East End education advocates have organized a public forum Wednesday to discuss parents and teachers’ concerns over Common Core. (more…)
East End education advocates have organized a public forum Wednesday to discuss parents and teachers’ concerns over Common Core. (more…)
Riverhead School District’s fifth and sixth graders are learning how to compute math equations quickly in their heads and are outlining the process of working through a math problem before solving it under new Common Core curriculum. (more…)
Our local teachers and administrators are sounding an alarm.
They’re the “canaries in the coal mine,” says Terry Kalb, a recently retired Eastern Suffolk BOCES special education teacher. And they’re sensing something toxic.
While nonprofits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and political lobbyists like Students First flood statehouses with cash and bombard the Internet with buzz-word-laden propaganda in pushing for the Common Core State Standards, Long Island teachers are appalled by what they’re experiencing in classrooms.
“These reforms are not only so disastrous, they’re funded by billionaires who are accountable to nobody,” said Ms. Kalb, also a former Shoreham-Wading River school board member. “And that’s the problem. If the decision-making was in local hands, common sense could prevail much more quickly and readily over Common Core. But the decision-making has been removed from anyone the public could impact.”
That disconnect between the public and the policy was on full display at a packed forum last week in Manorville, where state education commissioner John King was peppered with specific concerns and questions over Common Core and related education reform measures.
In his responses, he stuck largely to recounting numbers and data and studies. He took refuge in generalities, without trying in any way to level with those in attendance through concessions or even empathy. Then again, why would he have given it any effort? Mr. King doesn’t answer directly to the public. Like a 14-year-old at a great aunt’s funeral, he was only there because someone made him attend. (He had wanted to cancel the forums.)
Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch said nothing, other than to tell the crowd to calm down.
At the very least, politicians would pretend to give a damn, and they may just feel the pressure to do something. The Common Core Standards were not created through legislation, so elected leaders can respond to complaints to their offices simply by saying: “It wasn’t me.”
That’s what’s so dangerous.
The Common Core was born out of the work of organizations such as the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with the help of special interest groups with ties to big business. The stated goal is to better prepare students for college and careers, and align educational expectations among states.
The Gates Foundation helped fund its creation, and it’s been backed by the Obama administration through federal grants for states that adopt the standards. Pearson, a worldwide publishing company, is the primary producer and seller of Common Core instructional materials.
So it’s a wide-reaching social experiment, of which many people stand to profit. And it’s one that’s easy to sell to idealists because it sounds good on paper. (Make kids smarter!)
On paper, communism works.
Enter real-life. Ms. Kalb was one of about two dozen people chosen to address Mr. King last week. An educator for more than three decades, she explained that she’s come out of retirement to be an advocate for special needs students and teachers after hearing stories of them being victimized by the implementation of Common Core in local schools.
She took Mr. King and the Regents members on stage to task for overlooking the basics of educating children — especially those with disabilities, of which only 5 percent reportedly passed the Common Core assessments last school year.
She spoke of one special needs child she knows who’s being tested four grades above where he’s functioning. And of a parent who asks her: “How can my son learn if with every task he’s given, he fails?” Another student, who’s autistic and had been mainstreamed into regular classrooms, is now being sent back to a self-contained environment because he “can’t keep up” with the scripted Common Core lessons, she said.
“Every teacher understands you don’t teach and test children at the level you wish they were functioning at,” Ms. Kalb said to wild applause. “The way to do it is you meet them where they are and guide them forward toward building their confidence and meeting success every step of the way.”
She and other educators see a bleak future for public education in this country. Between the huge cost of implementing the Common Core — and, at least in New York, the 2 percent tax cap — extracurricular programs that make school fun will start to be whittled away. Dropout rates could soar.
Yet private schools will continue to emphasize the importance of arts and music and sports.
What will frustrated parents do? Look elsewhere in educating their children, if they have the means.
“There’s going to be a flight from the public schools,” Ms. Kalb predicts. “Then the only children who will be left will be those whose families have no other options.”
So what could be done to prevent what Shoreham-Wading River superintendent Steven Cohen has called “educational apartheid” in America?
“The real power lies in the parents making the decision to refuse the testing for their children,” Ms. Kalb says. “Deny them the data. School administrators and teachers cannot say this. But people like me, and the wonderful parents who are providing leadership in the ‘opt out’ movement are leading the charge and gaining ground.”
Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at email@example.com or (631) 298-3200, Ext. 152.
Education expert and influential author Diane Ravitch is calling on school administrators and teachers to halt standardized testing within their districts to regain control of quality education.
More than 150 Long Island educators — including administrators and school board members from Shoreham-Wading River, Riverhead, Mattituck, Southold and Greenport — attended a breakfast meeting Tuesday with Ms. Ravitch at the Hyatt Regency Long Island at Wind Watch Golf Club in Hauppauge.
In addition to promoting her newest book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools,” Ms. Ravitch, a New York University professor, former U.S. assistant secretary of education and Southold resident, said she believes schools need to join together in order to deter what’s come to be known as high-stakes testing.
She also said the current teacher evaluation system tied to student scores is particularly unfair to teachers whose classrooms include English as a Second Language students and students with disabilities.
“It’s time for civil disobedience,” she told the crowd. “If they tell you to do something you know is wrong, don’t do it.”
When asked after the meeting if she believed the crowd would reject standardized testing within their schools, Ms. Ravitch said she hopes “they have the backbone” to go through with it.
“I wish they would,” she said. “That would be wonderful. I think it would send a message to the nation.”
Although Southold Superintendent David Gamberg — who organized the event with Ms. Ravitch — and Riverhead Superintendent Nancy Carney declined to give definitive answers afterward about whether their schools would refuse to administer standardized testing, they agreed Tuesday’s talk with Ms. Ravitch has sparked a much-needed dialogue among educators and communities.
“She’s inspiring us to really think critically about the impact of this agenda on children,” Mr. Gamberg said. “Her strongest point made was that we report to our communities, not to [state Department of Education Commissioner John King].”
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a new set of standards that requires instructors to teach more non-fiction and rigorous math to students at a younger age. The Common Core standards were created by nonprofit organizations, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, as a way to better prepare students from across the U.S. for college and careers after high school.
Along with the federal government, Ms. Ravitch said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded the Common Core initiative. She also said Pearson, a worldwide publishing and educational company, is the primary producer and seller of Common Core instructional materials.
In 2009, through the “Race to the Top” program, the federal government offered $4.35 billion in competitive grants to states that adopted Common Core standards and developed plans to improve state test scores and teacher evaluation results.
The following year, New York adopted the Common Core in order to qualify for a $700 million portion of the federal grant and later published lesson plans for teachers to help students meet the new standards. The state doesn’t mandate that schools use these specific lesson plans, but they are available online at engageny.org.
Earlier this year, the state did mandate that New York school districts develop their own teacher evaluation systems, known as annual professional performance reviews plan (APPR), or risk losing additional state aid.
Ms. Ravitch said she believes the country’s biggest problem with education isn’t test scores, but rather poverty levels, because there’s a direct correlation between low family income and low test scores.
She also believes funds should be allocated for student programs instead of evaluation and data collection systems.
“There are a number of billionaires trying to fix public education, even though their own children attend private schools,” she told the crowd.
While the state has claimed the Common Core program aims to better prepare students for college and careers, many educators have criticized the initiative because they believe it forces teachers to abandon true learning and “teach to the test,” which raises ethical questions.
Ms. Ravitch said she also seeks to help people outside education understand that the current system of rating teachers provides “false” results.
“You can have a superb teacher who one year has disruptive kids and then the scores go down, and another year has a cooperative group and the scores go up,” she said.
“The public needs to be educated that what the test scores reflect is who is in the classroom, not the quality of the teacher.”
Close to a month ago, New York Education commissioner John King canceled the only meeting on Long Island he had scheduled for hearing direct feedback from the public about the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a controversial federal program that has dominated headlines over the past few months.
To his credit, Mr. King not only rescheduled the canceled meeting, originally planned for Garden City, but added three more as well – two in Suffolk County and another in Nassau.
But getting from the scheduling phase to the implementation phase – particularly in the case of the new meeting scheduled in Riverhead on Nov. 26 – appears to be a little more challenging than it should be.
State Senator Ken LaValle told News-Review staff this week that Riverhead High School’s auditorium wouldn’t be big enough to host the meeting. Mr. LaValle said he hopes to find a venue that can hold 1,000 people, 200 more than a brand-new Riverhead auditorium can handle.
And that leaves us scratching our heads.
As if getting the state education commissioner to Suffolk County wasn’t challenging enough – and, lucky us, his office even suggested meeting in Riverhead – Mr. LaValle, our elected official — it seems, is making the process even more complicated than it needs to be. A state education spokesperson told us last week, “We are working with the senator to pick a location” — but it sure doesn’t seem like it. While we’re being told by Mr. LaValle that the meeting won’t be held in Riverhead, the state’s website, as of presstime, still said it would be.
We certainly understand the desire to include as many people as possible in the meeting. This is an important topic that affects children all across Mr. LaValle’s district. However, we do have to question the logic of attempting to add 200 seats at the expense of throwing another wrench into this already messy and contentious process. It’s a sad state of affairs when leaders who play such a large role in our children’s future have such difficulty scheduling public meetings on a topic as important as this one.
Then they wonder why there’s so much skepticism surrounding the Common Core initiative in the first place.
To the editor:
I disagree with those that think Common Core can be adjusted to the point were it is acceptable to all. It’s the start of selling any control of your child’s education over to the federal government. Some may say there are some good points to it. Some said there were good points to many disasters in world history. This can only be an all-or-nothing battle. We can’t open this door and try to close it in years to come; it’s the proverbial “camel’s nose under the tent.”
I suggest doing your homework on this. Check out the businesses that are pushing this and what they stand to gain once there is no turning back. It’s sad; it’s all about the money. Not the children’s future.
Let them take over the Department of Motor Vehicles or something like that. Let’s let our teachers teach. It’s worth the fight.
Denis Noncarrow, Peconic
In a naturally lit area of the early childhood education classroom at Peconic Community School in Aquebogue last Friday, students learned about trees by becoming trees themselves.
“Follow me, seeds,” their teacher, Alison Aldredge, whispered as she tapped on a drum. “Come on seeds. Follow me around.”
Her students then tip-toed toward the class’s potted hibiscus tree.
“The seeds are beginning to find their spot in the ground,” Ms. Aldredge said as she motioned to the children to sit and crouch like little seeds. “Come, find a spot. Plant yourself low. It’s time to begin. Starting to grow. Get your roots so deep down.”
Ms. Aldredge then took out a rain stick instrument to dramatize another element of what makes plants rise from the ground.
“Send your roots really low,” she said with a smile as she shifted the rain stick back and forth. “Start to grow, grow and grow!”
The founders of the Peconic Community School are experiencing some growth of their own. The independent private school, in its second year, this fall enrolled 27 students, up from nine last year. The school, which started in a small space at the East End Arts property in downtown Riverhead, is now operating at the former elementary school at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Aquebogue.
The school was founded by three Southold parents who wanted their children and others to have the chance to learn in an environment that encourages cooperation and an understanding of the interconnectedness of art, science, nature and community. Tuition costs about $10,000 but the school offers a sliding-scale rate based on family income, she said. Fundraisers are held throughout the year to supplement tuition income.
The school’s co-executive directors, Liz Casey Searl and Kathryn Casey Quigley, sisters who founded the alternative school with fellow parent Patricia Eckardt, said they’re focused on creating themed curriculum that spans the school’s grades, from preschool to fifth.
And they get help from community partners such as Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, Group for the East End and Hallockville Museum Farm.
One example of how Peconic Community School teachers are collaborating this year comes in the form of lesson plans on trees.
As Ms. Aldredge’s students gave their best tree impersonations, she asked what kind of trees they were.
“I’m a big tree, what about you?” she asked as she stretched out her own arms. “Who feels like a silly walnut tree, dropping nuts all over the ground?”
A few students shouted “I do! I do!” as they transformed into walnuts and demonstrated how nuts plop to the ground.
Ms. Searl said the school’s new space is conducive to the holistic approach to learning, because each classroom has large windows, and natural vegetation surrounds the school.
As for the lesson plans, Ms. Aldredge’s students, ranging in age from 3 to 5 years, are focusing on how seeds become trees. Sharon Cook’s lower primary class of first- and second-graders is learning about different types of trees. Over in Colleen Hanley’s upper primary class, a combined class of grades three through five, students are learning how they can become environmental stewards by studying trees.
“It’s exciting because, developmentally, they’re each doing something on the appropriate level,” Ms. Searl said about the coordinated efforts. “As we do tree units in years to come, [the early childhood] group will move up and do the next part, and so on.”
Other collaborative lesson plans are in the works to enrich the basic curriculum.
The school is also enhancing its music program this year with the Dalcroze theory, which teaches students about music through body movements, and flute or and violin lessons are being offered as well. And all students are taking Spanish language classes.
Parents are encouraged to participate in the teaching process at the school.
Jamesport parent and jewelry maker Carolyn Mosciatti visited her 7-year-old son Matteo’s class Friday morning to lead students in a stamping project to make name necklaces.
Ms. Mosciatti said she had decided to enroll her son at Peconic Community School because she believes a smaller class size supports her son’s special education needs. She also likes how the school encourages parents and community members to participate with students in the classroom.
“When we toured the school, Matteo asked if he could start tomorrow,” Ms. Mosciatti said, threading a student’s necklace. “He feels at home here.”
Like Matteo, five of the eight students in Ms. Hanley’s class went to local public schools last year. Most of those students said they are enjoying school this year because they don’t feel the pressure of rushing through their class assignments and feel more comfortable to freely express opinions to their teachers.
“You had to learn a certain way,” 8-year-old Kate said about her old school. “Here it’s better because it’s more fun to learn here.”
Although Ms. Searl said she’s pleased with the school’s progress, she’s not looking to drastically expand the school anytime soon.
“We’re still young; we’re only two,” she said. “We need to catch our breath … We always had in mind to grow slowly.
“We just want to make sure we don’t bite off more than we can chew.”
In 2001, Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind. At the time there was strong bipartisan support for the idea that no children in the U.S. should fail to receive a sound public education, especially the poor among them. Who wouldn’t support such a noble cause? Twelve years later, however, we contend with the effects of the implementation of this law, which are nothing short of lamentable. In New York, this national initiative is spearheaded by the Board of Regents, a non-elected body of 17 citizens who control all education policy in the state and oversee the State Education Department, whose leader is the commissioner of education, currently Dr. John King Jr.
In a March 2012 presentation to the New York State School Boards Association, Dr. King outlined the Regents Reform Agenda. According to Dr. King, who follows in a long line of school “reform” advocates, there is a general crisis in public education. Most high school graduates, Dr. King tells us, are not “college and career ready.” Children do not get the education they need to supply U.S. businesses with skilled workers, according to the Regents, because the state does not have high academic standards, and because our schools lack effective instruction and supervision. Looking to get $700 million from the federal government’s Race-to-the-Top initiative (a one-time payment of about 3% of total annual state spending on education, half of which was earmarked to create a data system), the Regents agreed to tie every local school district’s curriculum to national learning standards, known as Common Core Standards. The Regents also agreed to base the evaluation of teachers and principals on standardized tests in English and mathematics (grades 3-8) that all students are required to take, including students with special needs and those who do not speak or write English as their native language. This Reform Agenda diminishes subjects other than English and mathematics: history, science, art, music, occupational education, and athletics apparently are no longer essential parts of a high-quality education. The Common Core Standards themselves are based on a rigid view of childhood development, forcing all elementary children to learn at the same rate. And the Reform Agenda has squandered a staggering amount of instructional time and money to create a “data driven culture” rife with technical and equity problems.
But there is no “general” crisis. The Regents bases its Reform Agenda on an incorrect diagnosis. And this mistake leads to bad public policy. Contrary to what the Regents claim, there are many excellent public schools and public school districts in New York and the nation. Many of these districts graduate well over 90 percent of their students. Many high school seniors are accepted to, and flourish in, the nation’s best universities (Long Island, if considered as a separate state, would have the best public education system in the nation.) Most significant, if one considers family income, American students perform as well on standardized tests as students in any country in the world. The Regents Reform Agenda is wrongheaded because it does not focus first and foremost on providing poor children with the material and emotional support they need to focus on learning in school (22 percent of the children in the U.S. live in poverty, 45 percent in low-income families). To no one’s surprise, scores on the most recent state tests correlated highly with the incomes of the families of the children who took them. Unfortunately, the Regents Reform Agenda distracts teachers and principals in successful schools from doing what works, while poor students do not get the support they need to focus every day on “school” learning. (To be sure, poor children learn a great deal, but their real-life curriculum does not follow the Common Core.)
Beyond these concerns with the Regents Reform Agenda lies another, perhaps even more disturbing, story. Most of the Regents send their own children to private schools, so they, unlike the rest of us, have no personal stake in the roll-out of their ambitious, but untested, “reform” program. (In fact, the private schools to which they send their children do not embrace this Reform Agenda!) And although “reformers” do not like us to notice, many of them have personal ties to companies that profit from selling educational materials to public schools, creating an unwise conflict of interest. (There is an annual $500 billion market in public education in the U.S., generated from school taxes.)
“Reformers” also insist that superior alternatives to locally controlled public education exist — charter schools. However, they are reluctant to admit many troubling facts about these schools: charter schools are funded by public school taxes, but many of them also receive large donations from private foundations and from individuals who have interests in companies that receive public school taxes; many charters have produced test results that do not compare favorably with their public school counterparts; many charters appear to offer superior education because they do not accept students with disabilities, or students who speak languages other than English, or because they encourage students who do not conform to the charter’s rules and expectations to drop out of school. Too many charters divert resources from local public schools, whose revenues are now, more or less, fixed by the new tax levy limit law, while they receive generous donations from businesses and foundations that seek to privatize public education.
Perhaps the Regents should consider some new ideas to “leave no child behind:” first, insist that the governor and Legislature ensure that all children in the state live in safe neighborhoods, that their parents have good jobs, that they have prenatal care, early childhood education, and adequate medical and social services; second, put aside the expensive and faulty APPR initiative, and instead use audit teams of professional educators to issue written reports of all school districts every several years; third, extend the probationary period for teachers and principals from the current three years to six years, to provide an apprentice period as well as sufficient time to make informed decisions about the potential of young teachers and principals.
Bring all children, especially the poorest, to school every day, ready to learn. Evaluate and support teachers and principals in meaningful ways based on detailed analysis of each teacher’s and each principal’s strengths and weaknesses. Assess school districts in depth, from student work to teacher training to Board of Education leadership. If the Regents were to consider these changes, and reject superficial data and calls to privatize this essential public institution, all children might come to school eagerly, districts (and the teachers, principals, and yes, superintendents, who work in them) would be assessed realistically by legitimate and competent external authorities and be provided meaningful direction for improvement, and all new teachers and principals would have to meet a threshold of professional competence that is demanding and fair before they would receive tenure. The Regents Reform Agenda creates problems where none exist, and fails to meet genuine challenges.
It’s time the Regents considered other paths to defend this fundamental democratic institution.
Steven R. Cohen, Ph.D., is superintendent of schools for Shoreham-Wading River School District.