Three Things that Our Next Education Commissioner Needs

NYSED building

I wrote the following op-ed for the Queens Tribune, which was published on December 14, 2014.

Dr. John King, who recently announced that he will be leaving his post as New York State’s Commissioner of Education at the end of the year, leaves behind an important legacy. Most importantly, he should be commended for supporting the Common Core Standards. As a high school math teacher, I have found that my students do better in lessons that meet the standards. For example, before the new standards, students would have learned how to simplify an algebraic expression like (x + 4)(x + 3) by memorizing a rule. In a Common Core lesson, students develop a simple mathematical model that connects this abstract expression with concrete concepts like area. They not only can explain why the model works but also apply it to solve more complicated problems that they could not have solved just by using a rule. Thus, if taught properly, the Common Core can actually help students. Unfortunately, the state has done a poor job so far of implementing the new standards. King’s successor should focus on three goals to fulfill the Common Core’s potential.

First, the next Commissioner needs to provide high-quality resources to help educators teach the Common Core successfully. While the material published on EngageNY, the state’s official Common Core website, is easily accessible, it contains vaguely worded problems and unrealistic expectations. As teachers, we know better than anyone else what our children can do. The next Commissioner should find seasoned classroom teachers to revise the material on EngageNY so that it reflects the reality of what happens in our classrooms every day. To ensure that teachers across the state understand the new standards and know how to use these resources properly, the new Commissioner should encourage teacher leaders to facilitate professional development for other teachers.

Second, the next Commissioner must ensure that state assessments accurately reflect the high expectations embedded in the Common Core. The state has sent a mixed message about the new standards. On the one hand, we are urged to have high expectations for our students by encouraging them to think critically. At the same time, state tests require students to know little content. In math, for example, students need to get only 35% of the Algebra Regents exam correct in order to pass the test. This low bar fails to differentiate between outstanding teachers who emphasize higher-level thinking in their classes and less effective teachers who simply stress memorization and shortcuts. It also hurts students by moving them along into higher-level courses when they have failed to master lower-level material. Current classroom teachers should play an active role in writing assessments that match what our students can and should know. We also need to have an honest conversation with parents, educators, and policymakers about why so few students are meeting our expectations and what alternate pathways we can provide for students who do not meet them.

Finally, the next Education Commissioner has to involve teachers not just in the implementation but also in the overall planning to make sure that the state’s educational goals are realistic. Here, teacher unions can serve a useful role. The New York State United Teachers union recently won a grant to recommend changes to the state’s implementation of the Common Core and the new assessments. While this is a promising start, the state is not required to make any of the proposed changes. The Commissioner needs to listen to the proposed changes from teachers since they are the ones who have the experience of working with our students.

The new Commissioner will have a difficult task ahead. He or she can value the expertise of teachers by working with them to ensure that all students can succeed.

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