“When Elephants Fight:” Will Political Bickering End Mayoral Control in New York City? Would NYC Return to a Politicized “Identity” Education Politics?

“When Elephants fight the Grass is Trampled”  African Proverb

“No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session” (1866, New York State Surrogate Court)

 

Back when I was teaching World History I always included sections from Machiavelli’s The Prince,

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” 

 “And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” 

 “If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” 

And a section from the Bible,

 “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend  to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”  Luke 36:5

And ask, can a ruler (substitute politician) be both a good Christian and an effective ruler?

We would debate the axioms in The Prince, the Bible, and today, I would show a video clip in the movie Lincoln when the president offers a bribe to a congressman to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment. Was Lincoln justified? Is there a “greater good”?

Kids would leave the class mumbling, “This is confusing,”  …. I felt I was doing my job.

The world of politics can be confusing.

The governor chose not to put mayoral control into the April 1st budget. Remember de Blasio and Cuomo, although both progressive democrats have no love for each other. The Republican-led Senate “offered” a deal – reviving the “sunsetting” mayoral control law in exchange for raising the cap on charter schools or merging the caps. There are separate caps in New York City and for the remainder of the state. There are 150 unfilled charter slots outside of New York City and about 25 in the city. The Senate favors charter political action dollars, not charter schools in their districts.

If an extension of mayoral control is not passed by the end of the session the bill “sunsets,”  the city returns to the previous organizational structure.

A seven-member board: one appointed by each borough president and two by the mayor and 32 elected school boards.  Eric Nadelstern,  the deputy chancellor under Joel Klein and a rebel principal under the old guard viewed the old central board with disdain.

Since mayoral control was adopted in 2003 we have seen numerous organizational changes – where are we now?  Mayoral Control 5.0?  Then again, there is no question that the borough president appointed board was driven by politics: is “politics” a dirty word? or, is politics the will of the electorate?  Should all decisions be in the hands of the mayor, only accountable to voters every four years?  Depends on the mayor  ….  Bloomberg/Klein succeeded in alienating parents, teachers and communities. The closing of 150 schools and the creation of innumerable screened schools seemed just s political as decisions by the former board.

Mayor de Blasio  can claim credit for the pre-k for all program, settling the contentious teacher union contract, hiring an experienced school and district leader as chancellor; by September there will be more community schools  than charter schools, well over 100 schools availed themselves of an opportunity to change union and/or board rules and policies to benefit their schools, reducing suspensions and working to improve the lowest achieving schools. The end of mayoral control could damage some or all of the mayor’s educational agenda.

This afternoon in the waning minutes of the Assembly session a lengthy bill came up for a vote – the bill would permit many upstate communities to extend specific taxes, in mostly Republican communities, and, in the last sentence,  continue mayoral control for two years. The bill passed 101-26.

Capital Tonight reports,

The Democratic-led Assembly on Monday approved a two-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools that was also packaged with a series of tax extensions and incentives for local governments.

In effect, Assembly Democrats are linking the two-year extension to the tax legislation, an early form of a mini-big ugly weeks before the mayoral control legislation is due to expire at the end of June. The Republican conference is largely composed of lawmakers from upstate and suburban districts that would be impacted by the tax extensions.

Perhaps the Republicans and the Democrats have “traded” highly targeted tax extenders desperately sought by Republicans in exchange for the mayoral control extension sought by Democrats.

Andy Pallotta, the newly elected president of NYSUT, the state teacher union excoriated the Republicans for their support of charter schools.

Why do the Republican state senators from Long Island and the rest of upstate continue to lobby to provide millions of dollars in state aid every year to the charter sector; money that could benefit their own local schools and constituents but instead ends up in the coffers of charter operators in New York City? It’s a question that is especially pointed for Long Island’s GOP Senate delegation, particularly Majority Leader John Flanagan.

Does Republican leader, and possible gubernatorial candidate want to spend a year and  half defending his support of charter schools in Republican districts?

Yes, politics can be confusing, and, yes, Machiavelli would have been at home in the environs of Albany.  With fourteen days legislative days left on the calendar (June 21) the “elephants” may continue to fight, or, actually legislate: New York State has among the lowest election turnouts in the nation due to archaic laws: no early voting, complex registration rules, and very little voter registration outreach, then again, maybe the Republicans fear new voters …. the grass is in trouble.

Should the New York State Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Accountability Plan Punish Schools for High Rates of Chronic Absenteeism?

In the summer of 2013 the state released the Common Core state test results, students moved from 2/3 proficient to 2/3 “below proficient,” aka, failing the test. The public outcry was loud and sustained, the commissioner decided to travel across the state on a “listening tour.”  The tour began in Poughkeepsie, a standing room only auditorium listened for a while, began to interrupt, the meeting became raucous. (Watch the highlights here) Commissioner King was booed off the stage.

As the “tour” moved from city to city the meetings became more and more disorderly and were discontinued, the New York Times wrote,

In a series of public forums across the state, John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, has become the sounding board for crowds of parents, educators and others who equate his name with all they consider to be broken in schooling today. Some blame him for too quickly imposing more rigorous academic standards tied to what is known as the Common Core. Parents call him deaf to the misery of pupils taking standardized tests and too open to commercial involvement in the system; teachers blame him for sapping what joy they had left in their craft.

This school year, after months and months of meetings the new commissioner presented a draft of the federally required Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) school accountability plan. The first listening/public comment meeting took place Thursday night in the Half Hollows School District on Long Island. About fifty in the massive auditorium, eleven speakers, eight in favor of the plan,  Newsday writes,

Thursday night’s turnout by about 50 educators and parent activists was quiet and mannerly — a marked contrast to the crowds of angry teachers and parents who showed up at state conferences in 2013 to boo Elia’s predecessor, former Commissioner John King Jr.

The Common Core/King induced anger resulted in 200,000 parents opting their kids out of the state tests. Now, a few years later, the massive restart, the ESSA plan, is treated with a yawn.

Read a 60-plus page summary of the ESSA plan here. The first section of the plan creates metrics to measure school performance and moves from NCLB test scores only to the ESSA plan, a combination of test scores, growth and a non-academic metric combined on a dashboard. The second half of the plan describes how progress is defined for schools in the lowest five percent.(Read pages 24 – 26 in the summary for you eduwonks!).

The plan is aspirational, in the perfect world the plan would bring all schools to proficiency; however, as Regents Brown, Young and Johnson have raised again and again, how does the plan deal with equity?  The property tax-based funding formula embedded in state law is grossly inequitable. The ESSA plan acknowledges the inequities; however,  the law does not allow for desegregating metrics. We can’t measure different schools by different metrics.

The non-academic metric the plan chose was chronic absenteeism.

I abjure.

Obviously coming to school is essential. In the fall of 1968, a 40-day strike, later in the school year kids took citywide tests, and the scores dropped. The media asked Albert Shanker for  comment, “Thank goodness.”

Over the last few years studies have tracked the impact of absenteeism: guess what? Kids who are chronically  absent, defined as absent more than 10% of the school year: higher dropout rates, higher “everything negative” rates.

Read articles here and here.

Yes, attending school regularly is crucial; however, punishing schools for high absentee rates is akin to punishing people because they’re poor.

Ed Week writes,

… as states put a largely untested policy idea into practice on such a large scale, implementation is everything. If states select indicators that can’t be accurately measured or influenced by schools, or if they fail to provide schools with the resources they need to carry out new mandates, the indicator requirement could lead to unintended consequences or pushback from educators, K-12 groups and researchers have warned.

In 2010 in New York City Mayor Bloomberg convened the “Mayor’s Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism and School Engagement,” (Read the detailed description of the Task Force here). I was not a fan of the ex-mayor’s education policies, his interagency approach is an exception. Reducing chronic absenteeism must involve all the social service and health agencies that impact the family.

The Center for New York City Affairs at the New School issued a superb report that is the basis of the Bloomberg interagency approach.

Read a summary of the report here and the full report here.

I urge you to read the report, aptly entitled, “A Better Picture of Poverty: What Chronic Absenteeism and Risk Load Reveal About New York City’s Lowest Income Elementary Schools.”

The report identifies 18 Risk Load factors that impact chronic absenteeism:

Measuring A School’s Total Risk Load

School Factors:

  1. Students eligible for free lunch
  2. School’s with children in temporary housing
  3. Students eligible for welfare benefits from the Human Resources Administration
  4. Students in Special Education
  5. Black and Hispanic students
  6. Principal Turnover
  7. Teacher Turnover
  8. Student Turnover
  9. Suspension Rate
  10. Safety Score on Learning Environment Survey

Neighborhood Factors:

  1. Involvement with Administration for Children’s Services
  2. Poverty Rate
  3. Adult education levels
  4. Professional employment
  5. Adult male unemployment’
  6. Public housing in school catchment area
  7. Homeless shelters in school catchment area

The report contains interviews with school leaders, many who are doing “all the right things” with their schools showing little or no improvement.

Schools in the Interagency Task Force initiative did show a modest improvement in rates of Chronic Absenteeism – reductions from 23% to 19%.

“Punishing” schools for rates of high chronic absenteeism or not lessening the rate without acknowledging poverty risk load is simply unfair and smacks of the NCLB “test and punish” approach.  I am betting that student attrition rates in charter schools include many chronically absent kids.

Small numbers of schools are “beating the odds,” usually led by extraordinary school leaders and staffs, sadly, the successes are too frequently short lived.

The community schools project in New York City, and, hopefully around the state offers hope. Community schools engage with the social and health services in the community and this multi-faceted, multi-agency approach has shown progress.

Let’s hope the final ESSA plan does not condemn schools for “poor geography,” and let’s acknowledge the impact of poverty risk load factors. These are not excuses, these are realities. Currently inequality is embedded in the law and I hope the final plan loudly condemns the governor and the legislature for not acting to correct. Highly effective leadership and teaching coupled with support from the district and the state, of course, are essential elements in any plan.

Ignoring inequality is foolish and destructive.

The New York State ESSA Plan Released: Setting a New Path for Defining School Accountability or Recreating a Kinder “Test and Punish” Plan?

The scene in January 2002 was a civics text come to life. Flanked by jubilant members of Congress and standing in front of a cheering crowd, President George W. Bush declared the start of a “new era” in American public education with the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act. 

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., shared the president’s enthusiasm. “This is a defining issue about the future of our nation and about the future of democracy, the future of liberty, and the future of the United States in leading the free world,” the legislative icon had proclaimed on the Senate floor. “No piece of legislation will have a greater impact or influence on that.”

from Education Next

Unfortunately Kennedy was correct, the legislation had enormous impact, an enormously negative impact. NCLB created a testing empire, classrooms became focused on test prep; art and music disappeared; recruiting high achieving kids became de rigueur as well as ridding schools of lower achieving kids. Chasing test scores replaced a well-rounded  school curriculum. Year after year the dems and the repubs dueled and the law remained unchanged.

Finally, a few years ago Senators Alexander (R) and Murray (D) began to work on a new law, a law called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While the law still requires grades 3-8 testing the law also grants states wide discretion in creating an accountability plan as well as addressing school improvement.

New York State employed two of the most widely respected educators in the nation as consultants, Linda Darling-Hammond, the Learning Policy Institute and Scott Marion, The Center for Assessment; they guided the process.

I’ve sat through hours and hours of meetings, occasionally participating in outreach sessions. On Monday the State Education Department released a draft of the plan to be followed by two months of public comment, review and edits by the governor and an approval vote in September.

Read a press release and a summary of the draft plan here and a lengthy Power Point here.

There is no jubilation, no standing in the streets cheering; however, the accountability section plan is a step in the right direction.

The accountability section of the plan still requires the identification of the lowest 5% of Title 1 schools. Under NCLB we only “measured” schools by results on grades 3-8 tests and high school graduation rates. The draft plan will add “growth” (also referred to as “progress”) as well as a number of other metrics. The results will be reported in a dashboard, a matrix; there will no letter or number grades.

I believe a much fairer plan.

Let’s be honest, the overriding reason for low achievement is beyond the ability of schools to overcome. School cannot erase the stain of poverty.  How many kids are faced with health problems caused by physical, social and environmental degradations?

A little math problem:

You intend to travel to meet  a friend who lives 100 miles away. Each day you get halfway there, how many days will it take to meet your friend?

The answer: you never meet him, you keep getting closer, you never get there.

Schools make “progress;” however you cannot overcome the external factors. You get better for a year or two and fall back for a year or two.  Schools do not control funding, school don’t control foreclosures, schools don’t control the movement of immigrants, yet, we hold schools fully responsible for kids reaching “proficiency.”

These are not excuses, schools matter, school leaders and teachers matter, they impact the lives of kids, unfortunately we do not hold the feds or the state or the local government accountable, only schools, school leaders and teachers.

The members of the Board of Regents debated, suggested, asked questions for three and a half hours. One of the board members pointed out a crucial factor: the 700 school districts in the state have independent, elected school boards who hire superintendents and principals. The commissioner can only intervene if the district commits malfeasance, a crime. How do you hold the local education bureaucracy accountable?

A number of other Board members asked: how do we hold ourselves responsible?

The Regents have no control over funding, the formulas are set by the legislature and the governor and the system is among the most inequitable in the nation.

In spite of the inadequacies in the larger picture the plan is fairer: progress will be acknowledged.

The second part of the plan is disappointing, how the state will assist the schools in the lowest 5%. Write a plan reflecting data that includes “evidence-based” approaches to improving teaching and learning. I knew, I know, the plan is simply following the requirements of the law. We’ve been writing school improvement plans for decades, we’re good at it, we’re not good at improving schools.

As the lengthy discussion moved along a number of the Regents asked whether the state was planning to design pilots that explored the use of performance tasks or portfolios as assessment tools. The law, ESSA, does require that the US Department of Education, somewhere down the road, select seven states to conduct pilot assessment programs. A few states, New Hampshire, Vermont and a few others are currently conducting pilot programs approved under NCLB waivers. New York State can create pilots; however, not in lieu of the current testing, in addition to current testing.

The State Education Department has learned from the Common Core fiasco and conducted innumerable meetings around the state, I participated in one meeting, the outreach has been unprecedented.

First steps are crucial, the introduction of the Common Core was mishandled, alienating instead of building consensus, it was dead on arrival. The current efforts give stakeholders, in fact, anyone who pleases the opportunity to participate.

At the same time the commissioner is revising and renaming the Common Core State Standards, now called Next Generation ELA and Math Standards. Once again, the outreach was significant – see the Next Generation Standards here.

Standards are statements of what skills students should be able to exhibit in each grade. One of the recommendations states: “Establish a transparent and open process by which New York standards are periodically reviewed by educators and content area specialists.” I’m baffled, should English and Math standards vary from state to state, change every few years within in a state?  I passed the Next Generation Standards on to a few folk who I consider experts. The Math folk were highly critical and ELA folk mildly critical. Standards are subjective,

For me, the underlying core problem: we do not have curriculum aligned to state standards.  State Ed maintains that curriculum is the responsibility  of school districts. School districts do not have the technical expertise or the funding to create curriculum, they have adopted the EngageNY curriculum modules, and, as the commissioner acknowledged at the last meeting, the curriculum modules became a script.

One state has consistently led the nation in NAEP scores, the state of Massachusetts, referred to as the Massachusetts Education Miracle, If Massachusetts was a nation it would rank among the highest achieving in the world, New York State falls well below the midpoint of states.

Massachusetts aligned standards to curriculum to professional development to teacher preparation to testing, with spectacular consistent results.

Ashley Berner, Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy in “The Promise of Curriculum: Recent Research on Louisiana’s Instructional Reforms” cuts to the core of the question of improving student outcomes. (Read full paper here).

Berner explains in detail why America has been reticent, if not hostile to the concept of a common curriculum, in spite of the fact that high achieving nations around the world all have content rich national curriculum.

And so the curriculum rarely rises to the level of action. Massachusetts is an exception: the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 required the creation of coherent, intellectually challenging curricular frameworks. The state then created an entire system around curriculum that influenced teacher preparation, professional development, assessments, and student learning.

The one state that recently has made significant progress is Louisiana.

Louisiana was among the top five states in narrowing several achievement gaps: the white-black gap in 4th-grade math, the white-Hispanic gap in 4th grade math and reading; the white-Hispanic gap in 8th grade math and reading (“NAEP 2015: Mathematics and Reading Assessments” 2015).

In an Education Next article (“Why Curriculum Matters“) Charles Sahm writes,

There are no silver bullets in education. But a growing body of both empirical and real-world evidence makes a compelling case that curriculum is a key component of student success.

I am concerned that New York State, in spite of their best intentions, in spite of the dedication of the commissioner and her staff, are not moving in the right direction. ESSA opens a window, a rare opportunity, to change direction, I fear we may missing the opportunity.

The Freedom of Speech Thin Line: Defending and Advocating for Your School or Indoctrinating and Using Students

Jill Bloomberg has been the principal of Park Slope Colleague, a small high school on the John Jay campus since 2004.  According to articles in Chalkbeat (“Investigation of activist principal has free-speech advocates asking what politics are allowed at school”) and the New York Times (“A Principal Is Accused of Being a Communist, Rattling a Brooklyn School“) is under investigation allegedly for “communist organizing.”

… one of her assistant principals, who had met with an investigator, revealed to her exactly what the allegation was, one that seemed a throwback to another era: Communist organizing.

The Office of Special Investigation (OSI), the investigative arm of the Department of Education has opened an investigation into the principal’s conduct and the principal has gone to court to squelch the investigation.

Chalkbeat writes,

The war, it seems, will partly depend on whether Bloomberg violated D-130 — a Chancellor’s regulation that prohibits school employees from “being involved in any activities, including fundraising, on behalf of any candidate, candidates, slate of candidates or political organization/committee during working hours.”

The city claims, among other allegations, that Bloomberg violated the regulation by advocating on behalf of the Progressive Labor Party, a political organization with communist ties, at school. Bloomberg denies that and says she isn’t a member herself. But the case raises a larger question of what the regulation is meant to cover.

The New York Times writes,

Over the years, Ms. Bloomberg has become one of the most outspoken and visible critics of New York City’s public schools, regularly castigating the Education Department’s leadership at forums and in the news media. Most of her criticism is aimed at actions that she says perpetuate a segregated and unequal educational system and that penalize black and Latino students. Through the years, she has helped organize protests and assemblies to push for integration and equal resources and treatment for her almost entirely black and Latino student body.

I believe there are a number of questions: are the actions of the principal “protected speech”? and, the larger question, have recent Supreme Court decisions broadened the definition of “speech” under the First Amendment? finally, did the principal violate Chancellor’s Regulation D-130?

I have written at length about the issue of “protected” and “unprotected” speech,” one of my most accessed blogs: https://mets2006.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/freedom-of-speech-outside-of-the-classroom-protected-versus-unprotected-speech-when-is-teacher-speech-job-related-or-citizen-speech/

 The case law has been extensive and has narrowed the definition of free speech.

In Givhan v Western Lane Consolidated School District (1979), Justice Rehnquist, writing for the Court argues that the interests of a teacher as a citizen in commenting on matters of public concern “must be balanced against the interests of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency” of public schools. A teacher’s speech may not be protected when it specifically impedes “the proper performance of his classroom duties or generally interferes with the regular operation of schools.”

The United States Supreme Court further limited speech, and ruled that when public employees speak while performing their official duties, (i.e., “job duty speech”); this speech is not protected by the First Amendment and can be the basis for discipline or discharge.

In 2006 in Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Supreme Court clarifies and limits the issue of protected speech. The plaintiff in the case was a district attorney who claimed that he had been passed up for a promotion for criticizing the actions of his office The Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that because his statements were made pursuant to his position as a public employee, rather than as a private citizen, his speech had no First Amendment protection.

Commenting on the decision, a legal memo distinguishes between a government employee as citizen and as an employee,

 … a government entity has broader discretion to restrict speech when it acts in its employer role, but the restrictions it imposes must be directed at speech that has some potential to affect its operations. On the other hand, a citizen who works for the government is nonetheless still a citizen. The First Amendment limits a public employer’s ability to leverage the employment relationship to restrict, incidentally or intentionally, the liberties employees enjoy in their capacities as private citizens …. So long as employees are speaking as citizens about matters of public concern, they must face only those speech restrictions that are necessary for their employers to operate efficiently and effectively.

Justice Kennedywriting for the majority concludes his opinion,

    We reject, however, the notion that the First Amendment shields from discipline the expressions employees make pursuant to their professional duties. Our precedents do not support the existence of a constitutional cause of action behind every statement a public employee makes in the course of doing his or her job.

The impact of the Kennedy decision has had a chilling impact.

Garcetti v Ceballos (2006) has been the precedent in a number of cases denying teacher claims of protected speech.

In 2010, in Citizen’s United, the court, in a 5-4 decision invalidated a statute that limited political contributions by corporations and unions; the court ruled that statute unconstitutional and vigorously expands freedom of political speech,

Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people. See Buckley , supra , at 14–15 (“In a republic where the people are sovereign, the ability of the citizenry to make informed choices among candidates for office is essential”). The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self-government and a necessary means to protect it. The First Amendment “ ‘has its fullest and most urgent application’ to speech uttered during a campaign for political office.” Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Central Comm. , 489 U. S. 214,223 (1989) (quoting Monitor Patriot Co. v. Roy , 401 U. S. 265, 272 (1971) ); see Buckley , supra , at 14 (“Discussion of public issues and debate on the qualifications of candidates are integral to the operation of the system of government established by our Constitution”).

     For these reasons, political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it, whether by design or inadvertence. Laws that burden political speech are “subject to strict scrutiny,” which requires the Government to prove that the restriction “furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.” 

Did the court erode the distinction between “protected” and “unprotected” speech? While Citizen’s United is reviled because it basically allows unlimited contributions to campaigns, does it also allow for wider freedom to comment and advocate on the political stage?

The OSI investigation, according to media accounts is based on whether or not the principal violated a Department regulation, D-130 (Read regulations here), the Department does not comment on ongoing investigations.

Chancellor Regulation D-130 is entitled, “Use of School Buildings, Elected Officials and Political Organizations and Conduct of Employees and Officers with Respect to Political Campaigns and Elections,”  On the face the regulation does not appear relevant to the actions of the principal.

Employers do have wide discretion in imposing discipline; however, the limiting factor is the collective bargaining agreement, aka, the union. If the Department brings charges against the principal she is entitled to have the accusations heard by an impartial arbitrator.  Courts will usually not intercede until all the administrative remedies have been exhausted, namely, the decision of the arbitrator has been rendered.

I have always advised teachers, if they intend to speak at a public forum, to make it clear, “I am speaking as an individual;” hopefully, that statement will “protect” their speech.

Diane Ravitch in her blog asks, Do employees of the New York City Department of Education have Freedom of Speech?

The answer, as you have read, is complicated.

Suspensions: Useful Tool to Improve Student Behavior, or, Racist Acts, or, the Inevitable Outcomes from “Truly Disadvantaged” Poverty?

School suspensions, the removal of students from classes for a specific period of time for a violation of school rules, are one of those topics that never seems to be resolved. The Manhattan Institute held its snow-delayed forum discussing the release of a report, “School Discipline Reform and Disorder: Evidence from New York City Public Schools, 2012 – 2016.”  Max Eden, the author of the study avers;  while data shows far more suspensions of Afro-American males than any other group it does not necessarily mean that the suspension system is discriminatory: correlation does not mean causation. Over the last few years the Department has sharply reduced suspensions.. Eden examined student and teacher surveys of school climate and reports that during the recent (2015-16) period sharp decreases in school suspensions coupled with an easing of the Discipline Code; both students and teacher in high poverty schools report  increases discipline problems, in sharp contrast to the Department of Education who praise their own efforts. Lois Herrera, the Department rep had her own set of favorable data and Derek Jackson, the Director Local 237, the School Safety Agent union pointed to significant changes in the methods of reporting, what had been a summons, has become a warning letter, possession of marijuana is not longer a crime, etc., Jackson argues the city data is far from reality. Read the report here. Howard Husock, a Manhattan Institute vice president did an excellent job of moderating a contentious session;.

I wrote about the issue a month ago, “The Suspension Conundrum: Do Suspensions Improve Behavior and Academic Outcomes for All Students or Are Suspensions a Pipeline to Dropping Out and Prison,” Read here.

On one side of the fence  the “pipeline to prison” folk who argue that reducing or eliminating suspensions would dramatically improve outcomes for young men of color versus the, for lack of a better term, law and order folk, who argue that disruptive students interfere with learning and erode outcomes for the other students in the class.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a Harvard historian whose research focuses on racial criminalization and the origins of the carceral state  is the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010),  Muhammad would argue that extremely high suspension rates of Afro-American males is a continuation of policies that emanate from the end of reconstruction to Jim Crow laws, to prisons that re-enslaved blacks continuing up to modern day America, crack laws meant prison, powder cocaine, a fine, and even today opiate abuse, mostly in white communities is a health crisis, possession of crack in a black neighborhood means prison.

For the sake of this argument lets decouple the prison “criminalization” issue for school discipline.

For me, suspension is a post-event response, we require pre-event interventions. Are students, who are subject to high poverty risk load factors, more likely to be suspended, and, if so, can we intervene early to correct unacceptable behavior before suspendable events?

Unfortunately the feds, the United States Department of Education response, the Obama-Duncan-King approach bypasses schools, school districts and states and imposes well meaning and deeply flawed “solutions.”   $4.3 billions in Race to the Top dollars encouraged states to impose student test scored based teacher evaluations, the Common Core and Common Core based accountability testing  and succeeded in alienating teachers and parents and are responsible for beginning an assault on public education.

The attack on student suspensions comes from the USDE. Secretaries of Education issue “Dear Colleague Letters,” in theory clarifying laws or regulations, in reality a way of threatening school districts and states with a loss of federal funding if they fail to comply with specific laws or regulations as interpreted by the Secretary.

In January, 2014 the Secretary of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter,

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (Departments) are issuing this guidance to assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

The letter begins with a supportive tone,

The Departments strongly support schools in their efforts to create and maintain safe and orderly educational environments that allow our nation’s students to learn and thrive. Many schools have adopted comprehensive, appropriate, and effective programs demonstrated to: (1) reduce disruption and misconduct; (2) support and reinforce positive behavior and character development; and (3) help students succeed. Successful programs may incorporate a wide range of strategies to reduce misbehavior and maintain a safe learning environment, including conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling, and structured systems of positive interventions. The Departments recognize that schools may use disciplinary measures as part of a program to promote safe and orderly educational environments.

The letter changes tone and conflates suspensions with violations of federal law,

Regardless of the program adopted, Federal law prohibits public school districts from discriminating in the administration of student discipline based on certain personal characteristics.

The Departments initiate investigations of student discipline policies and practices at particular schools based on complaints the Departments receive from students, parents, community members, and others about possible racial discrimination in student discipline.3 The Departments also may initiate investigations based on public reports of racial disparities in student discipline combined with other information, or as part of their regular compliance monitoring activities.

Schools are reminded, however, that they must ensure that their discipline policies and practices comply with all applicable constitutional requirements and Federal laws, including civil rights statutes and regulations.

The letter makes a case for what is referred to as “disproportionality,”

The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC),5 conducted by OCR, has demonstrated that students of certain racial or ethnic groups6 tend to be disciplined more than their peers. For example, African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.

The Departments recognize that disparities in student discipline rates in a school or district may be caused by a range of factors. However, research suggests that the substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the CRDC data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.7 Although statistical and quantitative data would not end an inquiry under Title IV or Title VI, significant and unexplained racial disparities in student discipline give rise to concerns that schools may be engaging in racial discrimination that violates the Federal civil rights laws.

The use of the term, “research suggests” is disturbing, as is the use of “may be engaging in racial discrimination.”  The letter goes on to fully support the school “pipeline to prison” trope, and, not so subtly encourages school districts to abandon suspensions and implement alternatives to suspension,

Schools are safer when all students feel comfortable and are engaged in the school community, and when teachers and administrators have the tools and training to prevent and address conflicts and challenges as they arise. Equipping school officials with an array of tools to support positive student behavior – thereby providing a range of options to prevent and address misconduct – will both promote safety and avoid the use of discipline policies that are discriminatory or inappropriate.

The feds skip to a chilling determination, the referring of a student for disciplinary action, like sending to a counselor, or a dean or the principal may be a discriminatory act on the part of the school, “…the initial referral of a student to the principal’s office for misconduct is a decision point that can raise concerns, to the extent that it entails the subjective exercise of unguided discretion in which racial biases or stereotypes may be manifested.

 In their investigations of school discipline, the Departments have noted that the initial referral of a student to the principal’s office for misconduct is a decision point that can raise concerns, to the extent that it entails the subjective exercise of unguided discretion in which racial biases or stereotypes may be manifested. If a school refers students for discipline because of their race, the school has engaged in discriminatory conduct regardless of whether the student referred has engaged in misbehavior. And even if the referrals do not ultimately lead to the imposition of disciplinary sanctions, the referrals alone result in reduced classroom time and academic instruction for the referred student. Furthermore, if a sanction from a discriminatory referral becomes part of the student’s school record, it could potentially enhance the penalty for subsequent misconduct and follow the student throughout the student’s academic career. Therefore, it is incumbent upon a school to take effective steps to eliminate all racial discrimination in initial discipline referrals.

The letter raises the legal principle of “disparate impact,”

… policy itself does not mention race – and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.

“Disparate impact” equates to discrimination.

Bottom line: if greater percentages of students in “protected categories” are suspended this is evidence of discrimination.

The letter goes on for page after page spelling out scores of examples and defining, well, sort of defining which situations would be violations of federal statute. Simply, if you suspend more Afro-American than students white students the feds will consider this data evidence of discrimination on the part of the school district.

The larger unaddressed issue is the authority of the feds to impose these types of rules on schools. Aren’t issues like suspension policy, and curriculum, and teacher certification, etc., issues best left to the states? The new Every School Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires each state to create a state accountability plan – namely, identifying the lowest achieving Title 1 schools in the state. The easing of the federal role under the current Secretary may result in the rescission of the suspension “Dear Colleague” letter, and, probably also abandoning the active pursuit of school districts for alleged discriminatory acts around suspension policies.

New York State juvenile justice statistics show that juvenile crime is heavily concentrated in a few neighborhoods. You can superimpose poverty by zip code over the same areas as well as poverty risk load factors, not surprisingly the same schools with high suspension rates are located in high crime communities along with unemployment,  shelters, etc. Within these geographic catchments schools have high rates of suspension, and, a few virtually no suspensions.  Are the schools accepting chaos? Or, have they figured out alternatives?

A number of years ago I worked in a consultant capacity on a high suspension high school campus. The Department school safety folk showed us how to map suspensions: identifying the geographic location in the school of the precipitating event. The most common area: classrooms or outside of classrooms of inexperienced and/or less effective teachers. We worked with specific teachers, improving the quality of instruction and reduced suspensions.

I don’t oppose the restorative practices, I’m just not confident that interceding after the event is an effective approach.  Unless what takes place during the period of suspension: counseling, meeting with the parent, etc.,  improves behavior, the suspension process is not effective.

I fear we are not selecting school leaders with the proper skills as well as properly providing teachers with the requisite skills. Once again, the “answer” is not in Washington.

What are the qualities of teachers, school leaders and school communities with low or no suspensions in high suspension catchment areas?

A topic for another blog: for me, the crux of the issue.

How Would We Assess Student Progress Without Standardized Tests?

In a recent blog post Diane Ravitch wrote,

After twenty years of trying, we should have learned by now that what matters most is having expert professional teachers and giving them the autonomy to do their job with out interference by the governor or legislature.

and Diane points to Finland as the model,

My favorite model remains Finland, where schools are free of standardized testing, teachers are highly educated, teaching is a high-status profession, and politicians and think tanks don’t have the nerve to tell teachers how to teach.

Without getting into a detailed “back and forth,” OECD data differentiates among nations, some data for Finland and the United States.

* poverty rate: Finland the fourth lowest poverty rate,  the US the 30th highest, we only beat out Israel.

* income inequality: Finland is the least inequitable, we only beat out Mexico.

Comparing high wealth schools with high poverty schools is as meaningless as comparing Finland to the United States. If we want to be compared to Finland we should sharply reduce the poverty and inequality gaps within the United States.

Let’s get back to the question of assessing student performance: if our goal is providing the best education, we have to define what we mean by the “best education.” If teaching a student to be literate and numerate is the “best education” we have to set benchmarks and some method of measuring if students are reaching benchmarks.

We currently use what are called “standardized” tests, meaning all kids in the state take the same tests. The grades 3-8 tests required by federal statutes as are exit exams in high school, in New York State, the Regents Exams.

When New York State precipitously  adopted the Common Core State Standards and Common Core tests proficiency rates on the test moved from 2/3 proficient to 2/3 not proficient; thereby angering parents and creating the opt-out movement.

About 20% of parents opt their kids out of the grades 3 – 8 exams, the opt-outs are concentrated in high wealth school districts (meaning folks pay high property taxes) in the suburbs and high achieving schools in New York City.

Tests are not new, prior to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) we tested kids in grade four and eight, and, New York City has a long history of testing; local school districts gave tests to monitor student progress along with citywide tests. Regents exams have been around since the 1880’s

The difference is tests are now used to assess teacher, principal and school performance, and, the results are accountability based; meaning possible school closing and teacher ratings. The new Every School Succeeds Act (ESSA) may, we’ll find out in a few weeks, include in the plan “growth” as well as “proficiency, and, perhaps an “equity” measure.

If we ditch tests, it is unlikely we can move to the Finland system: a nation with very low childhood poverty and among the lowest income inequality among the (Organization for Economic and Cultural Development) nations.

There are other tools that are currently being used to assess student progress.

A number of school districts in California are utilizing performance tasks developed by SCALE, a Stanford-based program that has developed a bank of performance assessments,

Unlike multiple-choice “bubble” tests, performance assessments require students to construct an original response rather than simply recognize a correct answer. The Performance Assessment Resource Bank includes high-quality tasks that engage students in multiple-step and extended performances, such as researching and developing mathematical models to write an article on the rising cost of college tuition. As tasks become more complex and require greater student direction they assess more complex and integrated aspects of learning and require the planning, problem-solving, and persistence that are necessary for success in the real world. This means that the use of performance assessment can both measure and encourage the development of many of the 21st century skills—critical thinking, inquiry, communication, collaboration—that are essential for success in college, career, and life.

See an example of a 9th grade Social Studies performance task/assessment here.

The New York City-based Performance-Based Assessment Consortium  (PBAC), currently 39 high schools, has been receiving waivers from the NYS commissioner, students utilize portfolio/roundtable assessment procedures in lieu of three regents (They still take the mathematics and English regents exams). The State Department of Education has been granting waivers for a cohort of CPBC schools since the nineties. The current waiver expires at the end of this school year. Check out the PBAC site here.

In the nineties Vermont moved to a statewide attempt to replace standardized with a portfolio system; after a number of years Vermont abandoned the initiative – an external report, authored by Harvard scholar Daniel Koretz and others, found inter-rater reliability was absent.

In 2004 Jay Mathews at Education Next explored a number of authentic assessments of student work alternatives to testing, and had doubts,

Lisa Graham Keegan, chief executive officer of the Washington-based Education Leaders Council, said she thinks portfolios can help teachers assess their students’ progress, but are not a good tool for determining how a school or a district is doing. She remembers a visit to a northern Arizona school where “the writing teacher was showing me a portfolio of a student’s work in which the student was writing about kamikaze pilots during World War II.” Keegan was state school superintendent for Arizona at the time and saw that “the essay was horribly written, with glaring spelling and grammatical errors, and yet had received a score of 23 out of 25 points.

“The teacher was just glowing with what a mature and moving topic the student had chosen without any direction from her. I was less impressed and said so–something along the lines of how I could appreciate that the student had something interesting to say, but my first impression was that he didn’t know how to say it–and wasn’t that the first order task for the teacher?”

Having students display their personal strengths is fine, Keegan said, as long as they still learn to read, write, and do math capably before they graduate. “A collection of student work can be incredibly valuable,” she said, “but it cannot replace an objective and systematic diagnostic program. Hopefully, we will come to a place where we incorporate both.”

Daniel Koretz and others, raise questions about quality control in performance assessments,

 … direct assessments of complex performance do not typically generalize from one task to another and thus require careful sampling of tasks to secure an acceptable degree of score reliability and validity for most uses. These observations suggest the pressing need for greater quality control in the design and execution of performance assessments. If such assessments are to have lasting effects on instruction and learning, then their technical properties must be understood and appreciated by developer and practitioner alike.

A more recent report explores these questions, The Center for Educator Compensation Reform, “Measuring and Promoting Inter-Rater Agreement  of Teacher and Principal :Performance Ratings,” February 2012, is a comprehensive look.

Moving from testing to performance tasks/assessments and portfolios will be challenging; however, now is the time for New York State to begin to move forward.

I suggest a number of pilots,  maybe in high opt-out schools, a few in New York City, others in suburban school districts.

For example, a number of schools in New York City are high achieving, high opt-out schools, perhaps candidates for pilots. On Long Island and a few other suburban districts, high opt-out schools/school districts might be candidates for district pilots.

Pilots must be partnerships with teacher unions and higher education institutions, moving to performance tasks and/or portfolios is a major instructional shift and will require both buy-in and an enormous dose of support. New Hampshire, the major example of a state that is moving towards performance tasks is hugely invested in supporting the folks on the front lines – classrooms teachers. Read an description of the New Hampshire efforts here.

We should not tarry.

There is an absence of leadership at the US Education Department, ironically, a good thing. Previously Washington administrations (Arne Duncan, John King) were intrusive, they attempted to drive their views of education down to the classroom level. The current administration clearly has no interest in teaching and learning, they are concerned with choice, i. e., charters and vouchers.

As soon as the ESSA plan is submitted, September, the state should begin the process of creating pilot schools and school districts, exploring the complexities of moving away from standardized tests to a system of performance tasks and portfolios. We don’t need a state-wide system, at this point let’s begin the process. Down the road we may have a system in which some schools/school districts stay with standardized testing while others move to other assessment systems.

There are times not being first, waiting and seeing how initiatives work out makes sense; other times being out front allows you to set the rules. Vermont and New Hampshire are well along the path, also, far different than New York State. A window has opened, teacher unions and some schools/school districts, are ready to move away  tests, it will be a complex task, very complex:  let’s get started.

Is It Time to Review High School Graduation Requirements? Regents Exams? Computer Science as a Required Course? Authentic Assessments?

The Commissioner and the Board of Regents have been totally focused on writing a new school accountability plan under the provisions of the new Every School Succeeds Act (ESSA).  Hopefully the plan will be more equitable, the plan will identify the Title 1 schools in the lowest five percent as defined by the metrics in the state plan.

Will the plan impact teaching and learning?  Will we be identifying the same schools we would have identified under the prior law, No Child Left Behind?

While I am hopeful that the new plan will be an improvement larger questions emerge: How do we define “college and career ready?” Do our current graduation requirements, courses and assessments, i. e., regents exams, lead to college/career readiness?

David Conley, “Four Keys to College and Career Readiness” is the national expert and has written extensively.

New York State uses a narrow definition: The City University (CUNY) defines college and career readiness as grades of 75 on the Algebra 1 Regents and 80 on the English Regents.  State Ed, under the leadership of acting commissioner Ken Wagner was planning to move to aspirational regents grades: five “levels” of achievement.

Level 5: Exceeds Common Core expectations

Level 4: Meets Common Core expectations

Level 3: Partially meets Common Core expectations … comparable to students who pass current Regents exams with a score of 65

Level 2: (Safety Net) Partially meets Common Core expectations (required for local diploma purposes), expect comparable percentages of students who pass current Regents exams with a score of 55.

Level 1: Does not demonstrate Knowledge and Skills.

These “levels” would be scale scores, the test would undergo psychometric massage to determine the level.

The Commissioner, quietly, backed away from the plan to move from the current  0-100 grading system with 65 passing to aspirational scale score levels.

An underlying issue: courses and assessment exams.

The high school graduation requirements are below:  22 units (44 one-term courses) click on the link for a more detailed explanation.

  1. English, four units of commencement level credit;
  2. social studies, four units of credit … ;
  3. science, three units of credit of commencement level science, at least one course shall be life sciences and at least one in the physical sciences, the third may be either life sciences or physical sciences;
  4. mathematics, three units of credit of mathematics, which shall be at a more advanced level than grade eight, shall meet commencement level learning standards as determined by the commissioner, provided that no more than two credits shall be earned for any Integrated Algebra, Geometry, or Algebra 2 and Trigonometry commencement level mathematics course;
  5. visual arts and/or music, dance, or theatre, one unit of credit; and
  6. health education, one-half unit of credit in accordance with the requirements set forth in section 135.3(c) of this Title. Learning standards in the area of parenting shall be attained through either the health or family and consumer sciences programs or a separate course.

In addition to the courses students must pass exit exams – the Regents Exams.

English

Mathematics (usually Algebra 1)

Science (usually Living Environment)

American History and Government (usually at the end of the Junior year)

Global History and Geography (currently covers two years (9th and 10th grades) of work, in June 2018 the exam will only cover 10th grade work)

Check here for a detailed description and alternative pathways

Let’s ask some essential questions:

* Should we continue to “nibble around edges,” namely, making it incrementally easier to graduate, or, address the essential questions?

Should we adopt a state-wide core curriculum with required readings? The current EngageNY curriculum modules are not required and the state tests are not based on a curriculum, they are based on a set of standards. Should state tests be curriculum and standards based?

Should instruction be grade level regardless of the level of the students?  Some argue that by teaching to the level of the kids we are assuring that kids will never reach grade level or higher?

There are school and grade organizational models that are far more instructionally impactful than others – is it the role of the state to “strongly encourage” evidence-based grade/school organizational/instructional models?

Should coding and computer science be part of  school curriculum and graduation requirements? New York City has announced a Computer Science for All initiative,

Through an unprecedented public-private partnership, by 2025, all NYC public school students will receive meaningful, highquality Computer Science (CS) education at each school level: elementary, middle, and high school. Over the next 10 years, the DOE will train nearly 5,000 teachers who will bring CS education to the City’s ~1.1 million public school students. 

Hunter College made a presentation at the last Regents Meeting asking the State to approve a new teacher certification area: Teacher of Computer Science. – Grades 9 – 12. (Read proposal here).

Over 18 million students have code.org accounts – has New York State adopted code.org? Has/should the state add computer science to the state curriculum? State graduation requirements?

And, the elephant in the room: moving from pencil and paper (or computer screen) examinations to performance task and portfolio/roundtable assessments, aka, authentic assessments. Are alternative assessments evidence-based assessments, or, the “softening” of assessments?

A cluster of New York City high schools have been granted waivers from Regents exams for twenty years, although the number of schools and the conditions of the waivers have changed (see the Performance Based Assessment Consortium here).

The state of Vermont spent years in the nineties trying to create a state-wide portfolio system that was eventually abandoned primarily due to the absence of inter-rater reliability (Check discussions here and here); Vermont is once again making an effort to move to classroom-based authentic assessments, read here.

The California Performance Assessment Consortium (CBAC) has created a bank of assessments and is working with a wide cohort of schools. Watch a live U-Tube of an  in depth discussion of the program here, including benchmarks and student work, the site of excellent!!

I am not advocating for any specific change – I am advocating for an investigation, moving beyond “playing” with graduation/testing requirements and exploring taking a deep dive into the base questions:

* Graduation requirements, are we requiring the “right” courses, and

* Should  the assessments reflect the curriculum as well as the standards, and

* Are authentic assessments, namely performance tasks and portfolios, “reliable” indicators of the quality of student work, and, if so, should we be moving forward with pilots?

Completing the ESSA school accountability plan is a beginning, a baby step, self-reflection is at the heart of effective teaching, and, effective leadership.

If we’re not satisfied with where we are now how we can we make the system better?