U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued ringing defenses Thursday of New York's implementation of the Common Core academic standards and the state's education commissioner, urging perseverance despite "drama and noise" about high-stakes standardized tests.
Duncan appeared at New York University in lower Manhattan with Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. -- the subject of a no-confidence vote last weekend by the New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers union.
King and the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy and appoints the commissioner, have faced heavy, sustained criticism of reforms from school administrators, teachers and parents across the state for months.
"Any time you challenge the status quo, any time you raise the bar, [there is] lots of pushback. Change is scary," Duncan said in introducing King for a speech at NYU's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He called King "as smart and thoughtful as anyone working in this space."
King noted subpar results of education in New York: One in four students does not graduate high school, and more than half of community college freshmen need remedial courses -- "high school courses for which parents pay college dollars."
He called the thousands of parents whose children in grades 3 through 8 "opted out" of state English Language Arts tests last week a "small but meaningful percentage," stressing that "more than a million parents and students opted in."
Some parent activists have described the test refusals as an act of civil disobedience against the Common Core standards and the coursework and exams aligned with them.
About 204,000 students on Long Island and 1.2 million statewide were eligible to take the English test, and the state math test for those grades is scheduled to be administered April 30 through May 2.
On Long Island, the number of students who refused to take the ELA test was far larger than that in 2013.
A Newsday survey showed that nearly 9,500 elementary and middle school students in 67 of the Island's 124 public school districts opted out.
The other districts did not respond to the newspaper's emails and follow-up phone calls.
Parents, King acknowledged Thursday, are "frustrated with testing, and I get where they're coming from. Testing is not teaching . . . The best test-prep is good teaching."
King also spoke of funding for districts to pay teachers to help "shape the state's curriculum and instruction supports around the Common Core," and to encourage professional development for educators.
Common Core, he said, is here to stay.
"We are not -- not -- going backwards," King said. "We are not retreating. New York is going forward."
The commissioner's proposal to recruit teachers from districts where the Common Core implementation has gone smoothly, put them on the state payroll, and assign them to help districts struggling with the transition could be highly successful, said Charles Russo, superintendent of the East Moriches school district.
Russo, an invited guest at King's speech, was a member of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Common Core Implementation Panel, which reviewed the state's actions and issued recommendations last month.
"There is a tremendous transition that teachers have to make, and I know they can make it, but sometimes they need the support to make that change," Russo said. "We know from research that that's the most successful kind of professional development. This is a total transition, where the training's going to be right in the classroom side by side with teachers, with kids, in real time."
Many superintendents and principals across the Island have objected strenuously to the rapid introduction of coursework and tests aligned with the Common Core.
The governor and the legislature eventually responded, agreeing that students' test scores would not be taken into consideration for pupil promotion or class placement for two years.
The evaluations of teachers and principals, however, will continue to rest in part on students' exam performance.
NYSUT was circumspect in its reaction to King's remarks. "It was an interesting speech and we look forward to hearing more," spokesman Carl Korn said.