New York's Common Core Commotion

New York's Common Core Commotion
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New York is emerging as ground zero in the debate about Common Core. The governor, state regents, and teachers unions are battling it out in public and private about implementation of the new curriculum standards and the state’s new teacher evaluation policy. The resulting politics are as bewildering as the stakes are high given New York’s status as a leading Common Core state.

On Tuesday, in response to criticism, the New York state Board of Regents approved a set of recommendations including delaying by five years a provision requiring high school students to pass tougher exams for graduation. But the regents postponed until April a decision on a proposed change to teacher evaluations, which, as RealClearEducation reported last week, are at the heart of the fight over Common Core in the Empire State.

Under the evaluation proposal, teachers at risk of being fired for poor ratings would be able to appeal their dismissal by blaming Common Core implementation. Some critics say the move was merely for show because state law already includes a provision allowing teachers to appeal a dismissal if the district failed to properly implement and adhere to New York’s existing teacher evaluation system or follow steps for a teacher improvement plan. Others said it would establish an amorphous new standard and render the new evaluation policy meaningless.

Forty-five states and Washington, D.C., have adopted the Common Core State Standards, a national education initiative that is individually implemented by each state but nonetheless establishes consistent learning and performance standards across the country. The standards are part of an effort to ensure that high school students are college- and career-ready by the time they graduate.

New York’s Common Core requires students — beginning with the high school Class of 2017— to pass five Core-aligned regents exams to graduate at college- and career-ready levels. But the regents’ latest plan pushes back those requirements to the Class of 2022. Under New York’s teacher evaluation system, 20 percent of a teacher’s performance rating is based on student achievement on standardized tests. Teachers who are rated “ineffective” for two consecutive years could be fired.

The staggered nature of the requirements is key to successful implementation of the Common Core, but it’s also a political minefield that gives opponents plenty of opportunities to slow things down. The situation in New York can be confusing, so here is a quick primer on what the key players say they want:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo: Favors Common Core. Cuomo, who is running for re-election in November and is believed to harbor presidential ambitions, is a longtime proponent of the standards. He considers New York’s new teacher evaluation requirements a signature accomplishment, and he came out strongly against slowing down those evaluations or allowing teachers to use the Core as a defense against a poor performance evaluation. Cuomo has commissioned his own panel to provide recommendations for improving the plan’s rollout. Insiders say the commission is both an attempt to generate ideas as well as a strategy to buy time and defuse the situation until the state teachers union holds its internal leadership election.

John King, New York state education commissioner: For the Core. King has repeatedly stated his commitment to the standards, but recognizes that there are areas, such as the delayed distribution of print materials for the new curriculum, where implementation has been flawed. King has emerged as a kind of target-by-proxy for Common Core critics and union leaders leery of antagonizing the governor.

New York State United Teachers: For Common Core (sort of). The state teachers union passed a resolution last month calling for King’s resignation, as well as a three-year moratorium on high-stakes consequences tied to student performance on standardized tests. The moratorium, NYSUT leaders say, would allow the state and districts to adjust to the new curriculum and design a proper support system for schools and teachers during the adoption phase. This move comes amid a heated election of union leaders. Current President Richard Iannuzzi and Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta are running on opposing tickets, with Pallotta seeking re-election as vice president under presidential challenger Karen Magee, a local union leader. Iannuzzi’s platform is consistent with NYSUT’s overall stance: support for the Common Core’s “higher, uniform standards,” but it includes a call for improved implementation and professional support. The Magee-Pallotta platform, dubbed “Revive NYSUT,” decisively opposes the Core, favoring local implementation and a complete end to high-stakes testing.

Michael Mulgrew, United Federation of Teachers president: Supports Common Core officially, but also supports “Revive NYSUT,” which is opposed to the Core. Mulgrew, who leads the teachers union in New York City, is emerging as the man in the middle. He’s for Common Core, though critical of the rollout and also endorsed the anti-Common Core Magee-Pallotta ticket in its bid for the state union’s leadership. He also supports Cuomo, a Core proponent. Political observers say NYSUT’s failure to endorse the governor for re-election is one reason Mulgrew endorsed the challenger in the union election. The UFT is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, and comprises about 40 percent of NYSUT’s membership – plenty of votes to decide the outcome of the union election.

Randi Weingarten, AFT president: For the Core (sort of). Weingarten cherry-picks the things she likes and dislikes about the Common Core and her position is a work in progress. She likes teacher evaluation systems, but only if narrowly tailored. She dislikes standardized student testing, and is most strongly opposed to standardized testing that is tied to teacher evaluations. She says she supports higher educational standards, but doesn’t have good things to say about how they’re being implemented anywhere. Weingarten matters to the outcome in New York because of her influence on the unions there. Despite her professed support for the Core, she’s not helping the pro-Common Core Iannuzzi nor slowing down Mulgrew -- and New York political observers say that’s because clout with Cuomo matters more to her than Iannuzzi’s political fortunes.

Emmeline Zhao is the editor of RealClearEducation.

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