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Courting Common Core’s Discontents

(AP photo/Jeremy Waltner)

(AP photo/Jeremy Waltner)


Next week, public school students across New York will take the final portion of this year’s statewide standardized assessments. This is the second year those exams have been designed to test the federal education standards known as Common Core. And they are controversial. Just this week, lawmakers in North Carolina introduced legislation to withdraw their state from curriculum. Here in New York, Common Core discontent has inspired similar backlash. And the discontent has been an unlikely boon for some private schools. Avi Wolfman-Arent reports.


This time last year, Gabriel, a ten-year-old we’ll call only by his first name, was in third grade at a local public school getting ready for the statewide standardized tests. There was only one good thing about the whole experience.

GABO: Well at least we got gum.

ME: How’d you get gum?

GABO: They hand out gum to chew on so you don’t get stressed out. [0:09]

And Gabriel was stressed.

GABO: It feels like, it feels like they’re sort of judging you all at this one point in time it’s just…

ME: The whole environment makes you nervous?

GABO: Yeah, and also the other students are freaking out, so… [0:23]

This year, though, Gabriel won’t be taking the tests. He transferred to City and Country, a private school in the West Village. Like the vast majority of private independent schools, City and Country doesn’t administer statewide tests or follow the Common Core curriculum. And of course there’s no test prep. Instead, on a recent Wednesday, the hallways teem with activity.

AMBI: Sound up children in hallway

A group of pre-teens dressed in warrior garb pose for a picture.

STUDENT #1: We’re making a comic, a Viking comic. [0:04]

In a nearby classroom, eight-year-olds try to guess the original use of an antique.

STUDENT #2: I think that it’s kind of a like a screwdriver.

STUDENT #3: I think it’s some sort of clamp.

STUDENT#4: I’m quite sure it’s something sailors would use to maybe chart out maps or something. [0:14]

The fact that City and Country doesn’t use or test Common Core has been a benefit according to admissions director Elise Bauer. She says public-school transfers like Gabriel are becoming more and more common as testing pressure grows.

BAUER: Parents and even their children are disillusioned with their experience because they are spending inordinate amounts of time preparing the children for these tests


AMBI: Fade sound children in hallway

New York was one of the first states to not just teach Common Core, but also to test it. Advocates of the curriculum believe the standards will better prepare students for the 21st century workforce. Opponents argue they’re too rigid and that test prep for Common Core exams has disrupted teaching. Some private schools are now leveraging that discontent as a marketing tool

Allendale Columbia in Rochester is one of those schools. It bills itself as the “Cure for the Common Core” in print and radio advertisements. Head of School Mick Gee says applications are up 26 percent over last year because of the campaign.

GEE: It was an in and it capitalized obviously on the fact that in New York is leading the way with Common Core and there’s a lot of dissatisfaction amongst parents and teachers and so it’s a good strong statement that opens up a conversation about what we offer here at Allendale Columbia. [0:20]

In New York City, Calhoun School devotes an entire page of its website to explaining why the school opposes standardized tests. Head of School Steve Nelson says that message is resonating with applicants and their parents.

NELSON: I had as recently as yesterday morning a visit with a number of parents who are new to the school this year and of the six families represented in the room five of them spontaneously spoke of the toxic effect of testing and test preparation on their child and their enormous relief and gratification to be in an environment where that wasn’t the focus. [0:25]

But private school admissions consultant Emily Glickman says just because parents oppose excessive testing doesn’t mean they’re against the kind of rigor Common Core is designed to deliver.

GLICKMAN: And while they don’t necessarily want standardized testing they do want their children to be reading in kindergarten they want them to have a strong foundation in reading, writing and math. [0:11]

Besides, Glickman says, private school is a mammoth investment, and parents dodging tests still want results.

GLICKMAN: If I’m gonna spend 40,000, 45,000 dollars, which is what private school costs, my child better be getting something out of it. [0:09]

Calhoun School’s Steve Nelson is troubled by those figures. Even as his school profits, he sees inequality in the exodus from public schools teaching Common Core.

NELSON: People with privilege can do what they want with impunity. They have money and resources and they can snub their nose at stupid state or federal policy. The under-resourced schools in poor communities have a harder time. [0:16]

At full tuition, Gabriel’s spot at City and Country runs about $38,000 a year—gum not included.

Avi Wolfman-Arent, Columbia Radio News.


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