N.Y. School Officials Disagree Over Common Core Standards

Feb 6, 2014
Originally published on January 30, 2014 2:39 pm

Across the nation, 45 states have adopted Common Core education standards in an effort to raise expectations of American students and put them on a path to compete with students around the globe.

In New York, there has been a grassroots effort by students, teachers and officials to ban the implementation of the vigorous standards, which they say “set children up to fail.”

Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with two local New York school adminstrators about adopting Common Core.


  • Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y.
  • Charles Russo, superintendent of schools in East Moriches, N.Y.
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An Indiana legislative committee voted to move forward on efforts to repeal the Common Core Curriculum today. That's the set of educational standards adopted by 45 states, aimed to better prepare students for college and the workforce. New York was one of the first states to adopt the Common Core in 2010, and since then, there's been a huge backlash against the curriculum from parents and some educators, who say that the curriculum was rolled out well before being adequately vetted.

So let's hear from two of those New York educators on different sides of this issue. First, Carol Burris; she's principal of South Side High School, on Long Island. And Principal Burris, you were initially a supporter of the Common Core but recently, you've said that the program has been implemented in a way that's setting students up to fail. What do you mean by that?

CAROL BURRIS: Well, I think there are a few reasons for it. One is that it has been so attached to testing. So for example, in New York state, before we were able to even catch our breath and really dive into the standards and to see the materials that the state was putting out, they began testing. What we had last year and this year is almost frantic preparation, so that places like music classes and art classes all of a sudden were places where teachers thought they could infuse more ELA instruction or on math instruction, everything trying to get the kids geared up for the tests.

CHAKRABARTI: So testing, I hear you say, is a significant issue in your mind regarding the Common Core. For example, you talked about how a colleague told you about a multiple-choice quiz that was taken by his 7-year-old during music class. You give us an example of a question in the multiple-choice test. And the question is: Kings and queens commissioned Mozart to write symphonies for celebrations and ceremonies. What does commission mean? And then there's four possible answers. Now, you asked the question of whether or not a vocabulary test like this is even appropriate for a 7-year-old's music class.

BURRIS: I wonder if a vocabulary test like that is appropriate for a 7-year-old in an ELA class. (Laughter)

CHAKRABARTI: But the reason I'm asking - because isn't this one of the key things that the Common Core is trying to get at, the interdisciplinary nature of learning within different disciplines, essentially?

BURRIS: Yeah. I think - but I think, you know, appropriate might be you're a music teacher, and you're giving some background information about Mozart, and you give the kids some context. That, I think, is an appropriate way to enhance vocabulary. But to take the time when young children - young first-graders - should be about enjoying music, understanding music and making music. To be giving them bubble tests, I don't think that that's appropriate.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, I'm really glad you said that because there was something that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last November, that drew a lot of criticism from people. I'm sure you're aware of these comments. He said that parents who don't like the Common Core are, quote, "white, suburban moms who all of a sudden, their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were," end-quote. That's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

BURRIS: Right.

CHAKRABARTI: But granted, there are a lot of reasons to be critical of how he said what he said. But I wonder, what do you make - I think his underlying point was, the Common Core has laid bare what's possibly a truth about education across the United States; that standards do need to be lifted in every school, not just the ones that have historically been underperforming

BURRIS: I mean, I think what he meant - but I think what he displayed was an arrogance. Standards, maybe higher standards, OK. But how high? I'll give you one more example. In Common Core algebra, there are topics from calculus in Common Core algebra, which is the beginning high school math course - which eighth- or ninth-graders take in New York state. You know, how hard do we have to be? I mean, you know, there's a point where you have to step back and say, is this sensible or, you know, is this a little bit out of control?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Carol Burris is the principal of South Side High School on Long Island, in New York. Thank you so very much.

BURRIS: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure speaking with you as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's get another view. Charles Russo is a supporter of the Common Core. He's superintendent of East Moriches Schools, also on Long Island. And Superintendent Russo, so we just heard Principal Carol Burris tell us that she doesn't like the way Common Core was implemented in New York. Your response?

CHARLES RUSSO: The real issue at hand is, I think, the need to raise standards for all kids as quickly as possible because as they're maturing and going through their school years, there's only a limited amount of time that we have to work with them. So urgency is foremost. Each day that goes by without the higher standards, those students are missing out on an opportunity to achieve.

CHAKRABARTI: And what effect have you seen in the classroom? What have teachers - and maybe even students - been telling you about this new way of learning?

RUSSO: I have long believed that the one thing that we could bestow upon our students is vocabulary, and the new standards - has delivered an increased usage of vocabulary amongst our students; and our teachers are seeing it all throughout the lessons that they teach. Our kids are using words and language well beyond what they ever expected, and well beyond what they've ever seen in the past.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, it's interesting that you mention vocabulary because that's actually something that Principal Burris also talked about with us. She gave us an example of how - vocabulary tests in music class. And she wondered whether or not the focus on vocabulary was forcing teachers to focus on that in lieu of other things that they should be teaching in classes like music.

RUSSO: We're not moving away from the traditional elective areas such as music, to use that as an example. If there's appropriate vocabulary that blends in with those music lessons, our folks are bringing that out. But to turn a music class into, say, a language arts class, that's something that I wouldn't advocate for. However, if there's areas where you could blend the two together and, say, utilize words that are being taught in the regular classroom that can appropriately be brought out in an elective area, why not do it? It makes perfect sense to me to do it.

CHAKRABARTI: And finally, Mr. Russo, back in November, you spoke in favor of Common Core at a very contentious, town hall-style meeting in Suffolk County; where, I think - what? - more than 600 parents and school officials were telling New York State Education Commissioner John King that the material essentially set up children to fail. When you got up to speak about Common Core, they booed you down, right?

RUSSO: Yeah, it was, I guess, not one of my finer moments. Or maybe it was one of my finest moments, depending upon where you sit. (Laughter)

CHAKRABARTI: Well, what's your response to that concern, that the Common Core is setting children up to fail?

RUSSO: Absolutely disagree with that. I think poor implementation of the Common Core learning standards will not help children achieve as high of a level as they can achieve. But I do believe that if teachers approach the material with a sincere desire to instruct it the way it was intended to be instructed, I see the benefits far outweighing what we currently do in education. And that's what I said at that forum; that what I've seen with regard to the curriculum that's out there, it's one of the best things that I've seen in education in 31, 32 years that I've been involved with it. And the results are, I think, very dramatic compared to what we used to do.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Charles Russo is the superintendent of East Moriches Schools in New York state. Mr. Russo, thank you so much for joining us today.

RUSSO: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.