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Questions About Common Core -- NYS Education Officials Do Not Want to Hear About It

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In December 2013, the New York Regents, the policy making body for education in the state, formed a sub-committee to evaluate implementation of the national Common Core Standards. Merryl Tisch the chair of the Board of Regents and John King, the state's educational commissioner, are both strong advocates for the rapid introduction of the Common Core accompanied by high-stakes testing of students and the evaluation of teachers based on student test scores. However, in a series of public forums across the state, Commissioner King was sharply criticized by both parents and teachers. Some Regents, including Roger Tilles who represents Long Island and Geraldine Chapey of Belle Harbor in Queens, have also been very critical of implementation of Common Core.

New York State United Teachers, the umbrella organization representing unionized teachers in New York State responded to the campaign to rapidly introduce Common Core and new high-stakes tests by calling for the immediate removal of the Commissioner of Education John King by the Board of Regents and postponement of Common Core graduation requirements. This move is supported by the Randi Weingarten, president of the national union, the American Federation of Teachers. In addition, a coalition of 45 educational organizations called the NYS Allies for Public Education has launched a campaign to have four new members elected to the state educational governing body, all of whom have expressed reservations about the rapid implementation of Common Core in the state. Members of the Board of Regents are elected by the New York State Legislature.

In May 2011, in an essay published in New York Newsday and on the Washington Post website, Regent Tilles raised concerns about Common Core that have been largely ignored by its proponents for the last three years. Tilles argued "Student learning is complex" and "impacted by many factors which include, but are not limited to, prior learning, family background, level of poverty, classroom and school culture, access to private tutors, learning disabilities, access to adequate resources, and even school district governance," none of which are taken into account by the Common Core standards, the testing program, or teacher evaluations. He objected to "using the student results of New York's standardized tests to evaluate teachers" because it contributed to "the corrupting influence of high stakes on the education programs." He was especially concerned that the focus of Common Core and the high-stakes assessments on reading and math skills was "snuffing out the creative thinking" and worried "that all of the above is an attempt to promote charter schools and dismantle the public school system."

There are legitimate questions about how serious Tisch and King are about rethinking Common Core. At the same time as Tisch announced formation of the Regents sub-committee, Tisch and King, in an opinion article published in the Albany Times-Union declared "We want to hear from teachers, parents, and students about what's working and what could work better. But we also know that moving forward with Common Core is essential."

As far as I can see, there is little real discussion going on about the Common Core standards. Politicians and corporations who are selling the standards to the public and forcing it on teachers and schools ignore both supportive suggestions and opposition. The story I report here says that the champions of Common Core, no matter what they say, do not want to hear any other ideas.

In New York State, Common Core is promoted by EngageNY, a website "created and maintained by the New York State Education Department," and a secretive non-governmental group called the Regents Research Fund. As the EngageNY website makes clear, its primary purpose is promoting Common Core.

"The New York State Education Department (NYSED) is engaging teachers, administrators, and education experts across the State and nation in the creation of curriculum resources, instructional materials, professional development materials, samples of test questions, test specifications, and other test-related materials that will help with the transition to the New York State P-12 Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS)."

The actions of the Regents Research Fund are a little harder to pin down. The Albany Times Union calls it a "shadow government" within the New York State Education Department. It is supported by $19 million in donations from wealthy individuals and foundations.

On the EngageNY website and for the Regents Research Fund the chief salesperson for Common Core is Kate Gerson, a very attractive woman who appears to have minimal teaching experience. Although she is not an actual employ of the State Education Department, Gerson represents them at Common Core meetings across the state and is the featured Common Core cheerleader on EngageNY online videos. The Times Herald-Record, based in Middletown, New York, described Gerson's performance at a staff development workshop for teachers in the Monticello school district this way.

"With a microphone dangling under her chin, Kate Gerson paced the front of the high school auditorium in sweater dress and heeled boots, prodding teachers to rethink the Gettysburg Address. She used the word "text" over and over again."

Gerson's advice to teachers was "Try it out; get smarter at it. This is hard work. Pick a text and dive in, and build a unit around a text that you are devoted to, that you have to teach anyway, and teach it differently."

You can view Gerson's traveling show at the EngageNY website. In a fifteen minute video titled "Quick Explanation of the Shifts by Kate Gerson," she basically tells the audience that they are already doing Common Core in small bursts, but they now have to do it more systematically and have students think more deeply about what they read.

I did not have many disagreements with the goals Gerson presented in her show, but I was very surprised by two things. It was very unclear how deeper literacy was going to be achieved in classrooms where students have serious academic difficulty. Mostly she just repeated educational clichés - we were going to have a shift in focus, text-based instruction, rigorous standards, and students would think deeply and marshal evidence. Teaching these academic skills to real students in actual classrooms was almost a hopeful wish on her part.

I was also struck by Gerson's lack of knowledge about the English Language Arts curriculum in New York State. According to Gerson, as part of the new rigor and higher standards, students would read To Kill a Mocking Bird in eighth grade rather than in ninth grade. But students always read To Kill a Mocking Bird in eight grade because that is when they learned about the Civil Rights movement in social studies. Students were also going to read Achebe's book Things for Apart in 10th grade rather than in12th grade, but students always read Things Fall Apart in 10th grade because that is when they study the impact of European imperialism on traditional societies in Global History.

Gerson is promoted as a former New York City teacher and school principal who brings legitimate educational credentials and experience to the discussion of Common Core. According to her LinkedIn site, Gerson has a B.A. in Women's Studies from the University of Arizona and a M.A in Language Education from Indiana University. She began her career as a teacher in Indiana, but only worked in New York City for two years at a transfer school for over-aged-under-credited students before leaving for an organization called New Leaders for Schools where she worked from 2007 to 2010. Gerson is also associated with Frederick Hess, Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, which pushes free market pro-business solutions to educational and social issues.

Gerson will be the keynote speaker at an Uncommon Core at a conference in Binghamton, New York on March 14, 2014. I was also invited by conference organizers to speak there because of my Huffington Posts on Common Core where I am critical of Common Core, but also offer practical suggestions and lesson ideas on how it can be useful in the classroom. For example, I recently posted a blog on Huffington Post with quotations from two speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. where he offers a more radical critique of American society.

My position on Common Core is that it is useful to teachers and schools as a guideline but not as a mandated set of skills that must be achieved in a specific time frame by every student. I am also disturbed that the almost universal focus on skills acquisition will interfere with the teaching of subject content. As Regent Tilles argued, to be most effective, Common Core Standards must be separated from high-stakes testing for students and the evaluation of teachers. State Education needs to provide teachers with sample material that defines what they mean by "college and career ready," but scripted lessons that inhibit teacher creativity and eliminate flexibility are not useful. Among the things I like about Common Core is that it encourages the Horizontal (across subject) and Vertical (across grade level) Integration of instruction and it supports systematic planning and conscious decision-making by teachers. However, to the extent that it is tied into the privatization of curriculum, staff development, student assessment, and teacher preparation it is undermining public education.

The problem with the invitation to speak at the Binghamton conference with Gerson is that the conference organizers were not be able to pay an honorarium despite the fact that I would have a ten-hour round trip drive from New York City and have to spend the night. This basically meant I am unable to participate.

I emailed Merryl Tisch, Chair of the New York State Board of Regents, Education Commissioner Jon King, Ken Wagner, Deputy Commissioner for Curriculum, Assessment, and Educational Technology at the New York State Education Department, and Kate Gerson and Joshua Skolnick of the Regents Research Fund in an effort to secure financial support to participate in the conference. I did not get a response from Tisch, King, or Skolnick. Gerson emailed back that she had forwarded my request to Skolnick and Wagner.

I received a curt response from Wagner, Deputy Commissioner for Curriculum, Assessment, and Educational Technology at the New York State Education Department. According to his LinkedIn page, Mr. Wagner has a very interesting resume. He has worked at the State Education Department in different capacities since 2009. Before that he was a district administrator in Suffolk County for three years, an assistant principal and a principal for five years, and a school psychologist for four years. However, Mr. Wagner rose to become Deputy Commissioner for Curriculum, Assessment, and Educational Technology and a person in charge of implementing Common Core standards in New York State without ever having been a classroom teacher.

Mr. Wagner emailed me: "There is no funding available. Perhaps you should cancel."

I later emailed Mr. Wagner the Common Core based lesson on the speeches of Martin Luther Kin, Jr. that I had developed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorations in local secondary schools.

This time he responded:

Hi Alan,
Please remove me from your list.
Thanks a bunch,
Ken

I emailed him back:

I thought you were a state official and this was a public email address?
Any update on the honorarium so that I can present on Common Core at the Binghamton Uncommon Core Conference?

Mr. Wagner responded, denying funding for the conference again, and this time accusing me of sending spam in violation of federal law.

From: Ken Wagner
Sent: Saturday, January 11, 2014 8:28 PM
To: Alan J. Singer
Subject: Re: The Other Martin Luther King - Alan's Latest Huffington Post
No worries, thanks.
It is generally best practice for authors to provide their readers with options and choice. Self-publishing has changed all that, I suppose.
You should be aware, however, that sending unsolicited email without the ability to decline meets the federal definition of Spam.
As I said, funding is not an option.
Ken

At least in my experience, education officials in New York State are not interested in what anyone else has to say about Common Core.

Post-It Note: I checked the federal definition of spam. According to the CAN-SPAM act of 2003 spam is "any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service." I fail to see how a lesson on Martin Luther King, Jr. aligned with Common Core that I am making freely available to teachers and available to state curriculum officials constitutes spam under this law, but I guess Mr. Wagner as an expert on Common Core is able to understand the statutes deeper meaning.