If you’ve followed the conversation about New York’s education reform agenda in the past year (namely the botched implementation of the Common Core standards and the teacher evaluation system), you’ve likely tired of the Johnny one-note defense coming out of the commissioner’s office. Every time John King is faced with tough question about SED policies, he and his minions respond with the same script.
King wrote a letter to school district superintendents in December of last year after his disastrous performance at public forums across the state (Reflections on the Core), again contacted them in March in anticipation of the state ELA and math exams (Round Two of Common Core Testing), and, earlier this month, penned a letter to the Times Union (Albany) defending both the standards and their failed implementation.
Time and again, the bureaucrats in Albany turn to the same well crafted talking points memo in both internal and external communications. It was no surprise to learn last fall that King and his department had enlisted the services of a well known Albany lobbyist to help them craft that message. A Cliff’s Notes version of that memo might read:
- Our kids are falling behind our international competitors. (Actually there is good reason to call his data into question, namely whether other countries assess the same groups of kids as the US and whether those scores even matter).
- Kids enter college unprepared and have to take too many remedial classes. (This point is based on data from CUNY and SUNY. The data for most 4-year institutions does not suggest the same crisis in college readiness).
- Change is hard. (No one deals with more change in their jobs than teachers who see an entire new crop of kids and parents every year).
- The state tests aren’t the problem, we’ve actually shortened them. (This point completely ignores the impact that the teacher evaluation system is having on kids. “Welcome to Phys Ed, grab a pencil,” is a phrase that no student should hear. Teachers and parents understand how testing expectations have exploded in the last two years. This has to change).
- We all agreed to this. (Not really, rank and file teachers were involved in neither the move toward the Common Core nor the teacher evaluation plan to the same extent they had previously been engaged. To date, there are still serious concerns about whether educators in the field are being included in discussions at SED).
- We must aim for higher standards. (No one is fighting for lower standards. Teachers and parents want a common sense approach to education reform in New York that doesn’t ignore the reality that kids are facing, namely an onslaught of testing and the loss of teachers and resources year after year. In fact, this week it was revealed that in 2010 New York abruptly abandoned a new set of higher standards that it was ready to implement in favor of the Common Core. Instead of investing in New York’s future, SED chose to jump at the pot of money at the end of the Race to the Top rainbow. Now we’re paying the price).
- Politics and rhetoric are causing unnecessary drama. (The drama is in the classrooms across New York, and it’s being caused by the failures at SED. What’s more dramatic than kids getting sick over testing? What’s more dramatic than great teachers being driven to the brink, choosing retirement over a few more good years dedicated to public service? What’s more dramatic than parents becoming so fed up with testing and SED’s failures that they opt their kids out of the state tests? King should focus more on the drama that kids and parents are facing and less on the discomforts he’s facing in the public arena).
There are still a number of questions that have gone unanswered:
- Why can’t teachers see the tests? (Check out the StandwithSpencerport.org petition calling for the release of the state exams so teachers can use them to actually inform instruction, not just test and punish schools and teachers).
- Why can’t teachers score their own performance assessments? (SED has created a multimillion dollar division of test security and integrity to address a problem that statistically doesn’t exist. Schools have been forced to turn to paper and pencil tests in performance disciplines like the arts and phys ed or spend thousands of dollars on testing SWAT teams [yes, they really call them SWAT teams] to administer performance assessments. Eliminating the restriction on scoring performance assessments would go a long way to right the wrongs that have been created by the teacher evaluation testing requirements by allowing authentic assessments in our classrooms).
The good news is that John King and his team are, at the very least, acknowledging their critics (of course the politicians finally took notice, which helped a bit). The bad news is that they have doubled (and tripled) down on the same rhetoric handed to them by their PR consultants. Every time we hear these tired talking points, we should be reminded that King is more focused on public relations than our kids.
John King and his colleagues at SED should be reminded that New Yorkers are tired of the talking points. Don’t be surprised if parents and teachers tune you out and stop listening when you turn to the script. If you really want to reach out to New York’s teachers and families, stop telling them what you think and start asking them what their concerns are. You’d be surprised at how a little listening can make a big difference in the confidence people hold in you.