Recommended Fixes

Gov. Cuomo’s Common Core task force calls for evaluation freeze, test changes

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

The governor’s Common Core task force has proposed overhauling the Common Core standards and pausing test-based teacher evaluations, paving the way for significant changes to policies that have dominated state education for years.

The recommendations were part of a report, released Thursday afternoon, that reflects parent and educator concerns about state tests, evaluations, and the rollout of the standards that have been brewing for years. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has pushed for tough academic standards and teacher ratings tied to test scores, has said he will pay close attention to the group’s recommendations — indicating that he is ready to back a broad shift in the state’s education policies.

“The Common Core was supposed to ensure all of our children had the education they needed to be college and career-ready — but it actually caused confusion and anxiety,” Cuomo said in a statement. “That ends now.”

The Common Core standards are lists of math and reading skills that students must master by the end of each grade. They form the basis for the state’s annual tests, which have grown increasingly unpopular: This year, one in five students across the state refused to take them.

The report calls for the standards to be revised in a limited way, with plenty of teacher input and adjustments to the standards aimed at the state’s youngest students. It also nods to concerns that the state has already begun to address about the content of tests and the time students spend taking them.

Its most dramatic suggestion, though, is a freeze until 2019 on factoring students’ state test scores into teachers’ ratings — the focus of years of policy wrangling that resulted in a revamped teacher-evaluation system that was introduced in 2013. Earlier this year, Cuomo successfully pushed for the scores to weigh more heavily in the ratings. If he accepts the recommendation, Cuomo will be making a significant retreat from his earlier position.

The proposal to pull back from test-based ratings marks a major victory for teachers unions, who have long argued that the tests are an unreliable measure of teacher performance.

“It validates what we have been saying for years,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said of the report, adding that Thursday was a “historical day.”

Whether the recommendations become reality is up to the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy. But Cuomo has indicated that he will heed the suggestions, which he said Thursday could be adopted without making changes to state law.

“It seems for the most part, the ball is now in the education department’s court and they are already at work on some of these ideas,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The report does not call for replacing the standards, which the state adopted in 2010 as it began a fast-moving series of policy changes sparked by a $700 million federal “Race to the Top” grant. That gave Common Core supporters a minor victory to celebrate Thursday.

“The report makes clear that the current standards and assessments will stay in place,” said Stephen Sigmund, the executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote the standards.

The report proposes a number of changes to the standards, such as making them more age-appropriate for young students and letting parents and teachers review them on a regular basis. For the assessments, it suggests reducing test time, publishing more of the test questions, and giving additional leeway to students with disabilities.

New York joins several states in backing away from the Common Core. A number of states have reviewed, renamed, or tweaked the standards, and a few have completely dropped them.

However, most of the reviews did not yield significant changes, said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

“There’s been a number of states now that have done this kind of review and I think unanimously, the outcome has been relatively modest tweaks of the actual content of the standards,” Polikoff said.

Cuomo appointed the 15-member task force in September, partly in response to the unprecedented wave of testing opposition this spring. At that time, he called the state’s Common Core’s roll out “deeply flawed” and pledged to consider the committee’s recommendations when setting his agenda for next year’s legislative session.

The task force was comprised of educators and advocates from around the state, including New York State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The group spent three months collecting public testimony and reviewing written comments, ultimately consulting about 2,100 people, according to Cuomo’s office.

Still, a full reboot of standards would take far longer than was allotted to the task force, said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute who also works at Democracy Prep, a charter school in Harlem.

“Creating standards is not something that you do quickly, easily, overnight,” Pondiscio said.

The latest recommendations mirror ones proposed by Elia at last month’s Board of Regents meeting. The state education department said it received generally positive feedback on a survey it conducted of the standards, though some critics have questioned those findings.

Cuomo’s task force was not tasked with reviewing teacher evaluations, but during the process its members decided that the standards and assessments could not be separated from the evaluations, since they are based partly on test results.

New York introduced the Common Core-aligned tests in 2013, at the same time as the test-based evaluation system. That combination put significant pressure on teachers, who were suddenly judged based on standards that many said they were unprepared to teach.

In January, Cuomo again raised the stakes for teacher evaluations. Calling the current system “baloney,” he successfully pushed for a revised law that makes tests account for around 50 percent of teachers’ ratings.

By embracing the committee’s report, he is set to abandon the position he staked out earlier this year.

“Today, we will begin to transform our system,” Cuomo said in his statement Thursday, “into one that empowers parents, teachers, and local districts and ensures high standards for all students.”

star power

Matt Damon’s latest role: The voice of an education documentary featuring Tennessee testing

PHOTO: Sarah Mondale, Vera Aronow

Tennessee’s debate about over-testing is a cause célèbre — or at least a cause drawing the attention of Matt Damon.

The movie star narrates a new documentary that explores the privatization of public schools. It features Nashville’s Gower Elementary School, as well as board member Amy Frogge of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Nashville school board member Amy Frogge is featured in the documentary.

Called “Backpack Full of Cash,” the 90-minute film was released in late 2016 and screened this week at the Nashville Film Festival.

“I got involved in ‘Backpack Full of Cash’ because I believe that every kid should have access to great public schools,” Damon said in a statement. “… I got a great education in public schools, and my mom is an educator so I know just how hard teachers work every day.”

The segment featuring Gower Elementary was filmed in the spring of 2014 as students prepared for TCAP tests. A scene showing students practicing multiple-choice questions is followed by a comment from education writer David Kirp: “I’ve sat through those classes. I could barely sit still for 42 minutes. They’re asked to do it for 12 years.”

The film details a long list of tests that Gower students take during the school year, ending with four days of state-mandated testing.

Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow said they chose to focus that part of the film on Tennessee because of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top win of $500 million in federal funds, which was spurred by a slew of reforms with test data at their core.

“(Tennessee) was a leader in the use of data and testing to drive education — a key part of market-based school reform,” Mondale said.

The movie also covers charter schools in Philadelphia and school vouchers in New Orleans. Both have been hotly debated issues in Tennessee as well.

The film’s title pokes at an argument often made by school choice advocates: that public money should follow students, no matter what school they attend.

“This idea that education is nothing more than the sum of public money that follows kids around is exactly the argument that the film is trying to refute,” Mondale said.

Since the movie’s filming, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has twice convened task forces to reduce testing, resulting in the elimination of required eighth- and tenth-grade tests. After test times ballooned in the first year of TNReady in 2016, the state shortened the English test this year. (For fifth-graders, it’s dropped from 226 minutes during the last year of TCAP in 2014-15, to 195 minutes this year.) Meanwhile, testing in math has gotten longer (92 minutes in 2014-15 vs. 115 minutes this year), and science has stayed the same. This year’s social studies test is a shortened field test.

McQueen says her department has taken pains to make the current tests more engaging, while emphasizing that the best test prep is “good teaching,” not tedious practice questions.

“Backpack Full of Cash” is a co-production of Stone Lantern Films Inc. and Turnstone Productions. You can find more information about the film and how to watch it here.

How I Teach

Live, from Music City, an elementary school teacher presents life lessons with a beat

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Christopher Blackmon leads second-grade students in a song he wrote and composed as a music teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Nashville.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Sixteen miles from Music Row, a bustling nexus of Nashville’s recording industry, second-grade students are hard at work perfecting a single at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School.

“Winners, winners don’t quit. They don’t quit!” they sing, reading lyrics and music on a screen. “If I can believe it, then I can achieve it! I must leave my doubts behind.”

Then come the dance moves. Students shake and wiggle with exuberance.

The songwriting credit goes to Christopher Blackmon, a music teacher at Edison Elementary and one of 31 educators nationwide named 2017 Music Teachers of Excellence by the Country Music Association. The CMA Foundation is honoring the group Wednesday at a Nashville event hosted by Little Big Town, the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year.

The acknowledgement draws attention to music education at a time when such programs are being slashed from public schools nationwide. But at Edison Elementary, the pace for teaching and learning music is picking up. In addition to providing instruction twice a week during school, Blackmon and a colleague lead after-school activities that include piano lessons and video production. More than 100 students, or about a sixth of the student body, participate in extra musical enrichment.

Here’s how Blackmon inspires students to love music, and to extend their enthusiasm to other academic subjects. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was most impacted by my high school music experience. We had a great program. I was in the band. I played tuba and baritone, but I also played jazz piano for a jazz combo. My band teacher was somebody you just look up to.

I’m always trying to push kids toward having a strong, principled life that means something and contributes something positive to the culture. With music education, I felt like I could teach both music and those positive character principles that I think kids need.

What does your classroom look like?

There’s a big open space in the middle and toward the front because it’s versatile. I do a lot of things with instruments and I set the instruments out and I have students rotating so they can see the screen, where I have the music up. I like to use less paper because students are just going to throw it away anyway.

They also dance a lot. In fact, they dance every day they come here. Probably, if I hadn’t been a music teacher, I would’ve been in P.E. Exercise helps brain development. The coordinated movement, especially symmetrical movements, where you cross the meridians of your body, is very important to cross-hemispheric development. Music as a whole is. That’s why I am such an advocate for music education, especially at the elementary level. I do a lot of stuff with audio production, (and) I could teach that in high school, but I think this is where people’s foundations are. I want to impact the beginning. I want to impact those foundations and help them establish their lives.

I have keyboards along the back of my room. I inherited 10 and then I have begged, borrowed and stole to get a class set so I can teach kids piano. I actually designed these. It allows four kids to sit at a table and hear only their keyboard through headphones. I can have some kids moving faster working together, some kids moving slower working together.

There’s so much research that shows that kids who get early piano instruction — piano or guitar — their brains develop more gray matter. The research shows over and over that they score higher on tests, that they do better with certain types of problem-solving skills, and so it’s better for everybody, whether or not they’re going to stick with it in real life.

What can’t you teach without?

(Click to listen to this track.)

Every time they walk into the classroom, they don’t get a chance to ask me questions and talk, because I told them I want to hear music first.

This little track is really effective because it reminds them what they’re going to do every single day, and then they know what to expect, but it gets harder and harder each time. It starts my class out the same way, but it doesn’t take a long time, and by five minutes into the class, they have already grown musically.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I try to catch the ones doing right and then comment on it because people will look at them and they’ll pull it together. I’ll say, “I love how so-and-so is being a STAR.” My little STAR thing is just: stand up straight, track the speaker, actively participate, respectfully celebrate. I say it all the time.

If a kid is just totally not getting it together, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you go write down and say how you would fix this?” That usually helps them.

How does parental communicate fit into your teaching approach?

When I see kids with musical talent, I write a personal note or call that parent and let them know that I really recommend that they get some kind of lesson or connect that child to music in some other kind of way. A lot of time, that will be a hook to get students through school when it’s hard.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It sounds like common sense, but the best advice I ever received was about classroom management from Sue Hall, who was the last music teacher here. She said, “Whatever you say you’re going to do, do it.” If you don’t have the respect of the students, you cannot teach them. It doesn’t matter how much they like you — I mean, they can love you — but if they don’t respect you, they don’t behave. And if they don’t behave, they cannot learn.

What does it mean to be teaching music in Music City?

What I do wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of music programs. Sometimes they just want you to do stale old canned musicals they found somewhere, or they want you to teach in a traditional way. I teach in a very non-traditional way, because I’m exposing kids to the real music machine. These kids could make a living in a lot of different ways in music. Traditionally, it’s very classical-based instruction. But if they know how to produce music and they have a good idea, you can make a living. You don’t have to be a big label anymore.

Here’s a music video created and produced by Blackmon and students in an afterschool program: