10/21/13 9:00am
10/21/2013 9:00 AM
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS PHOTO | New York State Education Department commissioner John King.

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS PHOTO | New York State Education Department commissioner John King.

One week after being criticized for canceling his only forum to discuss Common Core curriculum and state testing on Long Island, the state’s chief of schools has announced a new series of forums on the topic.

New York State education commissioner John King announced Friday that he will partner with the state’s Board of Regents to host a dozen forums across New York State, including four on Long Island. While the exact date and location of the events have not yet been announced, the Department of Education has said two of the events will be held in Suffolk County and two more in Nassau.

“I want to have a respectful, direct, and constructive dialogue with parents,” Mr. King said in a press release. “More and smaller discussions will make sure there’s a real opportunity for parents to be heard. This is just the first round; we’ll continue to schedule forums for parents. We want these to be regular events. We want the conversation to rise above all the noise and make sure parents understand the Common Core, and, just as important, we want to understand parents’ concerns. We all share the same goal: to make sure our students have the skills and knowledge to be successful in a changing world.”

The events will be moderated by state legislators and held in school auditoriums. Regents are expected to attend, the press release states.

Mr. King said the forums will be scheduled over the next six weeks; details for all the events will be finalized early next week. So far details have only been announced for the first forum, which will be held Thursday evening in the Albany City School District.

Additionally, four forums will be recorded in front of a studio audience and broadcast on Public Broadcasting Stations across the state, according to the release.

Mr. King had been under scrutiny this week following the suspension of four Common Core forums sponsored by the New York State PTA. The PTA announced the suspension of the forums in a message on its website and Facebook page.

“While our goal was to provide an opportunity to learn and share, based on review of the initial October 10 meeting, the Commissioner concluded the outcome was not constructive for those taking the time to attend,” the PTA’s Facebook announcement read.

The commissioner said in a statement that the first two forums on the topic — held in Poughkeepsie and upstate Whitesboro — had been “co-opted by special interests whose stated goal was to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum.”

“The disruptions caused by the ‘special interests’ have deprived parents of the opportunity to listen, ask questions and offer comments,” his statement continued.

The commissioner’s statement and the cancellations were met with sharp criticism from parents, educators and media outlets across the state.

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10/13/13 11:22am
10/13/2013 11:22 AM

Thousands of frustrated parents and educators from across Long Island were expected to attend a forum in Garden City Tuesday night for an opportunity to speak with New York State Education Commissioner John King about Common Core curriculum and state testing.

But that meeting has been cancelled.

The New York State PTA, which was to sponsor the event as part of a series of forums across the state, announced on its website Saturday that the event and three other similar forums have been postponed at the request of the commissioner’s office.

“The New York State Education Commissioner’s office has requested suspending the remaining Town Hall meetings on the Common Core scheduled in the upcoming weeks,” the statement reads. “Please know that NYS PTA will continue to work with all education and child advocacy partners to keep our members updated and informed on education, health, safety and welfare issues affecting children and families.”

Attempts to reach the commissioner’s press office were unsuccessful Sunday.

The commissioner told Newsday Saturday that the cancellation comes after “special interests” hijacked the first such forum. The first two forums were held in Poughkeepsie and Whitesboro, N.Y.

“The disruptions caused by the ‘special interests’ have deprived parents of the opportunity to listen, ask questions and offer comments,” Mr. King told Newsday in a statement. “Essentially, dialogue has been denied.”

Dennis Tompkins, a King spokesman, declined to identify the special interests, Newsday reported.

Tuesday’s event was scheduled for 7 p.m. at Garden City High School. It was the only such forum scheduled for Long Island.


08/16/13 10:00am
08/16/2013 10:00 AM


As many parents struggle to understand how the majority of children — locally and across the state — could have performed so poorly on the 2012-13 school year’s math and English Language Arts assessments, local educators and administrators are trying to calm their concerns.

School administrators and school board members across Riverhead Town have been trying to downplay the state test results released last week, saying the numbers don’t truly reflect student proficiency levels or overall classroom performance.

For the first time, this year’s math and ELA assessments included elements of what’s known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Common Core is a new set of national standards designed to raise the bar for classroom instruction and help “prepare students for college and careers in the 21st century,” state officials say. The initiative primarily requires instructors to teach more non-fiction and more rigorous math to students at a younger age.

The state Department of Education last Wednesday released the results of the math and ELA assessments students in grades 3 through 8 took in April. The results showed a significant drop in test scores compared to the previous school year.

Statistics statewide for New York schools in which students took the assessments showed 69 percent failed to meet proficiency levels in math and 68.9 percent in ELA. School districts in Suffolk County generally fared better than the state overall, with 66.8 percent failing math and 63.7 percent failing ELA.

Of Riverhead School District students, 74.7 percent failed to meet the state’s math proficiency standard and 73.8 percent failed to meet the ELA proficiency standard for the 2012-13 year, according to the state’s report.

Shoreham-Wading River and Riverhead Charter School students also saw a significant drop in scores compared to the 2011-12 school year.

Riverhead school board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse attributed the lower test scores in part to the state’s implementing Common Core standards before Department of Education officials fully developed the program. For example, she said, the state didn’t provide math teachers with the materials they needed to prepare students for the assessments until “right before the test.”

“It didn’t come as a shock to us,” Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said of the assessment results. “Obviously, we would have liked to have had better results. We do have our work cut out for us and hope everyone understands this was an experimental year.”

Riverhead Charter School principal Raymond Ankrum said although he was disappointed with his school’s scores overall — 74.1 percent of students failed ELA and 81 percent failed math — he was happy with his 5th- and 6th-grade ELA scores.

Of the 27 Riverhead Charter School 5th-graders who took the ELA exam, 33.3 percent were deemed proficient and 3.7 percent excelled on the test. As for the school’s 22 6th-graders who took the ELA exam, 27.3 percent were deemed proficient and 4.5 percent excelled.

“Those teachers did a really good job preparing students for the test,” he said. “The state has really raised the bar and we have a lot to work on. I want us to do better, and I feel confident we will do better next year.”

In a letter addressed to parents and published on local district websites, state Department of Education commissioner John King said the change in test scores “does not mean that students are learning less or that teachers and schools are performing worse than last year.

“Proficiency rates, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the standards, on the new Common Core assessments cannot be compared with last year’s proficiency results since the old scores are from an old test based on the former standards,” he said. “The results from these assessments will help you and your school directly address the learning needs of your child so that he or she gets and/or stays on track for college and career success.”

In a statement released to the press last Wednesday, Mr. King said, “I understand these scores are sobering for parents, teachers and principals. It’s frustrating to see our children struggle. But we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by frustration.”

While the state has claimed implementation of the Common Core program aims to better prepare students for college and careers, many parents and educators have criticized the move because they believe teachers are being forced to abandon true learning for what’s known as teaching to the test.

The results of the new assessments are also expected to be tied to the state-mandated annual professional performance review plans, known as APPR. This teacher evaluation requirement originated in 2010 after New York was awarded a grant of nearly $700 million under the federal Race to the Top program. For individual school districts to qualify for part of the grant, the state required each to implement its own APPR program this year.

In the Shoreham-Wading River School District, 57.1 percent of students failed to meet ELA proficiency standards, and 65.8 percent failed to meet the math standards. Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen said he fears the path the state is going down through the Common Core initiative will “degrade quality education” in New York.

Family income levels play a major role in student performance, he said, and he doesn’t agree that a 10-year-old student’s assessment scores can determine whether or not that child will be college- or career-ready in the future. And come 2017, high school students will be required to pass Common Core-aligned Regents exams, which he expects to increase dropout rates or the number of years it takes to graduate.

He said parents have been slow to realize the potential negative impacts of the Common Core initiative.

“The state, I believe, no longer has an interest in the public school system,” Mr. Cohen said. “If the parents don’t fight back, then we’ll all lose.”

Jeanette Deutermann, founder of the Long Island Opt-Out Facebook page and mother of two elementary school students, said she opposes “high-stakes testing and data mining for New York State children,” and she said she’s not alone.

“We can’t forget who these test scores really damage: the young children who sat through endless hours of testing,” she said. “Commissioner King fails to understand that when a young child sits through weeks of test-taking, prepares all year, and is told how important these tests are, only to fail, these failures can cause permanent damage to the child.”

Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University and an organizer of another recently formed group, the Badass Teachers Association, said testing “is driving the best teachers out, and making students hate going to school.”

“[We] refuse to accept assessments created and imposed by corporate-driven entities that have contempt for authentic teaching and learning,” Mr. Naison said in a statement to the press. “[We] feel that the real failures in this testing fiasco are not the children or teachers of New York … Those who administer and score these tests bear responsibility for the gratuitous humiliation of thousands of special needs students and English language learners throughout the state who should never have been forced to take these tests.”

Stephanie Galka, a mother of two elementary school students in the Riverhead district, said although she’s in favor of holding teachers and administrators more accountable for providing students with a quality education, she has not been impressed with the way the Common Core initiative has been unfolding.

“As a parent, I find it frustrating that we are not able to see the tests that our children take,” she said. “How can we learn from the mistakes we make if we can’t even see what areas we need to work harder in?”

She said she’s also concerned about the amount of time taken away from classroom instruction and used to prepare students to take additional tests.

“I am not sure what the solution is; the only thing I can say is from my experience as a parent I have yet to see the benefit of this testing,” she said. “I see dedicated, loving, caring and hardworking teachers not being able to do anything extra in the classroom as the time constraints are so strict.”

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04/25/13 8:00am
04/25/2013 8:00 AM
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Riverhead school board members voting on resolutions Tuesday night. The board also adopted the 2013-14 budget.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Two of seven Riverhead school board members were not at Tuesday night’s meeting at which the board adopted its 2013-14 budget.

While kicking around ideas for this week’s editorial, one of our editors suggested we write about how the 2 percent tax levy cap has made it less attractive for members of the public to run for a seat on their local Board of Education.

The cap, he suggested, has limited how much difference members of the school board can actually make.

“Didn’t we already write that editorial?” another editor remarked.

So we went to the archives and, lo and behold, here’s what we wrote on May 10, 2012:

“It may seem strange that in all the school districts from Wading River to Orient there are only two contested seats this year — and in two districts seats will go empty for lack of candidates. But given the circumstances, it’s not strange at all. How many people would want to join a school board when the most pressing business is not how to improve programs but what to cut to satisfy the state? And if you’re worried about taxes, that worry is misplaced given that the state limit is about as tight as it gets.”

It appears the same holds true this year, with just 15 candidates running for 13 school board seats in the seven school districts in Riverhead and Southold towns. Only two districts, Riverhead and Oysterponds, actually have a race this year.

The only district with any significant interest from the public is Oysterponds, where five people are running for three seats — that’s one candidate for every 12 kids in the elementary school. This year’s scariest statistic of all is that there are only two new candidates in the six other local districts.

There was so little interest in the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District that, unless a write-in candidate arises and wins, one seat could remain empty at the start of next school year.

Here are five factors we believe explain the dwindling interest in serving on school boards:

• As we stated last year, the tax cap further shifts the focus of all school boards to cutting, or desperately trying to maintain, programs rather than creating new ones. It’s a system that favors the status quo over improving our children’s education. A concerned parent could easily be frustrated by being placed in that predicament.

• An apparent decline in transparency has led to a general distrust of school boards. In some districts, public work sessions were once common, but they’ve since been replaced by more frequent executive sessions.

• Outspoken school board members are becoming a thing of the past. It’s more common nowadays to find board members who work in unison with district administrators than it is to see ones who offer up a differing viewpoint. The school board members who challenge the status quo often end up losing interest and moving on.

• School taxes are the single largest item on our annual tax bills, and that number almost always goes up. It can’t be much fun being the one person on your block who voted to put a tax hike on the ballot.

• Even the most content school board members are fed up with unpopular state and federal mandates they’re being forced to comply with. Before programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top emerged, school board members had much more control over how the district operated.

So what’s to be done? Clearly the powers that be in Albany play a major role in shaping local education programs. Naive as it may be, we can only hope there will be a concerted effort in the capital to re-examine the impacts of state education law and policies on our districts. For our part, we need to stop thinking that the only reason to run for a school board seat is either to improve programs or to cut taxes. We need people who’ll represent the center and take on the essential work of balancing fiscal and curriculum concerns to maintain school systems we can take pride in -— and afford.