Governor Cuomo Likes Commissions/Councils: Can Schools Be “Reimagined” in the Midst of a Pandemic and Devastating Budget Cuts?

Candidates and electeds will make momentous decisions over the next few months.  For candidate Joe Biden an educational agenda: we all remember the truly terrible decisions made by Obama, decisions that still haunt us.

Candidate Biden appointed an 8-member team; Governor Cuomo appointed a  25-member“Reimagining Education” Advisory group and Mayor de Blasio a 45-member advisory council.

Do these groups, whether you call them Blue Ribbon commissions, task forces or advisory councils actually influence policy?  Are they a method of building consensus among disparate interests?  Or, simply ways to push the crucial decisions down the road?

A neuron fired: didn’t Cuomo establish other commissions?

In 2013 the governor established the “New NY Education Reform Commission: Putting Students First,” a Blue Ribbon commission; led by former American Express CEO Richard Parsons, with a staff of researchers. The members of the commission included a wide range of policy makers, light on teachers and parents. The commission was charged with “assessing the New York State public education system and creating a plan that would better its overall structure, operation and process” as well as “exploring best practices and models from other states and nations that created significant cost savings for taxpayers and improved student achievement.”

After more than a year, many meetings and stakeholder community input the commission made six recommendations.

Recommendation 1. Expand early education because it is critical for getting students on a path to success. The Commission recommends the state build upon, and bring to scale, the success of the first-ever state-funded full-day pre-kindergarten program and commit to developing a clear plan to expand access to high-quality full day pre-k, starting with New York’s highest-need students.

Recommendation 2. Expand the use of technology in our schools, especially schools that have not been able to keep pace. The Commission recommends the state provide incentives and enact a program to improve access to technology in schools, especially our highest-need schools, as a way to help complement teaching and academic programs in order to improve student achievement.

Recommendation 3. Reward the best and brightest educators, especially in our struggling schools. A quality teacher is perhaps the best thing a student can have to be successful in life. The Commission recommends creating a Teacher Excellence Fund to reward teacher excellence and attract and keep talented educators in the classroom, particularly in our lowest-performing schools. This will build upon the Commission’s preliminary recommendations to improve teaching including the teacher bar exam, raising the standards for entry into SUNY and CUNY teacher preparation programs, and the Master Teacher Program.

Recommendation 4. Replicate programs that connect high school to college in order to create greater college opportunities, especially for underrepresented students. The Commission recommends that the state provide incentives such as college scholarships and other financial assistance to cover the cost of college for high-performing students, especially underrepresented students, as well as expand innovative Early College High School programs so that at-risk students have a chance to attain both a high school diploma and an affordable college degree.

Recommendation 5. Strategically invest in higher education to successfully connect students to the workforce. The Commission recommends expanding the state’s strategic investment in public higher education to further incentivize providing access to all students and setting them up for success in careers, including incentivizing paid internships, expanding academic programming, and increasing access to college degree programs though innovative methods, like online learning.

Recommendation 6. Focus on efficiencies to reinvest administrative savings into the classroom. The Commission recommends that the state expand opportunities for shared services, reduce obstacles to the school district merger process, and provide mechanisms for the creation of regional high schools.

Looking back, pretty successful, pre-K, $2B technology Bond Act, three pre-service exams for teachers, Excelsior Scholarships and SUNY Empire, a predominantly online college, the state has not “increased … strategic investment in public higher education,” and has not “reduce[d] obstacles to school district mergers” and hasn’t done anything with the “creation of regional high schools.”

The governor did place a 2% cap on property tax increases (“significant tax savings for taxpayers”), first in the annual budget dance and eventually made the cap permanent.

A few years later the state was in the midst of the Common Core and teacher evaluation kafuffles. Commissioner John King pushed through the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and assessing teachers and principals through student scores on state tests, called Value Added Measurement (VAM); parent, teacher and principal opposition grew and grew.

The governor created a Common Core Task Force (Read Final Report here)

The Task Force was “Blue Ribbon,” educators, education leaders and policy-makers from across the state, including the state and national teacher union (Randi Weingarten).

The report offered 21 recommendations:

Establish New High Quality New York Standards

Recommendation 1: Adopt high quality New York education standards with input from local districts, educators, and parents through an open and transparent process.

Recommendation 2: Modify early grade standards so they are age-appropriate.

Recommendation 3: Ensure that standards accommodate flexibility that allows educators to meet the needs of unique student populations, including Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners.

Recommendation 4: Ensure standards do not lead to the narrowing of curriculum or diminish the love of reading and joy of learning.

Recommendation 5: Establish a transparent and open process by which New York standards are periodically reviewed by educators and content area experts.

Recommendation 6: Ensure educators and local school districts have the flexibility to develop and tailor curriculum to the new standards.

Recommendation 7: Release updated and improved sample curriculum resources.

Recommendation 8: Launch a digital platform that enables teachers, including pre-service teachers, and teacher educators, to share resources with other teachers across the state.

Recommendation 9: Create ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers, teacher educators, and administrators on the revised State standards.

Significantly Reduce Testing Time and Preparation and Ensure Tests Fit Curriculum and Standards

Recommendation 10: Involve educators, parents, and other education stakeholders in the creation and periodic review of all State standards-aligned exams and other State assessments.

Recommendation 11: Gather student feedback on the quality of the new tests.

Recommendation 12: Provide ongoing transparency to parents, educators, and local districts on the quality and content of all tests, including, but not limited to publishing the test questions.

Recommendation 13: Reduce the number of days and shorten the duration for standards-aligned State standardized tests.

Recommendation 14: Provide teachers with the flexibility and support to use authentic formative assessments to measure student learning.

Recommendation 15: Undertake a formal review to determine whether to transition to untimed tests for existing and new State standardized tests aligned to the standards.

Recommendation 16: Provide flexibility for assessments of Students with Disabilities.

Recommendation 17: Protect and enforce testing accommodations for Students with Disabilities.

Recommendation 18: Explore alternative options to assess the most severely disabled students.

Recommendation 19: Prevent students from being mandated into Academic Intervention Services based on a single test.

Recommendation 20: Eliminate double testing for English Language Learners,

And, the most important recommendation,

Recommendation 21: Until the new system is fully phased in, the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards, as well as the updated standards, shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performance of individual teachers or students

State tests are now untimed; the number of testing days reduced, safety nets for Students with Disabilities, move from the Common Core State Standards to the Next Generation Standards, with involvement of New York State teachers; unfortunately teachers do NOT have  “flexibility and support to use authentic formative assessments to measure student learning.”

The deal-maker is the moratorium on the use of state tests to evaluate or assess teachers and students; however, only until the 2019-2020 school year; the governor will have to promulgate an executive order extending the moratorium.

The current gubernatorial advisory council, “Remaining Education,” his third Council/Task Force, was described by Cuomo,

, The Council will work in collaboration with other experts and stakeholders including the state and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to answer key questions about what education should look in the future using new technologies and to develop a blueprint to reimagine education in the new normal.”

We know from the previous commissions/advisory councils will have wide discretion:

  • What are the “key questions?”
  • What are the “new technologies”?
  • What is meant by “develop a blueprint?”

Over the next few weeks, or, more likely few months the Council will flesh out their goals, perhaps seek public input and move towards a consensus; however, the work of the Council might be overshadowed by devastating budget cuts.

What will be the role of the Gates Foundation?

Unclear.

It is possible that the fall will bring a combination of in-class and remote learning; will the Council explore the conditions necessary for school re-opening?

I don’t think any of the Council members want their name on a document that is attacked by parents, teachers and school leaders and which is viewed as being rammed down their throats of schools.

We’re only seven weeks down the remote learning pathway and we’re learning every day, the integration of remote and in-class coupled with social distancing is challenging.

The “opportunity gap” has been widened, the lack of access to technology, the lack of parental engagement, many of whom must work to for their family to survive.

Will the Council address and present recommendations that are achievable in the COVID and upcoming financial crisis?

One day at a time ….

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