common Core in Riverhead in late January, he urged attendees to threaten to vote against Governor Cuomo in this fall’s election if changes aren’t made.

“The way to get politicians to listen is to threaten them with their jobs,” he said.

It was a brash statement for someone brand-new to politics, but Mr. Palumbo, who has a son in fourth grade and a daughter in first grade, said he takes the standards personally.

“When my six-year-old comes home from school crying, it makes me want to go out and fight somebody,” he said.

It would make any parent want to go out and fight somebody.

In late January, Mr. Palumbo joined the state Assembly Minority in unveiling a document they’re calling The APPLE Plan, a manifesto in response to parent concerns raised at listening forums throughout the state that calls for providing more money for teacher development, restricting access to student data, helping special education students and reducing reliance on standardized testing. They’ve put the plan online here, and it includes several common-sense suggestions.

While the APPLE Plan sound just dandy, the only legislative proposal placed on the table by the Minority Conference is their “Option 2” alternative to the APPLE Plan. It is just one page long, and only calls for discontinuing the implementation of the Common Core, not on fixing the state’s education system. It was referred to the Assembly Education Committee last June and again on Jan. 8 of this year, and may stand little chance of success in the Democrat-dominated Assembly.

State Senators Carl Marchellino (R-Syosset) and Kenneth LaValle (R,C,I-Port Jefferson) have also proposed a bill that would delay the Common Core until 2021.

Meanwhile, both Democrats and the New York State Board of Regents have also begun to slam on the Common Core brakes.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-New York) announced last week that he is in favor of a two-year moratorium on implementation of the Common Core testing while the state education department offers districts and teachers better guidance in implementing the teaching methods, and State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) has pitched a bill to create a task force to study Common Core.

The New York State Board of Regents announced earlier this week that students will not be required to pass Common Core tests in order to graduate from high school until the class of 2022. The class of 2017 had previously been expected to meet the Common Core standards.

Mr. Palumbo posted the video below on his official Facebook page last week calling for lawmakers to roll up their sleeves and get to work fixing Common Core. But he didn’t say anything about whether he would reach across the aisle to help make those changes. And he’ll have to reach across the aisle if he wants to be effective in Albany.

“I’m happy that we’ll at least be able to evaluate it over the three year moratorium and have the option whether or not to implement it at all,” he said, speaking of teachers unions’ request for a three-year halt. “We need to fix the problems with it immediately and slow this down. I’m happy we can do this and finally focus on children and not on political advantages.”

 

 

Forty-five states in the country have signed on to agree to implement Common Core standards since they were first unveiled in 2010, in part because the federal government has offered a grant program, known as Race to the Top, to help implement the standards.

Much of the pushback against the standards has been in solidly conservative states, which have a history dating back to the Civil War of wanting to avoid federal meddling in states’ rights, even though federal architects of Race to the Top are quick to point out that the standards are created by the states with the federal government merely providing funding to states whose curricula meet national standards.

New York, however, is one of the first liberal states to see any serious pushback against the standards, in large part due to the State Education Department’s decision to start testing students last year using the new Common Core standards before teachers were even adequately trained to implement them. Most states are not planning to implement the tests until 2015. New York’s testing also comes just as school districts are facing serious financial constraints under Governor Cuomo’s 2 percent property tax levy cap and state school funding cutbacks.

The result, when the tests were first administered last year, was staggering. Just 30 percent of students statewide passed, and far lower percentages of minority and poor students passed. Now, with another exam season looming in April, anti-Common Core advocates are urging parents to help their children opt out of taking the tests if the state doesn’t decide before April to call them off.

This emphasis on standardized testing is one of the reasons education historian Diane Ravich, seen throughout the nation as one of the most rational critics of the Common Core, believes there has been so much vitriol surrounding this issue.

In a January 11 speech to the Modern Language Association, which was later printed in The Washington Post, Ms. Ravich pointed out that when states first began implementing Common Core, teachers were already burned out from years of learning to teach to the test under former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which had mandated that schools whose students weren’t proficient by this year (2014) would face sanctions and perhaps be forced to close if their students didn’t meet higher standards.

Common Core standards, she said, “arrive at a time when American public education and its teachers are under attack. Never have public schools been as subject to upheaval, assault, and chaos as they are today. Unlike modern corporations, which extol creative disruption, schools need stability, not constant turnover and change. Yet for the past dozen years, ill-advised federal and state policies have rained down on students, teachers, principals, and schools. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top have combined to impose a punitive regime of standardized testing on the schools.”

Even President Obama, whose administration drew up the Race to the Top program in response to complaints of unfunded mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act, said in his State of the Union address that standardized tests were not the goal of the Common Core. But they are a major part of its implementation.

“Now, some of that change is hard,” he said of the pushback against the standards. “It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test. But it is worth it — and it is working.”

It may have appeared to be working on Jan. 28 in Washington. But 2014 isn’t a presidential election year. This year’s state elections could easily become a referendum on the Common Core.

Ms. Ravich, in her Washington Post piece, pointed out what is perhaps the most damaging flaw in the Common Core standards, a flaw that is often overlooked in the local debate in a region where kids tend to be relatively well-off.

“What the advocates ignored is that test scores are heavily influenced by socioeconomic status,” she wrote. “Standardized tests are normed on a bell curve. The upper half of the curve has an abundance of those who grew up in favorable circumstances, with educated parents, books in the home, regular medical care, and well-resourced schools. Those who dominate the bottom half of the bell curve are the kids who lack those advantages, whose parents lack basic economic security, whose schools are overcrowded and under-resourced. To expect tougher standards and a renewed emphasis on standardized testing to reduce poverty and inequality is to expect what never was and never will be.”

“We cannot have a decent democracy unless we begin with the supposition that every human life is of equal value,” she added. “Our society already has far too much inequality of wealth and income. We should do nothing to stigmatize those who already get the least of society’s advantages.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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