Common Core should be defended — and adapted

Wednesday in the Adirondacks saw a whole lot of heated public debate about education, specifically New York’s adoption of the national Common Core standards. Here’s a quick rundown:

1. At that night’s meeting of the Saranac Lake school board, officials laughed at the more outrageous examples from the new, state-endorsed teaching modules – for instance, that first-graders should know about the factors that led to civilization in ancient Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

2. State Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch faced a barrage of criticism at a public forum in Schroon Lake, one of a series of meetings to explain and hear feedback on how the Common Core is working in New York.

3. An hour’s drive north, in Lake Placid, Gov. Andrew Cuomo hung Commissioner King out to dry when asked about some people’s frustration with the Common Core rollout. While Mr. King faces the firing squad, the governor has ducked into watch-and-wait mode. He said the most he could possibly do would be to propose some kind of bill in the Legislature, “but otherwise I’m not in charge of this particular matter.

“The governor is not in charge of the state Education Department,” he said.

It’s true that Gov. Cuomo doesn’t appoint the education commissioner – the Board of Regents does – but he’s suddenly hiding behind that. Until now, he’s supported these reforms whole-hog. They were part of his 2010 campaign platform, and in May 2011 the Board of Regents changed teacher evaluation rules based on his recommendation. It’s not just the Education Department people are angry about; it’s the changes he played a big role in implementing.

That’s why his recent backtracking is cold and cowardly. It’s almost like if President Barack Obama, on the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, had said, “Not my problem. Ask the secretary of Health and Human Services.”

More on that in a minute. First, here’s where we stand.

We still believe, as we’ve said before, that the Common Core does much good and that officials like Gov. Cuomo should stand by it like they have in the past. They should be clear and call it what it is – raising the bar, getting tougher and more consistent so American students are ready for college and competitive for all kinds of top-notch jobs.

When critics talk about the importance of emotional learning and letting teachers be creative, when they say the tests stress kids out, to a certain degree they’re arguing for comfort over challenge.

When concerned parents opt their children out of the state tests to make a statement, it does more harm than good. First, we think adults shouldn’t make their kids do their civil disobedience for them, and second, the message it sends to the other students is that when something is hard, some kids’ parents get them out of it.

When they say the Common Core is all multiple choice and that they focus on rote memorization over teaching kids how to think, they’re simply incorrect. We see our own kids do this stuff in school, and in general we see more thought-provoking challenges, with more multi-function problem solving than was there before.

But critics are absolutely right when they say the following:

-These education reforms have led to too many hours of testing.

-State-sponsored modules contain scattered items way above grade level (e.g., first-graders and Mesopotamia).

-Tying student test scores to teacher pay is silly.

-New York – egged on by the Obama administration – rushed the rollout of all this. Most school districts didn’t have enough time and staff to develop their own curricula around the Common Core, so they were pressured to buy the package deal the state had bought from the Pearson textbook company. Most of the teaching modules didn’t even show up by the time of the first Common Core-based exams last April, and that mess bred much frustration, which is playing out now.

It’s best to have high national standards and local flexibility on curricula.

The federal Race to the Top is what motivated our state to implement the new standards in one year rather than, say, three. The administration dangled bundles of money as carrots in a competition to see which state would implement the most of its education reform proposals the fastest. These weren’t just Common Core; they also had to do with Annual Professional Performance Review – teacher evaluations that tie wages to student test scores – and lifting caps on charter schools.

New York, eager for cash and to jump on the president’s bandwagon, signed right up when he and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Race to the Top in 2009. Mr. Cuomo was not yet governor, but he can’t wash his hands of it because he cheered it on. When Race to the Top awarded the state $700 million, he said in a press release that New York needs to take this baton and run even farther: “It is the first step, not the last, if New York is going to win the real ‘race to the top’ and become a leader in education reform.”

That urge to “win the race” was echoed in the very last policy statement of his campaign platform, “The New NY Agenda.”

“Finally, in order to win the race to the top in education means being committed to the four education reform principles that underlay the federal Race to the Top process: (1) a commitment to rigorous standards and assessments; (2) recruiting, preparing and supporting great teachers and school principals; (3) building instructional data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their teaching practices; and (4) turning around struggling schools.”

(That sentence, by the way, opened with a grammatical flub; he should have said, “Finally, winning the race …” We know this is “gotcha” kind of stuff, but when you write about educational excellence, you ought to get your grammar right.)

So where’s that commitment now? It seems like, as state education officials trudge up a long uphill stretch of this race, the governor has sidestepped away from his team and into the audience.

OK, now that we’ve ripped on the governor and the most vocal Common Core critics, what should we all do about it?

First, we say, don’t be afraid to stand by the core values of the Common Core standards.

Second, officials behind this implementation need to honestly account for what works and what doesn’t, and make changes accordingly.

Third, school districts should do what Saranac Lake’s is doing: Teachers and administrators there are working together to pick apart the state-sponsored package deal and make it their own. Among the things they’re getting of rid of is much of the non-mandatory testing.

Some districts will hit obstacles in doing this – short-staffing, for instance, or lack of cooperation between teachers, administrators and board members – but we predict that in five years or less, most of this transition’s wrinkles will be ironed out. Disconnecting teacher pay from test scores may take longer, but soon, we’ll be past this rough transition and into higher-quality, more consistent education.

It is, as the governor said Wednesday, “a dramatic shift.” One reason for public distrust of Common Core is that, at the same time, Americans are making an even rougher transition into another Obama priority – the Affordable Care Act. That’s a tougher one to swallow, and its problems are more likely to linger. When a president rolls out a signature overhaul of Americans’ lives, it had better work, and that one hasn’t so far.

Common Core, however, will work if people work together to make it work – and if they accept that raising the bar is a good thing.