Parsing Education Issues in New York State

  In recent months, I have had the opportunity to talk with many members of our community — teachers, administrators, parents and students — about the state of education in New York State, particularly the critical and controversial issues of Common Core, “high-stakes” testing, and student privacy.  While there has been a tendency by Reading at Hudson School picsome in the public and the media to lump these all together — often mistakenly under the catchall of Common Core — they are in fact three separate issues that need to be looked at and considered separately.

Over the past decade it has become increasingly clear that American students are falling behind in almost every performance evaluation. In an arena in which we once led the world, we now trail other industrialized nations, often by significant margins. Just as troubling, many colleges are reporting that their freshman students are inadequately prepared for college level work, including poor writing skills and a lack of critical thinking and problem solving skills. The goals of Common Core — which is not a curriculum, but rather a set of shared standards developed and embraced by some 45 states — are to better prepare our students for college and the global job market in the increasingly demanding and ever changing world in which we live.

The 106th Assembly District that I represent includes all or part of fifteen different school districts and I hear a broad range of perspectives on Common Core.  I know that some folks are distressed over the initial drop in test scores. Others, however, are simply excited about setting higher classroom standards. Some fear that students will no longer read enough fiction. Yet, there are others who are pleased by equal time for their own preference for non-fiction. Educators in districts that have a large percentage of transient students applaud the chance for those students to be better prepared to adhere to higher academic standards as life and circumstance move them from school to school or often times, district to district.

Everyone seems to agree that educating more critical thinkers is a very good thing, and while the State Education Department (SED) offers guidelines for schools, they also support flexibility in approach and support in the classroom to encourage every student’s understanding of the material. Nonetheless, while the intent and the content of the Common Core may be laudable, I share the concerns expressed by many about the fast and rocky roll out of these new standards, the lack of materials for teachers and the implications for students with special needs. We have every right to expect that our schools and our teachers would have the appropriate resources — time, funding, materials and training opportunities — to prepare for a major roll out of this scale and this didn’t seem to happen in too many cases with Common Core.

I have real questions, as well, about testing in schools today: Are we spending too much time on testing? Are we testing what matters? Who gets tested and how? Are we using the best kinds of tests? What are these tests meant to measure and do they? At what ages should standardized testing take place?  Often this testing is the result of multiple mandates and evaluation requirements — not just Common Core —  and it is critical that the State Education Department and the school districts rein in excessive testing. I believe students of all ages and abilities can be offered a challenging and stimulating learning environment without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated at school.

On the issue of student privacy and data collection, I have serious concerns about SED’s plans with inBloom, a data collection service which would store large amounts of performance and other data on individual students, and the potential for personally identifiable information to be disclosed, even unintentionally.  I recently participated in a public hearing held by the Assembly Education Committee that explored these plans which, in part, come from the requirements for Race to the Top funding.  In recent months some local school districts have chosen to opt out of that funding rather than share their student data with a third party. During my time in the Assembly, I have voted twice to protect student data and recently joined my colleagues in a letter to Education Commissioner John King requesting that no sensitive student data be shared with inBloom at this point.

As the mother of two young adults, I know that no two children learn in the same way. Our goal as parents, educators, policymakers and stakeholders is to ensure that every child gets the education they need to become a happy, functioning adult and an engaged member of society. I know that many people continue to have serious questions about aspects of public education in our state. However, I also know that we all share the goal of doing what’s best for our children. By addressing these legitimate concerns, carrying out a respectful dialogue, and making adjustments where necessary, I believe we can together do what’s right for the students, schools and communities across New York.

About Diner Dialogues

Didi Barrett was elected to the New York State Assembly in a special election in March 2012 and re-elected to a full term in November 2012. Her district, the 106th AD, covers some of the most beautiful parts of Columbia and Dutchess Counties. She has deep roots in the Hudson Valley and came to elected office after a career as a community activist, writer and longtime leader of not-for-profit organizations. Didi is passionate about the agricultural, natural, cultural and historic resources of the Hudson Valley and their critical importance as economic engines and job generators. She is also a great fan of the iconic diners that dot the region. As a member of the Assembly she serves on the Committees on Aging; Agriculture; Economic Development, Job Creation, Commerce and Industry; Mental Health; Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development and Veterans Affairs.
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