JAMESTOWN – Shea Munnikhuysen, 13, traveled 103 miles from Wilson to Jamestown on Wednesday to deliver a sharply worded message to State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.
“No matter how much you dress your agendas up, you are not helping the children of New York State,” Shea said. “You are just using them. We, the children, are confused, and this angers us.”
The Wilson eighth-grader was part of a busload of parents, teachers and others from Erie and Niagara counties who traveled to a public forum Wednesday at Jamestown High School to weigh in on the Common Core learning standards, state tests and other changes in the state’s public schools.
Hundreds of parents and educators, some with signs that read “Children are not test rats,” filled the high school auditorium. The forum – one of a series of events King is holding across the state – was dominated by speakers who detailed their concerns about the state’s attempts to reform education.
One parent described how her kindergartner stopped bringing home creative work. A teacher told King that new educational materials are “laced with errors.” A principal described the concerns he has heard from parents and students about testing.
“Common Core is a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning,” said Teresa Leatherbarrow, an Amherst resident who teaches on the West Side of Buffalo.
Many of the comments focused on the new learning standards, but educators and parents expressed a wide range of concerns that included everything from requests that the state provide printed copies of the standards for new teachers to frustration over a new student data system.
New York State is one of several dozen states that is implementing the Common Core standards, which seek to better prepare students for college and careers. Elementary and middle school students began taking tests aligned with the standards last year.
King assured the audience that he is listening to their concerns but said state education officials are “unwavering” in their commitment to implementing Common Core. Earlier in the evening, while speaking to reporters, King said he feared that the state’s approach has actually been too slow. He pointed to the number of students entering the state’s university system who need remedial course work.
“We may not always agree on every issue as a community, but I hope that we will have a constructive discourse,” King told the audience. “And I want you to know that we are listening.”
King also pushed back on concerns from speakers who said they feared that creativity and programs such as art and music have been squeezed out by test preparation and instructional “modules” produced by the state.
“I have to say the modules can be taught with great joy and energy,” King said. “That’s what we saw in Jamestown today. That’s what I’ve seen in over 40 schools that I’ve visited since the start of the school year.”
King also noted that the state’s instructional modules are not required to be used in classrooms and that “districts have to make choices about the curriculum materials that they use.”
The meeting was marked, at times, by audience members’ shouting at King and chastising him for sending his own children to private Montessori schools. But not every speaker opposed the state’s education reform efforts.
Justin Hanft, a member of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce, called the new standards an “opportunity” to prepare students for jobs.
“We have a call to the schools to get students work-ready,” Hanft said.
King assured audience members he plans to hold another forum later this month in the Buffalo Niagara region. Board of Regents Chancellor Emeritus Robert Bennett said a plan is in the works for a forum next week in WNED studios that would be moderated by two superintendents from area Boards of Cooperative Educational Services.
But Andrew Ludwig, a parent and principal who spoke at the event Wednesday, questioned whether state officials plan to make changes based on what they learn at the forums.
“You nod your heads, sometimes you smile, but I’m not sure you’re really listening,” he told King and Bennett.