Common Core critics and backers compete at Manhattan forum

After an unexpectedly warm welcome in Brooklyn, state Education Commissioner John King received a more typical — and icier — reception in Manhattan Wednesday on the latest stop of his statewide Common Core listening tour.

As at many of the upstate forums devoted to the tougher standards, the one in Lower Manhattan featured emotional testimonies on the toll of testing, harsh criticism of the state and some heated heckling — including by a woman who said King should be arrested for child abuse.

But, like in Brooklyn, there was also a sizable contingent of parents and teachers — many of them affiliated with advocacy groups that backed the Bloomberg administration’s education policies — who argued that the new standards push students to higher planes of thought and eventually college.

As a result, some speakers seemed to direct their arguments as much to other members of the public as to the education officials seated before them.

Nancy Harris, principal of the Spruce Street School, where the three-hour forum was held, summarized much of the debate over the Common Core in her opening remarks.

She said the new standards are more rigorous and start to “close the gap” between U.S. and foreign students. But as educators work to adopt the Common Core, they have been stymied by incomplete curricula, insufficient support, and “high-stakes” tests from the state, Harris said.

“The roll out on the school level has made it incredibly challenging to move the standards from aspirational to reality,” she told King, as the crowd cheered.

When the state tied its annual grade 3-8 exams to the new standards last spring, proficiency rates tanked and criticisms of the Common Core amplified across the state. The education department’s six-week fall listening tour — which was scheduled after a disastrous first hearing caused King to cancel an earlier round of talks — has often been met by large, raucous crowds.

The rare exception came at the forum Tuesday in Brooklyn, where parents and teachers who support the standards and the state tests — many of them organized by the groups StudentsFirstNY and Educators 4 Excellence — dominated the speaker sign-up sheet and, as a result, the news headlines.

Hoping to avoid a repeat, many more Common Core critics appeared at Wednesday’s forum, with some lining up outside hours before the event. The critics — some of them affiliated with groups that oppose high-stakes testing — were vocal during the forum, often heckling King and booing speakers. They loudly objected when a group of pro-Common Core students from John Adams High School shared a single speaking slot, with some in the crowd shouting “Not fair!” and calling the students a “dog-and-pony show.”

Laurel Sturt, a former city high-school teacher, told King and the other education officials at the forum they should be arrested for “educational neglect,” “child abuse” and other “charges,” echoing rhetoric that some critics have used at past forums.

Several speakers said they were not opposed to the standards so much as the standardized tests tied to them.

Kimron Thomas, a social studies teacher at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, said some of his students cried, vomited, and punched walls this year as they took the tougher tests. The school had not been given the time or resources to help students meet the higher standards, he added.

“I can’t make my 7th-graders read like 10th-graders just because you guys said so,” he said.

The new standards have been especially challenging for students with disabilities, many said — including Lorri Gumanow, who said the added stress at school has led her 8th-grade son, who has an IEP, to threaten suicide.

Others criticized the state’s plan to share students’ personal information with the nonprofit data-storage firm, inBloom.

Repeating arguments made Tuesday, several parents who support the Common Core said the standards promote equity among schools and districts. Several teachers said the challenge of adopting the standards was justified by the more advanced skills they push students to develop.

The students from the critical-thinking class at John Adams High School said the higher standards would help them in college and beyond.

“The Common Core is here to change the lives of students and prepare them for their future,” said Aliyaah Morant, a senior.

King defended the standards throughout the evening, though he acknowledged the state’s shift to them had been “uneven” and promised to push for more funding for teacher training and other supports. Details about upcoming forums in Queens and Staten Island have not yet been announced.