A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to attend a hearing at LaGuardia College, sponsored by the Governor’s office as a New York Educator Voice Fellow through American Achieves. The event was officiated by Common Core Task Force members Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan and Brooklyn teacher Kishayna Hazlewood. After so many years into the implementation of the standards, it is clear that there is a large gap regarding training and implementation. I was the fourth person to speak, and I sat next to two gentlemen who had roots in the East NY community, and did nothing but lambast speakers who supported the common core. Several people spoke from different organizations, including administrators, community leaders and parents. In the testimony I heard the misunderstanding of most of the speakers in terms of the standards: the standards were being treated like curriculum and testing, all in one big wrapper. This couldn’t be further from truth, and represents the lack of training for teacher and parents that should have been a part of every school’s instructional program when the rollover began.
I am taking a hard line on this because I attended those sessions in Albany. Over and over the feedback was the same- implementation and decision making on adopting or adapting the modules to support the implementation of the standards was a district decision. Training and implementation was a district decision. It was only in the final two years of those trainings did I see more teachers attend. That should have happened from the get go. People are misinformed because they weren’t trained properly.
I work with students in my school, and in other grades. It is so clear to me how one group of lessons and skills builds on another. I also take the time to read through the standards, modules and assessment guidelines. At New Dawn we make careful decisions on which parts of the modules to use to support our students. We have great success. The anger and confusion that parents feel, and rightly so, is a lack of understanding on how this all works. Over the weekend I was with friends who have children in different elementary schools across the island. One parent was discussing the math strategies that students are required to use. He attended classes that his school offered. I explained how it builds to other concepts, and when I laid it out, they seemed to understand the reasoning behind the math. But not all parents are getting this kind of service. I can understand why they are frustrated when they are trying to help their children during homework time.
Another high intensity, highly emotional reaction from many speakers concerned testing. Again, nothing to do with the standards. Recently, Governor Cuomo began making moves to reduce the amount of testing our students are faced with. I would agree that there needs to be a balance in assessment, and that students should not be over tested. However, a larger issue that truly needs discussing is the selection process in New York City. I have discussed this before, and I will say it again here- the system is unfair and parents literally scramble in elementary and middle school, at the level of the college search, to get their kids in “good” city schools. Parents without the means to do visits and take off of work for interviews and specialized testing prep have no choice but to attend a zone school, a local school based on a family’s home address. It is an unfair process. I understand why parents are stressed out. Again, though, this has nothing to do with the Common Core standards. This has been a practice since before the standards were introduced, and it was unfair back then too.
The event was interesting. A large group of parents and students came in, but then left after just two or three speakers gave their testimony. All of the speakers shared hardships and also the joys of working with children. Some discussed the accountability for teachers. I spoke about my kids and their experience, which to me, is what matters most:
Thank you for allowing me this brief time to share the experience of a transfer charter school in Brooklyn. I serve the most at-risk teens in New York City. When we wrote the charter for New Dawn, there was no doubt in our minds that implementing the Common Core standards would be an essential part of our instructional program from the day we opened. I can remember the very first Network Team Institute I attended, and had the pleasure to learn from various educators. To say that these presentations completely changed the way I envisioned my leadership for opening day would be an understatement. I credit my attendance at these Common Core Institutes as one of the many factors that have supported my continued position at New Dawn as the founding principal.
This brings me to the point about implementing the Common Core standards. That very first meeting was not well attended for a session that was open to all schools. The guidance from the very beginning on implementation and training were “district decisions.” This is crucial to the training and implementation of the standards. What I saw, session after session, was a well thought out approach to implementing the changes and helping staff that were well entrenched in their own methods to open their eyes to a new way of thinking for our kids.
My students, the students that have been invited to leave their traditional schools because of their attendance and academic performance, have thrived with the practices related to Common Core. Students have learned to annotate text and make critical connections across disciplines with ease. My students take a dive into new texts and explore meanings with their teachers and their peers on a daily basis. Students that come in reading dreadfully below grade level are taking their Regents exams and passing them. And graduating. Common Core at New Dawn has been a four year exploration in how to make learning a deep experience in critical thinking. We as a faculty know we are not done with this journey, and are ready to keep plowing through practices to become more effective for our students.
These standards should not be dumped because of special interest groups with an agenda. I have watched the opt-out movement marginalize my own child, bullying her into defending her choice to take the tests (and she has done extremely well). Politics of this magnitude do not belong in the classroom. Students learn because of their teachers, because of the relationships they have with their teachers. Teachers learn because they are trained in meaningful ways. My experiences with the Network Team Institutes provided me with the tools to work with my staff and constantly troubleshoot to make things better. We have embraced this way of being- research, do and reflect- so that our students get the best of what the Common Core aims for our students to do. College and career readiness would not be an option for my kids before they walk through my threshold. Thanks to the standards and the training we received and implemented, they graduate and go to college. If my students, the most likely to remain dropouts can thrive, there is no reason to remove standards that provide those opportunities to the rest of the population. Train staff; implement the change, train again. Reflect, review, retry. This is what gets results. Not changing standards. We need to continue to change ourselves for our kids.
Post script: The Common Core Task Force made sweeping recommendations which will incorporate several changes regarding the standards and testing. For more information, you can begin reading here.