Today, the State of New York is continuing a journey begun a few years ago, a journey to tell the truth to students and parents about their academic achievements.
We have known for some time that that truth is going to be harsh: fundamentally, our education system is not producing the results our students deserve. But we need to be careful about blanket statements of this kind. Any evaluation of education is relative to some standard — which could mean mastery of the skills required to help on a farm, the knowhow to run a locomotive, or the knowledge of string theory in theoretical physics. The truth we are now trying to tell, for the first time, is relative to something called college- and career-readiness, roughly equivalent to the ability to enter a community college without the need for remediation.
Many thousands of 3rd– through 8th-grade students who took Common Core-aligned tests in New York State this year will be told this week that they fall short of where they need to be on the trajectory to this goal.
The vehicle for this message will be lower test scores than these students and their parents have achieved in the past. School-level results will mirror the declines in individual scores, though there will likely be some surprising and useful outcomes. Some schools, for a variety of reasons, will buck the general trend a little, doing even worse than expected (because they were overly focused on teaching to earlier tests) or better. It will be especially interesting to see if our charter school results decline proportionately to other schools, or fare better or even worse – and to understand why.
But the real issues lie elsewhere.
First, for all the anguish and argument you will hear this week, the toughest policy decisions have yet to be taken: only next year will the first of the New York State Regents exams, required for high-school graduation, be aligned to the Common Core standards. When I served as Commissioner, we realized that imposing a college-readiness standard on the Regents exams, as we did – painfully, for the 3rd– through 8th-grade exams – would reduce high-school graduation by 30%. We judged this to be ethically and politically impossible. That is why, instead, we announced, for the first time, the college- and career-ready graduation rate for the state — but only as deeply sobering information.
The new Common Core standards are even more demanding than the ones we contemplated, and could cause an even more precipitous drop in graduation than the possible 30% decline we confronted. It remains clear, however, that if we are going to reduce the vast gap between high-school graduation standards and college- and career-readiness, something we owe to our students, the high-school graduation standards will have to rise. But by how much? That is the truly tough question that will have to be answered starting next year.
The second issue lies deeper. Some three decades after the release of the famous “Nation at Risk” report on the failings of America’s public education system, we have lost patience with incrementalism. Rather than first support universal pre-K, completely overhaul teacher preparation, radically re-design our curricula, and completely re-structure the working conditions and professional development offered to our teachers – and only then change our exams and raise our standards – we did what was politically and financially possible to begin some of that work, and then proceeded rapidly to the accountability system.
Critics cry foul.
Painful as this moment is, and more painful as the next couple of years may be if we have the will to implement the new truths at the high-school level, I believe that given our history and our current context, the critics are wrong. We could not create enough momentum, enough political will, enough national commitment, to deliver the education our students so desperately need, especially those from our least privileged communities. There is more than enough blame to go around: policy makers, unions, parents, voters – one can endlessly debate the relative responsibilities. But in the end, we are where we are, and in my judgment, what we are now doing became the last viable option.
The hope is that this will truly mark a new start – the kind of start that Massachusetts undertook years ago, when it made teaching a much tougher profession to enter and dramatically raised the quality of its academic standards and assessments.
Today, as then, one can always ask for more preparation time, more Common-Core aligned materials available sooner, more professional support for teachers. But New York State rightly makes the same decision that John Silber and his team made for Massachusetts: that only by moving the stake in the ground, right now, can we ensure that we all get serious about reform. Children caught in this wrenching transition should be foremost in our thoughts today: their distress is our failure to have found a better path, and there can be no legitimate pleasure in delivering this pain. But as a society, we have left ourselves, and them, no other way.
David Steiner is the Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College, Director of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy at Roosevelt House, and former New York State Commissioner of Education.