Common Core

New York’s ‘shoddy’ Common Core rollout puts special-needs students at risk; a veteran teacher demands a moratorium

My mother died suddenly last month and my father is in prison.  There are five of us now from 8 to 17 years old who are essentially orphaned.

We were just evicted and now I’m sleeping on my grandmother’s floor along with my mother, her boyfriend, my four brothers and our two dogs. It is cold and I am tired.

Jennifer Curley

Jennifer Curley

I couldn’t go home yesterday because I live where they make methamphetamine, and the police found out.  The entire street is blocked off.

The above scenarios — distilled from the voices of my students — represent just a few of the challenges faced by middle-school students living in poor upstate New York communities like mine, where I teach special education students who learn in different ways and at different paces than their same-age peers. Many of my students have experienced more trauma and loss in their 12 or 13 years than most of us will in our lifetimes.

Yet, in this era of the new Common Core State Standards and hyperfocus on testing, so-called education reformers continue to insist that “one-size-fits all.”

As a 22-year veteran teacher, I know — as do my colleagues — that students with disabilities are suffering profoundly as a result of the cookie-cutter philosophy accompanying Common Core, and that suffering has only been exacerbated by the curriculum’s disastrous launch here in New York state.

While attending a training session one day, I asked what would become of secondary students not ready for Common Core instruction because they have never been exposed to that style of learning. The response? I was told they would be a “sacrificial population.”

It was a sobering moment, especially for a teacher like myself whose students are classified as emotionally and learning-disabled, and whose behaviors have been determined to be so severe — fueled by anger, depression, violence, anxiety, and/or impulse control — they must be isolated in self-contained classrooms.

Planning for lessons in a classroom like mine takes a great deal of forethought and flexibility. Reading levels are well below average; some at second or third grade. Learning disabilities — whether psychologically rooted or because of gaps in their education caused by obstructive behaviors — leave my students challenged to retain facts irrelevant to their lives and basic survival. And when my students are focused, the educational process is still drastically different than your typical classroom.

Most special-needs students have not reached a place in their intellectual, experiential, or emotional development to make the high-level connections required for Common Core.  For example, the new reading standard asks my eighth-grade students  — including children who are learning disabled and severely emotionally disturbed — to analyze complex metaphors, including one author’s use of a papaya to symbolize the experience of immigrants leaving their home and country.

My students are also being asked to evaluate complex, philosophical arguments. These tasks require significant ability to reason at very high levels, extensive background information, not to mention interest in these topics. The Common Core vocabulary endorsed by the state is often too advanced for them to understand.

There are times when Common Core lessons do produce positive results. When reading informational text, students must cite evidence from the reading to answer questions. My students are very familiar with this technique; throughout their educational experience, most have had to look for information embedded in text.

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Common Core also isolates and breaks down particular skills and repeats them in abundance. This is very beneficial to learning disabled/emotionally disturbed students because it allows them to master skills that may not have been covered at the depth required for them to truly internalize the skill. However, while my students excel at the lower-level skills taught by Common Core, they have trouble with the more sophisticated skills that will eventually be required to master Common Core material.

Common Core, as it has been implemented in New York, requires many characteristics and abilities my students do not possess. The amount of high level, abstract thinking and extraordinary spans of intense attention required to master this material are simply impossible for many of my high-needs students, and the fact we are not addressing this basic concern is downright foolish. And it’s unfortunate that the issue most detrimental to their success is one that is also most ignored: the total lack of familial and communal support.

Teachers under the Common Core rollout have been shortchanged on training and not given the time needed to learn what — and how — the State Education Department wants us to teach. That runs counterintuitive to the goal of enhancing teacher quality and improving student performance. We need the appropriate time to learn, adjust and adapt to any new curriculum before introducing it to their students.

Thus, it’s only common sense to impose a moratorium on the use of Common Core testing for high-stakes decisions affecting students and teachers. My statewide union —New York State United Teachers — has made an irrefutable case that a three-year moratorium is essential. New curricula could still be introduced, teachers would still be evaluated, students would still be assessed — but the pressure and stress of high stakes consequences would allow this process to stay focused where it should be: on improving teaching and learning.

The students I teach need an alternative to the testing and instruction now being forced onto them under the guise of “education reform.”  The State Education Department is seeking a federal waiver allowing students with severe disabilities not eligible for alternate assessments to be tested at lower grade levels. But the waiver is still not in hand — further illustrating the immediate need for a moratorium.

Despite proposing the delay of some aspects of Common Core, the state’s Board of Regents has failed to undertake any meaningful corrections to improve the implementation of the new standards, such as slowing teacher evaluations based on Common Core tests. It also has failed to listen to the concerns of parents, teachers and education experts. Now many state legislators are weighing in and supporting the union’s common-sense call for a moratorium on high-stakes consequences.

The question I continually come back to as I stand witness to the adverse impact of the state’s shoddy implementation of Common Core is: Why won’t the education department, the Regents and the Cuomo administration listen to those of us on the front lines?

What must be acknowledged is obvious: We must stop for a moment, reflect and reevaluate. And we must collaborate, adjust and improve. A moratorium on high-stakes consequences would make this possible.

The young people of this state need us all working together.

Jennifer Curley is a special education teacher at Broadway Middle School in the Elmira City School District.

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