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Common Core sparked major debate in 2013

Ellen Abbott
Those attending a Common Core meeting in early December brought signs showing disapproval with the nationwide curriculum.

In 2013, public education took center stage in New York state. A new, more rigorous curriculum was put in place in public schools in 2012 and the impacts of that exploded in classrooms across the state this past year.

The New York Times editorial board called the Common Core a once in a generation opportunity; U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says the new curriculum may prove to be "the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education."

So why all the controversy? To find out, we have to go back a couple years.

These new more rigorous standards, meant to bring consistently tough education standards across state lines, were adopted in New York state by the Board of Regents in 2011. The full implementation of the new, harder curriculum took place a year later, in the 2012-2013 school year. Their implementation came at the same time a new teacher evaluation system went into effect across New York state, using some of the test results from the new curriculum as a measure of a teacher's effectiveness and ultimately job security.

The first widely reported trouble came during the annual round of state testing in April. There were stories of children stressed out at the time of the English Language Arts and math tests to the point they became ill. The tests became the target of boycotts by some parents, fueled by grassroots groups like Stop the Common Core.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO
WRVO file photo
State Education Commissioner John King listens to concerns from teachers and parents regarding Common Core during an early December meeting.

Heather Ryder, of Syracuse, was one of those parents who refused to let her child take the test.

“Because I don't like what the tests are representing," Ryder said. "I don't like their use. I don't like the amount of time they take up in a classroom, and I definitely don't like how they're used to judge teachers."

Educators also jumped on board, like Greg McCrea, a teacher in a suburban Syracuse school district, who suggested the state Education Department wanted to sweep the whole issue under the rug.

"There has been a very strong message from the state Education Department that this is a conversation that should not be had with parents," McCrea said. "The conversation about opt out, about the common core simply isn't open to discussion. And we think as parents, we want to be able to have those conversations with our local teachers, because when teachers and parents and administrators can sit down and talk about the impact this has on kids, kids benefit."

But conversations were being had about the Common Core at kitchen tables across the state, when kids came home from school with more homework, more tests looming and more stress.

Angie Hargrave, a physical education teacher in the Port Byron School District in Cayuga County, had those conversations with her son.

"He said to me a couple of days ago, mom, I don't want to go into third grade," Hargrave said. "Why's that? He said because I don't want to take the standardized tests."

Beyond the kids, the teachers were dealing with unfamiliar territory. The Common Core doesn't tell teachers how to teach, but there are modules offering suggestions from a state website. Some teachers said those guidelines often didn't make sense, forcing them to come up with new curriculums and handouts, as the state continued churning out information about the new requirements.

“You know, we have teachers everywhere on medication just to come to school, because they are so overwhelmed by what's going on," Hargrave said.

Some teachers unions started getting involved and there were rallies in Albany. Among those attending was Union Springs English teacher Mitch Fabian, capsulizing a common compliant about the Common Core -- that New York state rushed into it too quickly.

"This was not done in a fashion that would have broken students into it slowly, so that teachers could adjust their teaching in order to prepare students for it," Fabian said. "It was dropped on us, literally, like a ton of bricks."

Then in August, test scores from those English and math tests were reported. As expected, the results were bad. Across the state, 31 percent of students in third through eighth grade met or exceeded the proficiency standard in language arts, down dramatically from years when the tests were easier.

As the school year started, the Common Core conversations deepened. Parents groups, labor unions and state lawmakers organized events to discuss the problems. And state Education Commissioner John King started feeling more heat. At some events, parents lashed out.

King canceled some meetings after one raucous session, but continued to defend the Common Core, saying he understood parents' frustrations, having seen it before when he worked in Massachusetts and tougher standards were installed there.

“People said the tests were hard, that the state’s standards were too high," King said. "And what you saw was Massachusetts remain resolute. Today Massachusetts is the highest performing state, they are a state that is competitive.”

King started attending another round of forums across the state. And parents, teachers and administrators kept up the pressure.

“Our students in grades three through eight sit longer in testing situations than college bound hopefuls sit for the SAT.”

The Education Department announced some changes in response to the ground swell of concern, including the elimination of some eighth grade algebra tests.

"We still want to take seriously people's concerns about the length of the tests and we’ve adjusted that by reducing the number of items and the testing time,” King said.

But as the year ended, there were more forums dominated by angry parents and educators, criticizing not only the way the curriculum is being implemented, but the powerful business interests who were involved in creating it and concerns over students privacy. And they remain skeptical that the state is taking these concerns seriously.

"I'm afraid that our comments are falling on deaf ears," one woman said.

Throughout all of this, one thing is clear. The state is committed to the Common Core. King says the state can't afford not to have students prepared for college.

"Better for students while they're in K-12 to get a clear sense of where they are, to get support from teachers and parents as they improve, than to have the phenomenon we have now on many college campuses where students arrive thinking they're ready for college level work and are told they have to take remedial courses, high school classes, that they and their parents pay for at college prices."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.