Some NYC Teachers Defy Schools Chancellor to Critique Common Core, Encourage Opt-Out

Despite a warning they could be disciplined for expressing opinions on standardized tests, a trio of New York City public school teachers sat down with NBC 4 New York recently to criticize this year’s Common Core exams.

“Parents should definitely opt out,” said Jia Lee, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at The Earth School in Manhattan. “Refuse. Boycott these tests because change will not happen with compliance.”

“I want to tell parents that I’m not going to get anything out of the test. Their kids aren’t getting anything out of the test,” said Lauren Cohen, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn.

In an email to the I-Team, Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, said teachers are allowed to criticize standardized tests as long as they express opinions in their capacity as private citizens. But if teachers are speaking as representatives of the Department of Education, they should not advise parents to opt out of the state exams.

“If they do so as representatives of the DOE, they may be subject to discipline,” Kaye said.

But teachers who oppose the tests say the lines between their identities as educators and private citizens are often blurred.

“It’s hard to know whether I can say I’m a private citizen when I’ve already been identified as a teacher,” said Cohen.

Kristin Taylor, a third-grade teacher at P.S. 261, said she believes the Common Core tests are “fundamentally harming the education system,” but she’s worried she’ll damage her career if she tells parents directly that they should opt kids out of the exams.

“Out of concern over my position in the public school system, I don’t feel at liberty to say whether you should," she said.

In December, Anita Skop, the superintendent of Brooklyn’s District 15, said teachers have no right to tell parents they believe they should pull kids from standardized tests.

"A teacher cannot get up in the schoolyard and say to a parent, 'I think you should opt your child out,'" Skop said.

When contacted by the I-Team, Skop reiterated that position, but said she has not disciplined any teachers who defy that rule.

“I have never been instructed to discipline anybody and I don’t intend to,” she said.

According to the DOE, no teacher has been disciplined for telling parents to pull kids out of exams.

In the past, critics have opposed the exams on grounds that scores could be used in teacher evaluations and decisions about student promotion. This year, Farina said those critiques have been eliminated.

“We sent teachers to Albany to help review the test and look over the test,” Farina said. “We also are not using the test results to hold students back and we’re not using the test results for teacher evaluations.”

At a news conference on Monday, Farina suggested the decision to pull a child from the exams would be misguided.

“I don’t believe in opting out,” Farina said. “Honestly, you’re teaching kids that it is OK not to do the whole work. It really is important when you go to school to be accountable for what you’re doing.”

Michael Elliot, a parent in Park Slope who has pulled his child from three standardized exams, said it seems unfair that the chancellor should be able to advise parents to opt in when teachers are told they can’t tell parents to opt out.

“There's something that is very hypocritical about it, that you're allowed to speak in favor of the test. As long as you toe the line, political speech about the test is OK,” Elliot said.

According to the DOE, about 416,000 New York City public school students are taking the state’s standardized exam this week. Kaye said the DOE does not have a count of how many parents notified their schools that their children would be opting out of the test this year.

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