Special-needs advocates knock Common Core

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Bianca Tanis, a special-education teacher and parent, says, “I will fight to have my son stay in a self-contained classroom.”

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Katie Ferguson, the New York State Teacher of the Year for 2012, says of teaching, “It’s not one size fits all.”

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Meredith Gavin, the single mother of a boy on the autism spectrum says, “There have been tears from both of us due to frustration.”

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Rita D. Levay, Ed.D. says, “We need blurred lines or no lines…We need to support learners without labeling them.”

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Robert Libby, Cohoes superintendent, looks towards local state senators to thank them for lobbying for more education funds last year. “We’re lucky to stay afloat,” he said.

GUILDERLAND — How has the Regents reform agenda affected children with special needs?

That was the question driving a forum here on Tuesday night as state legislators listened to two teachers, a mother, an administrator, and a superintendent talk about problems with the Common Core initiative in New York State.

An audience of about 50, many of them parents, applauded sporadically as stories of pain and frustration unfolded at the microphone on the Farnsworth Middle School stage.

The bipartisan group of Capital Region legislators — senators Neil Breslin and Cecelia Tkaczyk along with assembly members Patricia Fahy, John McDonald, Phil Steck, Steve McLaughlin, Peter Lopez, and James Tedisco — had successfully lobbied last year for more state funding for public schools. Tuesday, Breslin, Tkaczyk, McDonald, and Steck were on stage, listening and posing questions.

“The impact of these reforms on our students is of utmost concern,” Michael Laster, Farnsworth principal, said at the start of the forum. He served as host for the event.

Common threads woven through the viewpoints of the various speakers were: a certificate is not as useful as a diploma, students with disabilities need individualized goals and should be tested on those, many students are labeled as special needs because funding isn’t available elsewhere, and too many mandates are unfunded.

The forum was carried on against a backdrop of sparring between the state’s top policy makers on education — the governor and the Board of Regents, which oversees public education in the state.

On Monday, the Board of Regents released a plan that it intended to adopt on Tuesday, extending the requirement to pass Common-Core-based Regents exams at the college and career-ready level, making the class of 2022 the first to face the new higher graduation requirements. The new plan called for adjusting requirements for Academic Intervention Services (known as AIS, meaning mandatory tutoring for struggling students).

Finally, the Regents’ 19-point plan called for reducing local tests used to inform teacher evaluation and eliminating local traditional standardized tests in the youngest grades — kindergarten, first, and second — used to inform teacher evaluations.

Governor Andrew Cuomo shot back with a statement Monday afternoon, calling the Regents recommendations “another in a series of missteps by the Board of Regents that suggests the time has come to seriously reexamine its capacity and performance.” He went on, “Common Core is the right goal and direction as it is vital that we have a real set of standards for our students in a meaningful teacher evaluation system. However, Common Core’s implementation in New York has been flawed and mismanaged from the start.”

The governor termed the recommendations as “yet another excuse to stop the teacher evaluation process.” In his budget address, Cuomo had called for a panel to review the implementation of the state’s Common Core Standards, which has since been appointed.

Teachers’ unions had agreed to allow teachers to be evaluated in part by student test scores in order to qualify for federal Race to the Top funds but have since joined the chorus of parents and teachers opposing more testing and have called for a moratorium on linking test scores to teacher evaluations. The governor has continually pressed for using student scores in teacher evaluations, and the Board of Regents then postponed adopting its committee recommendations on the testing and teacher evaluations.

Both the lawmakers and speakers at Tuesday’s forum made references to the ongoing clash.

“Give them a step stool”

“The achievement gap widened overnight,” Bianca Tanis told the crowd of how the Common Core standards, adopted by 46 states, forced some special-education students to jump many levels.

Tanis is a special-education teacher as well as the mother of two children on the autism spectrum. “Common Core promotes a kind of teaching that is not best practice for students with disabilities,” she said. She likened its implementation — where students in upper grades were expected to know things they hadn’t been taught when younger — to building a third floor without a first or second floor beneath.

Last year, she said, her third-grader was in a self-contained classroom and happy with school. Being moved to a different room with a test for three years above his level, he’d say, “Help!” she reported. The only response they could legally give is,” Do your best,” she said.

Tanis concluded, “I will fight to have my son stay in a self-contained classroom.”

She also said the tests being used to evaluate teachers don’t reflect the worth of special-education teachers who tailor lessons to individual children’s needs.

On the replacement of high school diplomas with a certificate, she said, “We’re giving students with disabilities a tool they can’t use.”

Tanis also criticized Governor Cuomo’s panel appointed to examine problems with Common Core, noting the panel does not include a special-education teacher or an elementary teacher.

Tanis pointed out some specifics that she said didn’t work for special-needs students.

She gave an example of Common Core math being taught so that problems can be solved with multiple methods and said that, for many students with disabilities, this approach is not productive.

“Close reading” is stressed, she said, which “basically means you’re not bringing background to the test; students with disabilities need to activate background.”

When Breslin asked Tanis if students with special needs should be “taken out of the Common Core equation,” she answered, “No”; rather Common Core needs to be changed, she said.

“We say we celebrate diversity,” said Tanis, “yet we’re holding everyone to the same standards.”

She concluded, “We should push all kids. Common Core says, if the kid can’t reach the apple on the tree, raise it higher — don’t give them a step stool.”

“Teachers revel in ability to be creative”

Katie Ferguson, the New York State Teacher of the Year for 2012, said she was “speaking for the children.”

Ferguson, who teaches second-graders in Schenectady, said the new requirements in every subject area “increased anxiety for children with special needs.”

She described a colleague’s classroom with “profoundly disabled” students, many unable to speak and two of whom use “eye gaze” to communicate. This teacher had to make 62 different tests — approximately five hours for each child — to meet Common Core requirements instead of working on tests that would assess progress on agreed-upon individual goals, meaningful to the students.

For example, one child who communicates through gazing and struggles to identify even a picture of himself had to take a test comparing a character in a movie with a character in a book.

The loss of instructional time, Ferguson said, was “abominable.”

Assessment is valuable, she said, when it measures learning and prepares for future instruction. Required Common Core testing, however, “teaches them hard work does not always pay off,” said Ferguson.

When asked by McDonald what should change, Ferguson said, “What we need is more time.” She also said flexibility is needed. “It’s not one size fits all,” said Ferguson of teaching.

Steck volunteered “historic perspective,” based on his mother’s experience as a New York State teacher years ago when, he said, curriculum was supplied to districts across New York from the State Education Department.

Perhaps referencing Richard Mills and his shared decision-making initiative, Steck said an education commissioner decided each district would “design” its own curriculum.

“Some small districts don’t even have the staff to do it,” Steck said, suggesting perhaps the State Education Department needs to go back to distributing “ready-made” lessons.

Ferguson responded that the website Engage New York has modules posted but they can be “difficult to manage.” She also said her district, Schenectady, had bought a program. “At this point, we need to take a step back to give teachers time to take this in,” she said.

If all 700 school districts across the state bought different programs, “wouldn’t that be anarchy?” asked Steck. He also said that “seems incredibly costly and inefficient.”

“What teachers revel in is their ability to be creative,” said Ferguson. She also said that students should be tested on the things they need to be successful in life.

Steck noted this week’s announcement by the Board of Regents that its committee had approved the State Education Department’s applying to the United States Department of Education to renew the state’s waiver from No Child Left Behind, asking that students with severe disabilities who are not eligible for alternate assessments to be tested at their instructional level rather than their chronological age level.

“Applying for a waiver is not the same as getting it,” said Ferguson.

“They just learn differently”

Meredith Gavin who has a 10-year-old son in the Wynanskill School District, described herself as “a true single mother” and said her son was diagnosed as autistic in 2006 when he was 2.

She described school as “a child’s second family” and said that parental and district rights are taken away as Common Core assumes children learn at the same rate.

Gavin also said, to applause, that people assume students with disabilities lack intelligence. “They just learn differently,” she said.

She focused her comments on curriculum and high-stakes testing and said students now “sit for double time at a test they don’t understand.”

Teachers and parents must work together, Gavin said, noting that she has trouble helping her son with his math homework because she learned math a different way. “You’re going to lose parents in this mess,” she advised. “There have been tears from both of us due to frustration.”

Her fourth-grader is expected to learn about common denominators one night and uncommon denominators the next, she said, urging, “Let’s get a life skill of time and money down first.”

Like Tanis, she said Common Core was “creating a platform for failure” because students were tested on material they hadn’t learned in earlier grades. She also criticized the move to giving special-needs students certificates instead of diplomas.

Gavin concluded, “I need the word ‘special’ to stay in front of ‘education’ because we are not common education, and I need the work ‘individual’ to stay in front of individual educational plan.”

Tkaczyk, as she had asked the other speakers, asked Gavin what she would like to see change.

“I’m one of the few parents that hounds to get what I need,” she said. “You all have the power to do what’s right for kids.”

She also said she didn’t think it was fair to place an added burden on parents, having to learn a new curriculum in order to help their children.

“I’m a successful mother without Common Core,” she said.

“Lack of political will”

Dr. Rita D. Levay, Ed.D. currently the interim director of pupil services in Schenectady, spoke from several points of experience — as a teacher, and as a district-level and state-level educator as well as the mother of two children with disabilities.

She recalled a time when special-education students were denied access in their own school buildings.

Levay said that over 450,000 students in New York State are classified as having special needs, and over 70 percent of those have normal cognitive ability.

The national average for classification is 12 percent, she said, and there are places in New York — particularly poor rural and urban districts — where over 20 percent of the students are classified.

“We need blurred lines or no lines…We need to support learners without labeling them,” she said.

She also said that New York State has over 200 requirements exceeding federal requirements whereas Massachusetts and Connecticut have fewer than five. Districts are consumed with trying to meet these mandates, she said.

Levay also said that “expectations are low” for students with disabilities and there’s a “lack of political will” to restructure.

She said, too, that New York is first in costs for special-education students and 38th in outcomes. The national average for special-education costs per student above general-education costs is $3,500, she said, compared to $10,466 for New York.

This is due to almost entirely unfunded mandates, said Levay.

She spoke of several waves of reform — in 1996, in 2008, and now — and said, “Higher standards is not the issue.”

After the reform in 1996, she said, a “safety net,” using the old Regents Competency Test, allowed for double the number of students with disabilities to pass the English Regents exam in 11th grade.

“I could not believe what came out yesterday,” Levay said, referring to the Board of Regents’ announcement of 19 changes slowing down the implementation of Common Core testing and its use in evaluating teachers.

She suggested, instead, teachers be evaluated on how they improve, teaching each child what he or she needs, and that resources be shifted to general education.

Levay asked, if 70 percent of special-education students have normal cognitive skills, shouldn’t it be expected that 70 percent would graduate with a diploma that means something?

In response to legislators’ questions on what she’d like to see changed, Levay had several recommendations. One was that classes be configured around “learner characteristics” rather than by student classification; that way, teachers could be more efficient. Rather than gearing lessons to many different learning styles in the same classroom, they could focus on one approach.

Second, she said the number of evaluations teachers are asked to conduct is enormous and unnecessary. She explained how may of the evaluations are repetitive and redundant, and said the time and effort could better be spent elsewhere.

Third, she said there should be changes in “how we work with parents and handle parents who disagree with us….We have more hearings in New York than almost any other state,” said Levay, noting the process is costly and divisive.

She advised, “Work collaboratively with parents.”

“Lucky to stay afloat”

The Cohoes superintendent, Robert Libby, rounded out the forum, focusing first on finances.

“We need to eliminate the gap elimination adjustment,” he said.

Steck later polled the room, asking who knew what the GEA was; most hands went up.

Governor David Paterson first created the GEA in 2010 to help the state close a gaping budget deficit by reducing foundation aid to schools.

“Gap elimination is smoke and mirrors,” said Breslin. “We give them money and take it away with the little games we play.”

Libby went on to cite the state comptroller’s work on the fiscal stress felt by school districts and pointed to a graph on the comptroller’s website that shows a sharp increase in property taxes in recent yeas as state and federal aid since 2008 has dropped.

Libby said, in his 30 years as an educator, he had never seen such financial challenges at the same time as the grandest scheme for restructuring.

“We’re lucky to stay afloat,” he said.

He spoke with sadness of having to dismantle programs of which he had been proud.

“Because of financial circumstances,” he said, “we’ve made more special-education students….We’re not providing adequate Academic Intervention Services.”

He also said, “A high school diploma in our culture is essential.” For some, it is a beginning point; for many others, an end point, he said, noting a diploma is necessary for jobs ranging from the military to cosmetology.

Special-needs children, he said, need to become “productive members of society.”

“Not every New Yorker needs a college-prep diploma, but they do need to be workplace ready,” he said to applause.

“This has been very eye-opening for me,” said Tkaczyk at the close of the forum. “We need to get better at seeing we’re meeting the needs of all of our children.”

Breslin concluded with a reference to Greek mythology — Tantalus “always reaching for the out-of-reach fruit.”

“Each student ought to be able to obtain those grapes,” he said. “There’s poverty, there’s disability, there’s prejudice. We have to overcome those barriers. Unless or until we do that, we’re not serving our state. You, as citizens, have to demand that of us…

“We’re a state where the gap between the rich and the poor is the biggest in the country…Keep vigilant,” urged Breslin.

Tkaczyk agreed. “You need to hold us accountable,” she said. “It’s not OK to say we’re not educating each of our students to the best of their ability.”

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