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Student reporters’ questions for John King driven by experience

Reporters peppered State Education Commissioner John King with questions about all of the expected topics at a press conference this morning: teacher evaluations, college readiness, and Regents exams. But in a twist, the reporters were students whose questions were rooted in their own experience, and who pushed King to consider how his policies play out in their schools.

Student journalists from across the state, including eight students from Richmond Hill High School in Queens, participated in the videoconference and contributed questions via raised hands and social media. The webcast screen showed students listening from classrooms and auditoriums.

The students had questions for King about the teacher evaluation systems that all districts but New York City have adopted for this year, which in accordance with state law are based in part on student achievement. Over the weekend, King imposed a system for New York City, too.

Rebecca, an upstate student, asked, “What are the benefits of grading teachers based on student performance? There are so many students who simply don’t care, why are teachers being penalized for that?”

Another student from an upstate district disagreed. He said he wished his district’s teacher evaluation system had included student surveys, as New York City’s does starting in the 2014-2015 school year.  “Seeing as how the student-teacher relationship is a driving force behind learning in any school, we should play a role in evaluating teachers,” the student said.

Several students asked why there aren’t more Advanced Placement and elective classes available at their schools and also pressed King to account for the amount of class time spent on standardized tests.

After King defended the new Common Core learning standards in response to a student’s question, one student asked,“If your goal is to make a compelling and interesting environment in the classroom, why do we revolve curriculum around one test at the end of the year, the Regents, especially at a time when we also need to focus on the SAT?”

King responded by saying that the Regents date back to the 1800s, and that “the mere existence of the exam doesn’t mean curriculum has to drive just towards the exam.” He referenced a hands-on science lesson he observed at an Ossining high school that he said engaged students while also preparing them for state tests.

A student in raised her hand in a classroom at her school. “I’m a junior in that science research program right now,” she said, adding that she and her classmates have been negatively affected by test stress. “What’s being done to address that?”

King said that some seniors have the opposite problem and “could stand to have a greater sense of urgency” — something he had suggested in an earlier answer. Aware of his audience, he added, “this may not be a popular thing to say in this room.”

With time running out, the webcast screen still showed raised hands in several classrooms. The conference is archived online, along with a press release encouraging students to continue tweeting questions to @AskNYedu.

As for the students who participated, the press release makes clear that, like all reporters, they have work to do once the press conference ends. “The expectation is that every enrolled participant will write or otherwise report on the content of the program to a larger local audience of students.”