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Common Core

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An anti-Common Core rally in Smithtown. File photo

Opting students out of state standardized tests has become a hot topic, and it’s a decision that should rest in the hands of parents, not school leaders.

Recently, Comsewogue School District officials had threatened to consider not administering the tests altogether if Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the state education department did not acquiesce on a list of demands, one of which was to stop weighing student test scores so heavily in teacher and administrator evaluations. But the district clammed up on the measure after its attorney intervened. In addition, the NYSUT union, which represents teachers across the state, has called for a mass opt-out.

State law comes down hard on actions like this: Any school-board members or other officials like superintendents who willfully violate state education regulations — such as by refusing to administer a required assessment — risk being removed from office by the education commissioner, and state aid could be withheld from the district.

At the heart of the matter is a battle over local control of our school districts. While local officials should be consulted when it comes to shaping state education regulations and standards, there must be some degree of state standardization in education to ensure that our programs sufficiently educate kids. It’s wrong for administrators and school officials to politicize a high-emotion situation — the opt-out movement — in a way that could be detrimental to students.

In a school-sponsored, massive opt-out, the ones who face the greatest risk are the students — officials may put their jobs at stake, but the kids’ entire futures could hang in the balance if the state pulls education aid from a district that heavily relies upon it, or if otherwise competent school board members and administrators are kicked out of office.

Let us also pause to think about how adult behavior affects our kids. This paper has previously editorialized about how the commotion over the Common Core and state testing has negatively affected children — students see and hear their parents’ and teachers’ reactions, and many mimic that fear and anxiety when they otherwise would not have had such emotional reactions to tests and classes. At some point, we have to ask ourselves if this is the kind of behavior we want to teach our kids.

Calling for change is one thing, but screaming for it is another. Let’s not play politics. Above all, let’s keep cool.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has feuded with the federal government about getting resources to New York during the coronavirus pandemic. File photo by Erika Karp

Just a few hours before the New York State Legislature approved the state’s 2015-16 budget, which includes a number of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform initiatives, school districts across the North Shore finally got to know how much aid they’ll receive next year.

The state aid runs showed districts getting more than they expected, since many budgeted around a 1.7 percent increase. Earlier this year, Cuomo (D) announced state aid would only increase by $377 million — a 1.7 percent increase from this year — if his state education reforms didn’t pass the Legislature.

And while not all of the initiatives passed, a few did, so the aid increased by about $1.4 billion statewide.

“This is a plan that keeps spending under 2 percent, reforms New York’s education bureaucracy, implements the nation’s strongest and most comprehensive disclosure laws for public officials and makes the largest investment in the upstate economy in a generation,” Cuomo said in a statement.

But not all were convinced the education initiatives would reform public schools.

The Education Transformation Act of 2015 amends the teacher evaluation system, changes the time to gain tenure from three to four years and creates two designations for failing schools. The hot-button item, though, was the teacher evaluation system.

Under the act, the State Education Department will develop a new teacher evaluation system by June 30, which school districts will then have to locally negotiate and enact by Nov. 15 in order to receive their allotted aid. The system also includes a component based on students’ performance on the state’s common core-aligned tests. The evaluation system was last changed in 2013.

In a phone interview on Wednesday morning, Middle Country Central School District Superintendent Roberta Gerold, who is also president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said she believed the change to the system was misguided, and wished elected officials would have learned that “rushing into a system that doesn’t have details attached” — as was the case in 2013 — doesn’t work.

Some Assembly members said they shared Gerold’s concerns.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) voted against the Education, Labor and Family Assistance State budget bill, which Cuomo issued on Tuesday with a message of necessity. When asked about the reforms, Englebright immediately interjected, “they are not reforms,” he said.

He said he voted against the measure because it was unclear as to how it would impact students.

“[It] doesn’t mean we can’t make improvements, but those improvements need to make sense,” he said.

Englebright strayed from his fellow party members by voting against the bill, which he said was a difficult decision.

“The people who sent me [to Albany] are the ones who I finally had to vote in accordance with,” he said.

Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) said in a press release the education measure “takes away local control and is downright insulting to principals, administrators and teachers.”

While most North Shore Assembly officials voted down the education component, Mike Fitzpatrick (R- St. James) voted yes. In a phone interview Wednesday, Fitzpatrick said he stood by his decision.

He said he believed the reforms would bring more accountability to the system, which needed to be reformed. Fitzpatrick also said the amendments take away some of the New York State United Teachers union’s power. The union referred to the changes as a disgrace and the evaluation system as a sham.

“Good teachers, and they know who they are, they don’t have anything to worry about,” Fitzpatrick said.

Rohma Abbas contributed reporting.

Dina Stramara addresses the board. Photo by Barbara Donlon

With less than one month until the New York State testing begins in grades three to eight, parents in Kings Park are vocalizing their right to opt out and say they want the board of education to do the same.

At a meeting earlier in the month, several parents asked the board to craft a resolution on standardized testing. Then they started a petition through their group, Kings Park Advocates for Education, to establish a unified voice.

The petition highlighted three items the parents would like the board to support. It said they want support for their right to opt their child out of the high stakes testing, support for alternate activities for their child during the test, and easier options when it comes to opting out.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board opened up as a whole for the first time, as President Tom LoCascio read a statement on the board’s behalf.

“We believe the decision of whether to participate in or to refuse to take a state assessment is a personal decision and ultimately a parent’s choice and in either case a decision that should be afforded mutual respect,” LoCascio said.

The statement went on to say the board believes in public education, that every student in the district deserves an opportunity to succeed and that they believe teachers should be evaluated using multiple forms of assessment.

It also said that as a board, they recognize Gov. Andrew Cuomo and certain interests have politicized many educational issues and that they are concerned how this will impact the district.

“We will continue to work to advance our adopted board goals, prevent the erosion of local control and fight to ensure that educators and those elected by our community have the final decision in how our schools are run,” LoCascio said.

Parents said the statement still did not impress them.

“This community is asking the board of education to step up, pick a strong stand,” parent Shala Pascucci said during the meeting’s public comment forum. “That was a step in the right direction, but if you read the resolution from other neighboring districts, you will know that resolution is not as strong as it could be.”

Pascucci went on to say the board statement is not specific enough, but did acknowledge it’s a step in the right direction. Board member Pam DeFord also acknowledged the statement and said she agreed with parents.

“You’re right, it’s a small step, and we will continue to work on it,” DeFord said.

Parents also said they were upset about the process that will take place in the classroom the morning of the assessment. Parent Dina Stramara quoted from the test refusal question-and-answer section on the board’s website, visibly upset by what her child will go through.

According to the document, children will be seated in assigned seats and a proctor will pass out the documents. They will know ahead of time which students are refusing the assessment, but children must verbally confirm it.

“In the most non-judgmental, non-confrontational, and delicate manner possible, the proctor will verbally confirm with each individual child that he/she is refusing the assessment, those exam materials will be collected, and the child will be permitted to read quietly,” the document said.

Stramara said there is nothing non-judgmental and delicate about putting a child in an awkward position. She said they are not adults and parents should make the decision for them. She also asked why the district would still put the test in front of them if they know they are refusing ahead of time.

“Asking [a young child] to verbalize this is absolutely ludicrous,” Stramara said to the board. “I implore you to please reconsider this procedure. It is not our children’s fault that the state and the district are failing them by making them pawns in this ridiculousness.”

Schools Superintendent Timothy Eagen said this was not a district procedure but one from the New York State Education Department.

“According to the state education department, an activity that is acceptable for students who finish the test early or refuse to take the test is simply to read something,” Eagen said in an interview after the meeting.

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Gordon Brosdal addresses parents about full-day kindergarten on Wednesday. Photo by Erika Karp
A small contingent of parents erupted into a round of applause at Mount Sinai’s Wednesday night school board meeting, as Superintendent Gordon Brosdal announced that full-day kindergarten is included in his 2015-16 budget proposal.
Gordon Brosdal addresses parents about full-day kindergarten on Wednesday. Photo by Erika Karp
Gordon Brosdal addresses parents about full-day kindergarten on Wednesday. Photo by Erika Karp

The meeting marked the first time district administrators committed to making the jump from half-day kindergarten. However, they were quick to remind parents that the move helps more than just the youngest students.

“It’s not a full-day K budget,” Brosdal said. “By giving our kids full-day K, you’re benefiting our entire program.”

The school board still must vote on whether to adopt the budget next month before it goes to a community vote on May 19. The proposed $56.7 million plan increases spending by a little more than 3 percent over the current year and stays within the school district’s tax levy increase cap of 1.86 percent.

Last month, a group of residents spoke in support of full-day kindergarten, saying students need the additional classroom time to meet the new Common Core Learning Standards.

Supporters of the plan had previously expressed concerns that students would fall behind under a half-day program, as there isn’t enough time to cover all the topics required by the Common Core. This was also a worry for Brosdal, who said under a full-day program students would have extra time to learn and would benefit down the line, as would their teachers, who will no longer have to worry about playing catch-up.

Last month, Renee Massari, one of the parents who supported the full-day plan, said she supported full-day kindergarten because she is seeing her son struggle this year as a first-grader who went to a half-day program. On Wednesday, she thanked the district administrators for proposing the change.

“I think I am speaking on behalf of plenty of people when I say thank you and we are excited.”

While the district is receiving $459,125 in state aid to help implement the program, it will still have to spend $90,000 of its own funding to cover the cost. In past budget presentations, officials had estimated a higher district cost.

At previous meetings, school board members agreed that full-day kindergarten was important for student success, but were hesitant to propose the change, as they wanted to make sure the district’s current Kindergarten through 12th grade offerings were maintained and the full-day program would be sustained in the future.

“The board and myself annoyed you perhaps, but you have to look at the budget down the road,” Brosdal said.

On Wednesday, school board President Robert Sweeney spoke about some of the challenges in budgeting for the upcoming school year, as the district grapples with a dwindling surplus, which could run out by 2017-18.

Even so, he said he remained optimistic about the future, as the school board members advocate for additional education aid and legislators move to restore the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a reduction in aid for each school district that was once used to plug a state budget deficit.

Sweeney thanked residents for their patience, but was blunt about the importance of voting in the future.

“Where will you be in the future, as a community, in terms of supporting your school?” he asked.

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Stock photo

By Ali Gordon

This is my fourth year serving as a trustee of the Comsewogue Board of Education. I love every minute of it, because I love my community and I take very seriously the responsibility entrusted to me. The thoughts expressed here are my own. I do not speak for the Comsewogue School District or the Board of Education. We have been warned that a trustee who speaks out could be removed by the state education commissioner. But our schools and our children depend on those of us who were elected to represent the best interests of our community. I cannot stay quiet for fear of retribution from the New York State Education Department anymore.

There has been tremendous criticism of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent decision to withhold state aid and extort legislators into passing his education reforms. Our state legislators are stuck between agreeing to terrible reforms or refusing, leading to a late state budget and a potential loss of millions of dollars for schools.

Cuomo’s proposals include measures such as increasing the time to earn tenure from three to five years and evaluating teachers more heavily based upon their students’ state test scores.

The reforms Cuomo is pushing are disingenuous and dangerous; he works out of the privatization handbook and uses inflammatory statistics. He cannot think of another way to move forward in education except through obsessive testing. Cuomo and the Board of Regents use a one-size-fits-all answer that will never work for every community, while an entire generation of students is being sacrificed for testing data.

Each of Cuomo’s education policies reflect a desire to remove local control. He insists that NYSED investigate the teacher evaluations procedures of Long Island school districts, thinking the system is skewed. Those local evaluation plans were approved by the very same entity, NYSED. Here is what Cuomo cannot fathom: Teachers on Long Island were rated highly effective or effective because they are. If Long Island was a state, we would rank near the top in high school graduation rates, Intel Science Talent Search semifinalists and Siemens Competition semifinalists. Cuomo prefers to ignore these statistics because they do not fit his narrative.

There are several ways to stop the destruction of public schools:

Cuomo must separate his education reforms from his executive budget proposal. If he believes in these reforms, he should let them stand alone as legislation, allow a healthy debate and not circumvent the separation of powers established by our Constitution.

The Legislature should ensure that new Board of Regents appointees have public education experience — they establish state education policies, and interviews are now being held for four appointees.

Parents must educate themselves and make a decision regarding testing in grades three through eight. This will be the third year my children have refused to take the state exams. This is the strongest weapon we have in the fight to save public education. As the number of test refusals grows, the reforms dependent upon those numbers will falter. We will starve the testing machine.

It is time to work together to elevate public education without destroying things that are already working. I cannot sit by quietly anymore and wait for someone else to stand up. I have a sworn duty to represent the interests of my community, including speaking out against policies that endanger the well-being of our students and faculty.