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Recommended school reforms mark shift in attitudes about learning standards

You can add education reform to the list of life’s certainties, like death and taxes.

But what the latest reform might mean for New York classrooms is still being settled.

There are many questions, a day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s task force on the Common Core recommended sweeping reforms, including changes to the tests and how they are used to evaluate teachers.

The 55-page task force report was released the same day President Obama signed legislation rolling back many of the mandates in the No Child Left Behind Act. The news of the state and national policy shifts on education has parents and educators feeling hopeful the changes they have been demanding will be made.

The federal legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act, returns to states many of the decisions on educating children that the No Child Left Behind Act had given the federal government, like teacher evaluations and student assessments.

The recommendations from Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force will not happen immediately. If they are approved, they may be years in the making and must be acted upon by the state Education Department first. But the recommendations reflect a sea change in attitudes about learning standards.

And the recommendations give added momentum to the state Education Department’s comprehensive review of the Common Core learning standards, which began in October.

If and when all recommendations are accepted, a review panel will meet and decide what standards are kept, and a time line will have to be put together for when changes go in place, said Anne Botticelli, chief academic officer for Buffalo Public Schools.

“It’s hard to answer some of those questions. The state will come back and give us a directive,” Botticelli said.

1. How will this affect what my child is learning in school?

That remains to be seen. Educators expect some changes in the standards that will be developed with input from teachers in the classroom. And local districts will design curriculum to the new standards. In many ways, it will be “back to the future,” the way education worked in New York before No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top became the standard.

“New York teachers will be developing New York standards for New York students,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers.

The recommendations won’t really change what a child learns, said Samuel L. Radford III, a task force member and president of the Buffalo District Parent Coordinating Council.

“The substance of what they’re learning won’t change. There still will be high standards and standardized testing,” he said.

One important change will be improved morale, said Trustee Bob Dana of the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District. KenTon proposed a boycott of testing and teacher evaluations earlier this year.

“Anything that affects what’s going on in education is going to affect the child. If these tests are no longer tied to teacher evaluations, morale is going to improve,” Dana said. “If morale improves then things will get better.”

2. When will changes start going into place?

Probably not overnight.

Nothing in the recommendations requires legislative changes in the classroom, which might not happen for another four years as standards are developed through an open process, communicated to the nearly 700 school districts, and teachers get professional development in the new curriculum.

“Sort of what they should have done from the beginning,” said Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff. “It took five years of a lot of angst among a lot of people to get to this point.”

“The implementation wasn’t botched overnight and this is not going to be fixed overnight,” Korn said. “It’s going to take some time.”

3. Will the standardized tests still be given this spring?

Yes. The federal legislation still requires annual assessments, but the type of assessment is up to the state. The big change recommended is the tests won’t be used for student, teacher or administrator evaluations.

But when and how the assessment will be uncoupled from teacher evaluations remains to be seen. State legislation created the connection, but some believe the Board of Regents can effect the change.

4. What happens to all the Common Core-aligned material, such as textbooks and worksheets?

Most of the materials will remain the same because the standards are still the same.

“The materials will still be useful,” Radford said. “There won’t be wholesale changes.”

“We have to wait a little bit to see what the new commissioner and State Ed give us in terms of guidance,” said West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford.

Until then, districts won’t know which of the materials they are currently using will be helpful, he said.

5. How will my child’s teacher be evaluated?

Teachers still will be evaluated, but it will be up to the New York State Education Department to determine how the evaluations will happen. But if the recommendations are accepted, the evaluations will not be tied to the annual state assessments.

“The only recommendations we made is that the evaluations don’t be tied to Common Core Learning Standards results,” Radford said.

“Teachers have always been evaluated,” said Korn, adding that New York always had a robust evaluation system. “Teachers are going to continue to be evaluated.”

6. What do the recommendations mean for younger kids?

The Task Force recommendations call for the modification of early grade standards so they are age-appropriate. To allow instructional flexibility, the report said NYSED should think about the possibility of “banding” standards in the early grades – such as combining pre-K and kindergarten standards as well as first- and second-grade standards – to allow instructional flexibility.

7. What do the recommendations mean for students with special needs and English language learners?

They won’t be expected to achieve above what they are capable of, or to be immediately proficient in English. The task force recommends that standards accommodate flexibility, allowing educators to meet the needs of unique student populations like students with special needs and English language learners.

“We have students with severe disabilities that function well below the kindergarten level,” said Lewiston-Porter special education teacher Ashli Dreher, who was New York’s teacher of the year in 2014. “It would be inappropriate to test them at a third-grade level and above. We have to make sure we consider our most vulnerable.”

The same has been true for English language learners. West Seneca’s Crawford said it is “ridiculous” to expect a child coming from Afghanistan or Iraq in October to be proficient enough to take a test in March or April.

“It was not realistic,” Crawford said. “Then the school would be dinged for poor performance. They had no control over when the children came and they were non-English speakers.”

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