Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa: Has the President and the NYS Board of Regents Accepted Responsibility for Years of Failed Education Decisions? Has Fear of Parent Electoral Anger Motivated the Electeds? Or, Just Hoping We Go Away If Tempted With Sweet Words?

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, colloquial translation, “My Bad.”

In the summer of 2008 I sat in the audience at the AFT Convention just after the nomination of Barack Obama and watched a 12-minute Obama campaign video – it was odd, it failed to address core educational issues.

Two years later I sat with a room full of principals and watched David Coleman perform his lengthy rollout of the Common Core – a detailed analysis of the Martin Luther King “A Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” interesting, and, once again, odd. At the end of the performance, Coleman answered a few questions from a group of teachers – one asked, “How does this differ from what we’re already doing …?”Coleman snapped, “…compared to other nations (PISA Scores) we’re not doing well at all.” Not exactly the way to gain buy-in from teachers

The President was at a Town Hill meeting and a teacher in the audience asked why he was supporting high stakes testing and punitive teacher evaluation – Obama challenged the teacher – you admit there are teachers in your school who shouldn’t be teaching, was bullying a teacher building teacher support?

The Association for Better New York (ABY) sponsors a breakfast every spring, a high profile speaker, an audience filled with the movers and shakers in New York City/State. Randi Weingarten was the speaker, with NYS Commissioner John King in the audience; Randi called for a moratorium on Common Core testing – to no avail – King and most of the members of the Board of Regents endorsed immediate Common Core testing, no moratorium, and cut scores that resulted in two-thirds of test takers scoring “below proficient.”

For seven years the President was wedded to the Duncan mantra: choice, which means charter schools, the full implementation of the Common Core, high stakes testing tied to teacher evaluation based on pupil growth scores (Value Added Measures, aka VAM). In spite of teacher and parent angst, in spite of millions of hits on the Diane Ravitch blog, the Duncan playbook was the Obama playbook, until it wasn’t.

The New York Times reports,


Faced with mounting and bipartisan opposition to increased and often high-stakes testing in the nation’s public schools, the Obama administration declared Saturday that the push had gone too far, acknowledged its own role in the proliferation of tests, and urged schools to step back and make exams less onerous and more purposeful.

Specifically, the administration called for a cap on assessment so that no child would spend more than 2 percent of classroom instruction time taking tests. It called on Congress to “reduce over-testing” as it reauthorizes the federal legislation governing the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools.

“I still have no question that we need to check at least once a year to make sure our kids are on track or identify areas where they need support,” said Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, … “But I can’t tell you how many conversations I’m in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned about an overemphasis on testing in some places and how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”

“It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves,” he continued. “At the federal, state and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation. We can and will work with states, districts and educators to help solve it.”

Why has it taken seven years for the President to realize they were on the wrong side of history? Why did the announcement come a few weeks after Duncan’s resignation?

Unfortunately the decision-makers today are lawyers and economists, not historians.

George Santayana, the early 20th century philosopher wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Harold Howe, a former United States Secretary of Education muses, ” … sometimes the unforeseen effects, of concepts for change like ‘restructuring’ schools, ‘systemic’ approaches to changes in schools, and the pros and cons of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ prescriptions for what to teach and how to teach it. My own sense of this new vocabulary about school reform is that to some extent it has assumed the same role as the prayer book of the Episcopal Church — by repeating the words you are supposed to be improving yourself and the world around you.”

Almost twenty years ago David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote “Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform,” (Read a superb summary/review here). The authors peruse the seemingly endless school reform initiatives over the last century and conclude that, regardless of the quality of the reform the initiative must have the support of teachers and parents; change, or reform, only, grows from the inside. In other words, reforms driven from the top down, unless accepted in classrooms will wither; new ideas may be planted from above, they must be fertilized and cared for in the classrooms and in the homes.

A few days ago the leader of the Board of Regents acknowledged the intense criticism of the newest iteration of the teacher evaluation law in New York State.

Newsday reports,


One of New York’s top school policymakers called Monday for potentially revamping a controversial law that allows student scores on Common Core tests to count for as much as half of teachers’ and principals’ job evaluations.

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, told about 500 school board members attending a state convention in Manhattan that the toughened law, pushed through the legislature in April by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, is “full of problems.”

The chancellor said lawmakers should “reopen” a section of the law that increases to about 50 percent the maximum weight that local school districts can assign to so-called “growth” scores in judging teachers’ classroom performance. Such scores are based on student performance on English language arts and math assessments, and are generated by a complex formula that many analysts consider statistically unstable.

The New York State Commissioner of Education has begun a review of the Common Core and the Curriculum Modules, the widely criticized units that drive instruction across the state. If you want to comment on the modules click here: https://www.engageny.org/content/curriculum-feedback-form

If you want to comment on the Common Core click here to go to the State Ed Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/NYStateEd?fref=ts

Does this mean that sanity is beginning to return to the school system in New York State; or, to schools across the nation, or, is all this pomp and circumstance a trompe d’oeille, a facade to lull us into complacency?

This is considerable cynicism.

We’ll see over the weeks and months ahead. In New York State the Governor and State legislature are leaning on the Board of Regents and the Commissioner – make parents happy, or, at least happier. Stem the Opt Out tide; erode the 200,000 parents who are potentially ready to vote for change at the polls.

I believe the tidal wave of parent anger will be difficult to assuage: Obama, Duncan, Cuomo and the wave of so-called reformers may have created a hydra ( … It possessed many heads … and, each time one was lost, it was replaced by two more. It had poisonous breath and blood so virulent that even its scent was deadly) and those heads keep growing and spewing electoral poison.

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