Tracy Diegelman isn’t one for bumper stickers or politics, but in the last few months, she’s found herself swept up in a hot campaign.
She’s emailed legislators and planted a sign on her lawn. She’s attended community meetings, and a few months ago, she slapped a bumper sticker on the back of her car.
But this isn’t about getting someone elected. It’s all in the name of her son’s education.
“This is just taking over my life,” said Diegelman, a Lancaster mother who became concerned about state standardized tests after her son developed a stress disorder last year. “I’ve never had a bumper sticker on my car ever in my life. I’ve never wanted one.”
She is one of thousands of parents troubled by a series of changes in public school education – from tougher new state tests to an overhaul of curriculum standards – who have become increasingly organized while seeking to make their voices heard.
Some parent groups have joined teachers unions in calling for the resignation of the state education commissioner. Other parents are working to exert pressure on state lawmakers who appoint top education officials.
And Wednesday evening, a group of Buffalo parents concerned about testing will charter two buses to take parents and teachers to a community forum in Jamestown, at which state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. is scheduled to speak.
But it’s not just parents and teachers pushing back against the state’s educational reform efforts. Tea party activists in the Southern Tier have urged the state to repeal new Common Core curriculum standards. State lawmakers are holding their own meetings to hear concerns. School boards have called on the state to scale back standardized testing, and superintendents have spoken out about the pace at which change has been thrown at schools.
“There’s no question that this is an issue that, certainly, over the last few months, has gotten a lot of attention,” said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg. “Legislators have been talking about it. The governor’s been talking about it. Certainly, the state Education Commissioner has been holding hearings and town meetings and has been in the news a lot about it.”
New York is one of 45 states implementing new Common Core curriculum standards, which change what students learn in each grade with the goal of better preparing students for college and careers.
Siena Research Institute for the first time last month asked New Yorkers to weigh in on the new learning standards and found that people were nearly evenly divided on whether they would better prepare students for college or careers. When it came to the number of state tests taken by public school students, more than half thought there are too many.
Concerns have been raised about the quality of education materials the state has developed to teach the new information and the pace at which classroom instruction is moving. But it’s not just the curriculum changes that have pushed parents to organize.
Many parents are even more concerned about the number of standardized tests, especially those tied to new teacher evaluations, and the privacy of student information in a new state data warehouse of student records.
Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, a Clarence Republican, hosted a community forum in Akron earlier this month to hear reactions to the state’s changes to public education. The meeting made clear, she said, that testing and privacy issues topped the list of concerns.
In the past, she said, one constituency might raise concerns about a particular educational issue. When teacher evaluations were enacted, for example, Corwin heard mainly from teachers. This time is different.
“This one seems to affect all the different groups,” Corwin said. “The administrators have a position on it. The teachers have a position on it. The parents and students have a position on it. So that part is unique, in that it cuts across all stakeholders.”
Missteps by officials
Meanwhile, public relations missteps by top education officials have inflamed the debate.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan angered parents earlier this month with a remark, reported by the website Politico, that he found it “fascinating” that those opposed to Common Core standards included “white suburban moms who – all of a sudden – their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
The remarks ignited a social media firestorm, and Duncan later wrote that he regretted the “clumsy phrasing” because it “distracted from an important conversation about how to better prepare all of America’s students for success.”
King, the state education commissioner, also fueled criticism when he cancelled a series of public forums on the Common Core that were sponsored by the New York State Parent Teacher Association, and blamed “special interest groups” for disrupting the first event. He has since embarked on a new listening tour across the state, including the scheduled stop in Jamestown this week.
Parents who have been advocating for scaling back the amount of testing in schools objected to the characterization of people at the meeting as “special interest groups.”
Parents are passionate because it involves students, said Heidi Indelicato, a Lancaster mother who has been active in organizing meetings to discuss the Common Core and other state initiatives. “These are children we’re talking about,” Indelicato said. “They aren’t going to get third grade, fourth grade and fifth grade back.”
Calling for resignation
Teachers unions, including some local units that have called for King’s resignation, have been pushing for a moratorium on using the results of state exams aligned with the Common Core for “high-stakes” decisions, including teacher evaluations.
Some parent groups, including Western New Yorkers for Public Education, have also called on King to resign.
But Carrie Remis, who founded a Rochester group called Parent Power Project, cautioned state lawmakers not to consider parents a monolithic group based on recent outcry at public forums on Common Core. She described involvement of members of teachers unions in local parent groups as “the elephant in the room” and said they were “strategically taking advantage of parents who feel sidelined, amplifying and even distorting our concerns.”
“It’s become clear to us that Common Core has become the new bogey man in education, blamed for everything from dismantled accelerated math programs to denied special education evaluations to no recess,” Remis told state senators during a recent hearing on the state’s education reform agenda in Buffalo.
Eric Mihelbergel, a City of Tonawanda resident, said parents like him have come to the issue after watching the way standardized tests in schools have changed classroom instruction.
A co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, Mihelbergel has helped organize parent actions and has designed lawn signs for parents to purchase at cost. The group, he said, has no formal relationship with New York State United Teachers.
Pushing for change
The parent group, which has sought meetings with top education officials, is now urging parents to contact specific members of the Assembly who influence how members of the Board of Regents are appointed.
Four regents are up for appointment early next year, and the parent group is calling for the appointment of people who support a moratorium on Common Core, “high-stakes” testing and the uploading of student information to a data cloud created by a nonprofit organization, inBloom.
“We’re definitely getting people to listen,” Mihelbergel said. “What we want to see now is action.”
Like other parents, Mihelbergel describes the issue of education as a deeply personal one. Diegelman, the Lancaster mother, said she has one primary reason for getting involved. “My kids are my priority,” said Diegelman. “I would quit my job and home-school them if this gets any worse.”