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Education reform must move in a different direction

I recently had the opportunity to provide an expert advisory to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force from my experience as an educator, school board trustee and parent co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education.

My presentation focused on alternative and more authentic ways of assessing the academic progress of students along with the quality of educators and schools. I suggested that student and educator portfolio assessment can produce a more accurate picture and provide more local input than the current system that is reduced to a numbers game.

The success of the New York Performance Standards Consortium High Schools shows how a portfolio and authentic learning environment can produce quality educational outcomes. This progressive performance model of education should be expanded across our state.

It was my hope that the Common Core Task Force would listen to the voices of students, parents and educators from across New York State. We have reached a precipice that requires serious change in direction in education policy in our state and nation. An unprecedented event took place last spring when over 220,000 students boycotted the grades three through eight state assessments. Small, cosmetic or superficial changes in our education system will not satisfy the families across the Empire State who have brought their concerns to local and state officials. It is time for change in our schools. We are not asking to reverse course, but head in a different direction that will provide a challenging, appropriate education for all children.

Upon reading the task force’s opening paragraphs, I was excited to see the concerns of families and educators outlined in the introduction. As I looked through the recommendations, my disappointment grew because the vague statements will do little to answer the public outrage over education policy in the Empire State.

The four-year moratorium on using Common Core assessment results for students or teacher evaluation that was subsequently adopted by the Board of Regents will do little to alleviate the concerns of families. New York students will still face flawed testing based on the controversial Common Core during the transition period. The moratorium on teacher evaluation by state assessments may create the need for more student testing because local districts could be forced to create additional local assessments exclusively for teacher evaluation.

Parents have made it clear: They want no connection to any student testing, state or local, used in the evaluation of teachers. Families have witnessed the impact of high-stakes testing: narrowed curriculum instead of a well-rounded education; test preparation replacing critical thinking, creativity and student-centered learning.

The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has opened the door to repealing New York’s teacher evaluation law because the federal government has dropped requirements that states use student test scores as part of educator evaluation. While teacher evaluation in some locations needed improvement, many districts in New York were forced to drop superior teacher evaluation systems that emphasized professional growth and observation. The 3012-c and d educator evaluation laws have placed a time-consuming and expensive mandate on cash-strapped local districts without yielding positive outcomes to improve teacher evaluation and performance. New York should look to models of teacher evaluation that provide growth, support and mentoring for educators and provide a path for professional methods of removal for the small percentage of educators who are not able to effectively guide our children.

Sadly no mention in the report was made about breaking the tie to standardized testing for schools under receivership. If the Common Core assessments are not considered reliable for student or educator evaluation, why would New York State continue to judge the success of individual schools on these tests?

Fourteen years of federal-led No Child Left Behind will move into a new era under ESSA, yet yearly testing will unfortunately continue. While some still cling to the idea that yearly assessment will help provide educational equity, we have to ask why achievement gaps have not closed significantly during the many years of the NCLB era. Sampling methods, similar to the National Assessment on Educational Progress, could be used to identify schools that are struggling. Research-based supports, instead of punishment and closures, could provide resources needed to assist schools in need of improvement.

The task force report acknowledges the problems associated with the Common Core and goes into much detail on the history of the new standards, but blames the difficulties on poor implementation instead of the flaws of the Common Core. The task force should have called for a move to the Regents Standards Review and Revision Initiative, which was in the process of creating new, challenging and appropriate standards for all students until education officials accepted the Race to the Top money grab and its Common Core mandate. These so-called “lost standards” were constructed by actual New York State educators, while the Common Core had minimal input from teachers currently working in the kindergarten to grade 12 fields.

The recently implemented New York State Social Studies Framework and its connected toolkit have had a successful start because they were crafted by teachers from the Empire State. The Social Studies Framework shows that flexible standards can be created to meet the needs of all of children.

It is now up to Cuomo, the State Legislature and Board of Regents to move education policy in a different direction. Will those in power in Albany listen to the parents and educators, or will a generation of students face an era of upheaval and uncertainty as education policies and laws with no successful foundation in research or study are imposed upon their schools?

Families and educators who oppose many of the recent education reforms are not seeking to return to old education policy or the status-quo in our public schools, but know there are superior ways to move our children and their schools forward. I am sure that Cuomo created the Common Core Task Force as reaction to the fact that the parent-led opt-out movement has become a significant political bloc that will impact future elections. This voting bloc will be watching closely when the next legislative session convenes to see who will be on the side of public school children and move education reform in a different direction.

Chris Cerrone, of Springville, is co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education.