For information on how to refuse the New York State tests for grades 3-8 in April, click here.
Reform and dissent
Kingston Action for Education has issues with Cuomo’s agenda by Crispin Kott
LATE LAST MONTH, GOV. ANDREW CUOMO’S Administration broke with the long standing tradition of providing school districts across New York State with runs,the projected aid increases, based on the governor’s education funding proposal, which district officials use to help shape their own budgets. Administration officials confirmed the school runs were being withheld because the governor’s education reform agenda has not been met favorably by the state legislature. Some parents in the Kingston City School District aren’t too happy with the governor either.
Kingston Action for Education (KAFE)is a parents’ advocacy in education group founded in March 2014 by Jolyn Safron, Maria Maritsas and Tory Lowe. KAFE has been leading the charge in opposing the controversial Common Core curriculum which are still working their way into the public school system. Last November, the Ulster County Legislature voted 23-0 on a resolution supporting the discontinuation of Common Core implementation until the standards can be evaluated and improved at the state level. Safron lauded the decision at the time, and local lawmakers joined others across the state in questioning Common Core and other elements of the governor’s educational plan.
Among the governor’s proposed education reforms are stricter teacher evaluations, an extended period of time to earn tenure, the expansion of charter schools and an increase in state oversight of struggling schools and districts. Presently, 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on the results of standardized testing; Cuomo’s plan would double that.
At a meeting of Kingston’s Board of Education last week, KAFEs cofounders read a prepared statement opposing the governor’s education package.
“His proposal has made it abundantly clear that he supports an increased emphasis on high-stakes testing and that he supports a reduction in local control of our schools,” said the KAFE statement. “He does not support a fair and appropriate education for our students but instead is holding school aid hostage to force the legislature to implement his education proposals.”
Already opposed to the increase in standardized tests KCSD students are asked to take, KAFE expressed concern that relying more heavily on the results for teacher evaluations “will undoubtedly intensify the teaching to the test atmosphere in the classroom.”
“KAFE opposes standardized high-stakes testing that is currently pushed by the federal and state governments because this testing is not being used to further instruction for children, to help children, or to support the educational needs of children,” read the statement.
Kingston Superintendent Paul Padalino called the governor’s office withholding state aid runs “a little childish” last month, and he encouraged an ongoing dialogue about education reform as the way forward.
“There are some parts of what [Governor Cuomo] is talking about that are absolutely dead on, but there are different ways of doing it,” Padalino said. “Let’s get a statewide professional review rubric, a statewide system thats a real look at what testing should be counted on for teachers, and a reasonable amount of testing for our students. Let’s talk about that. Let’s have a productive conversation instead of this going to the extremes and creating hurdles that no one can jump over. If the governor’s goal is to improve education, these extremes aren’t going to be the way to do it.”
For KAFE, that dialogue is something that’s been sorely lacking, especially from the governor’s office.
“Parents and educators have been trying to convey the manyconcerns that we have concerning the state of education for the last two years and Governor Cuomo has not been listening” said Safron. “And it’s become blatantly obvious with this education agenda that he’s doing what I feel is exactly the opposite of the things that need to be done. It feels like a slap in the face”
Maritsas agreed, adding that the voices are only going to grow louder the more they’re ignored.
“It seems as though the governor hasn’t been listening to what has been going on throughout New YorkState,” she said. “With his increased emphasis on standardized testing, it has caused teachers’ unions to speak out against his reforms that parents have been in an uproar about for the past couple of years. Many more teachers and school district employees have become vocal about the current state of education and are starting to come out of the shadows and not fear the repercussions of speaking out from their districts.”
The governor’s reform agenda is also making waves elsewhere, with a critical open letter penned by seven New York State Teachers of the Year and published in the Albany Times Union being widely circulated through social and traditional media. “Education is our life” closes the opening paragraph. “For this, you have made us the enemy. This is personal.” The letter touches on many of the same points as KAFE’s statement, and it further suggests that the governor’s reforms aren’t likely to succeed.
“Merit pay, charter schools and increased scrutiny of teachers won’t work because they fundamentally misdiagnose the problem,” reads the letter. “It’s not that teachers or schools are horrible. Rather, the problem is that students with an achievement gap also have an income gap, a health-care gap, a housing gap, a family gap and a safety gap, just to name a few. If we truly want to improve educational outcomes, these are the real issues that must be addressed.”
FOR MARITSAS, THE INCREASED EMPHASIS ON high stakes testing is of the utmost concern. “I am a parent of a classified student and [Governor Cuomo’s] proposal does not take into consideration children’s level of ability within the high stakes testing environment,” she said. “Children who are not functioning at grade level, who are working with goals set on their IEPs, also not grade level, are forced to take exams well above their level of functioning. It is unfair not only for the children who have to take these exams above their functioning but also unfair for the teachers who choose to work with the most needy of students to have their evaluation be based 50 percent on the outcome of one test.”
“That is what I see as the area that directly causes so much pain to many kids and is driving so much of the damage that is being done in our schools” she said. “I am incredibly concerned about Common Core as a whole, and I do view Common Core as a whole package with the standards and the testing and the teacher appraisal system. If it’s raised to 50 percent, they can’t help but teach to the test. That test is going to be the deciding determinant of their job.”
Some parents and educators are optimistic that there may be further discussion and a greater sense of local unification as a result of the governor’s reform agenda, along with the withholding of state aid runs and the increased opposition to the Gap Elimination Adjustment, enacted in the 2010-11 fiscal year to help close New York’s budget deficit. Under the GEA, a portion of the state’s funding shortfall is divided among all school districts in the state based on a formula and each district’s state aid is reduced accordingly. According to a September 2014 report by New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the Kingston City School District has lost out on an estimated $31 million over the past five years.
“It is my hope that school districts and opponents of the reform draw closer together throughout this process,” said Maritsas. “We may not agree on everything, but both sides need to come together as one and work towards what is best for our children and the district. The end result is ultimately the same, the best education for students with fair funding for our district.”
But while conversations are happening locally, some members of KAFE feel the best way of getting their voices heard further up the chain is through action. Safron said she was hoping parents of students in grades 3-8 will opt out of standardized tests planned for April of this year.
“If we can stop the data that is being harvested from our kids, if we stop that pipeline, it’s our only hope to make change. Because we are being ignored. It feels like we are being pushed to drastic extremes. We have to act this year. With everything Governor Cuomo is doing and the direction he’s taking, we can’t continue this way in New York.”