Ny Lawmakers Grill Education Official Over Common Core

11.14.13 | Bob Price

State senators ripped the new testing standards for students and teachers in New York at a hearing Wednesday, calling on the state Education Department to slow down the implementation of the controversial program.

Lawmakers listened to a daylong roster of testimony from teachers, parents and administrators over the challenges with the new Common Core standards, which were put into place last school year.

The senators questioned deputy education commissioner Ken Slentz, echoing the complaints that Education Commissioner John King has recently received from the public at forums around the state.

"I am finding a lot of stress, a lot of uneasiness and I see it among the educators and among students, particularly those young students. We want them to get a good start," said Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, Otsego County.

Seward urged the state Education Department to "slow down and take a deep breath."

About 800 teachers were in Albany this week to receive training about the new standards.

Slentz defended the program amid growing talk that the Legislature might seek to curb the testing standards when they return to Albany in January, when the legislative session starts.

Slentz said the state is trying to ensure that students are college and career ready. The standards, he said, were developed to limit the struggles that students have when they graduate: in either finding a job or entering college.

"We feel an incredible urgency, and we feel a sense of trust that with that urgency that the adults will find balance in putting this work forward," Slentz testified. "We are not convinced that taking a breath will actually better the kids' lives as they head off to college and careers."

King has faced angry teachers and parents as he attends 16 forums over the next month across the state to listen to their concerns about Common Core. The forums come after he initially canceled a series of events last month when he was lambasted at a meeting in Poughkeepsie.

"No matter where you go, parents want the same thing: They want an opportunity for a quality education for their kids," said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan, R-Nassau County.

Slentz said that the state continues to consider potential changes to the program, calling it "historic" and in need of constant review.

Last month, King said he asked the U.S. Education Department, which oversees the Common Core mandates, for a waiver to let eighth-grade students take only a Regents exam in Algebra, rather than the Regents exam and a federally required math test.

The state is also planning to offer a Native Language Arts tests for English language learners and allow students with severe disabilities to be tested based on instructional level rather than age.

Flanagan knocked the need for a waiver, saying the state should protest the requirement that it needs federal approval to make changes.

"To me, it is idiotic that we even have to seek these waivers because the basic point should be: I don't think the regulation should be in existence to begin with," Flanagan said.

Education officials criticized the Common Core program, saying it leads to constant testing of students.

"I'm speaking on behalf of my students, who look at me in the morning and say, 'Are we going to do science today?' with a big smile on their face. And I say, 'I'm sorry, sweetie, we have to take another test. And then their smile drops,'" testified Kathleen Ferguson, New York's teacher of the year in 2012 from Schenectady.

Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, Schenectady County, said teachers weren't prepared for the exams because the state was late in providing curriculum modules to them. The state said they have improved the release of the curriculum materials.

"I think we haven't given the schools the time and resources to fully implement it well before we started testing kids on it," Tkaczyk said. "I think the resources are uneven – rural schools and schools in high-poverty areas don't have the ability to bring in resources from local property taxes the way other school districts may."

Judith Johnson, the interim superintendent in Mt. Vernon, Westchester County, said students in poverty have a hard time getting out of it without early intervention in schools.

"Imagine if the money we spent on entitlements and penal systems were spent instead on early childhood development and enrichment so that every child, regardless of birth conditions, could contribute to the state's tax coffers upon reaching adulthood," Johnson said.

A state Education Department training program this week brought hundreds of teachers to Albany this week to learn how to implement the Common Core curriculum.

Teachers at the training said they are hopeful that Common Core can succeed.

"We're working to adapt the modules in a way that makes sense for us. I think Common Core is very strong, and I think it's rooted in a way where teachers can understand what to do with it," Jodie Dovholuk, a teacher from Webster, Monroe County.

Allison Sitts, a math teacher in Ithaca, said the goal is to get the state and the schools working better together.

"There's a significant amount of criticism," Sitts said. "I think a lot of criticism comes from miscommunication, misunderstanding. I think it's really important to understand what we're talking about. A lot of the criticisms I'm hearing are conversations that aren't necessarily guided by fact and rather misunderstandings."