Concerns raised at education forums across the state will lead to adjustments, but top education officials say they will not acquiesce to complaints that new learning standards used in classrooms are simply too difficult for students.
Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said Thursday during a televised forum that the state will continue to lead the way in implementing the Common Core standards because “it’s the right thing for students.”
“To the extent that people are saying we should ask students to read less, they’re wrong,” King said during a public discussion at WNED studios downtown. “We need students to read more and to read across a broad range of genres and to read texts that challenge them critically. To the extent that people are saying we should ask students to write less, they’re wrong.”
Earlier in the day, during a meeting with reporters and editors at The Buffalo News, King said the state Board of Regents will continue to consider some changes to testing, including the way special-education students and new immigrants who don’t speak English are assessed.
He also said the state would look at reducing the amount of time students spend taking the revised state exams and at the need for more professional development resources for teachers.
But the Common Core – which seeks to set out a series of benchmarks for student learning in an effort to better prepare students for college and careers – will stay.
“To me, the folks who are making the argument that it’s too much, it’s too hard – essentially an argument for lower standards – they’re just ignoring the reality,” King said.
King spent the day in Buffalo, including visiting Lafayette High School, before a two-hour forum at WNED that was part of a series of events he has held across the state to discuss Common Core and other state efforts to reform education.
King was greeted outside WNED by dozens of protesting teachers and parents who called for his resignation.
“We think that what’s going on inside is undemocratic on its face because it’s closed to the public,” said Kevin M. Gibson, secretary of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, who was among the protesters.
Tickets for the event were distributed by local school districts, a Buffalo parent group and by lottery, but because of stormy weather, seating for the forum was about half-empty.
The event, which was a question-and-answer format with WNED moderator Jim Ranney, was a stark contrast to a public forum last week in Jamestown, where King faced a series of passionate speakers who detailed their complaints about the way the state has handled the changes to education.
WNED chose the format in which a series of questions submitted by audience members were read by Ranney.
King, during the Buffalo forum, sought to differentiate areas of education policy over which the state has control from decisions that are made by local school districts.
“The Common Core lays out a set of standards,” King said during the forum. “Things like students will be able to write using evidence drawn from text. Things like students will be able to apply fractions to solving real-world problems. Standards are about expectations. Now, curriculum, that’s a local decision.”
There’s a lot of variety in the types of curriculum materials and professional development that local schools use, he said.
“Certainly some districts have chosen to use materials that the state has provided, but not all districts have, and that’s an option for districts,” King said.
King has been repeatedly criticized for the way the state has implemented the Common Core standards and the tests designed to measure whether students are learning them.
Parents and educators have expressed concerns about the pressure on students from state exams, the privacy of student information in a new statewide data system and the fact that elementary and middle school students were tested on the new standards last year as many districts were still working to implement them.
“What I hear in other states is the complaint that they’re asked to teach to the Common Core but giving assessments that are based on the old standards,” King said. “That would have made no sense. So the Board of Regents, I think, made the right decision with the department back in 2010 to a seven-year phase-in, which would ensure that the assessments would reflect the standards that we expect to be taught in the classrooms.”
In response to concerns that the state has tried to implement Common Core too quickly, King said he worries that the state’s seven-year rollout will actually be too slow. He noted that 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, there remains a wide gap between the graduation rates of white students and those of black and Latino students.
“Right now, there is a student on a community college campus in this region who’s thinking about dropping out when that student goes home for the holidays because that student is taking remedial courses and sees his graduation receding into the distance,” King said. “So the worry in education isn’t about moving too fast; my main worry is that we’re moving too slow.”
He said he would take the concerns he has heard in Buffalo and across the state back to the Board of Regents.
“I think we’ve got to distinguish between listening and agreement,” King said. “We listen carefully to their concerns, but we also have a strong view that we’ve got to ensure that our students are prepared for college and career success.”
The forum was briefly interrupted by a heckler who yelled, “Pearson Education under investigation,” a reference to an investigation by the State Attorney General’s Office into overseas trips funded by the nonprofit foundation of the testing company, Pearson Education. He was escorted out of the event.