Column: It’s the parents who need to fight Common Core

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO  |  Educators packed a forum at Eastport-South Manor High School last week to express their displeasure over Common Core.

Our local teachers and administrators are sounding an alarm.

They’re the “canaries in the coal mine,” says Terry Kalb, a recently retired Eastern Suffolk BOCES special education teacher. And they’re sensing something toxic.

Michael White, editor
Michael White

While nonprofits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and political lobbyists like Students First flood statehouses with cash and bombard the Internet with buzz-word-laden propaganda in pushing for the Common Core State Standards, Long Island teachers are appalled by what they’re experiencing in classrooms.

Related: Numbers-driven Common Core initiative ignores life’s realities

“These reforms are not only so disastrous, they’re funded by billionaires who are accountable to nobody,” said Ms. Kalb, also a former Shoreham-Wading River school board member. “And that’s the problem. If the decision-making was in local hands, common sense could prevail much more quickly and readily over Common Core. But the decision-making has been removed from anyone the public could impact.”

That disconnect between the public and the policy was on full display at a packed forum last week in Manorville, where state education commissioner John King was peppered with specific concerns and questions over Common Core and related education reform measures.

In his responses, he stuck largely to recounting numbers and data and studies. He took refuge in generalities, without trying in any way to level with those in attendance through concessions or even empathy. Then again, why would he have given it any effort? Mr. King doesn’t answer directly to the public. Like a 14-year-old at a great aunt’s funeral, he was only there because someone made him attend. (He had wanted to cancel the forums.)

Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch said nothing, other than to tell the crowd to calm down.

At the very least, politicians would pretend to give a damn, and they may just feel the pressure to do something. The Common Core Standards were not created through legislation, so elected leaders can respond to complaints to their offices simply by saying: “It wasn’t me.”

That’s what’s so dangerous.

The Common Core was born out of the work of organizations such as the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with the help of special interest groups with ties to big business. The stated goal is to better prepare students for college and careers, and align educational expectations among states.

The Gates Foundation helped fund its creation, and it’s been backed by the Obama administration through federal grants for states that adopt the standards. Pearson, a worldwide publishing company, is the primary producer and seller of Common Core instructional materials.

So it’s a wide-reaching social experiment, of which many people stand to profit. And it’s one that’s easy to sell to idealists because it sounds good on paper. (Make kids smarter!)

On paper, communism works.

Enter real-life. Ms. Kalb was one of about two dozen people chosen to address Mr. King last week. A special education teacher for more than three decades, she explained that she’s come out of retirement to be an advocate for special needs students and teachers after hearing stories of them being victimized by implementation of the Common Core in local schools.

She took Mr. King and the Regents members who were on stage last week to task for overlooking the basics of educating children — especially those with disabilities, of which only 5 percent reportedly passed the Common Core assessments last school year.

She spoke of one special needs child she knows who’s being tested four grades above where he’s functioning. And of a parent who asks her: “How can my son learn if with every task he’s given, he fails?” Another student, who’s autistic and had been mainstreamed into regular classrooms, is now being sent back to a self-contained environment because he “can’t keep up” with the scripted Common Core lessons, she said.

“Every teacher understands you don’t teach and test children at the level you wish they were functioning at,” Ms. Kalb said to wild applause. “The way to do it is you meet them where they are and guide them forward toward building their confidence and meeting success every step of the way.”

She and other educators see a bleak future for public education in this country. Between the huge cost of implementing the Common Core — and, at least in New York, the 2 percent tax cap — extracurricular programs that make school fun will be whittled away. Dropout rates could soar.

Yet private schools will continue to emphasize the importance of arts and music and sports.

What will frustrated parents do? Look elsewhere in educating their children, if they have the means.

“There’s going to be a flight from the public schools,” Ms. Kalb predicts. “Then the only children who will be left will be those whose families have no other options.”

So what could be done to prevent what Shoreham-Wading River superintendent Steven Cohen has called “educational apartheid” in America?

“The real power lies in the parents making the decision to refuse the testing for their children,” Ms. Kalb says. “Deny them the data. School administrators and teachers cannot say this. But people like me, and the wonderful parents who are providing leadership in the ‘opt out’ movement are leading the charge and gaining ground.”

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at [email protected] or (631) 298-3200, Ext. 152.