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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

N.Y. State: Where No Confidence Is King

By Peter DeWitt — February 02, 2014 5 min read
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Where education is concerned in New York State, the past few years have been both painful and chaotic. It sounds crazy doesn’t it? How can ‘reform’ cause so much controversy, disruption and anger? Onlookers on the outside just assumed public schools were whining because they were unwilling to change, but as they scratched the surface they realized how wrong those changes were, and that they were painful--especially to students.

It began a couple of years ago when Governor Cuomo called himself the “Lobbyist for Children.” As he stood on his bully pulpit, touting statistics, he slashed budgets, increased accountability, and piled on mandates. Besides those changes he did something much worse, he tried to destroy the confidence that the public had in public education.

Educators saw the Common Core State Standards coming, and something interesting happened, many were looking forward to the national standards. Teachers, who have long taught transient students, or just those that came from a lower grade level seemingly unprepared, valued the idea that everyone would be required to teach the same standards. Maybe then, they thought, that there would not be so many gaps in the learning of their incoming students.

Unfortunately, that is when things started to unravel. Teachers and leaders heard a lot about the Common Core, but realized they had few resources to support the new learning standards. And then, Commissioner John King began touting the new assessments that would be tied to the Common Core State Standards, which were ultimately tied to teacher and administrator evaluation.

As the months went on, as we all looked to the media, we realized this had very little to do with learning. Yes, politicians and King said that the public schools were not doing their job. They brought in statistics, quoted colleges and university professors who said that our students were ill-prepared for college, and then the politcos took every swing with their bat that they could.

As Cuomo and King talked about transparency for education to show that schools were failing, they showed none to the schools that were charged with educating students. They kept hammering schools, creating modules that they said schools didn’t have to choose if they didn’t want to. And then, six months after children took high stakes tests that were flawed with issues, the results that schools received had no item analysis. There was no transparency for learning.

No Confidence For King

What a difference a year brings. In the past year we have seen the birth of the Badass Teachers (BATS), parent forums that were cancelled...and then...rescheduled again. Parents pleaded with King, Tisch and their local officials, often receiving in return platitudes and robotic responses. The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), under the direction of President Dick Ianuzzi, brought a vote of no confidence when it came to John King, and began backing away from its former support of the Common Core.

It was well-chronicled here, where Dick Ianuzzi and Carol Burris wrote, “Despite growing outrage from parents, principals and teachers, the commissioner still refuses to admit that the implementation of the Regents Reforms has failed. He refers, instead, to the genuine concerns of parents and educators as a “distraction.”

The thing to remember is that Governor Cuomo is up for re-election this year, and he needs the support of the very teachers that he publicly abused in the past two years. Perhaps, he was following the advice of an aide or seeking to please Wall Street donors with deep pockets for “reform”. Perhaps, he wanted the same change in public education that we all want. No matter the reason, he certainly went about it the wrong way. Now he needs to show the public that he will lead course corrections. Besides pressuring King to resign, he should probably make sure the Board of Regents better represents the public school system they are supposed to lead.

If there is no change in the leadership, there will be no change in the dialogue about public education, and this will all seem like smoke and mirrors to get the governor through the election. The Board of Regents has to be more than a group of leaders who give the Commissioner a rubber stamp, and for our public education system to move forward, we need some new regents who will change this drastically harmful course we are on.

The New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) recently posted the following statement about the incumbents whose tenure expires in March. “Regents James Cottrell, Christine Cea, James Jackson, and Wade Norwood. All four incumbents have been unresponsive to the concerns of parents and have expressed little or no opposition to the policies pursued by Commissioner John King and Chancellor Merryl Tisch.”

NYSAPE are recommending the following candidates. Mike Reilly, Regina Rose, Audrey Baker and Dr. Carol Mikoda. Three of four are former teachers and the fourth is a respected community member. The Board of Regents needs a well-rounded view on education, and there should be new members who can support the leadership that the very strong Betty Rosa has shown over the past year.

In the End

N.Y. State education has been plagued with issues over the past two years. Under the leadership of John King, the Common Core implementation was rushed and flawed, so much so that parents, teachers, administrators and students have no confidence in his leadership. This is not because people didn’t want to change, it’s because that students, teachers and parents knew that it public education was changing for the wrong reasons, using the wrong drivers, and John King showed up to listen but didn’t hear a word.

It’s not just King who has steered public education in a harmful and scripted direction, Regent Chancellor Merryl Tisch has been responsible for the issues as well, and it will take a strong board of regents to make sure that we all change our course in a much more positive direction. We simply cannot have the same board and expect different results.

Public education will change for the better if we listen to the experts, the ones who spend their days in the classroom. Go to the social networking giants Twitter to see teachers and school leaders sharing best practices, talking about and providing they are innovative, and others who are providing examples of student voice. It would benefit everyone if they could continue these practices without the concerns of high stakes testing that provide NO feedback, scripted lessons on modules that have created an atmosphere where weak teachers feel as though teaching is as easy as reading a script, and our most creative teachers feel as though they are nothing more than a reader of a recipe.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.