We Must Seize the Moment for Reform

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At a recent education forum, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about the concerns of those who feel our nation is moving “too fast” on education reform, those who say we should slow down on raising academic standards and improving teacher and principal evaluation and support. Secretary Duncan disagreed strongly. We’re not moving too fast, he said. We’re moving too slow.

We couldn’t agree more.

While we’ve made improvements in our graduation rate over the last decade, right now one out of every four students in New York is not graduating from high school. And perhaps even more disturbing, nearly seven out of every 10 New York students who enter the 9th grade do not finish school ready for college or a decent paying job. Despite the fact that New York has some of the highest performing schools in the country, tens of thousands of our state’s high school graduates end up in remedial courses, paying college prices to learn skills they should have developed in high school.

And those numbers are far worse for students of color. Statewide, only 11 percent of African-American students graduate from high school ready for college or career; only 14 percent of Hispanic students meet that goal. At a time when a post-secondary credential –- a two- or four-year college degree or a meaningful post-high school career skills certificate –- is the minimum price of entry into the middle class, we must act urgently to improve educational outcomes.

That’s why New York is one of 46 states that have adopted the Common Core standards – new academic standards meant to prepare our students to be college and career ready.

The Common Core standards were developed by asking leaders in higher education and America’s business community a simple question: what skills do students need to bring with them on their first day of class or work? What do they need to succeed? The Common Core was mapped backwards from college and career success to lay out what students should know and be able to do at every stage of their K-12 academic career. The Common Core rests on a foundation of research on the keys to student success in reading, writing, and mathematics - and was internationally benchmarked against the academic expectations of our competitor nations. Supported by the National Governor’s Association, the AFT, the NEA, the National PTA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s leading higher education association, and countless others, the Common Core is the best roadmap we have to plot a course for success for our students.

To support implementation of the Common Core, we launched the website www.EngageNY.org which provides curriculum frameworks, professional development videos, and exemplary lessons and instructional materials. In the months ahead, we will add instructional materials that cover the entirety of Pre-K-12 English Language Arts and mathematics.

We’re also moving forward to implement the educator evaluation system created in law earlier this year through collaboration between Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Board of Regents, and the statewide and city teachers unions (NYSUT and UFT). Research has shown that the best way schools can improve student performance is to make sure every student is in a class headed by a great teacher in a building run by a great principal. The new evaluations will facilitate thoughtful discussions among teachers and school leaders about effective instruction. Educators will receive professional development tailored to their needs, and exemplary practitioners will have the opportunity to serve as mentors and models for their colleagues.

In recent weeks we have heard calls to slow down the Common Core and the shifts in instruction the Common Core requires -- like the ability to read complex fiction and non-fiction texts, to write effectively using evidence, and to apply math problem solving skills. And in some school districts across the state there have been calls to delay implementing an evaluation system that will finally provide all educators with meaningful feedback.

Unfortunately, our students can’t wait. The reality is our students are already accountable for the skills embedded in the Common Core. They’re held accountable on the first day on a college campus, or the first day on a job, when their professors or their employers expect them to have those skills.

Secretary Duncan was right. We cannot afford delay. This is the one chance a nine-year old will have in fourth grade or a 17-year old will have as a junior in high school. The time is now; every year delayed is an opportunity wasted for our students.

We recognize that the Common Core and a new evaluation system are not silver bullets, that as a society, we must tackle the challenges of poverty, gun violence, and many other outside-the-school-building influences that impact our students. However, as educators we all share the conviction that rigorous and engaging instruction can lead to extraordinary results – even for students in the most difficult of circumstances. Implementing the Common Core and the evaluation system are two critical steps toward realizing that vision in New York. We must seize this moment to help all of our students to achieve and succeed.

Merryl H. Tisch is the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. She will participate in a Nov. 28 forum co-moderated by Beth Fertig.

John B. King Jr. is the commissioner of the New York State Education Department.