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Quell New York's education firestorm

Amid empty desks, students at Southside Middle School

Amid empty desks, students at Southside Middle School in Rockville Centre take the Common Core mathematics test on Friday, April 24, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

For years, state officials have tried to tame the tempests swirling around education reform. They've failed spectacularly. Resistance to the "Common Core" changes that began in 2010 climaxed this year with the opt-out movement.

But why? Specifically what are parents, students and educators rebelling against? And what will it take to fix the problems? There are many answers to those questions, because many philosophies and groups have banded together against the reforms.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has been pilloried by teachers and parents, wants to defuse the tensions. He is reviving his education reform commission to explore new approaches to assessing and fixing the evolving system.

This could be worthwhile. The effort could lead to a more constructive approach to implementing desperately needed higher standards for New York students. But not if Cuomo leaves critics off the panel. The state must hear and, to some extent, heed even the most antagonistic voices against Common Core standards, more challenging curricula, testing, teacher development and teacher evaluations.

Long Island traditionally has educational expectations and achievements as high as any region in the nation. Great schools anchor the Island's identity, its property values and its family values. So it seemed unlikely that almost half of the students required to take newly toughened standardized tests -- more than 200,000 kids in grades three through eight -- would, with parental support, refuse those examinations.

But that happened here this year, after more than 60,000 opted out in 2014. Nassau and Suffolk counties, with 17 percent of the state's population, had about half of its opt-outs in 2015.

A new state political party devoted to ending Common Core appeared on last year's ballot. Facebook groups, Twitter handles and social media movements groomed the outrage. But what can feel like one movement is actually a variety of people and agendas momentarily united against aspects of education reform.

Common Core is a set of standards meant to apply nationally to ensure that high school graduates are ready for careers or college. It's up to each state to decide to adopt those standards and write curricula to achieve those standards, but there is pressure from the federal government to do so. New York is among more than 40 states that did.

That's why some opposition to Common Core nationally and statewide is a libertarian/states' rights dislike of federal intrusion into education; however, that's not a big factor on Long Island.

Here are the primary reasons motivating the local opt-out movement.

Some object to the standards as too hard for children at each grade level. Some parents, but not all, are baffled when trying to help children with homework. Others worry because their kids did poorly on these tests in 2013 or 2014.

Some say the tests are poorly written. Others say kids take too many standardized tests, sessions last too long or that teachers spend too much time prepping for the tests. Still others say the tests aren't useful because parents and teachers don't get enough feedback about how students did on specific questions, don't get to see enough actual test questions and don't get timely results.

Then there are those who like Common Core standards but were infuriated that the state botched the rollout of curricula, moving too fast at the behest of a federal government dangling $700 million in aid.

Bubbling beneath it all are performance evaluations that tie test scores to teacher ratings. That mobilized the teachers unions, which, to some extent, mobilized parents.

Cuomo's decision to reconvene the commission is largely meant to pre-empt the state Board of Regents. In response to the teacher evaluation issue, the board has become more of a hotbed of teacher union activism. The Regents -- largely selected by the Democratic-controlled State Assembly, a long-standing ally of the unions -- seem intent on uncoupling teacher evaluations from student scores. Cuomo insists that's the one piece of reform not open to any renegotiation.

Settling this controversy is critical. Given a choice, new home buyers won't purchase in districts broiling with controversy and high opt-out numbers. Homeowners without children who see their property values decline are likely to start voting down annual school budgets, even those within the property tax cap.

But more important than getting what we pay dearly for in taxes are our values as a community. We all want students who achieve high educational goals and are ready to succeed. Next year, the SATs will align to the same standards as these tests. Our students need to be ready. Our state university officials, who see public education as a seamless pipeline from kindergarten to college diploma, are expecting that. But it won't happen if this revolt against our educational system continues.

The governor needs to listen to dissident voices, fix what can be quickly fixed, and start pilot programs to test here what has worked in other states. The endgame is clear: Tests must be good, and students must take them. Because we need to see the results. Otherwise there is no accountability in our system -- for children, teachers, schools or taxpayers.