By Danny Schrafel
A panel of superintendents from Long Island schools waded into the Common Core debate during a forum at the South Huntington Public Library Nov. 12.
The Common Core discussion was the fourth in the Community Conversations series sponsored by the town’s eight public libraries, the Town of Huntington, the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce and the Huntington League of Women Voters.
“Libraries are places where people can listen, share and learn from each other,” said moderator Helen Crosson, longtime director of the Cold Spring Harbor Library who will assume the role of director of the Half Hollow Hills Community Library come Jan. 1. “The Community Conversations series is all about making that belief real.”
The roots of Common Core, facilitator Thomas Rogers, superintendent of the Syosset School District explained, come from another controversial educational mandate – the No Child Left Behind Act, adopted in 2001. That law required 100 percent proficiency in all students by 2014 under penalty of financial sanctions. Common Core, Rogers said, was offered as a way to dodge that bullet.
“It is essentially a federal mandate, the only way to get out of the No Child Left Behind box,” Rogers said.
New York state was one of the first to take on the Common Core by way of winning a federal $700 million Race to the Top grant, which required adoption of a college- and career-aligned curriculum.
But audience members who spoke were hardly shy about their distaste for the Common Core. The night was dedicated to weaving through a web of conflicting viewpoints on the new educational mandates.
For some, it’s the delicate dance of differentiating classroom instruction to reach all learners while working within modules used nationwide. There’s also a challenge when it comes to finding more advanced literature for young readers without wading into adult themes.
Talk of the added Common Core rigor brought disagreement.
“It’s an expansion of the demands of kids we never required of them, and they’re rising to the challenge. They can do it,” said Lydia Bellino, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction of the Cold Spring Harbor School District.
Panelists noted new technology, like iPads and audio books, has opened new doors to early achievement. Curriculum under Common Core is a product of back-mapping, or, starting at what college-entry level expectations for achievement are, and then planning a curriculum backwards from that point to reach those goals.
But Julie Staskowski, a parent of a kindergartener and second-grader in the Commack School District, said there have been “grave concerns” raised in the past that Common Core curriculum was too much, too soon for children.
“Just because they’re doing it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate,” she said.
Panelist Lydia Begley, associate superintendent for educational services for Nassau BOCES, said serving students with special intellectual and emotional needs is especially challenging, and has given administrators an opportunity to “talk to teachers in a very meaningful way about methods.”
“What’s challenging is how to work with students… in a way we can reach them, meet their emotional needs and social-emotional needs and educate them in a way that makes sense,” she said.
Another point of disagreement came into focus when discussion turned to preparatory materials used in tackling those new, rigorous standards.
Unlike the introduction of grade 4 and 8 assessments in 1998-1999, which came with “plenty of materials,” the Common Core rollout was “rushed, and we didn’t have the resources ahead of time,” said Plainview Superintendent Lorna Lewis, likening it to “building a plane while you’re flying.”
“Districts were scrambling to do what they could,” she said. “The modules were out early enough, and many of the districts that were resourced could put some curriculum together over the summer… I worry about those districts that are not resourced.”
However, Begley said that the modules’ availability has increased access to materials for all districts, regardless of the resources.
“Access to material is better than it has ever been,” she said.
In Cold Spring Harbor, Bellino said the district used the modules for the upper grades, but teamed up to write their own elementary-level curriculum and materials, calling on assistance from colleagues in other districts.
“We used each other as resources,” she said.
Rogers attributed evening’s disagreements to the deeply personal nature of the education and the current intensity of the debate.
“You can find any point of view that you’re looking for, with many credible people behind it, because that’s what we’re dealing with right now,” he said. “It’s very contentious, very polarized.”
Lewis urged those upset with Common Core and the standardized testing that comes with it to aim their displeasure at federal representative.
“Until you get change at the federal level, the state has to pay the piper,” she said.