Parents, students and school officials from across Suffolk County told state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. during a contentious meeting Tuesday night in Manorville that the rapid implementation of tough, new academic standards has "set children up to fail."
Roughly 600 people packed into the Eastport-South Manor Junior-Senior High School, with a vast majority critical of the rollout of the Common Core academic standards. They say the initiative is far too difficult for many children -- particularly those with special needs. They contend it has prompted testing anxiety among students, causing some to feel perpetually discouraged and to lose interest in school.
They also said the state is inflexible in its implementation of this and of numerous other education plans, including a controversial move to link teacher and principal evaluations to student test scores and academic growth. The state agreed to such a move in part so it could receive some $700 million in federal education grants.
Common Core is an initiative being undertaken in 45 states and Washington, D.C., emphasizing language arts and math.
Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who helped organize last night's meeting, told state officials to be cautious, to move more slowly, saying that the grant money isn't enough to relinquish local control over successful schools.
While struggling districts might need a push, he said, "Our schools are performing."
The crowd shouted down both the commissioner and the few educators who spoke out in support of the Common Core initiative -- which proponents say emphasizes critical thinking -- despite numerous appeals for decorum. Hundreds walked out early, telling state officials they weren't listening.
East Moriches school Superintendent Charles Russo said portions of the Common Core curriculum marked "some of the best materials I've seen" in education in 32 years. Students in his district, he said, had generally favorable reviews of the curriculum they were exposed to under the new standards. He ended his remarks early after being taunted by the crowd.
Connor Sick, 18 and a senior at Rocky Point High School, asked King if he had "anything to say about why failure is being used as a weapon" to motivate struggling students. The commissioner did not answer the question directly and stood by the Common Core program.
King, in an interview after the forum, said the schools he's visited have adapted well to the standards, although it has taken time and effort. He predicted that critics will look more favorably on the initiative as the years roll on.
"Now is not the time to retreat from high standards," he said.
Tom Laraia, 60, who identified himself as a special-education teacher who retired last year, said he was particularly upset over special-ed testing.
"The way we test special-ed kids is appalling," he said, explaining how some former students cried during tests.
Mary Von Eiff, of Southold, came in with her own sign that read: "Hey King, these are my kids, not yours. And they are not common."
Von Eiff resigned as the special-education administrator of Oyster Ponds School District in 2009, and is now home-schooling her three daughters, who are 11, 8 and 6. She called Common Core "the federal takeover of public education as we know it. That local control has been removed."
Karen Wing, 44 of Shoreham, took her 10-year-old triplets to the meeting but left early. She said the Common Core-related tests were "extremely stressful" for her daughters and that she and her husband hired tutors to help them.
Jan Achilich, special-education director at Remsenburg-Speonk Union Free School District, told King the state should have introduced the new materials starting at the lowest grades so children had time to adjust.
"What we are doing to our upper-grade children," she said, is tantamount to "physically throwing them into a rushing river without a life preserver."
School, she said, should be a place for children to sing, dance, create and learn together "in an atmosphere of grace," rather than under an umbrella of anxiety.