Regents balance praise and criticism in Core forums debrief

December 16, 2013

 
 
 
Six weeks into Commissioner John King’s high-profile and often contentious meetings across the state focusing on the rollout of Common Core learning standards, state education officials praised—and raised new concerns about—those forums this morning.
 
At the Board of Regents’ monthly meeting in Albany on Monday, some applauded King for taking time to conduct the forums, which they suggested were often less than civil. “I cannot believe that the commissioner spent so much time away from this office trying to dispel misinformation and trying to explain what we’ve been doing,” said Anthony Bottar, a Regent who represents parts of Central New York.
 
But statewide, educators, parents and politicians remain divided over pushing forward with the reforms, and those tensions were evident in the room on Monday.
 
Political pressure to slow down the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards has been growing throughout the fall, sparked largely by the August release of test scores showing huge drops in proficiency on the English (24 points) and math (33 points) elementary and middle school state tests. In New York City, the drops were less severe, with 26 percent of students passing the English tests and just under 30 percent passing math, down from 47 percent and 60 percent, respectively.
 
That pressure was on display again last week, when state Senator John Flanagan released a report calling for reductions in early grade testing and raising doubts about the credibility of standardized state tests.
 
On Monday, some Regents directly criticized the public forums. Rochester’s Andrew Brown said that the meetings he attended didn’t include many minorities, which he called “concerning.” Bronx Regent Betty Rosa, whose forum last week was sparsely attended—likely because King did not attend—has been among the most critical board members, saying recently that the state’s policies were being driven by testing that produced “false information.”
 
To King, Rosa said, “I was really concerned it was our first meeting in the Bronx and you weren’t there, and I would be remiss if I didn’t express my concerns.”
 
King acknowledged the concerns shared by parents and teachers at the forums. But he said that those were “sometimes based on conflation of the Common Core with lots of other things,” such as testing requirements being imposed as part of new teacher evaluation systems. Other concerns weren’t related to state decisions, but to tests that had been negotiated locally between districts and local unions, he said. (Some have already begun to eliminate those tests after finding them burdensome.)
 
Untangling those tricky policy distinctions to allay criticism of the Common Core standards was the goal of the community forums when they were planned back in October. A contentious initial forum in Poughkeepsie, and King’s response of canceling future events, then became a national story, forcing officials to organize a new set of meetings that were more on the state’s terms.
 
King said that the push back he heard at the public meetings were often in “stark contrast” to what he witnessed in nearby schools, which he said were embracing the standards. “[In] schools, people are, I think, very thoughtfully implementing the work on the Common Core,” King said.
 
After Monday’s meeting, state teachers union Vice President Maria Neira said she appreciated King taking the initiative to listen to local communities, but was “extremely disappointed by his lack of responsiveness.”
 
“I was very disappointed to hear how they characterized their listening tour,” Neira said of the Regents conversation.
 
The discussion also got a bit testy, in comparison to the dry collegiality of a typical Regents meeting. When Westchester’s Harry Phillips repeated his call for the state to acknowledge that it didn’t understand what effect the new cut scores would have on the state’s tests, Binghamton’s James Tallon rebuffed him. He pointed to a summer meeting where officials presented to the board the results from their cut-setting process, which has been scrutinized by some who participated.
 
“I understand that my dear colleague believes that the board did not fully understand the implication of the test cut scores,” Tallon said. “I just want to indicate that, as one board member, I sat in a meeting in this room with a presentation that was a lengthy presentation on the cut scores.”