An emotional crowd of about 1,500 parents and educators packed Ward Melville High School's auditorium and cafeteria last night for a forum with state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., cheering speakers who assailed state testing and Common Core academic standards and at times shouting down King as he tried to speak.
Eric Gustafson, a teacher in Three Village school district, brought those in the 900-capacity auditorium to their feet, cheering and clapping, when he said that Common Core and a new system of teacher and principal evaluations are "draining us of time and resources."
"Your approach has taken the joy out of teaching and the adventure out of learning," Gustafson said, adding that parents and teachers are begging for delay in implementation of new curriculums and tougher tests, but "nothing is happening."
"Your message is clear," he said to King, who was accompanied to the East Setauket school by Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents. "You are staying with the governor and big business."
Tisch at one point pleaded with the crowd, "I know you are passionate. We hear you. We get it."
During the raucous meeting, King began to explain how student test scores are used to weight teachers' performance evaluations, under a controversial system that became law early last year.
Several members of the audience began to shout, "What about the kids? What about the kids?"
King changed the subject to the Common Core standards. "We have been having a thoughtful phase-in of the Common Core," he said, referring to the multiyear process. The crowd booed.
After the event, the commissioner said, "We'll continue after tonight, as we do after each forum, to reflect and look for opportunities to support the success of the Common Core and the work on teacher and principal evaluations."
He said the state Department of Education would seek funding in the upcoming budget to help local districts pay for more professional development of teachers.
Tisch observed that "rhetoric is very high," and said, "I would urge everyone on both sides to take a breath and listen."
The forum at Ward Melville, and another to be held Wednesday from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at Mineola High School in Garden City Park, are among about a dozen statewide that King and other state officials had described as opportunities to air concerns over revved-up testing, the Common Core standards, teacher job evaluations and protection of student data.
Tuesday night's forum was coordinated by state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), and Wednesday's by state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola). Some parents complained that the events were being too tightly controlled, with speakers preselected and given time limits at Ward Melville and tickets being issued to 15 Nassau County districts for Wednesday's forum.
But the speakers at Ward Melville did not pull their punches.
From school principals to teachers to parents, they blasted the state for overreliance on testing, hasty implementation of curricula and resulting stress on educators and students, drawing huzzahs from the standing-room-only crowd in the auditorium. The event was live-streamed into the cafeteria.
Beth Dimino, a science teacher in the Comsewogue district, called for King's resignation and cautioned Flanagan that he stands to lose support from parents if he continues to back the current structure.
"We are abusing children here in the State of New York," Dimino said.
Bill Connors, a member of the Three Village board of education, said while he supports the philosophy of Common Core, "changes must be made."
"We must slow down so teachers can be properly trained," Connors said. "There needs to be a pullback on the emphasis on high-stakes testing."
King, in a brief availability with reporters before the forum began, said, "Now is not the moment for a delay."
He noted the continued need for remediation work with students at community colleges and pointed to New York students' scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal assessment known as the "Nation's Report Card," which were released last week. In New York, both reading and math scores improved modestly at the elementary and middle school levels in those tests, given to a sampling of students.