Like Another of China’s Five-Year Great Leaps Forward

An excerpt from the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform” To buy the book click here.

It was late August when I received an invitation along with 100 other New York State school superintendents to hear the New York State Education Commissioner speak at a regional school building 50 miles north of Berne-Knox-Westerlo in Saratoga Springs, NY. I had so much on my plate I almost passed on the invitation. The 2013-14 school year was starting in one week and taking a whole afternoon to drive to Saratoga from Berne, NY, where I was interim superintendent, seemed like a waste of time.

From what I had read about Commissioner John King – a former charter school principal from New York City who had never dealt with a school board and had no experience as a school district superintendent – I doubted he could provide any information that might make my long and difficult to-do list any shorter or easier to accomplish. But I’m a good soldier so I made the 50-mile drive north to the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES.

I milled around with many colleagues I hadn’t seen for several years until the commissioner arrived – 15 minutes late. He was introduced by one of the local BOCES Superintendent. BOCES is short for Board of Cooperative Educational Services and is a regional consortium of school districts and provides special education, vocational education and staff training services to school districts.

Commissioner King planned to speak on the new Common Core tests and their link to teacher evaluations. He spent 45 minutes reading almost entirely from his notes while zipping through a PowerPoint presentation. He spoke quickly and made no effort to connect with the audience of superintendents.

He seemed to embody the disconnect between the New York State Education Department and those charged with leading the 733 school districts in the state.

“The Common Core is here to stay,” he said. “Get used to it.”

To buy the book click here.

He told us that teacher evaluations tied to student test scores were the best answer to our concerns about teacher tenure and poor teacher performance.

There were audible groans followed by whispers. The fact that we were already struggling with poorly designed teacher evaluations that improperly integrated test scores into teacher evaluations did not deter the commissioner from his task at hand, which consisted of reading his PowerPoint notes aloud and verbatim.

The New York State Board of Regents, he told us, was fully supportive of this teacher evaluation model and our parents, taxpayers, and politicians expected us to implement it effectively. His comments were divorced from reality. Teachers were already fighting this and parents were already opting out of testing for their children.

The 80-plus superintendents in the room were incredulous and at the same time stunned by Commissioner King’s brazen ability to totally ignore the reality of the situation.

By the end of the 2014-15 school year, Commissioner King had moved on to his next job in Washington, D.C., where he took Arnie Duncan’s place as the U.S. Department of Education Secretary.

He left behind Meryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents (state level board of education), to defend herself saying the Board of Regents had to act fast because the schools were performing so badly and had been for so long.

It was a tough afternoon in Saratoga as the commissioner barreled through his 25-page PowerPoint in 45 minutes. He took three questions from the shell-shocked superintendent audience, which he answered in single sentences that restated his mantra. Then he fled the building.

I feel safe in saying that none of my colleagues wanted to be there to hear the commissioner that day. I feel equally safe in saying that he didn’t want to be there delivering his PowerPoint to a totally disbelieving audience.

We both knew this ship had sailed and would not ever arrive in port. It was only a matter of time before the Common Core/teacher evaluation/required state test regime collapsed like another of China’s five-year Great Leaps Forward. It was doomed and we would all play it out while hoping it didn’t hurt too many students and teachers in the process.

To buy the book click here.

Another excerpt – this one on teaching math click here.

For more information, contact Guaranteed Press at (518) 366-6148.

About Lonnie Palmer
In 1970, Lonnie Palmer graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics and planned to continue on to a Ph.D. program but was interrupted by a notice from the U.S. Government – a draft notice. Knowing his low number would preempt plans to continue his education, Palmer took a temporary position teaching high school science — and a reluctant education reformer was born. more


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