WHAT ELSE MAKES NEWS while with the drama queens of Congress hog the spotlight? Certainly not some chemical weapons in Syria peacefully destroyed before al-Assad can poison more kids. Not much room either for the ayatollahs’ overtures on Iran’s nuclear program. But when the education commissioner of New York State cowers after Dutchess County parents yell at him, Whoops! Finally there’s a story that affects schools here and around the state.
The occasion was a meeting at a suburban Poughkeepsie public school last week billed as the first of several such sessions around the state sponsored by the state PTA at which Commissioner John King would discuss the new Common Core Curriculum with the public. Apparently no one informed the commissioner that the public has had it with years of standardized testing that have produced little except higher property taxes.
Judging from press reports and an online video recording that shows segments of the meeting, the people at the meeting did not enjoy commissioner’s lecture about the new curriculum and the tougher tests that go with it. They viewed this latest program as just one more demand for teachers to teach only what’s on the tests… or else risk losing their jobs. They said in various ways that students, teachers, parents and administrators are confused and discouraged by a state education apparatus that lurches from one solution to the next. And some were wary of the control that large corporations have over the tests and materials that accompany this latest public education cure-all.
The meeting got personal when one woman shouted out a reminder to the commissioner that his kids attend a private Montessori school. That caused an eruption of jeers and Commissioner King had a hard time making his rebuttal that the Montessori school is using the Common Core
Curriculum and that it wasn’t appropriate to discuss his children. The parents in the room weren’t sympathetic.
After that meeting the Education Department announced that four upcoming sessions like the one in Poughkeepsie but elsewhere around the state had been “suspended.” The commissioner’s statement said, in part, that the meeting in Poughkeepsie had been “co-opted by special interests whose stated goal is to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum.”
He didn’t explain what special interests were involved or how he knows what those interests had in mind. But the video suggests that either the forces out to dominate his show included accomplished actors or the special interests he fears are the parents of public school students. And if they sought to dominate and manipulate the event it was only after the commissioner himself dominated the event well over an hour as people were itching to have their say.
Anyone who has attended a school board or town meeting knows that at times people speak their minds at these gatherings. Their kids might get suspended if they behaved like that in school, but as adult citizens of a democratic nation we have a right to voice our opinions even when what we say isn’t polite or pretty. And when the exercise of free speech becomes unruly, look first for a breakdown of leadership as the cause before blaming unnamed conspirators.
Maybe the commissioner has a thin skin. Maybe he lacks experience dealing with the public. Perhaps he should drop by a public school and join a class where kids are taught how to respond if they think they’re being bullied.
Regardless of his issues, the anxiety and frustration Commissioner King heard from those parents was not contrived. Most families here don’t have six-figure salaries that allow them to send their kids to private schools. Taxpayers are tapped out, and we expect individuals who hold positions of authority to listen to the public, even when the message is harsh.
The public cannot begin to have the important dialog the commissioner wanted on the Common Core Curriculum because he acts as if he’s too frightened to hear what the people have to say. And now people will assume they can back him down just by shouting. True or not, the perception undermines the high office he holds and severely diminishes his capacity to manage.
Commissioner King has choices. He can reinstate his public meeting schedule with a reworked format that has him talk less and listen more, which might salvage both the worthy parts of the curriculum and his reputation. His other options are to wait until former supporters in the legislature force him from office or he saves them the trouble and resigns.