EDITORIAL: What we don’t know

HARD TO HEAR anything newsworthy above the roar of distant hurricanes and the toll of their destruction. But there was news this week in New York State of a much more hopeful kind having to do with the future of public education.

The state Board of Regents and the Education Department made two announcements. The first is their new name for statewide learning standards for pre-kindergarten through 12th grades. No longer must students, teachers and parents stand and salute the Common Core Learning Standards. BOOooo…. Instead, we have–repeat after me: Next Generation Learning Standards. Huh?

Also on September 11 the Education Department released its plan for complying with an Obama era law called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The new state plan describes how the state will measure and, in theory, improve school performance for all students.

Ready to switch back to news of recovery from the storms? Wait. Both changes are signs of progress.

Next Generation Learning Standards are more than a new name for Common Core. The so-called high stakes tests tied to Common Core were so poorly handled that the parents of more than half the students who should have taken the tests at the Ichabod Crane Central School District “opted out” instead. Fewer families refused the tests in other districts, but statewide these acts of civil disobedience by parents were powerful enough to oust the state commissioner of education and trigger new standards.

The state needs educational standards, and tests are one way to let parents and schools know how their students compare statewide. Is it still too much testing? Possibly. But unlike the Common Core debacle, the New Generation Learning Standards allowed parents, teachers and the public to help shape the standards. Evidence of this input can be seen in the three-year period of training and revision scheduled before the new tests begin in 2020.

The New Generation Learning Standards also show some flexibility when it comes to measuring students with disabilities and those who are just beginning to learn English. And there is a plan to work with the BOCES system–called Questar III here–to train teachers and develop the curriculum. It looks like change and it talks like improvement. Maybe it’ll work.

At the same time the state is upgrading how it measures student performance, it also released a plan for evaluating the quality of public schools. This is a requirement of the ESSA. English and math test scores will be part of the evaluation, so will graduation rates and absences. Schools that don’t measure up will get help but could face closure if they don’t improve.

Some of the ideas in the 75-page ESSA draft plan completed in July sound surprisingly level-headed, like the one that calls for allowing public schools to develop their own plan for improvement rather demand a “one-size fits-all” approach. Can you believe a New York state agency said that? Well, actually that was something the planners heard from the public. Don’t hold your breath.

And the state has not yet highlighted how the ESSA plan will affect teacher evaluations. That’s troubling.

Later this month the state’s ESSA compliance plan will be sent to the United States Department of Education, which will review it, determining whether to accept it or require modifications. So far the federal government has approved plans from other states with few challenges. So it seems likely that New York’s plan will get Washington’s authorization to proceed, and whatever happens with the plan after that happens can’t be blamed on the feds.

The parents of Ichabod Crane and other school districts who refused to let their kids to take the high stakes Common Core tests won a partial political victory by their resistance. The state had to compromise and, in the process, has come up with ideas that may improve public education. If they don’t improve then refusal remains an option.

What’s not clear is whether that same political strength shown by refuse-nik parents can be refocused on the larger task of preserving the public education system that sustains our democracy.

The attack on science, distorted language that places equal value on peaceful speech and the violence of hate groups, the avoidance of the uncomfortable facts of history and even attempts to demonize the press all are academic subjects. And all can best be addressed in classrooms where every student has the same opportunities. The actions of opt-out parents demonstrate that we can achieve real change in education but it doesn’t prove we will.

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