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Feature Stories

They’re Drowning Our Kids In Snake Oil

If you care about the future of public education, clear your calendar for the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 2.

At 7 p.m., Long Island’s representative on the New York State Board of Regents, Roger Tilles, will speak at the Port Washington Public Library about high-stakes testing. While I disagree with Tilles on the topic, I look forward to attending — and you should, too — because the issue definitely will receive an open and fair discussion. It is, after all, sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

The Port Washington-Manhasset chapter of this non-partisan national organization has been especially active in organizing events that address important topics. Among them, election-season Meet The Candidates nights and issue-driven exchanges, such as “Water For Long Island” and “How to Get Democracy Working Again.”

Now, in the wake of the Common Core test results issued by the state just before the start of school, the LWV has provided Tilles, and those who would like to question him, a forum.

Tilles is well known as a good guy — community-minded and generous to worthy causes — which makes it hard to believe he has fallen for the snake oil of the Common Core.

As Tilles wrote last month in Newsday, he sees the adoption of the Common Core Learning Standards as a way to boost our children’s academic performance and make our high school graduates more college- and workforce-ready. Citing data showing that two-thirds of New York’s

high school graduates aren’t prepared for college or 21st Century employment, he said the best way to turn this around is implementing new, tougher standards that require “critical thinking” and other employer-preferred skills. That our kids, as a whole, did so poorly on the state Common

Core tests only proves they’re not up to it.

I think it proves something else. Not all of our kids did poorly. In fact, some communities did very well. Jericho and Manhasset, for instance. Not A+, but passing. The passing rate in Roosevelt, however, was just one-sixth of that in Manhasset.

What’s the difference between those school districts? Household income, for one — $62,355 vs. $107,006 in 2011, according to estimates by city-data.com. Crime, for another. A Google search of “Manhasset Shooting” turns up a 2007 incident and a lot of ads for gun-related businesses. Doing the same for Roosevelt brought up no fewer than four recent incidents involved bullets entering human flesh.

The comparisons could go on. But suffice it to say, compared with an affluent district, Roosevelt’s problems don’t stem from educators not asking enough of the kids. It’s way more complex than that.

The Common Core and all of the testing that accompanies it aren’t the answer. They’re just the flavor of the month. Sound-bite quick-fixes to what ails our schools. Not unlike the Bush Administration’s disastrous No Child Left Behind and Obama’s not-much-different Race To The Top. Neither of these “breakthroughs” has worked, and both have done far more harm than good. So has what Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed, a “death penalty for failing schools.” Rather than admit failure, and consider what went wrong and how to fix it, the educational gurus in our government now have embraced Common Core, which appeals to America’s fears of unemployment (The standards “reflect businesses’ need for a highly skilled workforce,” Tilles wrote).

But dig deeper, and you’ll find the same old test-prep, test and punish approach to education wrapped in new language. Yet, we are led to believe, the Common Core’s educational super-powers are amazing because most of our kids failed its test. That’s twisted “critical thinking.” I, too, could devise an exam that most kids fail. Just test fifth graders on eighth grade material.

That the test questions and specific results are kept under wraps — even parents and teachers don’t know what questions their kids got wrong — makes me suspicious. Like snake oil, the Common Core has special secret ingredients.

I look forward to Regent Tilles’s explanation for that.

John Owens is editor in chief of Anton Community Newspapers. His new book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth From the Front Lines of American Public Education is available at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and booksellers everywhere, as well as in Kindle and NOOK editions.