EDITORIAL: Will state learn from its mistakes?

PITY THE STATE Education Department. It insisted that school districts file plans for evaluating teachers using the new, so-called high-stakes tests aligned with the Common Core learning standards. It’s state law and the deadline was a few weeks ago. And…?

Only one of the six school districts in Columbia County met the deadline. The state doesn’t have a working web page for another. The remaining four told the Education Department, Yo! Albany, we have a hardship here. What d’you say we talk about this teacher evaluation next March?

The “hardship” districts here joined more than half of all school districts statewide that requested and received official waivers of the deadline.

What’s happened in public education over the last two years is remarkable and scary. We haven’t seen anything like it in recent memory and nobody can say how or when the turmoil will end. One early flashpoint was a raucous public meeting in Poughkeepsie in October 2013, when John King, then the state commissioner of education, was shouted down by parents angry over the launch of curricula and new tests based on Common Core standards.

Commissioner King and his supporters defended his mishandling of the meeting and its aftermath by claiming the teachers’ unions ambushed him. They said the unions didn’t want teacher performance measured by lengthy tests given to kids starting in the 3rd grade. What the commissioner didn’t grasp was that parents didn’t like it either, nor did they like subjecting young students to hours of tests to produce results used as a labor management tool.

Parents, teachers and lawmakers also had nothing good to say about the multinational company that was creating the tests and school materials to accompany the new learning standards. It sure looked like more tests meant more profit for the company.

Politics entered the mix too, especially when Governor Andrew Cuomo won passage of a law making student performance on the new tests half of each teacher’s evaluation. Opponents said the governor was using test results as a tool to weaken the teachers’ unions and their influence on state legislation.

Then it all started to unravel. The first to go was Commissioner King, who suddenly found a better job elsewhere. Last spring, when kids in grades 3 through 8 took the new tests, about 20% of students statewide boycotted the exams because their parents refused to let them take the tests. The rate of students “opting out” of the tests in some Columbia County districts was 2-to-3 times higher than the statewide average–a remarkable act of mass civil disobedience. With so many kids opting out, the test results were useless.

The contract with the original testing company was not renewed; a somewhat smaller firm now has the contract. The head of the state Board of Regents is stepping down and the governor has, for the moment, dialed back his hostility toward the teachers’ unions in favor of a task force on improving standards and testing. Even President Obama acknowledged that testing went too far.
With the leadership of the state education establishment in crisis bordering on chaos, there’s plenty of blame to go around, including some for the federal government’s mishandling of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation. No wonder our school districts are pleading “hardship” when it comes to following government mandates. If the people in charge of education policy in Washington and Albany can’t agree on what’s next, what are the schools to do?

Turns out that local school districts here and in many other parts of the state do a good job of educating children and could do it better if they faced less intervention by the state. There must be standards and Regents tests. More state funding, too. But the current dysfunction offers a great opportunity to loosen the reins of government, allowing schools more latitude to develop new education strategies within their communities.

Or not. We could turn the whole education enterprise over to the federal government. Remember New York’s former Education Commissioner King? He’s now the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Correction
Last week’s editorial, “Introducing the new CEDC,” misidentified the role of Ghent resident Patti Matheney regarding the Columbia Economic Development Corporation. Opposition to the plan to build a new food warehouse on Route 66, a project that involved CEDC support, has been led by neighbors of the project. Ms. Matheney made the request that resulted in the state Authorities Budget Office investigating the CEDC.

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