New York's education policymakers say they really were listening, even to the shouting, during a series of volatile public forums held to explain a slate of education reforms intended to better prepare public school students for college and the job market.
This month, a newly appointed Regents task force will begin reviewing comments from the 20 statewide forums, with instructions to come back with ideas for smoothing the way forward on stricter K-12 learning standards, student testing and teacher evaluations.
"If you went under the surface of the contention, the truth was we heard some people bring up some very reasonable thoughts about modifications," said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who appointed the six-member task force.
At each stop in Education Commissioner John King Jr.'s tour, parents, teachers and students described excessive and stressful student testing and a loss of creativity in the classroom.
King and members of the Board of Regents were criticized for aligning statewide assessments with the new learning standards before every teacher had access to training and materials and for relying too heavily on tests as a measure of student and teacher success.
Parent advocate Lisa Rudley, who has three children in the Ossining school district and attended a Westchester County forum, called the task force "too little, too late." She said issues like the toll of high-stakes testing in classrooms should have been addressed before reforms were adopted, and she doubted a task force made up of Regents members would move to change course.
"Parents, educators, community members did not feel heard at the forums," Rudley said. "Clearly they didn't feel heard before, and they don't feel heard now."
Although King stressed that the federal Common Core Learning Standards adopted by 46 states have not increased the number of statewide assessments, many districts are testing students more as part of a separate state mandate for annual teacher evaluations. By law, 20 percent of the evaluations must be based on the statewide assessments, 60 percent on classroom observation and 20 percent on a district-negotiated measure of student growth, which for many districts has meant pre- and post-lesson testing.
"It is important for everyone who spoke out to understand we are genuinely listening," Regent Jim Tallon said. "Now it's time for us to take a breath and say, 'What are the reasonable steps we can take?'"
Andrew Ludwig, a parent and principal, publicly questioned whether the state's policymakers were doing more than nodding their heads and smiling at a Dec. 3 forum in Jamestown. The convening of a task force did little to change his opinion, he said, given the depth of the public's concerns with the uneven rollout of the Common Core, high-stakes testing and mandatory teacher evaluations.
"To try to do all of this, it was too much, too fast, too soon, and now we've got a mess," said Ludwig, principal at Fredonia Middle School. "There are so many things that need to be fixed ... So (the task force is) going to pick a couple of things and say, 'We're listening' and 'We're addressing.' I just don't think it's going to matter."
The goal is not to undo what's been done or slow the pace of reform, said task force members, whose first meeting is Wednesday. It wouldn't make sense, for example, to go back to testing on the old learning standards, they said. Instead, the task force will focus on how to improve professional development and communication and look for ways to cut down on the time students spend taking tests, perhaps by encouraging districts to replace local assessments with some other measure in teacher evaluations.
On Thursday, King secured a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that will spare nearly 60,000 advanced seventh- and eighth-grade students who are taking the math Regents exam this spring from also having to take a grade-level math assessment. The waiver, he said, is proof he and the Regents are committed to doing away with unproductive testing.
Tallon and fellow Regent Robert Bennett said the task force also would explore ways that teachers can help parents understand the new standards after hearing many complain they are baffled by their children's homework and unable to help.
"My charge to the work group," Tisch said, "was to look at curriculum, to look at professional development, to look at assessment policy ... and try to come up with a set of operational adjustments that will allow us to have a less contentious rollout of what I think is a very significant public policy."
King has been consistent in his support for reform, blaming some of the resistance on "misinformation." In a Dec. 30 letter to educators, he said it is essential to move forward with the Common Core, which was developed as a uniform guide to the skills a student should have at each grade level.
"Although much attention has been paid to concerns about implementation, there is also evidence of important and positive change," King wrote. "Each week, I visit classrooms where educators ... continue to refine their practice and challenge students with rigorous and exciting learning activities."