Speaking to the congregation at Greater Allen AME Cathedral’s morning worship in Queens on Sunday, the state’s top education official summoned Martin Luther King, Jr. to respond to detractors who say he’s moving too fast on the Common Core standards.
“When it comes to the education of our children, we do not have as much time as the patient and the cautious would give us,” State Education Commissioner John King said. He was adapting a line from a draft of the speech that Martin Luther King delivered on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
John King made the appearance alongside New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who ducked out shortly after speaking to make it to the Sunday service at his own church, as part of a sweeping public relations push in the days before the first state tests tied to the new standards.
Their joint appearance was strategically scheduled. The Allen Cathedral has 25,000 members and is led by the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former congressman who is considered one of the city’s most influential religious leaders. (Flake’s name has surfaced for another reason recently — he is a mentor and political ally of State Sen. Malcolm Smith, who was arrested on corruption charges earlier this month.)
King, Walcott, and New York State policy makers have shifted into counter-attack mode in recent weeks as critics — led by the state teachers union — have charged them with raising standards without giving educators the tools to change their teaching. They have visited editorial boards, made high-profile school visits, met with parents, and briefed reporters — all to argue that shifting to the new standards is worth the short-term frustration and anxiety that teachers, students, and parents are experiencing during the transition.
Walcott is continuing the city’s efforts today, launching a “public awareness campaign” to highlight the standards’ importance. The testing period begins tomorrow, when students from third through eighth grade will sit for the first portion of the English language arts exam.
In 2011, 145,000 students in New York State, including 63,000 students in the city, weren’t “college or career ready” according to the state’s definition for readiness. On Sunday, King used those statistics to say that he can’t wait another year to measure students against higher standards of learning.
“There will people who will say it’s too hard. It’s too much. Better for us to continue to fool ourselves about our students’ performance,” King told the congregation. “But Dennis and I believe that they’re wrong.”
The state teachers union, NYSUT, has taken up an aggressive public campaign against King and his handling of the standards’ implementation, spending $250,000 on print ads and inviting thousands of parents and teacher to sign a petition. The union’s main issue is that the state has not followed through on its promises to post curriculum to its website EngageNY.org. The state has produced just five of the 39 math modules for middle school, union officials cited as an example.
The union continued its offensive last week, adopting a resolution at its annual policymaking conference that criticized the state’s implementation.
“No experienced teacher would test what hasn’t been taught, but that is exactly what the state is doing,” said Richard Iannuzzi, president of the union. “Delegates continue to send a loud and clear message to the State Education Department that our students are more than a test score.”
King addressed the union’s ongoing criticism on Sunday.
“I’m disappointed that they have not shown greater leadership,” King said. “They believe it would be better to have assessments based on the old standards than to have our assessments reflect the standards that we’re teaching. I think that is a mistake and doesn’t really make any sense at all.”
But some congregants said they shared the union’s concerns. Jacob Adjaye introduced himself to King and expressed his personal concerns for his fourth-grade daughter, Rebecca, and seventh-grade son, Timothy. Both students’ scores will be considered for admission into selective middle and high schools.
“I don’t want them to be jeopardized because the tests are suddenly more rigorous than in past years,” Jacob said. “I feel that they’re at a disadvantage.”
Inside the Cathedral, students from P.S./I.S. 208 said their teachers were doing what they could to prepare them. Alexis Burrows, an eighth-grader, said her classes have been prepping for weeks, taking practice tests that seem to change each week. (Unlike in the past, teachers have no old exams to draw on when producing practice material.)
“It’s like a completely different process [for] how we do test prep,” she said. Burrows, who will attend highly selective Townsend Harris High School next year, described the standards she’s expected to learn in a way that matched King’s talking points. “It’s a lot more in depth, the passages are more non-fiction and definitely longer.”