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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

New Forums Scheduled, But N.Y. State Commissioner Pressured To Step Down

By Peter DeWitt — October 26, 2013 5 min read
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Over the past two years, N.Y. State education has gone through a tremendous amount of change. There was the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), new CCSS high stakes tests, and teacher and administrator evaluation (APPR) tied to high stakes tests. Unfortunately, the new CCSS tests came at a time when teachers lacked resources and had not taught the Common Core for a full year.

The test themselves have had a flurry of issues. We all remember the Pineapple question from last year or the fact that special education students who couldn’t even read the tests in the first place were given double-time to complete them. That’s roughly 3 hours a day.

But there was so much more that came with the tests. Just like any secured test, schools could only open them an hour before students could take them, and the results came in the form of a number (1, 2, 3 or 4) and cut point. The results lacked an item-analysis so schools were left with very little information. Parents who called for further assistance on understanding the scores were left without any answers.

Any standardized testing expert will say that all high stakes tests need to be secure, but over the past two years the security and necessary precautions have increased. It seems silly to think that a random 8-year old may break into the principal’s office to steal a test and cheat. Perhaps I just lead a building a very honest 5-11 year olds who would prefer to play outside at recess.

Educators, parents and students across N.Y. State heard the same old rhetoric. “Stay the course.” “There is no time to slow down on the Common Core.” Educators were chastised through it all. They were accused of worrying about their own evaluations, and were even attacked by the editorial board of the N.Y. Times.

But something happened...

Parents began to see the testing pressure their children were facing. The stress was overwhelming for some students as they walked into school 3 days in a row one week, and 3 days in a row the next to take exams (math, ELA) that lasted 80 minutes or more each day. Parents realized that the exams were less about what their children knew and more about what the teacher was (or was not) doing in the classroom, even when teachers lacked the proper resources or professional development needed to be successful.

Some parents sent their child’s test scores back at the end of September. Others vowed to opt-out of next year’s tests. Fortunately, NY State Education Commissioner John King and the Board of Regents announced that they would hold open forums for parents around the state.

PTA Parent Forums

Commissioner John King scheduled forums for parents through the NY State PTA. Unfortunately, the first one, which took place in the Hudson Valley did not go well. Parents screamed. Some were abusive, and others just wanted answers because their frustration level was boiling over.

And after that particularly bad forum, John King cancelled the rest. He said that too many special interest groups took over the conversation. Parents’ anger grew because they did not represent any special interest group other than their children. After the cancellation, parents began calling for King’s resignation.

The Huffington Post reported, “In the latest controversy, parent groups are calling for New York State Commissioner of Education Dr. John King to resign. Many were enraged last week after King canceled a tour of Common Core town hall meetings -- scheduled take place across the state -- after only attending one in Poughkeepsie on Oct. 10.”

Any school leader will tell you that the past few years have been tough. Really tough. Some board meetings have resulted in angry parents and teachers yelling at the board of education or across the room. However, those leaders couldn’t walk away from angry parents. They had to work with them, and work through the bad situations. John King did not feel like giving parents the same respect.

The Huffington Post went on to report, “We would argue that a competent leader does not run away from concerned parents, or call them a ‘special interest group.” In addition to the Huffington Post article, the New York State Allies for Public Education wrote, “When a public official such as Commissioner King refuses to participate in the democratic process and refuses to hear the concerns of parents while simultaneously carrying out educational policies that affect thousands of children, he is no longer fit to carry out the duties of the NYS Commissioner of Education.”

The Commissioner announced new town hall meetings. One took place on Thursday, October 24th in Albany. WNYT (Albany NBC affiliate) reported on the event here. The CT Post reported that, “King also tried to reassure the audience.” He reportedly said, “We should have as much assessment as we need and not more,” he said. “We don’t need more testing. We’re very sensitive. The core curriculum is not about tests. A key opportunity for a young learner is for their teachers to be their guides to the world.

King told the audience that, “The new curriculum was not intended to be a script and should be adaptable to local needs. He also said the education department can do a better job communicating with its constituents,” and that “It is clear that it is not well understood.” King went on to say that “Every district, every school, needs to evaluate what makes sense. We are committed to making adjustments.” If this is truly the goal, then the NY State Education Department should not have tied evaluation to the tests.

Too Little Too Late?

The New York State Association for Public Education wrote,

We would say to Commissioner King that in this age of apathy, you should be proud to represent a state where parents have taken the time to inform themselves about the current education reforms and have taken the time from their busy schedules to engage with public officials such as yourself. Aren't these parents the kind of critically thinking, involved citizens that our public schools hope to create? We would argue that a competent leader does not run away from concerned parents, or call them a "special interest group."

It is important to note that the Commissioner is doing the job that is assigned to him by the Governor and the Board of Regents, which is led by Chancellor Merryl Tisch. However, the Commissioner has turned out to be a lightning rod for the issues in NY State Education. Some of this is due to the increase in use of social media, his lack of concern over their input and the changes that were forced on schools over the past two years. Parents, teachers, school leaders and students are turning to Twitter and Facebook to share their concerns.

We can all agree that we need to work through these issues because they are bringing out anger and preventing students from reaching their maximum potential. It’s up to the Board of Regents and the Governor to decide how we all move forward, and it’s clear from the first rescheduled forum that it will take more than a “listening tour” to do it.

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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.