“Our Nation is at risk . . . . The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people . . . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war . . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament . . . .”
No, this is not from Governor Cuomo, it is the opening salvo from the April, 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report that shocked the nation and started the seemly endless school reform merry-go-round.
In our cyber age reports from think tanks, universities and commissions have become commonplace. Some earn their moment of fame as they flash across our computer screens and the twitter sphere.
Education reform has become an industry – if you are a university professor or a former superintendent you have learned how to monitize your ideas – write that book or sell your services – schools and school districts are desperate to find that magic bullet – that big idea that will dismiss poverty, motivate teenagers and wipe away a century or so of deprivation and racism.
After two failed governors – one by arrogance/scandal (Spitzer) and the other by incompetence (Patterson) Governor Cuomo has succeeded in bringing function to the state capital.
His approval ratings approach those of Jeremy Lin. Two on-time budgets and a host of legislative victories, maybe, just maybe, puts him at the front of line for the 2016 run for the White House.
His appointment of a Governor’s Education Reform Commission is a high risk/high reward act. President Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters in 2008, the three million teachers across the nation, who abjure his educational priorities are still supporters, but reluctant supporters.
The task of the commission is to review the length and breathe of the New York State education system.
The Commission shall comprehensively review and assess New York State’s education system, including its structure, operation and processes, with the goal of uncovering successful models and strategies and developing long-term efficiencies that will create significant savings while improving student achievement and providing students with a high-quality education. Such review shall include, but not be limited to, the following:
- a. studying teacher recruitment and performance, including incentives to keep the best teachers, and the teacher preparation, certification and evaluation systems;
- b. analyzing factors that support student achievement from pre-kindergarten through high school in order to ensure that all students are on track to graduate from high school ready for college, careers, and active citizenship;
- c. evaluating education funding, distribution of State aid, and operating costs to identify efficiencies in spending while maintaining the quality of educational programs, including special education;
- d. increasing parent and family engagement, including examining the school calendar and district-level policies that increase parental involvement;
- e. examining the unique set of issues faced by high-need urban and rural school districts, including comparing best practices and identifying the different services that these districts might require to be successful;
- f. analyzing the availability of technology and its best use in the classroom, including the accessibility of, and obstacles to, using technology in the classroom in light of the requirements and demands of the job market to best prepare our students; and
- g. examining the overall structure of New York’s education system to determine whether it meets the needs of our students while respecting the taxpayer.
The twenty-five members of the commission, chaired by Dick Parsons, range across a wide spectrum. From the CUNY and SUNY chancellors, Commissioner King, State Senate and Assembly Education Committee chairs, financier Sanford Weill, Bank Street President Elizabeth Dickey, charter schooler Geoffrey Canada to a number of foundation folk to a superintendent and a few parent reps. Lacking is a real, live teacher … we have 400,000 or so in New York State to choose from …is disturbing.
At the organizational meeting Chair Parsons offered a warm welcome and sketched out roughly, very roughly the path of the commission. The commission will be divided into three working groups with rather broad responsibilities, and, the commission will spend the next four months attending ten community outreach meetings to be held around the state.
Each of the commission members introduced themselves, less would have been more, some rambled about their pet projects, others offered ideas, a few clearly had agendas.
Parsons assured the commission that there were no “sacred cows,” and felt that the December interim report could deal with “low hanging fruit.” Parsons should be warned that even “low handing fruit” may be covered with thorns.
The powerpoint presentation, which frames the path the Governor suggests the commission follows is straightforward: http://www.governor.ny.gov/puttingstudentsfirst
The governor is clearly concerned with the cost of education – New York State leads the nation in per-student expenditures and the payback, student achievement is mixed.
The commission will be listen for the first three months – they may hear a number of the “big questions.”
Can the commission find ways to stabilize or reduce the cost of education without diminishing the quality?
Do seven hundred school districts increase costs? Will consolidating school districts result in economies of scale without reducing services?
Can services traditionally provided by school districts be provided by the state at lesser costs?
Is the commission willing to take on powerful forces – the preschool special education providers? The bilingual education crowd?
The preschool special education program in New York State is a $2 billion system that relies almost exclusively on private contractors, many of them for-profit companies, to deliver services to 3- and 4-year-olds.
The NYS Comptroller just cited a number of providers for fraudulent practices … could public schools provide the services at significantly lower costs?
English Language Learners in most schools have exceptionally poor results on standardized tests and very low high school graduation rates – with a few exceptions. Should we keep the 30-year old regulations (Part 154) governing the education of ELLs, or, try and scale up successful practices, and, ruffle many feathers?
Disparities in funding across the state: how brave is the commission?
High wealth school districts (suburbs) spend three times as much money per student as low wealth districts (rural) – NYS leads the nation in the disparity within the state of per student funding. Will the commission tell Scarsdale or Dix Hills that they cannot spend as much as they choose? Or, use Scarsdale dollars to subsidize a district in the Adirondacks?
While a few committee members rambled on about the need to collect and disaggregate data New York State has a wealth of data and provides periodic dumps of reams of information. For example New York has employed Learning Point to conduct school audits ; the resulting reports are the best I have ever seen, detailed and practical paths to school improvement Have the schools improved? and, if not, why not?
I suspect the public meetings will be “bread and circuses,” therapeutically important for those who feel excluded from the process; ultimately the committee will have to drill down on specific policy recommendations.
Whether the interim and final reports flit across the stage with little note, or frame major policy initiatives only the governor knows.
In May/June 1787 the fifty plus delegates attending another commission trickled into Philadelphia. They thought the purpose of the convention was to tinker with the Articles of Confederation, the governing document of the former thirteen colonies, the new United States of America.
Hamilton and Madison had another plan.
Will Cuomo emulate his New York predecessor, Alexander Hamilton, and try and thoroughly restructure education in New York State, or, nibble around the edges?