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Regents face mounting pressure on Common Core

From left to right: Board of Regents Chancellor

From left to right: Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King, Jr., and Regent Roger Tilles look on during a forum at Oyster Bay High School Oct. 15, 2013. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Board of Regents, which has set education policy since the 1780s, faces a history-making test this week as it decides whether to slow or revamp the state's pursuit of Common Core testing, teacher evaluations and other initiatives that have sparked heated debate and political repercussions.

A six-member Regents work group, appointed in December, is due to submit recommendations to improve the state's much-criticized rollout of education initiatives. The suggestions are expected to draw from input voiced at public forums held statewide, including three on Long Island that drew thousands of educators and parents.

The group includes two outspoken critics of the state's implementation of Common Core academic standards: Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island, and Kathleen Cashin, who represents Brooklyn. Recommendations will be made to colleagues on the 17-member Regents board during the regular monthly meeting that starts Monday morning in Albany, according to state Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins.

A key question is whether the Regents can respond to widespread demands to slow major initiatives without jeopardizing millions of dollars in federal aid. One suggestion under discussion, for example, would stretch out the number of years that high school students have to demonstrate -- through scores on new, tougher exams -- that they are "college- and career-ready."


Race for federal money

New York State already has gotten more than $300 million in federal "Race to the Top" money, and stands to gain about $370 million more in the next few years, in exchange for its agreement to press forward with the more rigorous exams and other educational changes.

U.S. Education Department officials declined to comment on recent calls by New York legislative leaders for a two-year moratorium on using new tests to rate students, teachers and principals. Instead, one federal staffer provided Newsday with an October 2013 letter from his agency, warning California it could lose $15 million in aid if it cut back on testing there. California is seeking a waiver; a federal decision is pending.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who has repeatedly stressed that the state must raise academic standards, said in an interview that the board will make adjustments aimed at showing opponents their concerns are taken seriously. She added, however, "If we don't get our arms around these issues of higher standards, the middle class in this country, as well as those striving for the middle class, simply will fall into decline."

Several Regents have suggested in recent weeks that the board should apologize for its perceived mistakes, including the administration of tougher tests before students were fully prepared.

Tisch came close to that during the interview. "To the extent people felt we made mistakes, obviously, that was never our intention," she said. "If people were offended along the way, I deeply, deeply regret that."


Lawmakers threaten action

Opposition to New York's school initiatives has mounted in Albany, with lawmakers threatening to take action themselves to slow the Regents' agenda. In addition, a statewide parents' group is pushing for ouster of four incumbent board members whose terms are expiring.

Veteran Regents describe the pressure they have felt from the public as unprecedented. The Regents are the nation's oldest education policy board. Members are appointed to five-year terms by the State Legislature and traditionally have been largely insulated from politics.

"It's the first time since I've been on the board that I've seen something like this," said James Dawson, a work-group member and geology professor from Plattsburgh who has served for 21 years. "I find it very disappointing and frustrating."

Dawson's disappointment stems largely from a conviction that the Common Core academic standards, adopted by 45 states, represent a positive step toward developing more rigorous, uniform guidelines in English and mathematics.

Assemb. Al Graf (R-Holbrook), part of his chamber's GOP minority, has won popularity among parents for his outspoken opposition to Common Core. He calls for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing, and public election of Regents.

"Implementation of Common Core has been a nightmare," Graf said. "I think the Regents should represent the people of the state. Right now, it's probably three people in a room who make the decisions. That's not how a democracy should work."

Many parents and teachers contend the state's initiatives, however well-intentioned, have been rushed into place without adequate public input or training of school staff. The work group has come under fire from some parent leaders for holding its meetings behind closed doors.

"The public has a right to know what the people responsible for public schools are deciding for their children," said Allison White, a Port Washington PTA officer and mother of three. "This is just one more way that the Regents have not been transparent about their process."

White is part of a statewide group that wants the Regents to pull out of the inBloom project, which is designed to store students' school records in a computerized "cloud" service. Many parents worry the project could endanger students' privacy, though inBloom supporters say it would enhance protection of data with sophisticated encryption.

Robert Freeman, executive director of the State Committee on Open Government, has informed opponents seeking to attend Regents work-group sessions that the state's Open Meetings law requires such sessions to be public.

Lawyers in the state Department of Education have countered that the work group is entitled to meet privately because its work is strictly advisory.


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