Niagara Gazette

January 6, 2014

Lew-Port, Falls district officials see state stance shifting on Common Core

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Paul Casseri knows what education’s like in countries that put a lot of pressure on students to perform well on standardized tests.

The principal at Lewiston-Porter High School has spent years cultivating relationships with schools in China, Japan and others around the world and has seen the way many of these countries — many of which are considered better at educating than here at home — push their children.

It’s so intense in China particularly, he said, some schools he’s visited have begun adopting more well-rounded curriculum to include art and music education instead of the typical razor-focus the country’s had on mathematics and science for a generation.

“As the middle class has grown in China, there are parents who are looking for other options for their kids,” he said. “They want to see what other options are out there other than the high-stakes, one-shot system in China that puts a lot of stress on the children.

“As a result of our work with some of the Chinese schools, we’ve seen them change their curriculum to incorporate things like art, shifting their focus to educate the whole person. It seems like we’re moving in the (testing) direction and in China, they’re moving away from it. We need to keep in mind ... we can’t get away from the real beauty of our education system, that we’ve been able to teach to the whole child and given them all a chance to grow and develop their own individual talents.”

Common Core implementation is one of the most heated, controversial topics education has seen in the U.S. in a generation. In New York state alone, political and education leaders, including Commissioner John King, have held a number of forums with parents and educators in an effort to try to explain away misconceptions and air grievances over the changes.

Many have turned into heated arguments, with King even leaving one in Poughkeepsie after he was reportedly vulgarly heckled by audience members in October. Locally, after several in the Buffalo area, Niagara County will see its own forum at 6 p.m. tonight at Niagara County Community College in Sanborn.

Sponsored by Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, the Niagara Region Parent-Teacher Association and the Partnership for Smarter Schools, it’s expected to include guest speakers including retired Lew-Port Superintendent Walter Polka, Lew-Port special education teacher — and state Teacher of the Year winner — Ashli Skura-Dreher and Tonawanda district principal John McKenna.

King is not among the expected guests.

Aside from the over-reliance on testing to show student growth, one of the major qualms being expressed concerning the Common Core has been its actual implementation. Many educators have found themselves in a less-than-favorable situation these last two years, as promised free resources the state is supposed to be providing through its EngageNY website, are still being written.

So while the theory behind the drastic shift Common Core presents may be a positive one, making it a reality, at least in New York, has been borderline nightmarish. Casseri said calling the implementation “not well thought out” is “being kind.”

“I don’t disagree with the curricular changes emphasized in the common core,” he said. “I believe we need to ask our students to think more deeply, more profoundly about these ideas we’re teaching them. It’s just the implementation has just been awful. It’s been secretive, it’s been clandestine and not very transparent. It’s like they’re building the plane in midair.”

Cynthia Bianco, Niagara Falls City School District superintendent, echoed Casseri’s concerns about the new standards. She too is in favor of creating, and holding children accountable to, higher education standards. She also is turned off by the way the state has implemented its new toy.

But she sees a little bit of change — or relenting from NYSED — coming for districts concerning the emphasis on testing and what it means in districts, especially concerning Niagara Falls, citing a recent email she said was distributed to all school districts concerning the elimination of a math exam at the secondary level.

“I believe the Common Core is here to stay,” she said. “I believe testing to show student growth is here to stay. I just think it will be at a much more reasonable level that will be able to be accepted by the districts, principals, teachers, parents and students.”

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.