Leaders' panel resolute on Common Core

by Eric D. Randall

On Board Online • November 3, 2014

By Eric D. Randall

"You don't fatten a cow by weighing it." That was the metaphor that Harvard professor Paul Reville used during the Education Leaders' Roundtable to counter the claim that adoption of Common Core State Standards has created a flawed, test-centric educational culture.

Educational changes have nothing to do with making students better test-takers, said Reville, who chaired the Massachusetts State Board of Education and also served as the top education advisor to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Education reform is about instructional changes that offer teachers new strategies to help each child achieve a specific set of individualized goals drawn from a national set of standards, he said. "What I worry about is that, in the cacophony of the debate, we lose sight of strategies to educate students at higher levels."

Also voicing strong support for the Common Core at the session were Commissioner of Education John B. King Jr., Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina.

Panelist Timothy G. Kremer, NYSSBA's executive director, said school boards are dedicated to high academic standards, but NYSSBA's position on school reform is evolving. He noted that delegates at the Annual Business Meeting voted down a resolution that would have had NYSSBA advocate for continued use of student test data in teacher evaluations. "That repositions our organization a little bit," he said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to push for a new round of teacher evaluation standards if re-elected.

In the past, NYSSBA has hosted forums at Convention in which King and Tisch responded to questions from board members. This year, the questions came from journalist Errol Louis - current host of Inside City Hall, a program about New York City politics that airs nightly on NY1 and a former columnist for the New York Daily News. He peppered the panel on a variety of topics including unaccompanied immigrant minors being settled in certain New York school districts, the significance of the advent of "Stop Common Core" ballot lines, and the opt-out movement.

“Whenever a parent says to me, ‘Should I opt my child out of a test?' I say, it depends on how you see the test," Tisch said. "We see the test as one of the tools that we use to create an environment in schools that not only provides accountability for the overall school district but tells us what's going on in that classroom for each kid. What do we have to do in terms of professional development to make sure the standards and benchmarks are going to be met? I have never seen tests as a punitive tool. I see them as a way to inform instruction and a way to inform best practice."

"There is a misconception that Common Core is curriculum," said Farina, a former teacher, principal and administrator who came out of retirement to work for Mayor Bill de Blasio. She noted that the Common Core is a set of standards regarding what skills and abilities students need to possess to be "college-and career- ready." She said the skills that Common Core covers - such as being able to cite evidence from a text to support an argument - are essential and worth emphasizing.

King also expressed confidence that New York is on the right path. He said he expects test scores to reflect the work being done in districts to ensure each student is been challenged appropriately.

Tisch said that, in 20-20 hindsight, she wishes the state had conducted more outreach to parents about how the state's education reform programs would affect schools and the rationale for various changes.

But some criticism of the Common Core is wholly without merit, Farina said. "We have to get away from the notion that if something is hard, it's wrong," she said.

That amused Tisch. "I love this lady!" she said. She said that, in her travels around the state, "I find schools, principals and parents are much more focused on getting the work done."

Regarding teacher evaluations, Tisch expressed surprise at the ferocity of the backlash to that change. She said the Regents thought it was reasonable to base 20 percent of teacher evaluations on state test scores and let districts determine what measure of student performance would apply to another 20 percent, with the remaining 60 percent left to district's discretion.

Kremer said that despite ample controversy over teacher evaluations, there have been widespread reports that more constructive conversations are taking place among teachers and administrators about what can be done to improve learning.

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