New York State’s top educators took another step this month in a multi-year process to alter the controversial math and English Common Core standards that have been on the books since 2010. A closer look at the proposed changes, however, suggests that ultimately the effort will boil down to a massive exercise in repackaging and rebranding, rather than a substantive course correction in how the Empire State’s education system will operate.
In the education world, standards take years to implement. After adoption, curriculum needs to be rewritten, teachers need to be trained on the new content, and aligned textbooks or learning software products need to be bought. Therefore, it is likely fortuitous from a state official’s perspective that the second publicly released draft of New York’s standards, that emerged in early May, retain the backbone of the Common Core standards—even after long hours of meetings and negotiations with teachers, business leaders, and parents. Furthermore, by going through the lengthy review process, the state officials appear to have converted many of standard’s harsher critics—such as the teachers’ unions—without losing support from the business community and the Common Core’s other original backers. Some holdouts of opposition remain, however.
Stephen Sigmund, the executive director of a nonprofit and nonpartisan coalition that backs rigorous standards called High Achievement New York, told InsideSources that the revised standards reflect “good changes” that “stick closely to what we’ve had with the Common Core.” Sigmund’s group is currently encouraging the public to leave positive public comments about the standards on the state’s website.
The big change this time around, according to Sigmund, is the process that was used to get buy-in from all stakeholders. When Common Core was first rolled out, “nobody knew what the standards were,” he said, so getting parents and teachers to the table for the revision process was what mattered—even if the changes are only at the margins.
According to media reports and press releases from the New York State Education Department, most of the changes to the standards are about making the language clearer in some areas, streamlining benchmarks in others, and reassigning some topics to different grade levels. One of the more controversial changes that emerged in one of the earlier drafts of the new standards, a de-emphasis of “text complexity” which Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute criticized in a blog post last year, has been walked back in the latest draft, according to Sigmund.
Zach Hutchins, the director of communications for the Business Council of New York State, was similarly supportive of how the revision process is shaking out. He said that the business interests his group represents have long argued for rigorous college and career readiness benchmarks that prepare students for the workplace. Hutchins’ one concern was that the state is still “not taking test participation seriously enough.”
New York, and Long Island in particular, has been ground zero in the testing opt-out movement in which parents refuse to let their children sit for standardized tests. Having large groups of students sit out is problematic from a district and state official’s perspective because it makes it more difficult to evaluate a school’s overall performance with incomplete data. Hutchins did say that “the trend appears to be waning in the state” in part over renewed confidence in the new standards that, if approved, will no longer carry the controversial “Common Core” label.
State officials are also getting political cover from the state’s largest teacher’s union. Andy Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers, issued a statement praising officials for listening to educators and including them in the process: “the State Education Department is showing a commitment to getting it right” he said.
Not all educators are pleased with the low-key changes to the standards regime. The Badass Teachers Association, a fast growing and stridently progressive ad hoc group that now has chapters in all 50 states, originally came together in opposition to the Common Core in the early 2010s. The Badass Teachers Association, which sometimes refers to its members as “BATs” has a particularly strong presence in the New York and New Jersey areas.
Marla Kifoyle, a BAT leader and a full-time resource teacher in a high school on Long Island, is leading the group’s charge against the repackaged Common Core standards. “We’re not fooled by this—it’s lipstick on a pig” she said.
Kifoyle, who has not let her teenage son sit for state tests in years, said that state officials missed an opportunity to make substantive changes to the standards. She also said she disagreed with Pallotta’s statement and questioned whether the organized union’s leadership had a solid grasp of what was actually happening on the ground in the meetings where officials were taking in feedback from educators. The BATs have been circulating footnoted critiques and oppositional blog posts against the new standards.
Despite pushback from the Kifoyle and other activist teachers, the machinery seems to be turning in favor of the new standards. Sigmund, of High Achievement New York, brushed off the BATs complaints as unserious—suggesting that the group is not genuinely interested in striking a compromise on a set of standards that balance a teacher’s need for independence in the classroom with the need for a common expectation of academic rigor.
“There is a segment of opponents who are never going to take yes for an answer—it’s never enough for them” he said.