March 12, 2014
By Senator Liz Kruger
One of the most contentious issues in Albany over the last few months has been the implementation of the Common Core Curriculum in all New York State public schools. Common Core is a label and a buzzword that’s been tossed around a lot without much conversation of what it means, so it’s important that we start with that.
The Common Core attempts to establish a single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics. The goal of these standards is to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter college or the workforce. There’s nothing wrong with this goal – in fact, it’s critically important – but I have serious concerns that the rushed and disorderly way the state has gone about implementing the Common Core is undermining its potential for success.
I have heard repeatedly from college administrators and faculty that many entering students are woefully unprepared for college-level work. At a recent budget hearing, SUNY officials reported that a third of New York’s high school graduates entering four-year colleges, and half of community college students, need remedial help. A 2012 study by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform found that in the South Bronx, only ten percent of students met college readiness standards after four years of high school.
While I am fortunate to have excellent schools in my district, it is clear that many other communities throughout the city and the state are not so well served. It is critical that the state establish standards that ensure all our children receive and education that will give them the opportunity to succeed in the future, and no one looking at our school system can say it is currently meeting that responsibility. As the Annenberg study put it we must “invest heavily in school improvement strategies to increase the capacities of all schools.”
There are a number of potential strategies for addressing this problem, including smaller class sizes, teacher training and professional development, and access to pre-Kindergarten and afterschool programs. Many of these strategies require additional investment by the state, and the failure of the state to provide the billions of dollars of additional funding required by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision undermines our schools’ ability to provide a sound basic education. But I also believe that the Common Core curriculum could be an important piece of the picture, by providing a standard for the knowledge that all students should gain through primary and secondary education.
Unfortunately, in implementing the Common Core, the state has put the cart before the horse. They have piled Common Core tests on top of other testing, exacerbating an already serious problem where evaluation takes precedence over learning. Even more problematic, testing on the Common Core curriculum was done at the same time as implementation of the new curriculum, and in many cases, teachers were not trained in the new standards. This meant students were being tested on material they had not yet learned, and not surprisingly, test scores plummeted.
If we are going to implement the Common Core, it needs to be done in a more orderly manner, to ensure that teachers are prepared and students are being tested on material they have actually had a fair chance to learn. In other words, the curriculum should phase in first, then the testing later. There are a number of proposals, including legislation carried by Assembly Education Chair Cathy Nolan that passed in the Assembly earlier this month (A. 8929), that would delay the assessment piece of implementation for students in lower grades and for teachers until the kinks have been worked out in the curriculum. Assemblymember Nolan’s legislation would also require schools to provide teacher training in the new curriculum to ensure they are adequately prepared to give students the best chance of success. Finally, the Nolan bill would also delay implementation of a system intended to facilitate the sharing of data on students until at least July 2015, and would give parents the ability to opt out of the data-sharing system.
(The data-sharing system, to be run by a company called inBloom, is something I’ve had deep concerns about for some time – it’s supposed to enable educators and administrators to see patterns and develop better teaching strategies, but the way it’s been put together there are major privacy concerns and a real possibility that the data would actually be used to help with development and marketing of for-profit products by third parties. I think hitting the pause button on this project is the right idea, and I think the Senate should both agree to this and also follow up by supporting a comprehensive approach to protecting student privacy, requiring robust security measures of all vendors, penalties for violations, and limiting the inter-agency collection of personal student data.)
The ultimate goal of these or any other changes to our educational policy should be improving instruction and delivering better outcomes for our kids. By rushing in the assessment piece of Common Core, I think the State Department of Education created a sense that this was a punitive measure. The goal is not to punish teachers, or to hold back students, but to help teachers to help students achieve their full potential. We need to take the time to get implementation right if we want to achieve that goal. We also need to remember that it’s not just about testing, standards, and accountability – we must provide adequate funding for all our schools, no matter where they are in the state.