Standard Debate

Common Core critics and backers compete at Manhattan forum

Unlike at a forum in Brooklyn Tuesday, many critics of the Common Core standards spoke at hearing Wednesday in Manhattan, while state Education Commissioner John King (center) listened.
Unlike at a forum in Brooklyn Tuesday, many critics of the Common Core standards spoke at hearing Wednesday in Manhattan, while state Education Commissioner John King (center) listened.

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.

Aliyaah Morant was one of several students from John Adams High School attended the forum Wednesday, where they cited research in defense of the Common Core standards.
Aliyaah Morant was one of several students from John Adams High School attended the forum Wednesday, where they cited research in defense of the Common Core standards.

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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”