Education commissioner: Call for Common Core moratorium a ‘distraction’

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ALBANY—State education commissioner John King said Tuesday that a call from teachers' unions for a three-year moratorium on using state exam results for “high-stakes” decisions is a “distraction” from the goal of improving New York graduates' outcomes in college and careers.

The state's new system for evaluating teachers and principals was presented last school year, at the same time that elementary and middle-school students began testing based on more difficult curriculum standards, called the Common Core.

School districts' locally negotiated evaluation systems use state exam results as a component of rating teachers, and according to the law, two consecutive negative evaluations can be used to fire a teacher. On last year's assessments, only 31 percent of students scored proficient or higher in math and language arts.

“We all agreed to the evaluation system: the governor, the Legislature, NYSUT and the state Education Department," King said Tuesday, after visiting an elementary school in Troy, near Albany. "We committed to the evaluation system knowing that we were going to implement the evaluation system alongside a change in the standards through the work on the Common Core."

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“[New York State United Teachers] has been very supportive of the Common Core and understands that the Common Core is critical to help students be better prepared for college and career readiness,” King continued. “So I think the key thing now is to move the work forward, to continue to provide the support and professional development, and I think revisiting the agreement that we all made is a distraction at this point.”

NYSUT, a powerful statewide union, has joined the American Federation of Teachers, a national organization, and the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City group, in requesting that the state delay using the exam results for "high stakes" evaluations during a three-year transitional period.

The call follows a campaign NYSUT launched last April denouncing the Common Core-aligned state exams, arguing that the state did not allow teachers and students the time and resources necessary to prepare. While nearly every state has adopted the Common Core, Kentucky and New York are the only states that have begun testing students on the material.

“It's important for parents to have confidence in the Common Core and for the testing to be reliable and valid. That doesn't exist right now,” Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT, said Tuesday. “A mid-course correction will allow districts, parents and educators to become comfortable with the Common Core, to restore validity to the testing process and to allow the reforms to ultimately succeed.”

King said data from school districts on the teacher evaluations are due to the state by Friday, after which department officials will analyze the statewide results and release them to the public “later this fall." Teachers have received their composite scores, but King said he has not yet been able to review them.

“We'll wait until we have all the numbers in,” he said.

King also elaborated on his decision Monday to cancel four town-hall meetings with parents about the Common Core changes, after he encountered a rowdy crowd in Poughkeepsie last week. He said the meeting was not constructive and that he would work with the state Parent Teacher Association to create other opportunities for dialogue.

“There was heckling and screaming throughout," King said of the Poughkeepsie meeting last Thursday. "One parent, at one point, asked to try to be able to listen and for people to quiet down, and people started yelling at that parent. There were very loud outbursts, epithets yelled. It just wasn't a constructive environment for talking about much of anything."

King reiterated his argument that “special interest” groups that are opposed to the state's education reform initiatives planned to create chaos at the meeting. He wouldn't name or characterize the groups, saying “it doesn't matter really” who the groups were; it matters only that they were working to disrupt the meeting, he said.

“[They] were opposed to the changes to teacher evaluations, are now opposed to the Common Core, and organized to try and disrupt the event,” King said. “They actually sent out e-mails encouraging folks to be disruptive in the event, to dominate the microphone. There were folks handing out fliers filled with misinformation beforehand.

“So there was a systematic effort, not just for this meeting, but for all of the meetings, to try to disrupt them and prevent real discussion about the work that's happening in classrooms, on behalf of students,” he said.

Critics of King's decision took issue with his suggestion that “special interests” interfered with the meeting.

Korn, the NYSUT spokesman, said parents have a right to express their anger about the state's implementation of the Common Core and subsequent testing.

“Parents are not special interests,” he said.