StudentsFirst gives NY ed commissioner a friendly audience for Common Core forum

(By Steven Mazie )
(Photo by Steven Mazie )

New York State Education Commissioner John King was on a “listening tour” this fall to ostensibly talk with the public about the Common Core State Standards and school reform but it got cut short when people in the crowd challenged him. Some forums were cancelled, but he is back on the circuit — and on Tuesday, he had a very friendly crowd, courtesy of StudentsFirstNY, the New York branch of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst advocacy organization. Here’s a description of that forum. It was written by Steven Mazie, who blogs at Big Think and The Economist and teaches at Bard High School Early College in New York City.  Follow him on Twitter.

By Steven Mazie

The uproar over last summer’s dramatically lower test results in New York’s new standardized exams for third through eighth graders has haunted New York State Education Commissioner John King on his listening tour this fall. Not so on Tuesday night in Brooklyn.

In a packed auditorium at Medgar Evers College in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, an orchestrated wave of support greeted Commissioner King and applauded the Common Core State Standards. According to Parent Voices New York, an organization opposing high-stakes testing, the forum’s univocal character was the result of a carefully scripted effort by StudentsFirstNY. Dozens of parents and teachers were bussed in for the event, handed placards and instructed to sign up early for speaker slots.

It was a clear organizational win for the Common Core advocates: they got to the venue an hour early and commandeered nearly all the spots on the speaker’s list before other attendees even arrived. Alternative voices were effectively silenced.

When the proceedings got under way, several dozen members of the audience raised signs on cue: “Our kids can hit your bar!”… “Common Core ☑” …”Low expectations [with a slash through it]” Each sign was written in the same colorful paint, in the same handwriting.

The first community speaker, teacher and activist Katie Lapham, raised concerns about the corporatization of education, called the Common Core a series of “scripted curricula that do little more than prepare kids for standardized tests,” and concluded that the implementation of the new standards “constitutes child abuse.”

Aside from a few yells from hecklers, that bit of hyperbole was the last breath spoken in clear criticism of the state’s new standards. The remaining 40-some speakers who approached the microphone sounded the same few supportive notes, again and again.

Tenicka Boyd of StudentsFirstNY got the ball rolling: “I unequivocally support the Common Core,” she said. “I’ve spoken to parents who say they had no idea that what their kids were learning in Crown Heights was different from what was being taught on the Upper West Side and in Park Slope [an affluent neighborhood in Brownstone Brooklyn].” She then asked all Common Core supporters to stand, and 75 percent of the audience jumped to their feet, cheering. The vast majority of the supporters were African American. “Notice who didn’t stand up,” she added.

Speaker after speaker reiterated two claims: (1) the Common Core represents a series of higher standards that will close the equity gap in low-income neighborhoods, ensuring readiness for college and careers; and (2) opponents of the Common Core in more affluent neighborhoods seek to deny opportunities to children in less fortunate locales.

A mother of two girls from the South Bronx said this: “The Bronx is the poorest borough in New York. The Common Core standards will give everyone the same standards across the country. Let’s take a stand to be sure our children get what they deserve. They are our future, so let’s make sure they are adequately prepared for it.”

A grandmother from the economically depressed neighborhood of East New York in Brooklyn said the Common Core is a vast improvement on the education she received as a child. Those who speak out against the new standards and tests “are doing an injustice to the future of all school-age children.” Middle class parents “oppose the Common Core because it will give lower-income people access to the same opportunities as their children. ”

One speaker said: “Those who oppose it do not have best interests of all in mind.” That sentiment was echoed by a  speaker from Brownsville in Brooklyn, who said: “Knowing that people are against the Common Core sickens me. Just because I reside in a low-income community doesn’t mean my child should have lower potential. People in better off communities like Park Slope or the Upper East Side want to lower standards for my child.”

At no time did the speakers, or the commissioner, tackle questions about the implementation of the standards, the developmental appropriateness of the exams, the resource inequities that the Common Core does nothing to correct or the use of exam data to evaluate students, teachers, administrators and schools. Little dissent was voiced to the relentlessly reiterated view that the Common Core is a magic bullet for closing the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap in public education.

In short, no one at the forum engaged in critical thinking about the new educational standards that are, purportedly, all about critical thinking.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 11, 2013