From the campaigns of Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump, America is experiencing a populist moment. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has apparently noticed and is seeking to ride the wave by standing with parents against Common Core standards. Unfortunately, New York's children are likely to be the real victims.
For five years, Cuomo has watched a slow-motion train wreck as two disparate education reforms headed for a crash. First is the implementation of Common Core -- a move to higher expectations, tougher tests and significant instructional shifts in the classroom. New York deserves credit as one of the only states to invest heavily in curriculum resources to help teachers align practice to the new standards. The result -- the Engage NY website and its detailed curricular modules -- is the kind of support teachers have asked for nationwide.
Second is Cuomo's pet reform: test-based teacher evaluations. Here New York has been an outlier as well, but not in a good way. While most states chose an "accountability pause" as teachers work to implement Common Core, Cuomo pushed ahead. That led to fear among teachers, and a belief that "teaching to the test" is the only way to survive.
But in New York, parents heard from teachers who felt pressured and said they had no choice but to focus on math and reading -- limiting the time spent teaching art and music, science and history. To protest what was becoming of their schools, scores of parents opted out of state tests. In fact, Newsday's own poll of opt-outers indicated that three-quarters had their kids sit out the tests as a way to voice opposition to the new teacher evaluation system.
Now Cuomo is ostensibly siding with parents, saying Common Core is "not working" and pledging to review the standards, tests and curricula. But to say Common Core is not working is to utterly misunderstand how standards work. No reasonable person would expect higher standards and the instructional shifts that accompany them to be easy. What Cuomo is doing is the equivalent of judging the Mets' or Yankees' entire season after watching a few games in April.
He refuses to admit he was wrong to demand test-based teacher evaluations during this sensitive time. He is unwilling to level with parents about the need for higher standards and more honest assessments. Parents were sobered by test scores showing far too few children on track for college and career success, even though that's what many analysts anticipated.
The news shocked many parents accustomed to glowing school reports, good state test scores, and high marks on report cards. The stream of puffery created a comforting illusion that their children were on a path to succeed in college, carve out careers, and stand on their own two feet. For too many children, it was a lie. Imagine being told year after year that you were doing just fine, only to find out that you were not as prepared as you needed to be.
Such experiences were not isolated. Every year, half of New York's two-year college students must take remedial courses. Many of them will leave without a degree, or any credential. That's a lousy way to start adult life.
The new standards and tests didn't cause this problem. They merely revealed it. They gave parents a glimpse at the problem: that their children were ill-prepared to succeed as adults.
To be sure, no set of standards or assessments is perfect, and regular reviews are appropriate. If Cuomo can improve implementation of the Common Core, we're all for it. But he ought to include a review of his teacher-evaluation policies as well. For it's this reform that has prompted the populist backlash that threatens to set New York's children off track.