Two days ago, parents and teachers gathered at Spackenkill High School in Poughkeepsie, New York, for a public hearing to discuss the Common Core, with New York State Commissioner of Education, John King.
There was a great deal of dissatisfaction expressed by those attending, and this brings to the surface an issue noted yesterday by Diane Ravitch. These citizens are raising concerns which, prior to this event, have not been given a chance to be aired. The frustration at their lack of input is palpable. Ravitch explains how we got here:
The bottom line is that the U.S. Department of Education badly wants national standards, but it is prohibited by law from influencing curriculum and instruction in the nation's schools.
So, a deal is struck. Gates pays to create the CCSS, and Arne Duncan uses the power of the federal purse to push states and districts to adopt them, then uses his bully pulpit to warn that the future of the nation is in peril unless these very standards are swiftly implemented.
The problem is that all this happened so swiftly, and with so little public understanding, that the public is in the dark. A recent Gallup poll showed that most people never heard of the CCSS and had no idea what they were. Instead of taking a decade to build consensus, the Gates Foundation and the Department of Education plunged ahead.
Instead of developing a democratic process in which teachers, teacher educators, scholars, specialists in the education of children with disabilities, specialists in the education of English learners, and specialists in early childhood education were consulted at every step in the process; instead of trying out the standards to see how they work in real classrooms with real children, the Gates Foundation and the Department of Education took a shortcut.
It is not too late to hear what these parents are saying. Commissioner King may not want to hear them, but they are speaking for their children, and they have a year's head start on many of us, in that New York has been ahead of the curve at implementing Common Core curriculum and tests.
Here is what one father, Mr. Jackson, said: (minute 12)
I have an eight year old son with a giant imagination. He likes telling stories and creating things. He's extremely bright, but he's not the most book-smart kid. He's bright in other ways. He attends third grade in the Cornwall School District. He hates going to school. He hated it last year, and this year, with a great teacher, he's getting through it. The work that comes home, and the work that the teachers are being forced to teach, is so clinical and boring and confusing, that I refuse to believe that the coursework was written by people with degrees and/or experience in early childhood education. (cheers and applause). The coursework is geared towards the few kids in the class that would have done well in math regardless. The rest of the kids are being made to feel dumb and its abusive, with the kind of testing, and the fact that the teachers have no flexibility or time to do anything creative in their classrooms.
I understand the need to make our children better in math and science, for the future of our country. But there is no reason why you need to affect every part of their schooling, which this Common Core is doing. Everything from the math work being made up of long-winded rails, to eight year-olds needing to learn proofreading marks as if they were getting a master's in teaching. I read in the New York Times article, where you attributed your path to some special teachers in your life, that had you play a sportscaster at a fake news desk. With this new curriculum there is no room for imagination or play as it's all business.
All the kids are stressed out. The teachers in my district are scared for their jobs. They won't sway from the curriculum, they won't debate it or entertain any kind of talk about it to see if anything can be adjusted to make it more moldable. The three times this year that I brought up very specific problems with my son's amazing teacher about something that didn't seem right with the Common Core, I was told that my son needed to know this a certain way for the state tests - end of story. Mr. King, your children go to Montessori school... (applause)
Other parents raised concerns about the data that is being collected on their children. Teachers spoke about the ways the Common Core has restricted how and what they can teach. As Diane Ravitch points out, this reaction among parents and educators should not be a surprise. It must take colossal hubris, on the part of both Bill Gates, and his allies at the Department of Education, to think that they could assemble a small group of people, write a set of standards that would totally transform the way our children are taught, and coerce states into adopting them with zero genuine discussion or debate in the public arena. These standards reflect the process by which they were developed. They do not reflect the expertise of educators, and since they have not been tested in any way, they are going through a trial by fire now, with millions of children being the test subjects.
The impassioned comments of those present were enough to convince the Commissioner that further such exercises in democracy are unwise. Four more hearings that were scheduled have been summarily cancelled at Commissioner King's request, according to the New York state PTA.
While our goal was to provide an opportunity to learn and share, based on review of the initial October 10 meeting, the Commissioner concluded the outcome was not constructive for those taking the time to attend.
So this experiment in democracy delayed has been extinguished, because those in charge apparently would rather not hear this sort of response.
It is very clear that the implementation of the Common Core standards and associated tests in New York has been a fiasco. The question that hangs over this project is whether the standards can somehow be rescued by more thorough preparation and a different set of tests. The curriculum and tests used in New York were developed by Pearson. Other states, such as California, will see a more gradual rollout, with trials next spring of new tests from the Smarter Balance consortium. New York is teaching us how badly the Common Core can be done, and parents there are teaching us how to respond as well. They organized, they spoke up, and they have been heard, even if the powers that be have made it clear they are not interested.
Speaking truth to power, as these parents did, is an intoxicating thing. It delivers to both speaker and witnesses a shiver, an awakening to the fact that we do not need to suffer in silence, or allow our children to suffer without objection. Those in power may cancel future hearings, but these parents' voices are ringing out, like a bell that cannot be un-rung.
Update #1: Leonie Haimson provides some interesting background here, including another video, which helps explain the level of frustration expressed by those in the audience in New York.
Update #2: Carol Burris has posted a letter from a New York parent expressing his dismay at the Commissioner's decision to cancel the scheduled public hearings.
Update #3: John King has released the following statement explaining his cancellation of the upcoming public hearings:
I was looking forward to engaging in a dialogue with parents across the state. I was eagerly anticipating answering questions from parents about the Common Core and other reforms we're moving ahead with in New York State. Unfortunately, the forums sponsored by the New York State PTA have been co-opted by special interests whose stated goal is to "dominate" the questions and manipulate the forum.
The disruptions caused by the special interests have deprived parents of the opportunity to listen, ask questions and offer comments. Essentially, dialogue has been denied.
In light of the clear intention of these special interest groups to continue to manipulate the forum, the PTA-sponsored events scheduled have been suspended. My office will continue to work with PTA to find the appropriate opportunities to engage in a real, productive dialogue with parents about our students and their education.
Parents don't deserve to be dominated and manipulated.
New York principal Carol Burris offered this response to Commissioner King's statement:
According to parents at the forum, that is not an accurate representation. They claim that rather than listening, John King lectured for one hour and forty minutes. At the point that parents were finally allowed to speak, he became defensive and emotions began to run high. When the idea of the forums was first proposed, according to a reliable source at the executive level of the PTA, the commissioner did not want parents to speak at all.
To refer to parents who disagree with his policies as "a special interest" is indicative of an administration that truly does not understand the level of concern and frustration that parents and students are experiencing. The parents of Long Island do not deserve to have their opportunity to listen and speak taken from them days before the event. Skillful leaders know how to handle emotional audiences.
Update #4: Parent Mikey Jackson, whose statement I transcribed and quoted above, has sent a response to Diane Ravitch's blog, where he responds to Commissioner King's suggestion that he is part of some "special interest group."
Update #5: On Friday, Oct. 18, bwing to pressure, John King and the New York Department of Education announced the scheduling of 12 community forums.
King said the forums will be scheduled over the next six weeks; details for all the events will be finalized early next week. The first forum will be held in the Albany City School District on October 24. Other locations for the forums are Rochester, Westchester, Suffolk County (2), Nassau County (2), Schroon Lake, Binghamton, Amherst, Syracuse, and Jamestown.
None in New York City, apparently.
What do you think of the concerns raised by these parents in Poughkeepsie? Does this spell trouble for the Common Core project in New York?
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