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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

What’s Next for N.Y. State Education?

By Peter DeWitt — November 14, 2013 4 min read
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New York State’s present education issues should serve as a cautionary tale for school leaders who are instituting any type of change. The issues began a few years ago when the state adopted the Common Core State Standards, made teacher and administrator evaluation a law, and tied high stakes testing to the CCSS before students and teachers ever had the proper resources and professional development.

Implementing the Common Core or instituting teacher and administrator evaluation in one year would have been an enormous job for schools but doing all three in the same year that schools were experiencing major budget cuts created a perfect storm for a bad situation.

When asked in an interview about the criticism that the Common Core is assessment-driven (Vanguard Magazine, SAANYS) N.Y. State Commissioner of Education John King said,

The work on the common core is about changing instruction, and of course you want assessment to be in line with instruction. It wouldn't make sense to have assessments that didn't reflect the standards. However, it's really about changing teaching and learning, which is why we have invested so much energy on the resources on Engage NY."

Unfortunately, many schools were ill-prepared for the assessments in April, so Commissioner King sent out a memo that the scores would be very low. Even though the scores were predicted to be low, the Commissioner and Merryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the Board of Regents said N.Y. State education (SED) was going in the right direction.

In June there was a rally for public education in Albany, NY. This rally brought together thousands of parents, students, teachers and school leaders. There were passionate speeches by parents, teachers, students and administrators. The crowd waved anti-testing signs, and public school teacher Jeremy Dudley rapped about “Stopping the madness” of high stakes testing.

As the year went on...

The education department asked for feedback and parents, teachers and students sent letters, e-mails and made phone calls. However, the biggest explosion came when the scores were released at the end of September. 70% of students in grades 3-8 scored below proficiency, which angered more parents, teachers, students and school leaders.

When parents called their school to find out where their children went wrong on the test, the schools could not answer the questions because there was no item analysis. Parents began sending back the test results to the State Education Department, and many parents vowed to opt-out of next year’s tests, something all schools should prepare for in the spring of 2014.

And then, the Commissioner and Chancellor cancelled the PTA Open Forums after the very first event went badly. It was the only venue where parents, students and educators could speak. After a great deal of political pressure SED opened the open forums back up, but it was too late. The damage was done. Parents, students and educators do not feel as though they have been listened to on the “Listening” Tour.

Newsday recently reported that,

An emotional crowd of about 1,500 parents and educators packed Ward Melville High School's auditorium and cafeteria last night for a forum with state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., cheering speakers who assailed state testing and Common Core academic standards and at times shouting down King as he tried to speak."

They went on to report that Chancellor “Tisch at one point pleaded with the crowd, “I know you are passionate. We hear you. We get it.” The truth is that they don’t get it, and if they did, it took too long to get there, and should never have led to so much anger.

Where Do They Go from Here?

It’s easy to play “Monday Morning Quarterback” after watching these events take place over the past two years. Unfortunately, many people did try to caution the state education department but those cautions were ignored. In the next few weeks (perhaps even days) SED has to show, and prove, that they were listening to the feedback provided by the attendees who were fortunate enough to get a ticket to the event.

A moratorium on testing must be one of the first steps. The reason for this is two-fold. One, high stakes testing is a mess and they have to find a better instrument to use to understand which schools are doing well and which ones need help. There are many ways, through a more authentic assessment (i.e. portfolios, etc) that schools can show growth.

Secondly, they need a moratorium because more parents are going to opt their children out of testing and schools should not be held accountable for that. School leaders cannot, nor should they, force students to take a test that their parents do not want them to take. And why would parents want their children to take them knowing that schools do not get any information when it comes to results.

SED needs to provide high quality professional development, which is something more than a website. I’m sorry to say that using only a website as a method to support change is fundamentally flawed.

Lastly, they have some serious bridge building to do woth schools and parents. In order to ever make change stakeholders should be consulted. Relationships, and strong ones at that, can weather any storm. Right now, the leaders at the top have destroyed the relationship between SED and schools. How can they best resolve that issue?

In the End

It’s important for school leaders around the U.S. to learn from the implementation issues of New York State. When leaders merely say they are listening and yet show very little proof that they are, it is only a matter of time before the ground swell happens.

In addition, before implementing any new initiative, it’s important to get a well-rounded group of stakeholders, especially when so many people will be affected by the initiative. There will always be people who do not like change, but there has to be a better way to make change other than forcing it through. Because the stakeholders in New York State are showing that they can stop change faster than those leaders trying to make it.

We have had too many years of chaos and have to figure out how to best move forward. We need to grow from this experience and focus on the strengths that our public school system had and help strengthen where our weaknesses were. There are so many parents, teachers, students and school leaders who are eager to be a part of the process.

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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.