Fury at Common Core rollout

SCHROON LAKE – State Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch faced a barrage of criticism yesterday when they traveled to the Adirondacks to meet with parents and educators.

“It is challenging to raise standards,” King said. “Any change process is challenging. But I am very optimistic because of what I see in classrooms.”

King argued that a national effort to raise public education standards is bound to hit road bumps and snags. But behind all the shouting and public debates and angry hearings in Albany, he insisted that students and teachers are adapting.

“I see students being challenged to read challenging texts, students doing more writing, students doing problem solving in math, the kind of work that will prepare them for success when they leave high school.”

But there was a profound disconnect between King’s measured tone – he spoke about making tweaks and adjustments to Common Core – and the angry tone of many parents and educators at yesterday’s forum.

“I personally find Common Core to be an abomination to education,” said one Schroon Lake parent named Heather, who said she had a son enrolled in third grade.

This kind of fury and distrust was nearly universal as parent after parent from across the North Country lined up to blast King for the content of Common Core and its implementation.

“Education was not a function of the federal government but rather the duty of each state,” argued Jules Como, a parent from Long Lake. “The federal government has essentially bribed the states to implement Common Core with promises of money. Yet the funding that local schools have received from Race to the Top woefully is adequate for implementation of Common Core at the local level – another unfunded mandate from our local leaders in Albany.”

This idea, that Common Core has been rolled out poorly, with too much top-down design and without enough state funding, echoed again and again.

Sarah Fink is a middle and high school science teacher in Minerva and also a mom. She said she likes parts of Common Core’s standards but said the resources just aren’t there to make it work.

“We teachers cannot be continually asked to do more with less,” Fink said. “Minerva Central School received just over $8,000 in total, spread out over a four-year period, to fund everything new about Race to the Top. At the same time we lost over $800,000 in state funding due to the gap elimination adjustment. The state must decide to adopt a budget that fully funds the initiatives for which it advocates so strongly.”

Not everyone described Common Core this way. One educator from the St. Lawrence valley – who didn’t give her name – said districts in her area are making progress with the new standards. She endorsed the idea that standards have to get tougher if kids are going to compete.

“Like our local college, Clarkson University, when we see the master’s and the doctoral programs and the students walking through, most are not U.S. citizens. And we know our kids are just as smart and capable, and we want them there.”

This is an argument that state officials have pushed again and again – that the Common Core rollout may be painful and muddled, but it’s necessary to boost student achievement.

“Somewhere near 60 percent of (high school graduates in New York) need remedial coursework when they get to our two-year colleges and institutions,” Tisch said. “That is really a very big challenge for us as a state. Only 24 percent of our students coming out of our high schools graduate our two-year colleges after six years. The (old) standards weren’t serving our students well.”

But John Armstrong, the school board president in Schroon Lake, pushed back against the idea that critics oppose tougher standards.

“We’re all about raising the standards. We’re all about making kids college-ready. We have the same goals. But the process has been poorly done. And we’ve got a big distraction on our hands to deal with now because of the process.”

Armstrong compared the Common Core implementation nationwide to the bungled rollout of the Affordable Care Act

“And it appears now that the Common Core rollout and health care rollout have similar looks and feels,” he said, prompting laughter from the audience.

Going forward, state officials clearly hope that school boards, teachers and parents will be patient, giving Common Core a chance to settle in and become a new, more rigorous standard.