“Our standards were carefully and thoughtfully created, with educators involved, and should have survived,” said Susan Polos, librarian at Mount Kisco Elementary School in the Bedford district, who served on the ELA committee. “People should know what we did.”
ITALICS AND BOLD ARE MINE. SOME SHUFFLING OF PARAGRAPHS TOO… BUT THE ARTICLE STANDS AS PROOF OF WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN!
In early 2008, before education policy became a blood sport in New York, Vice Chancellor Merryl Tisch called a lunch at the Harvard Club with Saul Cohen, a fellow member of the state Board of Regents. Saul is a very progressive educator.
New York needed to write new educational standards, and Cohen, had agreed to lead the project. He brought the man he had chosen to direct the work, veteran educator Walter Sullivan.
“We left excited,” Sullivan said. “We were going to try to do something special.”
Over two years, with little fanfare, Cohen and Sullivan led a team of New York educators who created what may have been the country’s best standards for English/language arts and English as a second language. They were set to do the same for other subjects.
Then the project was killed.
The Board of Regents decided in 2010 to put its money instead on the Common Core, national standards that 45 states adopted in a flash. The Great Recession had punctured state budgets, and the Obama administration was dangling Race to the Top grants to states that committed to Common Core and other reforms.
It worked: New York was awarded $700 million in federal cash to pay for shiny, new fake reform.
“The board grabbed the money from ‘race to the bottom’ and tossed out all the work we had done,” said Cohen, a former president of Queens College who served as an at-large regent from 1993 until 2010. “I was very upset, because the national standards weren’t as good. Now we have this mess.”
This is the untold story of New York’s “lost standards.”
It’s a revealing corner of state history because Cohen’s project, officially the Regents Standards Review and Revision Initiative, anticipated many of the Common Core’s primary goals. The educators involved also hashed out issues that have inspired raucous debate across New York as the state has rolled out Common Core.
The lost ELA standards, unlike Common Core, emphasized literature, changing technologies and prekindergarten. One priority was to make the standards useful to teachers, while another was to help schools meet the needs of students with limited English proficiency and learning challenges.
Cohen’s people wanted to avoid dependence on standardized tests and even discussed making their standards optional for top-performing districts. Neither issue was resolved before the plug got pulled.
“It was a healthy, democratic approach to a mega-project,” said Estée Lopez, then director of bilingual education for the New Rochelle schools, who led efforts to address English proficiency in the new standards. “We did not only create standards. We wanted to create the conditions for new standards to work.”
A fresh start
Cohen and Sullivan put together teams of teachers, administrators and professors to get to work. They also signed up the nation’s top experts on standards . Funding for the project was $300,000 — a relative pittance.
Sullivan, director of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Leadership at the College of New Rochelle, wanted teachers and parent advocates to support his team’s work, so he sought opinions and feedback. His steering committee held six public forums around the state and collected the views of 1,000 people.
“The Common Core was developed behind closed doors, but our New York standards were the work of extraordinary teachers and educators from the local level,” said Bonne August, provost of New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, who co-chaired a committee that worked on the ELA/ESL standards. “We did things the right way, so teachers would buy in. Teachers are frustrated by the Common Core because they don’t see themselves in it.”
The project settled on several priorities that would become linchpins of Common Core: connecting K-12 studies to preparation for college and work; stressing “real life” applications of subject matter; focusing on informational, nonfiction reading; and emphasizing the need to promote reading and writing in all classes, not just English. New York’s initiative covered other prescient bases, from creating standards for prekindergarten to highlighting the need for students to be able to adapt to changing technologies.
But the New York effort also took several paths that the creators of Common Core would not follow. The project, for instance, created new standards to define the central role of literature. Many Common Core critics lament its emphasis on nonfiction.
“We know that in real world situations, when people have great joy or great sorrow, they don’t read informational texts. They read literature, whether it’s the Bible or poetry,” said John Harmon, retired humanities coordinator for the Skaneateles schools outside Syracuse, who co-chaired the ELA/ESL committee. “We did not ignore informational texts, but took a more balanced approach.”
Because of New York’s diversity, the standards project also prioritized the needs of English-language learners. Teachers devised step-by-step strategies to assist students with various levels of English proficiency. By contrast, school districts that have many students with limited English ability say they do not have the support or materials to contend with Common Core.
Focus on teachers:
A prime concern of the educators was that teachers be comfortable using the standards.
Cohen also pushed the radical notion that perhaps the top 15 percent of school districts be given a choice whether to adopt the standards. And he hoped the lowest-performing 10 percent to 15 percent of students would be given extra support to reach the standards.
“Strong standards make sense, but you can’t just drop them on everyone the same way,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest issue left unresolved was testing. The New York group wanted to use multiple methods, not just standardized testing, to measure student progress.
“We wanted to leave a lot of decisions to school districts,” Cohen said.
Michael Kamil, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, headed a team of researchers who informed and reviewed the standards project. He was later on the writing team for Common Core, but he said the New York effort was better.
“We were on the road to a far superior, more complete set of standards,” he said. “A lot of things went beyond the Common Core — the focus on technology, deciding what to do for English language learners. Separating standards for literature was a major breakthrough.”
Kamil, though, thinks New York ultimately would have used standardized tests, since alternative methods of assessment are too inefficient. And he thinks Common Core correctly increased academic rigor — a key point of national debate today. He has obviously been turned.
Sullivan, though, is among those who think Common Core went too far, producing standards for young children that are developmentally inappropriate.
“Little kids have to internalize too much, too fast,” he said.
On Dec. 15, 2009, Cohen’s team presented its ELA work to the full Board of Regents and received nothing but kudos.
“I remember Merryl Tisch seeing us and saying, ‘Brilliant, it’s brilliant,’ ” August said.
But the ground had shifted beneath them.
Tisch had just become chancellor, head of the Regents. Longtime Education Commissioner Richard Mills, who was uninvolved in the standards work, had retired months before. He was replaced by David Steiner and Deputy Commissioner John King, advocates for a new series of education reforms, including the nascent Common Core.
The state also was looking at a $3 billion post-recession deficit. Many agreed that New York should aggressively seek federal Race to the Top money. State officials thought they had no shot without signing up for Common Core.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said at a recent forum that when New York did not win a grant during the first round of competition, “We were lambasted every single day.” At a recent parent forum, she admitted the NYS Legislature blew this and went for the $$$.
At the same meeting in which Cohen’s team presented its work, the Regents created a timeline for adopting Common Core. Cohen’s initiative was quietly put “on pause.” Tisch, who is still chancellor, said the work of Cohen’s team was “fantastic” and laid the groundwork for New York’s adoption of Common Core.
New York was awarded its Race to the Top grant in 2010 and started quickly rolling out a series of reforms — including Common Core, new tests and a new teacher-evaluation system — that are now hotly debated. New York’s homegrown standards, meanwhile, were shelved without most parents and teachers knowing they had been created.
WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE? BURIED!!!