Testifying Before Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force in Queens, NYC

Last night I testified at one of NYS Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force (aka Farce) sessions. The New York City event took place at LaGuardia Community College in a hard-to-reach section of Long Island City, Queens. Incongruously, it was held in the cramped Poolside Café, located deep inside the college building. Afforded to us, while signing in, were glimpses of swim team practice. It was as if Cuomo’s team deliberately chose an inconvenient time and location for the event in order to deter people from attending. To the best of my knowledge, there was no media presence at LaGuardia Community College. Unlike the Long Island session, which was covered in today’s news, I saw nothing reported about the NYC session.  Therefore, I will try to be as comprehensive as possible, but my six-year-old was with me so, unfortunately, I was unable to give all the speakers my full attention.

About 25 people testified; a balance, more or less, of Common Core opponents and supporters. I was speaker 18. MORE-UFT and Change the Stakes members shared the front row with pro-Common Core Educators4Excellence (EFE) teachers, including its founder Evan Stone. High Achievement NY, a coalition of businesses and education deform organizations such as E4E, was represented by its executive director, Stephen Sigmund. The main message of the Common Core supporters was that the standards are good but the tests need to be tweaked. They repeatedly used the term “opt-in” and recommended computer adaptive testing for students with special needs.

As a critic of the Common Core package, I was happy to see so many MORE-UFT and Change the Stakes allies (and friends!) who had shown up despite the challenges of getting there on time: David Dobosz, Fred Smith, Jane Maisel, Alliance for Quality Education‘s Zakiyah Ansari, blogger Peter Goodman, a Class Size Matters representative who read a statement by Leonie Haimson, and sociologist/public school parent/blogger Nancy Cauthen all testified. My apologies if I inadvertently omitted someone.


Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, and Kishayna Hazlewood, 3rd grade teacher at P.S. 156 in Brooklyn, chaired the event. Hazlewood was mostly stoic while Nolan shared with us – from time to time – her personal views, citing a recent conversation she had with Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Fund. Nolan seems to get it. NYC City Council member Danny Dromm opened the event with a statement that was critical of Common Core.


Dromm in foreground listens to David Dobosz’s testimony; seated at the table are Nolan (on left) and Hazlewood (on right). Photo by me. 

As was the case when John King came to NYC in 2013 on his “listening” tour, StudentsFirstNY bussed in a large group of charter school parents who sat in the back as audience members – not speakers. This time, it seemed StudentsFirstNY wanted Educators4Excellence teachers, not parents, to do the testifying. Interestingly, after corporate education deform critics Dromm, Smith and Dobosz spoke, the StudentsFirstNY parents all rose and left the poolside café en masse. I asked four parents why they were leaving, but not one had any idea what was going on. Finally, a woman told me, “This isn’t for us. We support Common Core.”

FullSizeRender-28The quick and confusing departure of StudentsFirstNY parents. Photo by me. 

Once it became clear that well-informed, dissenting voices were being heard, StudentsFirstNY organizers instructed the parents to leave immediately. Presumably they didn’t want their brainwashed parents to be contaminated by the opposition. The exodus puzzled the young Cuomo staffers so I told them what was going on. One of them, David Contreras Turley, director of Constituency Affairs, gave me his card and told me that the governor’s office was neutral on Common Core. I challenged him by pointing out Cuomo’s support for education deform and charters. David did not respond. I was grateful to Cuomo’s representatives, though, because they were very accommodating of my restless daughter and the dozens of math manipulatives strewn all over the floor.

After the departure of the charter school parents, a Queens mother passionately testified that the Common Core had brought anguish and frustration to her home and that her son had gone from a level 3 to a level 1 student in math. Immediately after her testimony, Assemblywoman Nolan reminded the audience to be respectful. Apparently, an Educators4Excellence teacher had laughed at and/or made faces at the mother while she was delivering her moving testimony. Nolan even got out of her seat and confronted the teacher who denied out loud that she was misbehaving. Nolan also gave High Achievement NY’s Stephen Sigmund a look that said “watch it, Buster.” I did not witness their alleged crimes.

Here is my testimony, which I also intend to submit online. If you were unable to attend one of these task force sessions, consider sending your statement to the task force via their website. Let’s inundate them with our message.

November 6, 2015

I’m a NYC parent but today I’m speaking to you as a NYC teacher. I stood before John King in 2013 and got no reaction from him. I am more hopeful today and feel compelled – once again – to speak up on behalf of NYC educators and students who are suffering under corporate education deform.

We detest what the Common Core package has done to instruction. This July 21, 2009 quote from Bill Gates will clarify what I mean by package:

Bill Gates said, “We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards. Arne Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of tests–next generation assessments aligned to the common core. When the tests are aligned to common standards, the curriculum will line up as well–and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better…”

We are given poor quality, scripted curriculum that is not developmentally appropriate. Education deformers have turned critical thinking and rigor into an extreme sport, frustrating and boring teachers and students to the point where – for example – a large number of us dread teaching math. Close reading has become tedious and is killing the joy of reading. The chief purpose of schooling nowadays is to teach skills that kids will need to know for the Common Core tests. Independent reading, through which students experience joy in having the freedom to discover a wide range of books regardless of level, is now viewed chiefly as a tactic to build students’ stamina for the absurdly long Common Core tests.

Our freedom to teach and to facilitate the development of whole child is curtailed. Due to the high-stakes nature of testing, those of us who work in a Title I school face immense pressure to raise test scores. Virtually every decision made at the school level is done with testing in mind.

No educator I know finds any value in the Common Core ELA and math tests. They are poorly constructed, developmentally inappropriate, decontextualized, confusing and deliberately tricky. Equally flawed is the new Common Core-aligned NYSESLAT, which is an ELA & content assessment, not a language test. Not only does the NYSESLAT fail to consider cognitive development stages but it also disregards what we know about second language learning. Our English-language learners, in particular, are being subjected to excessive testing that does not accurately measure what they can do. These bad tests are an insult to our intelligence.

Parents – please know that teachers – like myself (and there are many of us) – support your right to opt-out. We would opt-out of administering these tests if we could. In fact, a few bold teachers have. We hope that in 2016, opt-out numbers will reach 500,000.

Nothing short of a revolution is needed if we want true education reform. The Common Core package – all of it – has got to go. Revisit the lost standards, have teachers create diagnostic standardized assessments, stop using test scores to evaluate teachers and to punish schools, invest more in social services for our school communities.

Be brave and stand up to corporate education deformers. Let’s all stop being complicit in this costly, wrong-headed experiment that’s designed – in large part – to weed out so-called “bad teachers” and so-called “failing” schools. There are more effective and humane ways to improve our schools and to support the diverse needs of the children of New York State. Start by asking a teacher.

-Katie Lapham, NYC public school teacher 


Who’s Afraid of the Project Kids?: The Struggle to Integrate NYC Public Schools

In March, I wrote a blog post that detailed 10 reasons why no student in New York State should take the Common Core English-language arts (ELA) and math tests.  On reflection, I should have added that so-called low test scores are being used by many to label largely minority and Title I schools* as “failing” and therefore undesirable.  Some of these schools are located in gentrifying areas and a number of white and/or relatively affluent, professional parents are rejecting them.  The proposed rezoning of schools in the Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo area has been in the local news lately.  Here’s what one parent at P.S. 8, with a 15% poverty rate, had to say about P.S. 307 (85% poverty rate), which is located across the street from the Farragut Houses public housing complex in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood.  This quote is from an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 9/22/15.

People who moved into Dumbo and Vinegar Hill “trusted they had an education strategy at least through primary school,” said Teresa Hohl, a P.S. 8 parent. “All of a sudden…they’re now going to be pushed into 307, which is completely underperforming in comparison.” “Rezoning Plan for Two Brooklyn Schools Riles Up Parents,” The Wall Street Journal, 9/22/15.

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IMG_9015Top left photograph is of P.S. 307.  The top right photograph is of the Farragut Houses opposite P.S. 307. The bottom photo shows P.S. 8’s main entrance.  All photos were taken by me. 

I know that not all Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo parents feel this way.  However, quite a few do and it’s problematic for area schools.  Not only does it hinder efforts to desegregate our schools but such comments imply that the lives of black, brown and low-income students hold less value.  They perpetuate a socioeconomic hierarchy in which white and/or affluent and professional individuals put themselves at the top.  Do they not think that their children could learn from black and Hispanic students? Did this parent ever visit P.S. 307? Did she talk with P.S. 307 parents and educators? Is her assessment of the school based solely on NYS Common Core ELA and math scores, which – as we know – come from highly flawed, unreliable tests that do not come close to painting an accurate picture of how a school functions.  What’s even more troubling is that some of these parents support the opt-out movement.  Yet, they are using the very same test scores they denounce to justify not wanting to send their kids to a school with a large number of low-income students of color.

I know teachers at P.S. 307 and have visited the school. I have heard great things about it under the strong leadership of the former principal, Roberta Davenport. A teacher not affiliated with the school recently told me that she would work for Davenport in a heartbeat.  P.S. 307 is an innovative STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) magnet school.  Each classroom has a living environment, and discovery learning is stressed through hands-on experiences.  Additionally, P.S. 307 has partnered with reputable organizations such as the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and Lutheran Hospital.  SEL (social and emotional learning) topics are included in the school’s curriculum, and a school-based health center is available for students in need of counseling and other services.  P.S. 307 also offers instruction in Mandarin, and violin classes.

As a NYC public school teacher who has only worked in Title I schools, I can tell you that the vast majority of teachers try their best to give each student what he or she needs to grow academically and emotionally. It is not an easy job, and we face many hurdles, but we want to challenge each student at his or her own level regardless of the school’s status (Title I or otherwise).  In my 10 years in the system, I have not witnessed this so-called culture of low expectations.  Therefore, I don’t buy this argument that by enrolling in P.S. 307, which offers a wide range of quality programs and opportunities, the children of white and/or affluent, professional parents will receive a compromised education. Indeed the school’s test scores will remain lower than those at P.S. 8, but didn’t we already establish that the scores are meaningless? In no way should these Common Core test scores be used to judge a school.  Parents need to visit the school, observe the teaching going on in the classroom, talk to parents, and find out how the principal runs the school.

Resistance to the city’s rezoning plan for this part of Brooklyn also include some current P.S. 307 parents who – among other concerns – express fear that the school’s Title I funding will vanish as more higher-income students enroll in the school.  This happened at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights.  No longer a Title I school, the PTO (parent teacher organization), which is comprised largely of white, professional parents, has developed an ambitious fundraising plan to make up for the loss of this funding source.  Initiatives such as the annual fall carnival and Friday movie nights also help to bring the community together.

The tragic ordeal that Manhattan’s P.S. 191 faced over the summer is another example of flawed official data being used by white and/or affluent, professional parents to argue against enrolling in a neighborhood Title I school.  On August 20, Emily Frost of DNAinfo reported that this Upper West Side school was mislabeled “persistently dangerous” by the New York State Education Department.  The story is complex; incident reports were miscoded, for example, and the case was mishandled by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE).  You can read more about it here. In fact, the most egregious incident – involving rape and sexual assault by a 22-year-old after-school program staffer- occurred after hours at P.S. 191’s middle school.  For the purposes of this piece, however, I wish to point out that P.S. 191, which draws many low-income students of color from the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, has been fighting a reputation stigma for years and this recent mislabeling adds another roadblock to filling seats at this dynamic elementary school.

I have visited P.S. 191 and know teachers there.  They are dedicated and hard-working and some have enrolled their own kids in the school.  P.S. 191 is a museum magnet school.  It boasts a new technology lab and strong partnerships with local museums.  The arts are prioritized as is project-based learning.  Like P.S. 307, there’s a lot of good things happening at P.S. 191 and official data falls short of telling the whole story.

What I predict will happen in the Brooklyn Height/Dumbo area is that a larger number of white and/or affluent, professional parents will choose to send their children to area charter schools like the International Charter School of New York in downtown Brooklyn and nearby Success Academy Fort Greene.  While minority students attend these charter schools, the perception is that unruly and undesirable behavior that might be exhibited by project kids at local public schools is not an issue at schools like Success Academy that also boast high test scores.  At P.S. 191, for example, there has been a white flight to  Success Academy Upper West.  If, over the next few years, P.S. 307 experiences an influx of higher income students due to the rezoning of Brooklyn Heights/Dumbo, what will happen to the kids who live at the Farragut Houses directly across the street? Will they be rezoned to nearby P.S. 287, which is 90% Hispanic and black? Will the under-enrolled P.S. 287 be seen as a dumping ground for poor students of color while P.S. 307 turns into a largely white, affluent P.S. 8-type school?

School segregation has been a hot topic not just here in New York City, but nationally too.  There has been much discussion of This American Life’s episode 562: The Problem We All Live With (July 31, 2015) in which Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, argues that integration is the key to closing the achieving gap but since 1988, re-segregation has been the trend in U.S. public schools.  In fleshing this out, Hannah-Jones details the accidental and short-lasting integration of Francis Howell High School, a mostly white public school in St. Charles, Missouri.  When Francis Howell parents found out that black students from Normandy High School in St. Louis would be allowed to transfer to their school, they were upset.  Thousands packed into Francis Howell’s gym to hear arguments against the plan.  Francis Howell parents argued that Normandy kids were dangerous and would make the school unsafe and drug-infested. They worried that Normandy kids would lower Francis Howell’s test scores. Had any of these parents been to Normandy High School? Did they know any Normandy parents or teachers? If the Francis Howell parents had gotten to know the Normandy community, would they have been welcoming? Their fears, not surprisingly, proved unwarranted. I wonder how many affluent Brooklyn and Manhattan parents listened to this public radio program and called into question their own prejudices?

Here in New York City, Hannah-Jones – together with Brad Lander, NYC councilman – appeared on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on August 20 to discuss school integration initiatives, specifically “controlled choice,” which is detailed in this New York City Council School Diversity Accountability Act.  More recently, on September 16, Hannah-Jones participated in a panel on school diversity at the Brooklyn Historical Society.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend but I look forward to watching the video of the discussion, which will be posted soon on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Vimeo page.

Education, especially at the elementary school level, is not just about academics.  It is irresponsible of policymakers to distill it down to data such as ELA and math scores and flawed school safety reports.  The goal of educators is to make the world a better place, which includes heightening students’ awareness of the injustices of life. Segregation does a disservice to our students.  Despite growing up in diverse New York City, how many white and/or affluent kids truly know and appreciate what it’s like to live in poverty and to face racism on a daily basis? We live in silos and fail to deeply get to know one another.  How can we create innovative, effective strategies to solve societal ills if we rely on superficial data, preconceived notions and our own self-interests to drive our decision-making?

*Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards. -U.S. Department of Education