A well-organized coalition of parents, teachers and advocates turned out in full force to public forums Tuesday night to support Commissioner John King and his push for tougher learning standards that have sparked opposition in most other parts of the state this fall.
The groups, which included StudentsFirstNY, Families for Excellent Schools and Educators 4 Excellence, used the hearings in Brooklyn and the Bronx to make arguments in favor of the Common Core standards that they feel have been left out of recent debates. In particular, some parents argued that the tougher standards are urgently needed to improve the quality of struggling schools, while some teachers said they enhanced their instruction.
“To those of you who are calling to slow it down or stop the movement for these high standards, you do not speak for me or many of these parents,” said Mery Melendez, a charter-school parent and organizer with Families for Excellent Schools who spoke at the Brooklyn hearing. “We’re tired of waiting for change.”
The supportive presence was most apparent in a packed Medgar Evers College auditorium in Crown Heights where the Brooklyn forum was held. A much smaller audience showed up in the Bronx, though it offered more mixed reviews of state education policies.
Critics at the events – who in Brooklyn were vastly outnumbered – challenged the notion that the standards benefit students. Others argued they were too quickly incorporated into the state tests and that they leave some students behind.
“I believe it is imperative that we find another tool to monitor the progress of ELLs and students with disabilities,” middle school parent Angela Rodriguez, who otherwise supported the Common Core, said at the Bronx meeting.
The friendly turnout for King was a break from some of the hostile crowds that have greeted him in other parts of the state on his six-week tour, which has included 10 community forums and four televised events. King and the education department organized the forums after a first attempt to meet with parents became too disruptive, he has said.
A question coming into the city hearings was whether King would face the same opposition as elsewhere in the state. Some allies, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have suggested that criticism comes mainly from affluent parents with students in suburban schools, not low-income parents in urban school systems.
Thanks to the organizing efforts, which included matching signs and monopolized speaking slots, King encountered virtually no push back. Many parents and teachers framed their support for the Common Core as a civil rights issue about holding schools to the same standards regardless of the student populations they serve.
“I think it’s a cruel injustice to expect less from our minority students than we do of their more affluent peers,” said one teacher.
A press release passed out by StudentsFirstNY before the forum used some of the same language, calling the Common Core a “lifeline” and a “critical civil rights issue” for “communities with failing schools.”
“Across the state there’s a lot of good work happening around the Common Core, so it’s encouraging to hear teachers and parents describing that work,” King said after the forum.
“It doesn’t change that there are undoubtedly challenges and places where we need to make adjustments,” he added, citing plans to increase funding for teacher training and to allow students with disabilities to take tests at their level of instruction rather than their age.
Some objected to the organizing tactics, complaining that supporters showed up well before doors opened to fill out the first speaking spots, which essentially froze out any chance for there to be an opposing view. They also said that their message was unnecessarily polarizing.
Sarah Porter, a parent at Brooklyn’s P.S. 132, called it a “false dichotomy,” which says “if you’re against any part of the Common Core, then you are therefore against educational equity.”
Not everyone to speak shared a rosy view, however. Katie Lapham, a teacher at P.S. 214 in Brooklyn, showed up early enough that she was able to beat the crowd of supporters.
“The Common Core has led to scripted curricula that do little more than prepare students, beginning in kindergarten, for high-stakes Common Core standardized tests,” Lapham said.
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch encountered a smaller audience, but stronger opposition, at Evander Childs school campus in the Bronx. One speaker called for Tisch’s resignation, some criticized the state’s use of student data, while many decried raised anxieties caused by new high-stakes tests.
Some teachers, as well as Educators 4 Excellence founder Evan Stone spoke in support, offering examples of how the standards had helped them craft more challenging lessons for students.
Tisch also took heat for the state’s late notice of the event, which several parents complained made it difficult to get more people to attend.
“For the love of god, you people told us late last week,” said parent Eileen Markie.
Unlike the charter school parents represented at the Brooklyn forum, Markie was part of a contingent from the Bronx Community Charter School that raised the negative impacts that the Common Core was having on their school.
“The intense emphasis on nonfiction technical reading, at the expense of literature, strikes me as diabolical,” Markie added, referring to a literacy shift toward nonfiction text required in the new standards.