As a seasoned New York City elected official who once presided over the city’s Board of Education, Bill Thompson is no stranger to the tension that policymakers face when trying to raise academic standards.
But as a mayoral candidate on the campaign trail, Thompson emerged this week as a vocal critic of the city’s implementation of tougher learning standards. Students were tested on the standards for the first time this year, to disappointing marks, results that Thompson blamed on a failure by the city to give teachers the training and classroom resources they needed to teach the standards.
“The current administration has forced teachers to implement new standards without giving them the curriculum or the tools they need to do it successfully,” Thompson said on Tuesday.
Thompson’s criticism is notable because he was once on the other side of the policymaking aisle as a city education official more than a decade ago. During his tenure as board president, the state handed down tougher new graduation standards. For the first time, students would have to pass Regents exams to graduate.
Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Schools Chancellor Harold Levy said the new requirement caused more students to drop out of school. Critics who feared that the dropout rate would continue to rise called on the State Education Department to roll back or alter its reforms.
Then-Assemblyman Steve Sanders, education committee chair, offered a critique that echoed Thompson’s concerns about the city’s implementation of the Common Core.
“You cannot expect schools and students to reach a higher goal if you’re not providing the resources and tools to do that,” Sanders told the Daily News in 2001. Sanders was part of a bipartisan backed a bill that would have required the state to allow student portfolio assessments to replace some of the Regents exams.
Thompson did not have authority to change the graduation requirements. But his lobbying could have influenced state education policy. Instead, faced with growing backlash against the requirements, Thompson batted away calls to roll back the reforms. He told the News, “We knew there were going to be difficulties along the way.”
With Levy, Thompson lobbied for more state funding to support the reforms. But neither they said wanted to change the policy.
Campaign representatives for Thompson, who was not available to comment, pointed out that he is not opposed to the Common Core learning standards or the state’s timeline for implementing the changes. They said his criticism this week was focused on the city’s difficulties during the transition, which includes a shortage of new curriculum for schools just weeks before the school year starts.
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city’s chief academic officer, said criticism of the new learning standards were a familiar refrain whenever — and wherever — there are efforts to raise standards.
“It happens every time,” said Polakow-Suransky, who was a first-year principal of a Bronx high school serving English language learners in 2001. “It happened in Massachusetts in the nineties, exactly the same conversation. It’s happened here every time. It happened in Tennessee. There’s always this debate with people saying the high standards are too hard.”