EDITORIAL: The governor goes too far

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO HAS WON another major legislative battle. The new state budget includes his plans to rely more heavily on new standardized tests to evaluate teachers. He ought to savor success while he can.

As this is written the state legislature’s budget bills were not available, leaving the public to guess exactly how new testing and evaluation rules will affect local school districts. But it does appear that the state Education Department and the Board of Regents will be given the job of determining how to implement assessments–also known as tests–to determine a grade for each public school teacher: highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective.There already is a standard for assessments but in its first year almost all the teachers were rated effective or highly effective. This sounds good except that only about a third of all students statewide who took new standardized tests were graded as proficient in math and English.

That’s a big disconnect and the governor is eager to resolve it. Could it be that the tests are flawed in some fundamental way? Nah. Taxpayers paid a lot of money to a multinational company to develop the tests and the company undoubtedly put the needs of kids first. Or maybe the state didn’t provide teachers with the time and materials needed to prepare students for these tests? But that would mean the state Education Department was “ineffective.” So it couldn’t be that.

Another possible conclusion is that the current groundswell of parent support for teachers means that parents are stupid–they don’t know a bad teacher or principal when they meet one. But the parents who met the last state commissioner of education knew an ineffective education boss when they saw one, so that excuse is full of holes. Then there’s the option of blaming students for stressing out over the added test burden. But there are political consequences when grownups pick on kids.

By this illogical process of elimination, the disparity between the public perception of teachers and the low test scores on new tests must be caused by… teachers! There is no one else to blame other than space aliens.

Yes, there are some bad teachers and schools in crisis. And who would deny that public education has to adapt to the times or that tests can be an effective measure student performance unless preparing for the test overwhelms time for learning to think. There should be common ground here for reforms. But Governor Cuomo demands one quick fix: blame the teachers and move on.

This amounts to a huge experiment with children as its subjects. Its design is questionable, its goals suspect. The mishandling by the Education Department of the Common Core Learning Standards curriculum and the testing regime attached to it have stirred up a cauldron of public mistrust statewide focused now on the governor. He can twist arms in the capitol. Out here, though, that approach will only make parents and school districts dig in their heels.

Ask the folks at last week’s forum at Ichabod Crane High School. They know the governor doesn’t get the public’s misgivings about his formula for change. The only recourse parents have is giving up or choosing the so-called “opt-out” option, refusing to allow their school age children to take these high stakes exams.

This is a radical and unfortunate course of action, though nothing at this point suggests that there would be repercussions affecting the academic records of students who opt out. How else other than peaceful resistance can the people penetrate the governor’s bubble with a message he’ll understand?

There is no single solution to what ails our schools, no one guilty group. We have to start over, and the question for all parties is: Where do we begin?

The natural ally of parents, teachers and students should be the Board of Regents, which functions independently of the governor and now has the job of creating his new assessment standards. The Regents could, if they chose, come back instead with a plan to restart the teacher and student assessment process by bringing the issues back to the public–the public is paying attention now–listening to the concerns of parents and teachers, and crafting changes that address those concerns.
Or not. But if either the governor or the Regents hopes the anger over student and teacher assessments is about to go away, they undermine their own ability to govern not to mention the future of public education in New York State.

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