This time, experts say it could cost the governor some political clout in the Lower Hudson Valley and Long Island, the suburban birthplaces of a rapidly expanding movement that has mobilized thousands of parents and teachers. At issue is the governor’s push to increase reliance on standardized tests and use them to evaluate teacher performance, a shift in education policy that one advocacy group said has prompted more than 100,000 students to opt out of the first round of tests and for which the second-term governor may be losing voters. MAP: See opt-out rates vs. political leans of school districts What’s all this about testing?
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seen here speaking in Albany last month, finds himself at odds with the New York State United Teachers again. This time it may cost him, experts say.(Photo: AP File)
The state test controversy has turned into the latest and bloodiest scrum between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s teachers’ unions.
At issue is the governor’s push to increase reliance on standardized tests and use them to evaluate teacher performance, a shift in education policy that one advocacy group said has prompted more than 100,000 students to opt out of the first round of tests — and for which the second-term governor may be losing voters.
What’s all this about testing?
“I definitely see political repercussions, both short and long term,” said Jeanne Zaino, chair of the Political Science Department at Iona College in New Rochelle.
“I was reading the other day where a mother somewhere said, ‘You know, you have to be very careful if you’re a politician about coming between a parent and their children,'” Zaino said. “And I think when there’s a perception that that’s what any politician or public figure has done, particularly the governor, you are going to pay a price for that.”
Unofficial tallies indicate that parents of more than 11,000 children in Lower Hudson Valley schools kept their children out of the first round of the tests, including in areas that voted for Cuomo last year. For example, 20 percent of students in Dobbs Ferry opted out, as did 21 percent in Nyack.
For critics, it was seen as a mandate against the governor’s education agenda.
“Governor Cuomo has shown an indifference to each of these core precepts,” Lisa Davis, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, said in a statement. “We are concerned that, unlike the many states that are diminishing their reliance on high stakes assessments, Cuomo will ignore the underlying reasons that are compelling parents to engage in civil disobedience and he will stay the course.”
Cuomo has long been at odds with the teachers’ unions, which refused to endorse him last year in his Democratic primary race with Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout.
Teachout has become a leading voice in the “opt-out” movement that seeks to undermine Cuomo’s education policy.
“He certainly lost a lot of credibility on education,” Teachout said.
“This testing craze is relatively recent, and this has one of the first major, truly grass-roots, parent-driven aspects to it in the country,” she said. “This is parents from all different kinds of backgrounds saying, ‘No, I don’t want my kid taking this test.’ So it’s not your typical activist groups. This is middle-class parents saying, ‘This is not serving my kid.’ And that’s where movements can have the greatest power.”
The governor’s office did not return calls seeking comment.
But not everyone is lined up against Cuomo. Many parents and several advocacy groups have pushed his education policy, even launching an “opt-in” campaign prior to the first round of state tests.
“This campaign sends a simple message to parents: tests and the higher standards together give us the tools we need to help our children succeed,” Stephen Sigmund, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “For too long, children from the cities to the suburbs were allowed to fall behind. No longer. Not only are we promoting higher standards in the classroom, but using tests to measure student progress so that teachers can help.”
At the heart of the state controversy are Common Core teaching standards pushed by Cuomo.
The Common Core project was started in 2007 by the National Governor’s Association and education officials from several states, with key funding from the Gates Foundation. The goal was to promote the teaching of fewer, deeper concepts in math and a sort of practical literacy in English that focused on nonfiction texts and evidence-backed writing.
New York’s application of Common Core has been mired in controversy, with critics complaining that the standards are unproven and offer faulty methodology in math while needlessly downplaying classic literature.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo in the gubernatorial race last year, even seized on Cuomo’s long-running feud with the state’s teachers, adding a “Stop Common Core” ballot line which received more than 50,000 votes.
Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College, is another critic of the governor’s education policy. Rebell was a dissenting member on Cuomo’s New York Education Reform Commission, a panel which produced a set of recommendations last year.
He said that, while the commission made positive proposals regarding pre-kindergarten education, technology and wrap-around services for students, it made no recommendations regarding such key issues as Common Core, education financing and standardized tests — issues at the heart of the current controversy.
“He certainly has pushed the polarization of education to a greater extent than my memory of other recent governors,” Rebell said. “He makes this out as a war between the good guys on his side and the teachers unions. But the vast public in the middle is getting caught in this, and I think that’s what these parents who are taking such a strong stand on testing are saying, that this is not a well-conceived, long-range strategy.”
The debate has prompted bills in both chambers of the state Legislature. The Common Core Parent Refusal Act was introduced last month by two Republicans, state Sen. Terrence Murphy of Yorktown and Assemblyman James Tedisco of Glenville. It requires school districts to notify parents that their children can opt out of the tests.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Scarsdale Democrat, has helped push for an independent task force to examine the issue. Paulin and others favor minimizing the tests’ impact on teacher evaluations and considering alternate test models.
But because New York signed up for the federal Race to the Top grant program, it has limited flexibility.
“I get the civil disobedience, the discontent with the test,” Paulin said Friday. “But the ‘ask’ is very unclear. Because it’s a federally mandated test, there’s no option about not giving the third- through eighth-grade test. That’s not up to the state.”
Whether Cuomo will pay a political price remains to be seen. Some observers note that, with more than three years left in his current term, he may very well ride out the political firestorm.
“On the one hand I think he’s right to say, ‘That’s why people elected me, because they want to fix this,'” said Zaino, the Iona College professor. “And he’s right. There are serious issues with our education system. We have many failing schools in this state. So, he’s right to say ‘I was elected to do this.’
“On the other hand,” she said, “I think you have to be very careful how you do it, and I think as much as he may want to take on the teachers union and he may want to pursue some of these policies, politically you’re walking a very fine line when you’re going to do that.” Via lohud.com