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NY Commissioner John King Misstepped, But Sure Shouldn’t Resign

By Rick Hess — October 25, 2013 4 min read
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The furor over New York commissioner John King’s decision to cancel (and then reinstate) a series of Common Core town halls boiled up again Wednesday, when New York governor Andrew Cuomo weighed in. Cuomo offered what struck me as a less-than-courageous response, first saying, “No, I don’t think (King) should resign,” but then adding, “I don’t think it’s my place to say if he should resign or if he should stay. I don’t appoint him, as you know. It’s not my place.”

Now, I think King is a terrific commissioner, has offered New York smart leadership at a challenging time, and that it’s nuts to talk of him stepping down. But I also think it’s important to recognize that King did seriously misstep here, and in a fashion that illuminates some of the blind spots that have plagued Common Core boosters.

A few weeks back, King held the first of five Common Core town halls he’d promised to hold across the state. He held it in Poughkeepsie, where he was jeered by parents opposed to the Common Core. After the Poughkeepsie gathering went south, King announced that it had been hijacked by “special interests,” said it was unproductive, and canceled the other four sessions. Common Core critics responded by pointing out that the video of the event shows that King did the lion’s share of talking and that his reaction just went to prove how thin-skinned and dismissive of concerns are the Common Core’s advocates.

In the aftermath, a Republican state senator and a Democratic assemblyman called for him to resign, while union leaders and some anti-Common Core parent groups vociferously denounced him. Democratic Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti charged, “For quite some time, Education Commissioner John King has closed off all meaningful conversation with parents, educators, administrators, and elected officials who have highlighted serious deficiencies in State Education Department policies.” Abinanti insisted, “His rigidity makes him unsuited for the position of Education Commissioner. Commissioner King should resign immediately.”

Last Friday, King reversed course and announced the forums were back on, in a different format -- and that he’d now hold 12 of them over the next six weeks. (The first of these was held yesterday in Albany.)

As far as I’m concerned, there’s not much to see here. The stutter-stepping was certainly not an especially impressive display, but I think you can find criticisms similar to Abinanti’s lodged against most state superintendents who are trying to do anything of substance. Moreover, I think the charge is misguided. I know John King personally and know for a fact that he does indeed take the concerns of parents, teachers, and school leaders very seriously -- even if it wasn’t apparent in this case.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that King or his defenders have learned the right lessons from this episode. Responding to the calls for his resignation, King said on Tuesday, “Change is really hard. Anytime you try to undertake a major reform initiative that raises standards across the state, that’s going to generate anxiety.” Also on Tuesday, Board of Regents chancellor New York education heavyweight Merryl Tisch said that Common Core critics should “tone it down,” and said the calls for King’s resignation are “all about the politics of education.” She said that was a distraction from “the work of education,” which “is preparing teachers to teach to a higher standard and implementing Common Core as a reality across New York state.”

For my money, those quotes capture the tone-deafness of the Common Core proponents in a nutshell. And if you’re a Common Core supporter and can’t see why, that’s the problem.

The thing is, just saying “change is hard” is patronizing. It implies that the objections are not to the Common Core itself, with how it’s being rolled out (simultaneously with new teacher evaluations, for instance), or with concerns that it may be creating a slippery slope towards growing federal involvement, but that they’re simply the baseless “anxiety” of the masses. This is like the contention that the Common Core is about “higher standards,” and that anybody who questions the effort must therefore be for lower standards. This language not only reflects the tendency of boosters to dismiss skepticism as the stuff of yahoos, birthers, and “special interests,” but it suggests that they’ve mentally tagged the concerns being raised as fabricated or unserious.

Tisch’s defense of King is equally disconcerting. If citizens in a democratic nation think a policy is bad for their children or community, it takes remarkable hubris for a public official to tell them to just calm down and get with the program. Would Tisch have advised President Bush to tell those who opposed the invasion of Iraq to just calm down and get with it? Those concerned about the Common Core have every right (and obligation!) to voice their concerns and demand substantive responses. Rather than dismiss the critics, Tisch might more usefully ask why it is that advocates did so little to make a public case for the Common Core between 2009 and 2012, why so few Americans even know there is a Common Core (fewer than 40% in August’s Gallup/PDK poll), and why New York officials have presented Common Core adoption to citizens as a fait accompli rather than adopting it only after a thorough, spirited discussion and debate.

These are failings endemic to Common Core boosters across the land. They’re real, they’re serious, and they’re an important reason why the Common Core is ultimately likely to disappoint them. But I don’t think any of this provides even a flimsy basis for suggesting King should resign.

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