Teaching and the Next Generation
How policy changed teaching -- and how New York State teachers in the Mohawk Valley responded to the initiative once called Common Core.
Since 2011, New York State teachers, parents and students have been tasked with adapting to new standards to measure teaching effectiveness and learning outcomes. Now, after assessing the results and recalibrating their approach, New York State teachers reflect on the controversial policy and plan for the future.
The New York State Board of Regents adopted the newly revised English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards on September 11, 2017, which has eliminated the term Common Core and rebranded as Next Generation. Common Core was a unified set of academic standards by the National Governors Association in 2010. New York is now one of a growing number of states to change the name — and some of its benchmarks.
According to the New York State Education Department, the new approach was the result of more than two years of collaborative work between educators and state officials to ensure quality learning standards.
What has really changed besides the name and where do teachers go from here? Has the profession changed and forced teachers to reassess their roles in public education? What are some of the assessment challenges some local educators now face?
Between 2011 and 2014, Deborah Wilson-Allam was tasked with overseeing the ENL Department in the Utica City School District with more than 40 different languages being spoken. At the same time, the district was undergoing changes to curriculum and requirements as a result of the new Common Core standards.
She realized that the challenge of implementing new standards with such a diverse group of students was almost insurmountable.
Teachers of English Language Learners (ELLs) in Utica and Rome schools face the challenge of teaching English to students with varying English proficiency levels and backgrounds in order to meet rigorous standards that are often even difficult for English speaking students.
Common Core and New York’s revised version of the standards, the Next Generation Learning Standards, have provided ENL (English as a New Language) teachers a framework for teaching multiple languages that largely didn’t exist prior to implementation.
New York State Education Department, the Utica City School District has the largest ENL student population in Oneida County, followed by the Rome City School District. The preliminary data from 2018 indicates that ENL students make up 16.7 percent of the student population in Utica, while in the Rome District, only 1.07 percent of students are ELLs. According to the data, ENL enrollment in the Utica School District has increased 0.8 percent, while Rome’s ENL enrollment has increased by 0.01 percent over the span of the last three years.
According to data from the New York State Education Department, the Utica City School District has the largest ENL student population in Oneida County, followed by the Rome City School District. The preliminary data from 2018 indicates that ENL students make up 16.7 percent of the student population in Utica, while in the Rome District, only 1.07 percent of students are ELLs. According to the data, ENL enrollment in the Utica School District has increased 0.8 percent, while Rome’s ENL enrollment has increased by 0.01 percent over the span of the last three years.
Utica is an anomaly in Oneida County, as its overall population of approximately 61,000 is within range of other cities in New York, such as Schenectady, Clay and White Plains, according to the U.S. Census Factfinder. Among the cities with similar populations, Utica schools have the largest percentage of ELL students followed by White Plains, which has an ELL population of 15.9 percent.
Because of the size of its ELL population, Utica has a “Newcomer” program, which is a special program that aims to provide additional assistance to students who have recently moved to the United States who speak little to no English. Utica also has language specific academic coaches to assist ELL students by translating information and providing extra help to students.
Kristin Cosser, an ENL teacher at Staley Elementary School in Rome, N.Y., works primarily with Spanish speaking students, along with Arabic, Karen and Chinese students. She says that one of the challenges in the Rome District is that there is not a Newcomer program like Utica because the ENL population is not as large in Rome.
“Rome doesn’t have a Newcomer program because we don’t have enough students,” Cosser said. “Without the program, students often just do nothing because the material is too hard.”
This means that Utica is the only district in Oneida County that has a Newcomer program because all of the other districts in the county have smaller ENL populations. Therefore, other ENL teachers and students in the county face the challenge of meeting testing and proficiency standards without having additional assistance from the Newcomer program.
Cosser also said that because her students are so young, many of them have the ability to speak their native language and some English, but cannot read or write in either, which is an added difficulty when teaching her students. She feels that certain students would benefit from additional ENL time, rather than being integrated into regular classrooms.
“I understand why they should be integrated, but as you get higher up in the grades it gets ridiculous having them sit there,” Cosser said. “It creates an opportunity to avoid doing work and asking for help. They won’t self advocate, but they’re more likely to do it when I’m there. I understand why we’re pushing in, but I wish it were more of a choice. I do feel a good handful of students do benefit from both.”
The State Perspective
The Next Generation Learning Standards do not have a separate set of standards for ELLs, however, the Bilingual Common Core Progressions are frameworks that were created in 2015 to assist teachers to meet linguistic expectations of the standards and ensure that students are reaching English proficiency levels, according to Tanya Amodio-Kovacs from the State Education Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages (OBEWL).
“Our expectation in New York State is that all teachers are teachers of ELL and are responsible for helping students meet those standards,” Kovacs said. “ENL teachers have experienced a shift. Teachers now have to make sure that lessons are differentiated for a range of students, which involves engagement for all the staff.”
Utica’s Spanish academic coach, Sonia Martinez, said that she sees that students are benefiting from being integrated into regular classrooms.
“The classroom that I am in has about seven to eight different languages being spoken in that classroom,” Martinez said. “The students really help each other, which is a benefit to having it integrated and it’s really great to see.”
Martinez believes that there should be language coaches in every school to maximize ENL learning. In addition to Martinez, the Utica District also has Karen, Burmese and Somali language coaches and is in need of Arabic and Nepali coaches to fill vacancies in the department.
Even though there are setbacks, Cosser said that because the standards require more integrated class time for ENL students, most teachers have had experience with ENL students in their classrooms. She said that this integration has been a helpful progression because the subject teachers are now modifying their lessons to accommodate ENL students.
ENL classtime requirements differ for each student depending on grade level and proficiency levels determined by the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT). The instructional time requirements for
According to the OBEWL, prior to the standards’ implementation in the 2014-15 school year, students were not placed into regular English classes until they reached the “expanding” proficiency, but now they are in the regular classroom when they are just considered “entering” with the expectation that being integrated with English speaking students will give them more exposure to the language.
Standards: A Question of Implementation
While Common Core and the Next Generation Learning Standards have provided guidance for teachers of ENL students, according to Deborah Wilson-Allam, disagreement regarding how the standards should be implemented led to her termination as Utica’s former ESL Director in 2014.
Allam said that she believes the standards have been helpful, but an ENL student’s success is largely dependent upon their individual backgrounds, which is why she sought to increase parental involvement.
“I liked some things about it, but a lot of it has to do with how you guide implementation,” Allam said. “The Utica City School District tends to be very rigid compared to other school districts. Having standards is a good thing, but there are so many other aspects to education that affect students. I felt that the district was too focused on [the] standards without taking into account children’s’ backgrounds.”
Allam said that she wanted to implement the standards in a way that best suited the needs of each student, but the District Superintendent, Bruce Karam, did not approve of her plans.
Even though there has been greater focus on providing a framework for ELL teachers and students under the Next Generation Learning Standards, data is still inconclusive regarding whether these standards are helping students achieve English proficiency levels. According to Kovacs, examining how the standards have been helpful for ELL teachers and students will provide information about what needs to be added in the future.
“Because the standards are relatively new, our next step is to look to see where it should be revised,” Kovacs said. “What may change is the resources and support that is provided to students to make it more accessible, such as providing additional scaffolds for ELL learning.”
Kaitlyn Dombrowski is a student at Utica College.
With the implementation of Common Core in New York State, there has been changes in the way teachers operate in the classroom in order for them to be assessed by school administrators.
The New York State Education Department (NYSED) base half of a teacher’s assessment on their students overall test scores. This puts educators in a position where their job is to prepare students for a statewide test no matter what skill level the group of students had at the start of the course.
According to Holland Patent Central School elementary teacher Anna Carnevale, the judgement of test scores has pushed teachers to narrow their curriculum. She believes this has impacted the level of creativity in the classroom.
“There is so much to cover and so little time,” Carnevale said. “All the fun I once had with classes has gone out the window.”
A survey conducted in the Holland Patent School District found that 29 of the 34 teachers polled believe students learn differently because of standardized testing.
State legislature recently proposed a plan to unlink test scores from a teacher’s assessment which could go into effect next year. The bill, Assembly 10475, is sponsored by Education Committee chairwoman Catherine Nolan.
According to Carnevale, the bill doesn’t change how educators and students have been impacted over the course of the last eight years.
Teachers are currently evaluated and scored on a combination of the school principal’s evaluation and student test scores. The score will then determine if a teacher is doing their job properly in the classroom.
According to the NYSED, an evaluation of “highly effective” or “effective” determines that a teacher is either meeting state requirements or advancing past them. An evaluation of “developing” or “ineffective” determines that a teacher is not meeting the guidelines the state has set in place.
Out of the 2,256 teachers in Oneida County who were assessed and their score was gathered by the NYSED in 2014-15, 43 were determined as ineffective or developing.
Despite a small percentage of teachers who were determined to be ineffective or developing, founder and former president of the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Oregon, Rick Stiggins, still sees a problem with the current evaluating system.
In his book, “Defensible Teacher Evaluation” Stiggins explains why the system in place for assessing teachers has numerous flaws and how it should be addressed.
“There have been policies and state laws put in place requiring test scores to be included in the evaluation of teacher performance,” Stiggins said. “This is a problem because the probability is very high that there is a fundamental mismatch between what happens to be tested in a given year and an individual teacher’s assigned curriculum.”
According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2014, 91 percent of teachers are not in favor of linking test scores with teacher evaluations. Stiggins sees the current occupation of a school teacher as indefensible if they are teaching in a state with standardized testing.
Stiggins believes that the information each student is tested on at the end of the year may not correlate with the style teachers quiz their students throughout the semester. He thinks that students may have an understanding of a subject, but could still get poor test scores because they are seeing a different method of testing than they saw all year.
This does not mean Stiggins thinks teachers shouldn’t be assessed, but rather have a new system based on different principles.
“Nobody objects to being assessed,” Stiggins said. “These tests as the criteria are what is objectionable. We should be more focused on student growth in the evaluation of teacher performance.”
An Indefensible System
Stiggins attests that any expert can agree teachers are assessed improperly. He thinks that a system, which can ultimately end a teacher’s career if they have poor scores, should not have an extensive amount of flaws.
He is shocked that the teacher assessment system in place is still being used.
“It’s paradoxical that judgments are made based on a student’s mastery with the standards when no set of standards has been tested enough to draw inferences on what defines a students mastery of a subject,” Stiggins said. “It’s absolutely crazy and this being a nationwide problem is troubling.”
Stiggins says the system in place doesn’t have enough data to speculate how a student should perform in the classroom. Therefore, a teacher shouldn’t be assessed based on test scores because there is no clear evidence that poor test scores are a direct result of poor teaching abilities.
Although the assessment process in place is flawed in Stiggins’ eyes, he understands why the policy was turned into a law.
“It’s because people setting those policies don’t understand the basic principles of good measurement,” Stiggins said. “They don’t have the opportunity to understand why this is a bad practice.”
Stiggins does not blame the board of the NYSED for creating a flawed policy and thinks the group developing the assessments are consulting heavily with teachers to fix problems. He believes that giving the job of creating an assessment system to a different group of people will not fix the issues in place.
“The people in charge of the system have a technical background that others simply do not have,” Stiggins said. “I think the issue is the nature of the assessment itself.”
How Creativity is Affected
Sarah Kilian has been an art teacher in the Utica School District for 28 years and despite not teaching in a subject that has a standardized test at the end of the year, she has seen a change in her classroom and the way she is assessed.
Kilian is still required to administer quarterly tests and a final at the end of the year. Gym and music classes also have to follow these standards. Before Common Core was adopted in 2010, Kilian did not grade her students based on testing but on a student’s effort.
“I feel that my students should be doing projects,” Kilian said. “They should be successful based on the effort they put into the class. I’m lucky because I can create my own test, but I still have to follow guidelines.”
Kilian thinks that the idea of having the same curriculum across the state can be useful and Common Core isn’t the problem teachers face in the classroom. According to a Gallup poll from 2014, 76 percent of teachers have a positive reaction to Common Core.
Holland Patent Middle School teacher Stacy Smith believes Common Core has a bad reputation and it is not the real issue in the classroom.
“The problem is not the standardized tests,” Smith said. “It is the linking of these tests to a majority of a teacher’s yearly evaluation. When 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on one standardized exam, that teacher may change their lesson plans.”
Smith thinks this is the reason why teachers have narrowed their curriculum in past eight years and lost part of their creative material in the process.
Narrowing Curriculum and Impact
Utica College English professor Gary Leising is skeptical on using a standardized testing system in schools, but believes that there are positives that have come from Common Core.
“I think we still need some type of similarity from school to school because it helps teachers when students move on in grade levels, or even to college, to have the same understanding,” he said. “This helps keep classes moving forward rather than having to teach a certain subject that half the class may already know.”
Leising is unsure if all his students can transition from high school to college with the same knowledge in any circumstance, but he now has an idea of what students should know when they enter his classroom.
“Standardization helps us because it gives a sense of where students can be,” he added. “On the other hand, there will always be enough diversity in college where not all students enter with the same knowledge.”
The negative Leising has seen in English courses is the development of a new way students are reading and comprehending information. He thinks that a student’s ability to creatively read has been compromised.
“Students are learning from pamphlets and handouts which is nothing like the experience of reading an actual book,” Leising said. “This changes the way students think about reading when they get older because they are no longer picking up a book for the same principles as before.”
Leising thinks that changing the way students get information could potentially make them weaker readers and alter their learning environment.
“Part of a teacher’s job is to create an environment that students can learn essential skills for the future,” Leising said. “They don’t just learn how to take a test, but children are also learning how to be in a school system like college. It may be harder for them to transition to college where there is a different learning curve.”
Stiggins is a firm believer that any state that still have ties to Common Core will eventually have to readjust their policies if teachers continue to protest. This holds true with New York where the teachers’ union has been vocal about change.
A bill has been proposed to replace state exams grades in the evaluation process with “alternative assessments” conducted by individual schools with regulations set by the state education commissioner.
“The list of states using Common Core standards has declined,” Stiggins said. “There is a high likelihood that many states still using the standards will also change or rework their policies.”
Leising’s solution to assessment is to localize the way teachers are evaluated and give schools more freedom in the process. This connects to the principles the proposed assembly bill from legislation.
“I think it’s good for schools to have their own systems,” Leising said. “As long as they are working with the same principles. I feel that teachers need some kind of input in how they are being assessed and you can’t get that if every school is assessing educators the same way. Teachers know the skill level of their students better than people at the state or national level.”
Stiggins doesn’t think there is a simple approach to a solution. He believes if the objective for changing teacher assessment is to align evaluations with student growth, then the supervisor should meet with each teacher being assessed in the beginning of instruction to identify specific learning targets.
Stiggins then added that assessment can be developed and conducted on a pretest to post-test basis focused on those specific assigned learning targets. He thinks this shows how well the teacher was able to teach the curriculum throughout the year.
“The strength of this is that it focuses in a reliable and valid way on a teacher’s individual learning targets and what they are responsible for.”
Zachary Thomann is a student at Utica College.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.