Bronx Principal Describes Bumpy Shift to Common Core

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Ramon Gonzalez, principal of M.S. 223 The Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the South Bronx, said he experienced "a lot of firsts" this week, even after 10 years as school leader.

Because of anxiety about the state tests, some students cried and one got sick on the answer sheet. Teachers were visibly upset in the hallways, he said, because the tests were much longer than some of them expected.

Gonzalez started transitioning his school to the Common Core learning standards two years ago. Still, preparing for this year's tests, which are aligned to Common Core, has been a challenge. To start, he said, the standards are densely written.

"I always wonder who was at that table who wrote these standards, because it sure wasn't folks like me," he said. "We had to bring in consultants to help us unpack the standards."

Gonzalez spoke at an education policy breakfast Friday hosted by the N.Y.U. Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

He said that implementing the more rigorous standards which emphasize critical thinking and analysis has required passionate educators, common planning time so teachers can share lessons and smart use of resources to support those teachers.

And for students to succeed, he added, there must be some recognition that teaching the skills required to meet the new standards extends beyond school, particularly in an under-resourced community like the South Bronx.

"Let's be honest, there are no bookstores in the neighborhood," Gonzalez said. He also cited a lack of parks, lack of mixed housing and lack of extra curricular activities "that we know need to be in place for us to really reach what the Common Core expects us to reach."

The N.Y.U. Steinhardt event included talks from James Cibulka, of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education; Okhee Lee, professor of teaching and learning at N.Y.U.; Joseph McDonald, professor of English education at N.Y.U.; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Weingarten spoke of being a "big believer in the Common Core," but said that many vulnerable students -- such as English language learners, students with disabilities and children from low-income families -- are not being served well under the Common Core so far.

"What's happened here is we have the cart before the horse," she said, especially in New York where tests aligned to the standards are already underway.

She said children are being tested before enough teachers, particularly those in challenged schools, have had a chance to prepare their students.

Weingarten said she planned a policy speech on the issue in New York City on April 30.