Heckling and impassioned outbursts abounded at the Common Core community forum at Eastport-South Manor High School in Manorville last night, where roughly 1,000 eastern Suffolk parents and educators gathered to address New York State Education Commissioner John King.
The heckling spread as King’s responses failed to satisfy his audience, with whispers and grumbling turning to shouts of “He’s not answering the questions” and “This is the same old stuff” rising from the crowd.
Topics ranged from speed of the curriculum’s implementation to the focus on English Language Arts and math, to teacher evaluations and electronic warehousing of students’ sensitive information.
King sat on stage with Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Regent Roger Tilles.
Catherine Callaghan, who has a child in the Riverhead Central School District’s first grade, criticized what she characterized as the curriculum’s narrowed focus, and asked how it supports students whose strengths are in the arts, sports, craftsmanship and philosophical thought.
“I believe the Common Core curriculum is a direct threat to the diversity of what families and communities may value in their children,” Callaghan said. “Grade school should be a time to explore where their strengths may lie, instead of compromising their forming confidence and self-perception if they do not conform. With so many teaching models here in the Information Age, it seems so illogical to be choosing such a restrictive model as the Common Core curriculum.”
Robert Sweeney of Mt. Sinai asked whether King, Tisch and Tilles were truly listening.
“The authority of curriculum rests in the hands of the local school boards, the teachers and the community. I have listened to parents, I have heard their voices; they are seeing their children break because you have mismanaged the rollout of Common Core,” Sweeney said.
Several speakers questioned who stands to profit from the curriculum’s implementation, noting contracts with the Pearson publishing company and inBloom, Inc., which compiles students’ educational and personal data.
King’s responses each came after a group of speakers voiced their concerns. He acknowledged that the implementation requires “tweaking” and said too much student testing is a concern. Overall, he defended the idea that Common Core is a better approach for readying students for higher education and careers.
Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Lisa Goulding left for holiday travel plans soon after the forum began, but said she wasn’t surprised at the crowd’s reactions to King’s remarks.
“I’ve heard him speak probably four or five times. He has scripted answers. If he was a student, he’d get a one. If he was one of our teachers, it would be ‘ineffective,'” she said, using the new system’s controversial grading rubric.
She called King “out of touch” with what is happening in public schools, noting his experience teaching for several years in private charter schools. She said he appears unwilling to listen.
Union vice-president Gary Karlson said he didn’t hear anything new from the commissioner.
“You could have just pressed play on some of the Youtube pre-recordings,” Karlson said.
He said he was more interested in how LaValle, Tilles and some of the other dignitaries stepped in to ask the crowd for decency as disruptions continued, in what he felt was “speaking for King.”
Karlson said he’s interested in the way Common Core’s rollout has developed into a parenting issue around things like privacy and coping with children’s anxiety about performance.
“The process kind of delivered what we all knew that it would, which was a public airing of so many of the things we’ve seen written and heard,” he said.
RCSD Superintendent Nancy Carney said she thought the forum amounted to an important exchange between local parents, educators and the commissioner, and that speakers were articulate in their comments. She said King’s comments were limited.
“He didn’t really say that much. He didn’t respond or answer people’s questions,” Carney said.
Senator Kenneth P. LaValle hosted the forum. He called it an “historic” event for the area and said he felt it went well. He said he was disappointed by attendees’ behavior at times, but understands that many people “feel the state Education Department is not listening to them and too many children are being compromised in the process.”
LaValle said King “lacks passion” when he speaks, but was more animated Tuesday than he was at the recent forum at Ward Melville High School in Setauket Nov. 12, where the commissioner experienced a similarly angry reception. LaValle said King’s “responses are his responses – they’re the same” as in earlier meetings and presentations.
He also noted that his staff recognized some community speakers from other meetings, and that their comments were scripted as well.
During a conference call Tuesday morning, LaValle said he told King the forum would be an opportunity to break from the message he has so consistently been delivering and show that he hears what people are saying.
“The closest he came was when he said we’ve got to deal with children with learning problems,” said LaValle. He said King and his staff have all remained consistent with their representation of the curriculum.
“It’s what they believe in,” he said.
At the forum’s end, after roughly half the attendees had walked out during King’s closing remarks, LaValle told the commissioner that he needed to listen to the parents and educators imploring him to engage with them over their concerns.
Legislation is to be expected if King’s department does not formulate a satisfactory response, he said.
“You’ve got to deal with the reality that you have in front of you,” LaValle said Wednesday.
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