HARD TO BELIEVE ANYBODY could screw up the beginning of a promising government program worse than the Obama administration botched the opening months of the Affordable Care Act. But wait! Never underestimate the can-do snafu spirit of the state Education Department.
This week the Board of Regents, the group that makes public education policy in the State of New York, agreed to back off its rush to adopt the Common Core Curriculum. The Regents’ report that led to the decision is full of worthwhile bullet points, stuff like the need for a fair distribution of money to train teachers and administrators to use the new curriculum. Then there’s my favorite, No. 11, “Reduce Unnecessary Tests.” How many years of schooling does it take to come up with that idea?
Let’s start at the beginning. Why is it so important that kids have Common Core Curriculum instead of the education they’re getting now? The simplest answer is that what schools do now doesn’t work for a lot of students.
In this small county we have six public school districts serving about 15,000 kids, roughly a quarter of the total county population. The combined budgets of those districts is $168 million not counting the additional millions in economic activity education generates. For all the money we pay in property and state income taxes, about 40% of local high school graduates are not ready to take college level courses. Some kids won’t attend college, regardless of how much more you earn with a degree… but two out of every five? That’s 6,000 county kids today who might not get the education they deserve and we pay for.
The transition to the Common Core Curriculum statewide has been under way for a few years with little fanfare. In previous times of change, curriculum arguments were over what was being taught, like evolution or sex education. Now the issue is how the curriculum is taught–the number of standardized tests and the belief held by students, parents and teachers that exams play too great a role in measuring students’ progress.
But it remained a minor story until the state tied new performance standards for teachers to the performance of their students. Making that connection helped the governor obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. It also set the stage for a confrontation with teachers, who were being held accountable for new material without the time or training to fully adapt to the new curriculum.
The tensions erupted last fall in Dutchess County, where state Commissioner of Education John King Jr. held the first of a series of statewide public meetings to discuss the Common Core program. Lambasted by angry parents, Commissioner King reacted with petulance and defensive hostility toward his critics. His performance, recorded on video, went viral, confirming for a skeptical public that the state had lost its way on the whole Common Core effort.
That’s when state lawmakers joined the fray, a development that usually makes matters worse. The lawmakers got wind that their constituents were upset, but instead of trying to manipulate the situation, they listened. There was one bill to reject Common Core altogether, but that’s the fallback position. The bright side was a set of proposals from legislature Republicans called the APPLE plan for slowing down implementation of Common Core and reducing the emphasis on high stakes testing. This week the Board of Regents adopted a plan that sounds quite similar in many respects.
The Regents got way ahead of the public and their political supporters in the belief that students shouldn’t have to wait for a better education. That’s inept because it undermines the very program they believe in. Teachers and parents want the same things but they need more time and resources to adjust, not to mention respect as partners in this adventure.
The Regents are dedicated to improving education for all the state’s kids, but their solutions are to problems they, themselves, allowed to fester. And they did it surprisingly late once you realize their solutions are based on common sense and public input.
The essential element of trust between the Regents and the public has been badly damaged. And at the center of this debacle is the inexperienced commissioner. Last fall, I suggested the commissioner could resign before he was forced out. Waiting is no longer an option. For the sake of public education in this state Commissioner King must go.