New York takes on Common Core

December 11, 2013

One of the first statewide efforts to implement the Common Core education standards has produced a full-blown rebellion, writes New York City teacher Peter Lamphere.

THERE'S A growing revolt across New York state against the latest phase of neoliberal education "reform" embodied in the new Common Core State Standards.

Anger first exploded into the open at a New York State PTA forum in Poughkeepsie in October. Parents and teachers took State Education Commissioner John King to task about the rollout of curriculum aligned to the new standards, citing the stress on their children and rushed, low-quality classroom materials. The commissioner was so flummoxed by the criticism that he immediately canceled his further planned appearances.

While the Common Core standards have been under development for the last few years, New York is one of the first states to attempt to fully implement them in classrooms--with disastrous results.

Last spring's statewide tests--the first to be "aligned" with the new standards--resulted in widespread failures across the state. Student passing rates plummeted 30 percent on exams that principals and teachers felt were way out of line with student developmental abilities.

Parents protest outside a forum on Common Core standards in New York
Parents protest outside a forum on Common Core standards in New York

As schools opened this fall, many teachers were presented with badly prepared drivel produced by textbook companies. Much of the material was rushed and sloppily put together (if it arrived in schools on time at all)--with pages upside down or out of order and full of typos.

The result has been confusion and frustration in classrooms across the state, as teachers struggle with weak materials that they are poorly prepared for, and often shows little understanding of what is age-appropriate for students. As Carol Burris, an activist Long Island principal, pointed out, "New York's model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include 'cuneiform,' 'sarcophagus' and 'ziggurat.'"

To make matters worse, there are increasing privacy concerns about student biographical and academic data, as New York remains the only state partner with InBloom, a consortium that allows data mining of student biographical information--something that has parents worried (Louisiana, Chicago and other sites have recently pulled out).

Furthermore, the Common Core rollout coincides with a new teacher evaluation system that threatens teachers with firings based on how well their students perform on the new exams.

Parents and teachers have had enough.

THE EMBATTLED education commissioner regrouped and tried to continue with his "listening tour" across the state, this time accompanied by other officials so he would not have to face criticism solo.

But he was shouted down again and again in high school auditoriums in different parts of Long Island. Eighth-grade math teacher and Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association President Beth Dimino put it this way: "Obviously, Mr. King, you are ineffective--70 percent of children in New York State failed your test."

She went on to threaten mass boycotts: "What is going to happen is that hundreds of thousands of mommies are going to fill out this form, and they are going to have their children refuse to take the test."

Politicians across the state are running scared. Gov. Andrew Cuomo even had to distance himself from the State Education Department, reminding voters that he did not technically play a direct role in administering education.

The State Education Department is run by the Board of Regents, although the governor has played a key role in advocating for education "reform" initiatives from test-based evaluations to the Common Core standards themselves.

One upstate Republican politician, state Rep. Jack Corwin, explained the pressure: "This one seems to affect all the different groups. The administrators have a position on it. The teachers have a position on it. The parents and students have a position on it. So that part is unique, in that it cuts across all stakeholders."

Some of the opposition to the Common Core is being driven by the right. Tea Party activists have picked up the banner of opposition to the new standards as another initiative of an overreaching federal government, and called for "local control."

But most of the opposition in New York has not been particularly ideological--rather, it has been driven by children's and teachers' frustration with a set of extremely difficult curricula that doesn't make sense. A mom in Queens wrote a typical plea that was published by education writer Diane Ravitch:

I just learned about Common Core Standards this afternoon at a school orientation...I am told my child will have a test tomorrow, and he is expected to know how to read. He is in Kindergarten!...This test will only make him feel frustrated and inferior...Last night, my first grader had three hours worth of homework...I was not even able to read to her with all the homework that needed to be done. They are not sleeping the appropriate amount of time...This is a traumatic time for us.

These heartfelt testimonials haven't prevented Commissioner John King from slandering the opposition as a set of "special interests"--code words for teachers unions and organized parent groups.

UNFORTUNATELY, THE New York State United Teachers actually has a mixed record on Common Core. Led by its largest affiliate, New York City's United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union officially supports the Common Core, but disagrees with the implementation that has occurred, calling for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes consequences to teachers and students for the new tests, so that they can be "properly aligned" with the standards.

A variety of suburban teachers locals have taken much stronger positions than the state teachers union--and, even more importantly, organized their members to attend these hearings en masse. Many teachers seem to have also come independently.

The Common Core standards were designed without teacher input and dominated by the Gates Foundation and testing companies. Much of their effect of the push for "career and college readiness" has simply been to push skills from higher grades down on to younger students.

But even if the standards themselves were perfect, their implementation in the current political environment will inevitably be controlled by the textbook conglomerates. Thus, the proliferation of scripted teaching guides that de-skill the teaching profession, and workbooks that promote the worst kind of rote learning, even though the new standards are supposed to promote "critical thinking" and better instruction.

The teachers' unions have ignored this inherent contradiction in an eager rush not to appear as "opponents of reform." This is part of their overall conservative strategy that led to concession after concession to high-stakes testing and an erosion of teacher job protections and working conditions statewide. It remains to be seen whether the grassroots upsurge succeeds in reversing the contradictory policy of the state union.

As John King continues his "listening tour" in New York City, parents and teachers will definitely be on hand to give him an earful.

While opposition first exploded upstate and in the New York City suburbs, there is an immense opportunity for a movement that includes more urban and working-class parents and parents of color.

SOME PARENTS who are frustrated with resource-starved urban schools that have not been able to fully serve their communities for years have looked to testing and the reform agenda as a fix. But the appeal of the testing regime is quickly fading as the new standards and increased "accountability" have led to confused and stressed-out children.

Already, there are glimmers of the potential opposition in New York City, as the mass boycotts of tests by parents in one elementary school and by students at Stuyvesant High School. Parents and teachers are planning a February conference to help grow the opt-out movement through the spring.

The agenda of the education deformers is already in crisis across the state, and it will be up to us to build a multiracial movement of parents and teachers that will defeat it. This would require accelerating and the broadening of the campaign that calls for John King's resignation. The test profiteers, like Pearson Education, have to be targets of protest and civil disobedience.

Most crucially, however, there will be a wide opportunity for mass testing boycotts in the spring. Especially as the shadow of strict "report-card" accountability and school closings is lifted from schools in New York City under the new de Blasio administration, there will be more space for parents to pull their kids out of the test without fearing the consequences for schools.

The teachers' unions will have to become involved more centrally as well and play a role in knitting together the resistance to the testing. This is likely to occur first in upstate and suburban locals, free of the bureaucratic domination of the UFT leadership, but is a call that is increasingly being taken up by rank and filers in New York City as well.

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