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Testimony

Testimony on Regents reform agenda

Testimony

Testimony of UFT President Michael Mulgrew before the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Education

Thank you very much, Chairman Flanagan and members of the committee. On behalf of the 200,000 members of the United Federation of Teachers, I appreciate this opportunity to address the issues surrounding the rollout of the Common Core Learning Standards.

The UFT together with educators from around the country embrace adopting more rigorous standards to better emphasize the critical thinking and depth of knowledge that many American students need to improve. Before these new Common Core standards were created, each state had its own set of educational standards, all of which differed in academic content.

The New York State Common Core Learning Standards were carefully crafted by experts to raise the bar and improve educational outcomes for students to ensure that they are college- and career-ready in our increasingly competitive world.

Standards are not the same thing as curriculum. They do not show teachers how to teach or dictate teachers’ lesson plans. Instead, these learning standards outline grade by grade the knowledge and skill sets that students are expected to master, which gives teachers useful benchmarks for planning their lessons. Unlike previous standards, the Common Core standards are considered far more rigorous because they move beyond memorization to require that students become skilled in analytical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving.

We know that effecting meaningful change in the vast and complex educational landscape of New York State and New York City is no small endeavor. We never considered that shifting to the Common Core standards could or should be easy or fast. The rollout needs a carefully thought-out process that includes the provision of ongoing professional development for educators, the selection of high-quality new curricula aligned to the standards and the timely delivery of the new teaching materials to educators in time for them to properly prepare to use them.

That hasn’t happened in New York City.

The rollout in the city has to this day been fraught with severe delays and mismanagement. Many schools still now, nearly two months into the school year, lack the curriculum materials they need to teach to the Common Core standards.

This has created a dangerous situation. It is dangerous for our students, who will in a matter of months once again take state tests based on the new standards. In New York City, students’ results on state tests can have a lifelong impact by determining everything from whether they are promoted to the next grade to whether they are admitted into a selective high school program.

It is dangerous for teachers who despite their dedication, hard work and great skills have not in many cases even received the materials they need to shift to the new standards. Teachers’ evaluations this year will be based in part on their students’ growth on state test results.

It is also dangerous for New York State. We have seen around the state growing vocal opposition by parents against the Common Core. The protests come after parents around the state received test scores from last spring’s state tests, the first based on the Common Core, showing their children suddenly deemed below par. Our concern at the UFT is that the same rejection of the new national standards will happen in New York City because of the inept rollout that has been so unfair to both students and educators.

That is why I am here today to ask for your help in setting a temporary moratorium on the high stakes attached to the state tests. New York State should continue the tests and teacher evaluations. But both the state and New York City need to pause in having the test results used in high-stakes decisions such as whether students are promoted to the next grade or in teachers’ evaluations.

A moratorium is the prudent and reasonable path to take. It would help to defuse opposition to the Common Core. It would send the message to parents, students, educators and business leaders that New York State is serious about implementing the Common Core properly, consistently and fairly and that the state will take the time necessary to do so.

In New York City: No Books, No Training, No Support

Let me focus on what has happened in New York City.

The shift to tougher academic guidelines was welcomed by our teachers, who have for years struggled with misguided and destructive directives from the New York City Department of Education and who were desperate for an authentic curriculum and the administrative supports that have been lacking for so long. They knew that these new standards could help our students by raising the bar for our school system and taking it in the right direction. But their optimism was also cautionary because while you would normally design and construct a complete curriculum before you begin to design and implement tests, New York State decided not to follow that path.

The UFT repeatedly asked the city’s Department of Education for new curricula and professional development aligned to the Common Core in advance of last spring’s state tests. We didn’t get it, and you saw what happened across the state with the new state tests: Students’ scores plunged. The drop in test scores was staggering and unnecessary. If the city had provided teachers the necessary curricula and professional development in time for teachers to use them in our schools, we would have seen different test results for our students.

Consider what is happening in our schools. A survey by our research department in mid-September found that 64 percent of schools had not received all or part of promised Common Core math resources, and 78 percent had not received needed English language arts materials.

Now, we are at the point that students have been in school for two months, which means 20 percent of the school year is in the rearview mirror. Yet we at the UFT continue to get daily cries for help. 

Some schools report not having the student textbooks, workbooks or teachers’ guides for their units. While the situation changes every day, here are the kinds of thing we are hearing all over the city: Teachers at Brooklyn’s IS 96 were operating without the first-unit text books or teachers’ guides for their 6th-grade classes. And, for the 7th grade they received the wrong materials for some classes and no books at all for other classes.

PS 200 in Harlem received teacher guides but no student workbooks. The Bronx’s PS 91 got workbooks but no teacher guides. One teacher from a Bronx middle school contacted us just a few days ago, after the teachers in his school were instructed to put aside the lesson plans they had worked on all summer and stop the units they were currently teaching so that the school could switch to another curriculum entirely. As if that mid-course correction weren’t enough, the school doesn’t even have the books that students need nor does it have working copy machines to duplicate materials. Other such examples continue to come in.

Of the schools that did receive materials, some are reporting that they received the wrong books and lesson plans, or received low-quality and incomplete materials. One company sent schools a comic book version of the novel that students were supposed to read. Another school received reading and writing guides from Pearson that had portions printed upside down. The quality and validity of much of the new curricula is uncertain because the many of the materials have not been evaluated by experts or tested in schools.

One of most-purchased elementary school curricula is ReadyGen, written by the giant commercial publisher Pearson. Some of the new curricula appear to be loaded with typos and misprints. The pacing of the lessons is often way off. The training it provides teachers is insufficient. Instructions are confusing. Pearson has told teachers it is still writing some units for this year. In other words, Pearson, which is being paid millions of taxpayer dollars, is supplying city schools with untested, sometimes even unfinished curriculum that lacks scaffolding strategies and is not even developmentally appropriate for early grades.

Most importantly, the curricula lack the critical steps to building the necessary learning skills that allow a child to shift to the analytical thinking that the Common Core requires. In “teacher talk”, that’s what we call “scaffolding,” but what it really means is putting in place specialized supports when students are first starting a new way of learning. For example, you can take a large task and break it into smaller components, helping students begin to learn new complex concepts. Writing a research paper may include many different steps that help students build to the final product. You can’t teach a child unless you scaffold the learning. But right now, all we are seeing are teachers being asked to have students perform to the new standards without building the knowledge to do that.

How are schools handling this inept and haphazard rollout of new curricula?

At some schools, desperate administrators are abandoning the new curriculum and are instead asking teachers to go back to last year’s curriculum units and rewrite them to fill in the gaps of what’s missing in the current curriculum, such as phonics, guided reading and writing. The Department of Education has allowed this even though the teachers do not have the skill sets to do the work. The few teachers who can write curricula aligned to the Common Core have specialized training. The Department of Education also has not taken steps to evaluate whether any of these school-designed curricula in fact adhere to the new standards.

Another school, PS 125 in West Harlem, dusted off last year’s books, “even though they are not considered rigorous enough” for the new standards, according to the New York Times.

The systemic problems with the delivery of new materials aligned with the Common Core have been exacerbated by the city Department of Education’s initial failure even to acknowledge a problem. Even now, no one is taking responsibility for the disastrous rollout. No one at the state or local level took leadership to make sure schools received the proper curricular materials. But the only people who will bear the brunt of this ineptitude are children and teachers.

The State and City Departments of Education Both Had a Role

The problems we are experiencing now were unfortunately predictable. When it first became clear that districts like New York City were dragging their feet on developing new curriculum around the Common Core, the state Education Department should have stepped in to ensure that the work was completed. The NYC DOE, like many districts, only began to engage in the process once it became clear that children’s test scores would plummet and that they were facing a huge public relations problem. This meant that all books, teachers’ guides and other materials that conform to the state-approved curricula had to be rushed into production at the last minute.

What’s more, the State Education Department could also have developed curricula projects that local districts could have then adopted. That was not done, either.

In addition to materials getting produced and delivered haphazardly and at the last minute, most teachers have still not received professional development on using the new curricula in their classrooms. For teachers to be as effective as possible, they need time to learn the new standards and prepare lessons aligned to them. But to date, neither the state nor city education departments nor vendors have made available in-depth, ongoing professional development on the Common Core. In New York City, neither the networks nor the administration were prepared with a strategy for using the new curriculum.

And even now that the DOE is aware of the serious gaps in the curriculum, they have yet to come up with a plan for getting added resources to the schools, such as by providing instructional specialists from the DOE or the networks to create the needed materials rather than removing teachers from the classroom for that work. The DOE could also create an infrastructure to support teachers at the school level instead of having schools send out small teams of four teachers at a time who then have to train the entire school.

Without professional development, teachers lack the support and guidance they need to confront obstacles in teaching to the Common Core. For example, suppose a 5th-grade teacher has an incoming class that reads at the 2nd- or 3rd-grade level. If the new 5th-grade curriculum is completely outside the students’ range of abilities, what then? How could the teacher adapt the curriculum to compensate, or what other materials could the teacher use? And, what about our students who are English language learners or who have special needs? It is unclear if supplemental materials for these students have even been created yet. The DOE should be using and deploying their staff to create these supplemental materials

We would not send out police officers or firefighters without the right equipment to do their jobs. We don’t expect doctors to use new technologies and techniques without proper training.

Yet our state and city Education Departments have failed to ensure that educators had the training and tools they need to shift instruction to an entirely new set of challenging standards for New York City’s 1.1 million public school students.

And what about the students? Last year, they had to take tests they weren’t prepared for and then were told that their terrible scores don’t matter. What 4th- or 5th-grader can really understand that? And now we are going to do it to them again. What happens to a child’s belief in his or her own ability to succeed when we do this to them? We know officials have said that these tests don’t count towards any kind of baseline, but how do you explain that to parents who got reports that their child isn’t proficient?

Demanding Action From Commissioner King

In view of the debacle in the rollout of the Common Core in city schools, the UFT Delegate Assembly three weeks ago overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on attaching high-stakes consequences to the state’s new tests. A second resolution calls for an end to New York City’s overemphasis on testing. The resolution on the moratorium says that the state should continue administering the new Common Core tests each spring, but it calls for a delay in using the test results to make high-stakes decisions about students, teachers or schools.

The union strongly supports the Common Core Learning Standards “as a means toward ensuring that children in the city and across the country learn the critical thinking skills necessary for success in today’s competitive world”, but we also strongly feel that it is harmful and unfair to children to give them high-stakes tests on material and skills which their schools have not had adequate time or resources to teach. A “pause” is important until we can all be convinced that the new standards are being properly implemented. The moratorium would give the state and the NYC DOE the time to get this right. Our children deserve better than a careless and haphazard rollout.

Last week, we sent a letter to State Education Commissioner John King detailing our concerns about the rollout of the Common Core curricula and the lack of professional development.

But Commissioner King has said our call for a moratorium is a “distraction.” If our calling for a solution to these problems is a distraction, and the need for every teacher to have the proper tools and training is a distraction, then it is hard to have any confidence that New York State will ever successfully implement the Common Core.

Let me be very clear. The UFT supports the Common Core as strongly we have from the start. We are calling for the state to continue administering the new tests each spring. But in light of the severely mismanaged transition to the new standards, it would be unconscionable for the state and the city to make high-stakes decisions about students, teachers or schools based on the test results. Before using these test scores in any high-stakes decisions, we must correct the problems with the rollout of the Common Core. 

Moving Forward

Beyond the moratorium, there are several critical steps that need to happen in order to forestall a rising tide of protests against Common Core and the more rigorous requirements that come with it.   

First and foremost, for the adoption of Common Core and the new evaluation system to be successful - indeed, to avoid it harming students – the New York State and New York City education departments must do much more than just administer high-stakes tests and develop statistical models. Surely they must, at the bare minimum, provide all schools equally with appropriate curricula. The new teacher evaluation system was intended to be a fair process utilizing constructive observations and student assessments that is equitably applied to all teachers. Schools without a full, proper Common Core-aligned curriculum are at an unfair disadvantage to those who have received the necessary materials and support.

Secondly, Albany and the next New York City administration need to let teachers get back to teaching, rather than spending much of their time with multiple, repetitive and unnecessary reports. The Common Core standards demand more from students and teachers alike. But teachers in New York City now have to spend hundreds of hours every year on new and complex forms for each one of their students — lengthy and repetitive pre- and post-lesson assessments, benchmark and baseline assessments, task bundles, diagnostics, progress monitoring and every other piece of paper a principal can devise to make it look like supervisors are on top of the learning situation in each school. This crazed notion that teachers must be required to do inordinate amounts of unnecessary paperwork in the name of accountability cannot be allowed to spread to the rest of the state.

The excessive paperwork takes away time that teachers really need to do their jobs, such as by working together across grades and subjects, planning lessons, giving individual comments on student assignments and meeting with parents. Much of the information on this paperwork goes into a bureaucratic limbo, unavailable to teachers and their colleagues when they sit down together to try to figure out how to help struggling students succeed. The city’s school system eliminated its department dedicated to curriculum development and instruction while hiring “accountability” experts to keep track of the flood of data that supposedly measured progress.

Thirdly, the next administration, as well as the rest of the state, must remember that test prep is not real teaching, and that high-stakes tests are no substitute for real learning. Just yesterday, I received a report that a school is using bubble tests for kindergarten students. It’s clear that the testing craze has gone out of control. Allowing our educational system to become centered around test scores and creating an environment where nothing else counts will do nothing but harm children in the end.

My greatest fear is an obsessive focus on standardized tests will damage our public school systems in New York State.

Closing Thoughts

The Common Core Learning Standards have the potential to make a huge positive impact on the lives of children – if they are implemented correctly. But the rollout so far has set us back rather than moved us forward in shifting to these new standards. Our students can’t wait until next week, next month or next year to get it right. They need us to solve these problems now.