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By: Dave Gordon

It’s not as if your teenager didn’t already have his hands full this Fall facing mountains of homework, tests, exams and essays. But now it just got a little tougher to earn a high school diploma, thanks to a shift in standards in New York.

The program of modified course requirements, dubbed Common Core, should serve as a wakeup call for some yeshivahs that may not be prepared for the statewide curriculum change. But experts also fear that students in need of specialized learning assistance will have an uphill battle just to keep up.  

One concerned educator says that now there is even more at stake for young people who are having a hard time in school.

“I believe that there is a real need to let people know about the changes that are coming down the pike, and more importantly, what the Common Core Standards can mean in the lives of teenagers who struggle academically,” said Meryl Silver, Project Coordinator at Teach NYS, an organization supported by the OU and the Sephardic Community Federation. As the State’s educational transformation begins to unfold, she says, these students could find themselves unable to graduate. And it is nothing short of a train wreck waiting to happen.

“New York State is going to expect our struggling students to pass exams that are very different from what we are all used to,” says Silver, who holds a Master’s degree in special education and has 15 years of professional experiences in yeshivahs and Jewish Day Schools. “This situation is problematic in and of itself, but in light of the Common Core implementation, what we have is a potential disaster. If students cannot meet this challenge, they will be unable to obtain a local diploma and they will not gain entry to community college programs. Please do not let this happen to the struggling high school student you love.”

Bracing for “Common Core”

For the uninitiated, the newly unveiled Common Core Learning Standard (CCLS) has already been embraced by 45 states, including New York. Its purpose, say advocates, is to standardize the learning from pre-Kindergarten through high school in order for students to be better prepared for college and, eventually, careers. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) spent $12 million hiring professional education companies to create the Common Core based unit.  

According to Teach NYS, Common Core requires students to read more informational text, understand more academic vocabulary, write with more sophisticated reasoning, and support all written work with text-based evidence. 

While Jewish day schools aren’t legally mandated to sign onto Common Core, most administer the Regents Exams and grant a Regents Diploma, which means that students and teachers will be bound by new guidelines regarding coursework and study. Common
Core-based exams in math and English are already being phased in.

Silver says that the Regents exams will be “exponentially more difficult
to pass.”

All students who wish to graduate with a Regents diploma must achieve a score of 65 or more on Regents Exams in five subjects – English, Math, Science, Global History and U.S. History. For special education students who are unable to achieve these goals, they can be eligible for what is known as a “local” diploma – effectively proof of high school completion. Some community college programs will accept it, but most four-year colleges will not.

Students with an Individual Education Plan (IEPs) need to achieve a score of at least 55 on the English and the math Regents exam. If they fail to do so, they are ineligible for the local diploma, regardless of their scores on the history or science exams.

Moreover, there will no longer be the fallback option of what Silver calls “the safety net” of the Regents Competency Exams, designed for those who could not pass the Regents. Those have been eliminated entirely. What that means for students with learning issues is: a rock and a hard place.

“The Writing is On the Wall”

Silver says her organization helps families of children with learning difficulties set up IEPs (Individual Education Plan) to direct publicly funded services to assist in learning.

 “I recognize that it is human nature to wait until after the crisis has hit to change courses, but in this situation, the writing is on the wall and we have the resources to mitigate the crisis before it happens,” says Silver, who has served as a general and special education teacher for students ranging in age from 2 to17. “The reality is that for many students with learning disabilities there will be real obstacles on the road to graduation.” 

Richard Altabe, Headmaster at Shaare Torah High School for Boys, agrees that the new changes pose formidable challenges.

“For the special ed population, it’s a serious challenge. The state has not yet put into play methodologies that would meet special education requirements. That would mean a large portion of the special ed population not being able to meet the requirements to graduate. That’s a cause for concern.”

That being said, Altabe adds a caveat to his critiques of the new system, recognizing certain advantages to the changes.

“The good news is that Common Core is very good, in general, that it brings everything in line educationally. It’ll mean our students will be more able to function in a 21st-century world. It’s not just reading, but specific understanding. It will mean students will have more thought-provoking work in the future.”

Another obstacle for New York’s students, he says, is that the system was introduced at one fell swoop, rather than being gradually eased into requirements. 

“That then requires a person to be overloaded with information and might not be adequately prepared. That has everyone worked up. The most recent legislation in the New York Assembly and State Senate has tried to make efforts to slow down the changes, and allow schools to catch up. So far, it gives us another year to get with the program.”

Specific to our own communities, he adds, is the challenge of accelerating the level of instruction just to stay at level of Common Core. “We have to figure out ways to find time for this instruction. It’s about teacher training, so they know what they’re doing.”

Primarily, that means that Jewish schools need more funding in order to prepare teachers to teach the required material in every subject – math, English, science, and so on. Altabe says that educators in public schools are already receiving the necessary training. 

The question remains: With fewer resources available, will the private schools also be able to make strong gains in the new Common Core test system? 

More Reading at Home

The good news is that all this information is free for any teacher to use. There are also free Common Core-based professional development webinars and instructional videos. 

Additionally, Altabe says, there are proactive ways for parents and students to get ahead of the curve, with just a little more time practicing schoolwork.

“Families have to understand it’s important to meet the demands of the new curriculum. Reading has to be infused in the home. Our community is going to have to face its literacy deficits head on. Parents are going to need to read to their children at an early age, even as one- or two-year-olds. Parents have to introduce more reading in the home.”

David Rubel, the consultant for Teach NYS’ High School Academic Resource Center, adds, “There’s a lot that parents can do right now to help their children with Common Core.” He encourages a visit to the Engage website (, which includes guides for parents.

Rubel has been helping the New York yeshivah school community prepare to successfully meet the various challenges of the New York State Common Core Learning Standards.

“Common Core is much more focused on rigor. Students will have to be able to demonstrate that they have a deep and critical understanding of the texts – nonfiction and fiction – they are reading.” 

Around 60 percent of yeshiva high schools administer the Regents Exams and confer a Regents Diploma, he explains. 

“The issue is that the Common Core Standards are based on a cumulative growth of knowledge beginning in PreK and covering kindergarten and all 12 grades. Kids need to enter high school with a strong foundation in Common Core. Otherwise, the challenge to pass the Regents Exam with a 75 in English and an 80 in Math will be that much harder.” 

Teach NYS has its own website with a webpage devoted to Common Core for parents: 

For more information geared specifically toward parents,