NYSED-Sponsored Community Forums bring together passionate educators from across the spectrum to discuss the Common Core

Earlier this year, New York State Commissioner of Education John King scheduled a series of Community Forums across the state to discuss the Common Core. As a result of “disruptions caused by special interest groups” at the first meeting in Poughkeepsie, King announced that he would cancel these events – which were intended to be a forum both for community members to share their concerns, and for King and his team to shed light on the intended implementation of the Common Core.

However, it quickly became clear that there is a need for continued dialogue within and beyond the education sector in order to address community concerns, and so the forums were re-started. After visiting Rochester, Albany, Long Island, and Binghamton, King and his team made it to New York City last week. On December 10 there were 2 forums – one in Brooklyn and one in the Bronx, and on December 11, the Spruce School in lower Manhattan hosted a forum.

The forum began at 6 pm, but excitement for the event was already buzzing at 5 o’clock as there was already a line waiting outside and stretching around the corner. Community groups – including Time Out from Testing, Class Size Matters, and Movement of Rank and File Educators – were passing out flyers to those waiting in line including one with an article about “The sinister forces behind the Common Core;” and one headlined “Parents Beware!” about inBloom Inc, a data management system utilized by several districts in the state. From the conversations, it was clear that many of those in line had attended the forum the previous evening and felt that the comments had been unfairly and/or inaccurately skewed in favor of the Common Core. As such, it seemed that many had come ready to share a different viewpoint.

Once inside the auditorium, groups representing both ends of the spectrum passed out signs including ones reading: “Common Core has a hollow core,” “No low expectations,” More teaching, less testing,” “Our students can reach high expectations,” and “More than a score.” The signs certainly promised a lively discussion.

The event kicked off with a statement from Nancy Harris, the principal of the Spruce school. She noted that the Common Core brings both positives and challenges. The standards emphasize practice and behaviors, not just content; they enable effective vertical alignment; and they help students to compete internationally. However, there hasn’t been sufficient time to implement them, and thus the stakes are unfairly high. She called out publishers for rushing to align their products with the standards and said that we “need time to deepen content knowledge for students and teachers, and to rebuild trust.”

Commissioner John King then provided some background on the Common Core and explained the purpose of the evening’s forum. He said: “Less than half of our students graduate with skills to enroll in credit-bearing post-secondary programs… 80% of community college students need remediation. Our economy, nay our democracy, depends on [these numbers] changing.” The Common Core Standards aim to do that by raising the bar for everyone so that access to opportunity isn’t dependent on zip code, but a right for everyone.

The forum’s moderator then explained the format for the evening. 45 community members had already signed up to speak, and each of them would be given roughly 2 minutes to express their thoughts or pose questions to King, or the Board of Regents Chairman Meryl Tisch. After every 5th speaker, the panel would respond.

The first batch of speakers appropriately foreshadowed the rest of the evening – the speakers certainly represented a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and opinions. The Vice President of the United Federation of Teachers noted that, “parents deserve to know the bar,” but criticized the implementation of the standards, saying “[We have had] 3 years to plan, but the resources and professional development haven’t been there.” Next, a teacher and parent of a bright student with a disability told her son’s story – Since the new standards and tests have been implemented, his grades have dropped, and with them, his confidence and motivation. She closed noting that “education is not a competition, it’s a human right.” Next up, a teacher of English as a Second Language said that he feels the Common Core standards have changed him as a teacher for the better, and he implored the audience to take a solutions-oriented approach. Then the principal of a Brooklyn charter school affirmed his support for the standards and critiqued schools for being too politicized, saying that “we always talk about the periphery – those at the top [the wealthy] and those in poor communities. What about the vast middle ground?” The last speaker in the first group noted that it’s a shame the implementation of such a good set of standards has been so loaded, as it’s lowered morale.

King responded to comments about inconsistent implementation of the standards, reminding us that the Standards are not curricula, and that curriculum and professional development are local efforts, resulting in wide variance in effectiveness of implementation across the state. He also agreed that the State needs to find alternate ways to assess learning, particularly for students with disabilities, but waivers from federal requirements are needed to make that happen.

The next set of speakers included a former NYC public school graduate who realized her high school hadn’t adequately prepared her once she got to college. Several teachers highlighted how the Common Core have helped improve their practices in the classroom. Audience members called out to these speakers, saying things like “What were you doing before?”

Next up, a teacher from John Adams High School in Queens brought students from his Critical Thinking class to the microphone to share their argument essays on the Common Core. All of the 7 students spoke in favor of the new, higher, internationally-benchmarked standards. Throughout their speeches, audience members again called out, noting that the students had been brainwashed and making other derogatory remarks. At one point, Meryl Tisch spoke up, saying “These are our children. I want to hear them.” In response to the coterie of students sharing their pro-Common Core thoughts, Jane Hirschman from Time Out From Testing brought up several teachers to share her 2 minutes.

The debate raged on for 3 hours – with community members sharing stories from their classroom and their children about the implementation and impact of the Common Core. Although speakers were certainly passionate and audience members got a bit rowdy – laughing and calling out in response to speakers’ prepared words to the point that the moderator had to interrupt on several occasions to request respectful behavior – in the end it seemed that there was more common ground than disagreement. Most people agreed that our students deserve high expectations, and only a few people explicitly stated that they were inherently against the Common Core standards. Instead, people expressed resistance to high-stakes testing (and its negative influence on curricula), inconsistent implementation and professional development, and lack of resources. Some legitimate concerns were also raised around providing academic intervention services (AIS) to the much larger number of students who didn’t pass the tests this past year, as well as the loss of valid Career Technical Education programs that help provide multiple pathways to successful adult lives.

The evening certainly reminded us that the adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards is a process. And while New York State may be well ahead of other states within that process, there is still a ways to go before teachers, students, and families will be fully fluent and comfortable with the Standards. Nonetheless, we know that our students deserve to be held to high expectations and that they can reach that higher bar. As one of the teacher speakers said, we cannot turn back if we want to “ensure that the great innovators continue to come from the United States.” Again, our democracy depends on it.

To see footage from this or other forums, or to find out about upcoming ones in Queens or Staten Island, click here.