By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Changing anything about children’s education can be enormously political, as well as deeply personal, with implications for the futures of parents, teachers, students and school administrators.
Schools in New York state adopted the Common Core Standards in July 2010 and began in implement them in 2011. The new standards replaced the former regimen of Regents testing with a new set of benchmarks for student learning.
In Niskayuna, the change has been jarring. As interim Superintendent John Yagielski said at a recent community meeting, the district excelled under the Regents system. Teachers were familiar and comfortable with the requirements, and knew clearly what they needed to do to prepare their students for the tests.
That sense of security all but disappeared when the Common Core was introduced. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have since adopted the standards.
Yagielski said change in itself, including the way students are taught, is not a bad thing.
“The world is changing at a rate much faster than the rate at which we’re improving our schools,” he said at the meeting, which took place Oct. 24 at the Niskayuna Library.
However, he disagreed with the some of the ways the state and federal governments have gone about creating change.
Unlike many past education reforms, which were implemented gradually, the Common Core was applied to all grades simultaneously, and in a hurry, to meet requirements for federal Race to the Top funding. That meant students older than kindergarten fell instantly behind on the curriculum, through no fault of their own or their teachers.
The new standards changed education both at school and at home. Teachers had to adjust their methods in order to prepare students for brand-new tests that most had never seen. They quickly found that there was more material to cover than there was time to cover it.
At the same time, parents discovered they were unfamiliar with their children’s homework and felt powerless to assist them.
One mother at Yagielski’s meeting said she had never seen some of the words in some math problems. She called them “indecipherable.”
Similarly, a father said his daughter got the right answer on a test, but got only partial credit because she used a traditional method, rather than the newer one. He didn’t know how to explain to her what she did wrong.
Another piece of legislation, which mandated an Annual Professional Performance Review for teachers, coincided with the introduction of Common Core, creating a second set of problems.
In the Niskayuna district, 40 points of a teacher’s 100-point rating are determined by students’ test outcomes. However, unlike the Regents tests of the past, teachers only have partial practice tests to prepare their students. The tests are taken on computers, not on paper, and many instructors don’t feel they can prepare students well because are being kept in the dark about the material.
“Even the most outstanding and confident teacher is uncomfortable with that concept,” Yagielski said.
By all accounts, “outstanding” and “confident” are accurate words to describe 35-year kindergarten teacher Abigail Webber. Daily, she instructs a classroom full of 4- to 6-year-olds, including seven who are learning English.
In addition to spending most of her career teaching the youngest of Niskayuna’s students, she trains other teachers as a professional development instructor at the Greater Capital Region Teacher Center.
And yes, APPRs make her uncomfortable.
Most of what Webber knows about the actual testing experience comes from peeking over the shoulders of her kindergartners while they answer questions in a computer lab. Portions of the test are dependent on the sounds coming through their headphones, which she can’t hear.
Webber said many teachers are uncertain about whether the test really reflects what their students can do.
“You can print out these amazing graphs. There’s more information than you could ever imagine,” she said. “But it’s not like I sat there and heard what they were saying and watched what they were doing.”
Webber said the tests don’t make her nervous for her job, but others might feel differently. After two years of the assessments, no Niskayuna teachers are classified on the lowest of four rungs, “Ineffective,” but some are second-to-lowest, classified as “Developing.”
Yagielski said the standards aren’t a problem. Neither are tests, theoretically. But the implementation has been flawed.
“We need accountability measures, but we need to balance it against providing teachers with assessment tools,” he said.
Right now, teachers don’t get to see the students’ APPR test results until the end of the year. By then, the opportunity to make adjustments based on their scores is lost.
The assessment format also presents a problem. High-pressure testing isn’t always the best option for students, and the use of a computer presents another layer of difficulty for some very young students who might not be used to using a mouse.
Yagielski said other forms of assessment, like creative projects, performances or small quizzes, could potentially be useful. At the library meeting, he announced his commitment to improving the situation.
“We will do what we need to stay in compliance [with the Common Core], but we’re not going to run our district on a compliance basis,” he said. “We have to have our faculty develop our own Niskayuna curriculum.”
Teachers like Webber are prepared to innovate in their classrooms based on the new standards. She said the process simply requires time and teamwork.
“It isn’t, ‘Throw everything out that you always had,’ but ‘Let’s look at it,’ ” she said.
About every other month, Webber and her kindergarten colleagues across the district gather for a grade-level meeting where they discuss best practices. In addition to the lessons they’ve developed for themselves over years of teaching, they have guidelines from both the district and the state to draw from.
For example, in math instruction, the district uses a program called Math in Focus, which is the main guide for teachers. Webber and the other kindergarten instructors fill in the gaps with ideas from modules that the state of New York has published, which are suggested lessons that line up with the Common Core.
In general, Webber said, the teachers she’s talked to are adjusting quickly to the Common Core. Each year, the kindergarten students are better prepared for what’s next.
“Our first grade teachers are saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this year is so much better than last year when we introduced this topic,’ ” she said.
Now that teachers are warming up to the Common Core, Webber said it’s important to explain the details to parents. She understands why they’re frustrated.
Webber said the first time she saw the math concepts students would be using, she was lost. But after some training, she grew to like them.
“When you’re guided through it, you see, ‘Oh, I understand why they developed this model,’ ” she said.
The standards are imperfect in practice, but in theory, they are supposed to promote depth of understanding, and Webber said that’s what students need. She said the math components, especially, encourage students to develop a fluent understanding of numbers, rather than forcing them to memorize steps.
The process of adjusting to the Common Core — and adjusting the Common Core itself — feels slow, but Webber hopes politics and anxiety won’t completely halt it.
“My fear is that it’s going to fail,” she said. “My fear is that it’s all going to be revoked without ever giving it the time to see if it can work well, to provide that thoughtful reflection, that thoughtful revision, and great training for teachers.”
Common Core in the Niskayuna school district, in New York state, and across the country is a work in progress. The real challenge is to adjust it without causing academic problems for children.
At Yagielski’s meeting with district parents, his presentation’s last few words resonated.
“This is not a final product,” the final slide read.
“You don’t just blink your eye and have people change,” Yagielski said.