In Albany, ed chief puts a careful emphasis on ‘listening’

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ALBANY—A rambunctious but ultimately respectful crowd lined up Thursday night in Albany to tell state education commissioner John King why they're unhappy with the state's implementation of new, more difficult curriculum standards and related testing.

About 500 people turned out for the public forum on the Common Core, fewer than had been expected for the first in a series of 12 meetings the state scheduled under pressure last week.

Moderators from the League of Women Voters held each speaker to a strict two-minute time limit, and King spoke only briefly at the beginning, middle and end of the meeting.

The state tweaked the format from an Oct. 10 forum in Poughkeepsie that ended in chaos, with a frustrated crowd of teachers and parents heckling and jeering King.

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“The Poughkeepsie event is behind all of us,” King said during a media briefing held before Thursday's forum. “Everyone in the education sector in the state understands that it's important that we have good constructive dialogue about the interest of our students, and that's what I expect tonight.”

Most of the 67 speakers were teachers, administrators or other school officials, although they typically identified themselves as parents first. Current students and recent alumni also spoke, as well as parents addressing issues specific to students with disabilities and or English deficiencies.

Parents lamented their children's frustrations with difficult coursework and what seems like incessant testing, and they expressed their distrust in the state's new teacher evaluation system.

“We're here just to see what the parents have to say,” said Jane Fox, a sixth grade English teacher at Myers Middle School in Albany, where the forum was held. “We know what our issue is with the Common Core—more so about how it was rolled out. The expectations are set so high for not only the students but the teachers. It counts against us when we really haven't been trained in it thoroughly.”

Jesse Calhoun, a music teacher and the Republican candidate for mayor in Albany, said he hopes the education department will use feedback from the meeting to take action and “stop the madness.”

“We have standardized our tests, but my question is, are we trying to standardize our children?” he said. “Children have a diverse array of needs, and they are not one-size-fits-all.”

King seemed to be listening attentively and taking notes during the meeting, and showed little reaction when some emotional parents signaled him out personally or told him to “get out of the way.”

The commissioner said helping students reach the higher bar set by the Common Core is “our shared challenge.”

“We don't agree on everything, but that doesn't mean we didn't listen,” King said, closing the meeting. “Listening is about hearing people's concerns [and] making adjustments, but it doesn't mean that we are in any way backing away from the commitment to moving the Common Core forward.”