Education chief cancels forums, charging ‘special interest’ crowd-manipulation

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ALBANY—An emotional, boisterous and sometimes vulgar crowd at a forum on public school curriculum in Poughkeepsie last week has prompted the state education department to cancel four remaining meetings planned for the rest of the state.

After a presentation from state education commissioner John King on the Common Core, a controversial, difficult curriculum that has been adopted by most states, local parents asked questions and made statements about their children’s experiences. The event became heated, at times with parents screaming over King while he attempted to address their criticisms.

King said in a statement Monday that the meeting, organized by the state Parent Teacher Association, was “co-opted by special interests,” which a spokesman further described as groups that are fighting the implementation of the Common Core and the state’s teacher evaluation system. Education department officials would not name the groups, and they also refused to share emails King referred to in which he claimed the groups stated their intention to “dominate” the dialogue.

"In light of the clear intention of these special interest groups to continue to manipulate the forum, the PTA-sponsored events scheduled have been suspended,” King said in the statement. “My office will continue to work with PTA to find the appropriate opportunities to engage in a real, productive dialogue with parents about our students and their education.

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“Parents don't deserve to be dominated and manipulated,” he continued.

The state teachers’ union and advocacy groups criticized King for canceling the meetings, one group even calling for the commissioner to resign. The critics argued that parents should be allowed to express their anger about what they see as a hasty rollout of the tougher curriculum standards and related exams.

Elementary and middle-school students in April took the first state assessments based on the harder standards, and only 31 percent scored proficient or higher in math and reading statewide. Parents rallied before the after the exams, some keeping their children home on test days or instructing them to refuse the tests.

King has argued that the shift to the Common Core, which promotes critical thinking and problem solving, is necessary to improve New York students’ college and career readiness.

New York State United Teachers, a powerful statewide union, denounced the tests last April, claiming that teachers and students did not have enough time or resources to prepare.

NYSUT is calling for a three-year moratorium on using the tests for “high-stakes” decisions. The exam scores are a component of a new evaluation system that could lead to disciplinary action against a teacher, including termination.

“It’s very disappointing,” Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman, said Monday about King’s decision to cancel the meetings. “The commissioner should hear the frustrations of parents and educators about the overemphasis on standardized testing and the rocky implementation of the Common Core."

“The frustration level is very high, and if there is a not a course-correction, the entire system may implode,” he added.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a New York City-based group that advocates for smaller class sizes and other educational issues, said it was “dismissive and condescending” for King to suggest parents could be manipulated by outside forces.

“I think that John King has unfairly assumed or claimed that parents are simply the puppets of special interests, and I don’t know who he means by that,” she said. "But parents very much have real concerns around the Common Core and around testing and student privacy that come directly from their experience and caring for their children.”

The state P.T.A. said in a statement Tuesday that the group intended to facilitate a respectful dialogue, and expressed disappointment that the meeting ended up as a “hostile environment.”

The statement said, in part, “The purpose of the Town Hall meeting was not to hold a protest rally, nor to provide a forum for insult, personal attack, or overall disregard—this disregard was not only between the audience and the Commissioner but between audience members themselves. ... The decision to suspend the remaining forums was based on this experience as well as communications that there would be more of the same, yet intensified, ahead."