Governor Cuomo’s Task Force Looks to Bury Higher Standards

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. But if you’re pressed for time and want to end all intelligent life quickly, nothing beats a task force.

In New York last week, a task force chosen by Governor Andrew Cuomo issued its report on Common Core. In a model of stunning governmental efficiency, the group managed to “listen” to 2,100 New York students, teachers, parents, and various other stakeholders. They then retreated to their chambers to write, edit, and publish a fifty-one-page report a mere ten weeks after they were impaneled. But clearly that was time enough for these solons to learn and thoughtfully consider what the Empire State needs: to adopt “new, locally driven New York State standards in a transparent and open process.” The report has twenty recommendations on how to bring this about.

It should be noted (speaking of governmental efficiency) that God himself was content with a mere ten modest suggestions to govern all known human activity. Cuomo’s task force has double that number—just for Common Core in a single state. But God acted alone. On a task force, every voice must be heard, every grievance aired. And they were, in all their contradictory, cacophonous glory.

The recommendations are breathtaking in their scope and ambition. One calls for the state to “launch a digital platform that enables teachers, including pre-service teachers, and teacher educators, to share resources with other teachers across the state.” The Internet may be fine for lesser states, but we New Yorkers will have a digital platform all our own—presumably one free of any Gatesian taint. Another insists that nothing in Common Core “diminish the love of reading and joy of learning.” The report is silent, alas, on how the state is to assess for “joy” in its annual tests, which are also subject to review and must be subject to student feedback. Nor are we told whether teachers are to be held accountable for love and joy. Perhaps only after we fix poverty.

Indeed, the big news from the task force is Cuomo’s complete surrender on teacher evaluation. Of course, if the governor had not peevishly insisted in the first place on holding teachers’ feet to the fire on test scores while simultaneously making watershed changes in their practice, New York would likely never have experienced the immune response we have seen—particularly among affluent parents in the state’s politically powerful suburbs. Note well the task force’s recommendation that using test scores for teacher evaluation should merely be postponed for four years. In short, the very conditions that led parents to revolt because of an over-reliance on testing, curriculum narrowing, and aggressive test preparation are not going away. There will merely be a “pause.” If attaching stakes to individual teachers is a bad idea and leads to the testing tail wagging the school dog, it’s hard to see what will change four years from now. Cuomo is still the spiritual godfather of the opt-out movement, the man whose cries his task force was impaneled to muzzle.

One truly ill-considered “recommendation” in the task force’s grab bag is to “modify early grade standards so they are age-appropriate.” This a transparent sop to fans of “play-based” early learning—the “joyful illiterate kindergarteners of Finland”—and all others unfamiliar with the term “false dichotomy.” Common Core is already age-appropriate and wisely raises rigor and expectations for reading in the make-or-break early years of schooling. If Cuomo adopts this spectacularly wrongheaded notion, it will be a clear signal that he simply doesn’t give a damn about the children of the poorest New Yorkers, who desperately need energetic and rigorous early childhood interventions if they are to have any hope of closing pernicious and persistent achievement gaps. The Daily News might as well set type for its front page: Cuomo to Poor Kids: Drop Dead.

In his craven attempt to mollify critics, Cuomo now wishes to put New York’s Common Core implementation back “in play.” In doing so, he risks pushing the state down a slope that put to waste years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars. Those precious resources were spent developing the EngageNY curriculum materials that schools and teachers in other states have eagerly downloaded in enormous numbers; rigorous exams that reflect real-world standards of proficiency in math and reading; and teacher certification standards that are now among the highest in the nation. New York has all the pieces in place to become a national leader in education, but Cuomo would rather switch than fight.

By embracing the report of his Common Core task force, which calls to “revisit” the standards and “right the ship,” Cuomo is showing he lacks—forgive me—the cojones to hold the line on higher expectations.

To be sure, the task force recommendations do not necessarily herald a death knell for Common Core in New York. Many states have undertaken similar “reviews” only to emerge with the standards largely intact and merely rebranded. But the standards need political will and leadership to have any real chance of improving outcomes for kids. Through this exercise, Cuomo has shown himself to be incapable of mustering either. His gutlessness will almost certainly lead to lowering cut scores and more phony accountability. The ship was already being righted. Cuomo now wants to sink it.

– Robert Pondiscio

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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