Whose Common Core Is It, Anyway?

Bob Lowry shared a story. 

“I dropped my daughter off at school last year after the April school break, and she said to me, ‘I wouldn’t mind going back, except for all the testing.’ The thing is, my daughter was in tenth grade, past the 3 through 8 tests.” 

In other words, Lowry’s daughter wasn’t stressed about the tests associated with the Common Core; she was concerned about the tests the district had implemented to comply with teacher evaluations. 

At the time, only students in grades 3 through 8 were subject to both Common Core and Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) testing. 

It’s a nuance many parents may not understand. 

Lowry, who serves as deputy director for advocacy and communications for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, stresses that an obstacle to lowering tensions over testing is that APPR is not just a State Education Department (SED) policy but a law the Assembly and Senate passed, the governor signed, the SED supported and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) agreed to. 

Said Lowry, “I’ve heard legislators criticize the Regents and the State Education Department. Some of the criticism is fair, but some of it arises from a law many of them voted for.” 

That is to say, when Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino calls it “Cuomo’s Common Core,” he’s wrong. It would be more accurate to say “Albany’s APPR.” 

The Annual Professional Performance Review is a state-governed process, one that school districts were motivated to adopt because of the governor’s carrot-and-stick approach to policy: Either negotiate and approve a teacher evaluation plan by Jan. 17, 2013, or incur a state aid penalty of 4 percent. 

This year stress around teacher evaluations was compounded by the simultaneous rollout of the Common Core standards by the State Education Department. 

While it may not be accurate to blame public anger on the Common Core, it has become the catchall term for the myriad problems facing the state’s education system in the same way fracking is used by the public to refer to the entire process of shale gas drilling. 

Elected officials have shown skill at taking advantage of that confusion. 

After a Regents working group released 19 recommended reforms to both the Common Core implementation and the teacher evaluation process, Gov. Cuomo issued a statement saying the Regents “used anger over the Common Core to stop the teacher evaluation process.” 

While the statement accurately makes a distinction between the two issues, the governor failed to acknowledge that the added testing around teacher evaluations is in large part to blame for the public’s anger. 

“I understand recommendations to alleviate the anxiety of parents [and] of students on the Common Core, because it was not implemented properly, because there was not the right transition. So the anxiety is up,” the governor told The Capitol Pressroom. “But that’s separate from the teacher evaluations.” 

While it is separate, parents are complaining about both. 

With the governor unwilling to acknowledge problems with APPR, parents may be stuck with it, since any change in the law will require agreement from the Assembly, the Senate and the governor. 

None of this leaves the New York State Department of Education and the Board of Regents off the hook. 

Last year’s 3–8 tests were too long, and poorly designed. Even before the pass rates were released, it was widely reported that high-achieving students complained they didn’t have time to finish the tests, and struggling students just gave up. Once the grades were made public, parental anger caught fire. 

Additionally, at the start of the last school year, SED had very few of the curriculum modules available to help schools teach the new Common Core standards. And now that they are available, they are seen as uneven in quality and usefulness. 

The crisis in New York over the Common Core and APPR isn’t happening in a vacuum. 

At the same time, school districts continue to be burdened by the 2010 Gap Elimination Adjustment, which was instituted during the economic downturn. This year the GEA has cost school districts $1.63 billion dollars. 

Money, says Dr. Rick Timbs of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, is the real issue. 

“Economically, the Core is more of a problem in schools that lack the resources to retool. I’m talking about teachers, staff development, equipment, time. They all equal money,” says Timbs. “This inequity is being overshadowed by the distraction of testing.” 

He and other education advocates like Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education have been fighting for more state aid for years. 

“We have shrinking classroom resources,” says Easton. “We are actually cutting the quality of the curriculum. The focus is not on teaching and learning, which is what resources are designed to drive. Instead, the focus is on testing. That drives a hyper-focus on teaching to the test.” 

Michael Rebell, the attorney who successfully argued the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, goes further. In a new lawsuit, New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights v. State of NY, which Rebell filed this month in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, he argues that state officials have failed to live up to their constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education for New York students. 

The governor has been clear that more money is not forthcoming, saying recently, “It ain’t about the money.” 

That assessment doesn’t sit well with education advocates. 

“Even if one believed there is enough money overall in the system—and there isn’t—some school districts have it, and clearly others do not,” argues Rick Timbs. “The disparity is not only huge, it’s shameful.”