Mary Ellen Elia begins a new, complex and intensely political job – the New York State Commissioner of Education. After John King “moved on” to the US Department of Ed in December Ken Wagner and Beth Berlyn have managed the Department, and did a superb job under difficult conditions.
To say the last few months have been contentious is polite. Two hundred thousand or so parents have opted their children out of state grades 3-8 exams, the governor is at war with teachers, the legislature is at war with the governor, Mayor de Blasio publicly trashed Governor Cuomo, a new and reviled teacher evaluation plan is being rolled out, the lowest performing schools and school districts in the state are moving to receivership, English language learners continue to struggle, the disparity in funding between school districts is disturbing, and I’ve just scratched the tip of the education iceberg.
Dysfunction is nothing new for New York State.
Edward J. Larson, in The Return of George Washington (2014) writes, “The state’s [New York State] delegation to the Continental Convention was so split, and its instructions were so indecisive that it abstained on the epic vote for independence- the only delegation to do so.”
A dozen years later the newly created United States of America were selecting their first president. Each state was selecting electors who would cast ballots to elect a president and a vice president. Alexander Hamilton and Governor Clinton were bitter enemies. “…after a brutal state convention and weeks of legislative gridlock, two battle-scarred parties held their ground and New York sat out the election.” Hamilton gloated, “I am not sorry, as the most we could hope for would be to balance accounts and do no harm.” New York State was the only state not to cast ballots for the first president.
New York State was so involved in internecine political battles that they did not participate in the most iconic elections in our history – the approval of the Declaration of Independence and the vote to elect George Washington. Not much has changed in two hundred and twenty-five years!!
Can a new commissioner begin the healing process? Or, is dysfunction too inbred into our DNA?
Elia faces a vital first task: winning back parents, teachers, school boards, superintendents and the legislature who have all lost confidence in the education establishment.
Her second task is working with an increasingly assertive Board of Regents. For decades the state education agenda was set by the commissioner and the chancellor. Under John King an extremely aggressive agenda mirroring the policies of Arne Duncan were pushed through the Board of Regents. A few members of the Regents voted “no,” others had questions and voted “yes” with reluctance while the majority were were on board for each and every vote. The election of four new members to the Board totally changed the direction of the Board. The discussion of teacher evaluation plan was driven by six members of the board – the four new members and two who have consistently questioned previous initiatives. The “new” faction includes five retired school superintendents and clearly intends to propose a Regents-driven agenda.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires annual exams in grades 3-8, and, the results were zip code driven. If you lived in a middle class district the chances are excellent that your kid did well on the exam and if you lived in a poor district the scores were low. Suddenly, the state moved to the Common Core exams, King steadfastly refused to phase in the exams and the state moved from 2/3 passing the tests to 2/3 failing the test. The Department tried to manipulate the language, instead of “failing” using “approaching proficiency,” without success. John King embarked on his “listening tour” and insisted on making it a “convincing tour.” After he was booed off the stage in Poughkeepsie the meetings were halted, King blamed outside agitators, the resistance grew into the opt-out movement.
Suggestions for the new commissioner and the board:
* Announce a broad-based committee to review, and, if necessary, recommend changes to the Common Core Standards.
While I find the secondary school English and Social Studies standards are appropriate there has been a steady criticism of the math standards and the standards for the earlier grades – appoint a task force: superintendents, principals, teachers, colleges, nothing should be written in stone. New York State should assess and, if necessary, revise core policies. Participation reduces resistance.
*Announce that next year the grade 3-8 state exams will be scored the same way the Regents exams are scored; using a standards-setting system that phases in the new standards over an extended number of years.
The Common Core Regents are being phased in over eight years (we are entering year three) with the standards-setting, aka, the curving of the scores, reflecting incremental changes. About the same percentage of kids will pass the Regents each year. The same process was used to phase in the single Regents diploma, passing scores were dropped to 55 and each year students had to pass an additional regent with a score of 65. Instead of the phase in taking four years the phase in took about ten years. The system took much longer than expected; however, the save-harmless protected the students and was viewed as reasonable around the state.
* Quietly announce that State Ed will grant hardship waivers without undue hassling.
We are about to experience the third teacher evaluation plan in the last four years, and, we expect revisions next year. The plan is incredibly dense and the State can ease the complexity by making available the algorithms that were successfully used in New York City. School districts cannot be expected to “go it alone,” mere mortals do not understand the system, principals and teachers don’t understand the system, and, the only purpose is to evaluate teachers and principals. The tool doesn’t even do a good job of assessing staff performance. The feds may, and I stress may, amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) over the next few months. What should a teacher evaluation plan look like? How should the State assess student progress across the state? Should progress look differently in high tax, high wealth versus low tax, low wealth districts? The commissioner and the board should begin to explore a new plan that emanates from the field, from superintendents and teachers, not from anonymous members of the governor’s team.
* Move the format of the Regents meetings to a more open and inclusive platform
Currently only the formal parts of the monthly Regents Meetings are webcast, the “meat” of the meetings is the committees, which are not webcast. The entire meeting should be available to the public, as was the Education Learning Summit. The current system does not allow for public input except for the comment period after the Regents have proposed changes to regulations. The Commissioner should propose to the Regents changes to open the meetings to public scrutiny and allow brief public comment at some point during the monthly meetings. Transparency builds credibility.
* Use the July Regents Retreat to set an agenda for the Board.
Commissioner King set the agenda and the Board responded. Although the Board of Regents is a policy board the policy was set by the Chief Executive Officer, the CEO who is the commissioner. The broad outlines of policy should be set by Board not the CEO; the commissioner should recommend systems to implement the policies. The Board has tended to steer clear of contentious issues – a prime example is the way education is funded in New York State. The funding system in New York State is property tax driven and guarantees a wealth disparity, the system is established by the governor and the legislature. The Regents, if they choose, can make substantive recommendations to the legislative and executive branches.
Should the state adopt a system of assessing student progress that incorporates “risk load factors”?
The recent Report from the Center for New York City Affairs suggests a totally different method of viewing schools,
Chronic absenteeism correlates with deep poverty–high rates of homelessness, child abuse reports, male unemployment, and low levels of parental education. In fact, the report states, chronic absenteeism is a much better index of poverty than the traditional measure of the number of children eligible for free lunch. Moreover, it’s very hard for schools to escape the pull of poverty: only a handful of schools with above-average rates of chronic absenteeism had above-average pass rates on their standardized tests for math and reading–and most scored far below, the report states.
The report identifies 18 “risk factors” that are associated with chronic absenteeism, both in the school building and in the surrounding neighborhood. Schools with a very high “risk load” are likely to suffer from poor attendance. Some of the school factors are: students in temporary housing; student suspensions; the perception of safety; and principal, teachers and student turnover. The neighborhood factors include: male unemployment, presence of public housing or a homeless shelter in a school’s attendance zone, adult levels of education, and involvement with the Administration for Children’s Services.
Should the state continue to simply use test scores to assess and stigmatize schools or move on to more useful and meaningful data sets?
How should the state assess the progress of English language learners and Students with Disabilities?
While the feds have denied the request of the state exempt or delay the testing of students referenced supra the state should begin to consider the issue. Who are the students who fail to graduate in four years? Do the non-graduates include inordinate numbers of ELLs and SWDs? If so, should we offer alternative pathways for these cohorts of students?
The Commissioner and the Board can continue to joust with a public who has lost confidence or begin to set an agenda that will both win back the public and set a saner path for students across the state.
Perhaps the Commissioner and the Board can set an example for the political establishment.