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November 7, 2013

Educators, parents discuss school overhaul

By Mark Boshnack Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The Common Core curriculum and high-stakes testing were the focus of a two-hour forum Wednesday held by the Oneonta Area for Public Education at Morris Hall at SUNY Oneonta.

More than 200 people attended the session held by the group, which is a coalition of parents, educators and community members dedicated to reclaiming public education in the area, according to a press release. The forum was a partnership with the Oneonta Teachers Association, United Teachers and United University Professions unions.

“We’re one of many grassroots groups that are trying to make a difference,” said one of the group’s founders, Worcester parent Danielle Boudet. The meeting came in response to problems the group's members are finding with the state’s implementation of the Common Core — a curriculum adopted by more than 40 states.

The group is also critical of Federal Race to the Top funding, which requires increased state teacher assessments (APPR) and data collection. Issue was also taken with so-called "modules" many schools are using to ensure that students are prepared for the Common Core standardized tests — used, in part, to measure student achievement and are part of the APPR.

“Testing is creating a one size fits all environment,” Boudet said. “Our teachers are doing a great job despite this.”

She urged parents to opt out of high-stakes testing, which includes the annual English and Math tests in grades 3-8.

“These tests are reducing kids to numbers and data points,” she said.

Hartwick professor Betsy Bloom traced the roots of the problem back to 1983 and the release of a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, under President Ronald Reagan, called “A Nation at Risk.” It blamed a faltering economy on public education, and called for changes.

That eventually led to the No Child Left Behind Act under President George Bush and Race to the Top under President Barack Obama, with their increasing reliance on high-stakes testing and increased opportunities for for-profit education corporations.

“It is a myth perpetuated by those who benefit from it,” she said. But instead of solving "a problem that never existed," teachers are forced to teach to the test because their careers depend on it, she said. The “education-industrial complex” it has created relies on the federal dollars the federal government provides, she said.

While those who would privatize and market education are powerful and strong, the turnout Wednesday indicates that changes can be made, she said.

Several Oneonta City School District teachers shared their concerns with the issues. Greater Plains first-grade teacher Vicki Lyall said the math and English modules were hastily rolled out, with many becoming available shortly before school started — and some are still not ready.

The scripts they call for teachers to use could result in “the love of teaching being taken from them,” she said, adding: “The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t meet the needs of all students.”

The material is of such poor quality that teachers have to review it before it's used, she said.

Ninth-grade English teacher Susan Murphy said the Common Core is the “head of the beast.” It's designed only to get students ready for a two-year college and create “a generation of worker bees,” she said. It has a built-in bias against the arts and anything that can’t be measured, she said.

Parents and teachers were among the speakers in the second half of the program who talked about the problems they were having with the current system. They included Worcester parent Jeff Lengel, who was hopeful the spirit expressed at the meeting would continue. Otherwise, based on the reactions of his children already school, he is afraid to send his daughter to school in the fall. She is naturally curious and “I don’t want that to change,” he said, because of the requirements all schools are facing.

The only person to take exception to some of the comments was Unadilla Valley Superintendent Robert Mackey, who said that while he isn't a believer standardized testing for grades 3-8 , the blame belongs on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, not state Education Commissioner John King, for forcing schools to adopt APPR.

But because of modules and reviews that make teachers focus on how to engage students, “I’ve seen struggling learners succeed,” Mackey said.

Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, told the audience he had come to listen to their concerns.

“These are challenging days in education,” he said. While the legislature does not set educational policy, some of the reactions members are seeing from the initiatives are causing them to get involved in some issues. The less-than-satisfactory rollout of the Common Core has convinced him that “we need to slow down” and give more control to parents and teachers and more flexibility to districts in implementing the rules, he said.

That's something King is hearing, and Seward said he will be advocating that position in upcoming sessions of the Education Committee, he said.

More information about the group and the petition they are circulating is available at www.oa4pe.wordpress.com or on the Oneonta Area for Public Education Facebook page.