Making Tough Choices: The Board of Regents, Equity, Charter Schools and Content-Rich Curriculum

Over the last few weeks states and school districts across the nation have been busy “canceling” the use of the 1619 Project curriculum as well as baring references to Critical Race Theory.

Education is a “reserved power,” pursuant to the 10th Amendment.

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

Every state has an education policy board, usually appointed by the governor, in California elected in a state-wide election and in New York State “elected” by a joint meeting of the state legislatures, since the Democrats greatly outnumber the Republicans the Democratic leader of the Assembly in reality “selects” the Board members. Members are unstaffed and unpaid; questions of funding are part of the state legislative process. There are no qualifications to serve on education policy boards.  The CUNY and SUNY boards are appointed by the governor,

Does the Speaker, the leader of the Assembly, influence decisions of Board of Regents? [Some charter schools employ paid lobbyists]

Each state is divided into school districts with elected lay policy boards; there are 13,000 school boards across the nation.

New York State has seventeen Board members, some representing Judicial Districts, others at -large. The state is divided into over 700 school districts, including the “Big Five,” Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City.

While the Board establishes regulations and sets policy, policies are recommendations to the districts. Curriculum, for example, is a local determination, graduation requirements and testing are regulations.

In August, 2019 the NY Times published the 1619 Project,  Hannah Nicole-Jones, an investigative reporter and her NY Times team constructed a series of essays and has been expanded into a detailed curriculum along with lesson plans, podcasts and other teaching tools presenting the “dark side” of our history.

Jones describes the 1619 Project as “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black American have fought to make them true.”

If I were teaching American History I would select some of her materials and I have disagreements with some of her interpretations and a tone of hopelessness runs through her work. I would assign, We Could Have the Been Canada, a New Yorker essay that argues that the American Revolution was a bad idea and we may have been able to avoid the Civil War. Read here

Some school districts have adopted the 1619 curriculum, others banned the curriculum. Diane Ravitch views here.

The NYS Board of Regents have taken a different approach, at their May meeting they adopted an explicit policy statement on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, acknowledging that ultimately policies are matters of local discretion.

A growing body of research finds that all students benefit when their schools implement strong Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies and practices – including academic, cognitive, civic, social-emotional, and economic benefits. Strong DEI policies, in partnership with parents and families, empower students from all backgrounds to visualize successful futures for themselves and provide them with a sense of belonging and self-worth. These benefits can lead to improved student achievement, which in turn can lead to better outcomes in other areas of their lives, including work and civic engagement. This is true regardless of a school’s geographic location or the demographic composition of its students and faculty. We recognize that the decision to adopt a DEI policy, as well as the contents of such a policy, are ultimately matters of local discretion. However, the Regents believe strongly that there is a moral and an economic imperative to remove the inequities that stand in the way of success for whole segments of New York’s student population. Accordingly, the Board expects that all school districts and institutions of higher education will develop and implement policies and practices that advance diversity, equity and inclusion – and that they will implement such policies and practices with fidelity and urgency.

See full policy statement here

There are no references to the 1619 Project, no references to Critical Race Theory; the Regents believe “…there is a moral and an economic imperative to remove the inequities that stand in the way of success for whole segments of New York’s student population.”

At the June Meeting a number of school districts, including New York City presented how they’re addressing the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy statement. See “The Bronx Strategy, Building Culturally Responsive Sustaining and Inclusive Environments” here.

New York State is diverse, by ethnicity, by income, by size, by politics and by per capita education expenditures.  The differences in spending are disgraceful, high property tax districts spend twice as much per student as a rural low tax district. The current session of the state legislature did resolve the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, a positive first step and many more stairs to climb.

Will the policy statements of the Board impacted classrooms?

I have my doubts, schools are consumed with mandated testing requirements, tests that unfortunately drive instruction.

One of the major policy initiatives, My Brothers Keeper, is accompanied by funding and the impact, higher graduation rates, more kids taking advanced subjects are evidence.

The Board of Regents authorizes, monitors and decides on charter school renewals. In my view they are failing in their responsibilities.

Charter schools are not “engines of innovation,” after twenty years the charter school experiment has failed. In a recent blog post I called for the end of the charter school experiment and the integration of charter schools into the NYC Department of Education (Read here)

Charters must be renewed, and, in the fifth year the Department determines renewals and the length of the renewal. (See Charter School Frameworks here)

 At the June meeting the Regents renewed a charter for two years (See report here); a school (CAMPOS Middle School) has not been supported by their community. The original charter contracts for 325 students in the grades 6-8 middle school, five years later the school enrolls only 86 students. The 6th grade enrollment is only 17 students. If the school was a public school the school would have been integrated within neighborhood schools.

A closer look at the school is depressing, for example uncertified teachers and three Directors of Operations and a Dean of students, for a school with 86 students. Shouldn’t the State Ed folks have raised red flags?

The school is not providing the quality education that the Board has demanded of schools across the state.

A few members of the Board were sharply critical of the two year renewal; however the Commissioner, the Chancellor and the remainder of the Board supported the renewal.

The Board has advocated, albeit quietly, for equalizing the funding for schools; a very heavy lift.  Our highest poverty, lowest achieving schools receive far fewer dollars than the highest achieving schools.

Unfortunately the Board is not advocating for the end of the charter school experiment. Charter schools are not a “value-added,” the reality is they simply divert dollars and students away from public schools. 

I applaud the Board for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies, long overdue; however curriculum is a critical factor in student academic success.

Culturally Relevant Sustaining Education is an important element; without a content-rich curriculum our efforts are for naught. Too many times I have visited struggling schools, passionate, caring teachers are using material well below grades levels, with the excuse “we want our students to succeed.” 

David Steiner took a deep dive into high performing countries and schools, and finds,

» Comprehensive, content-rich curriculum is a common feature of academically high-performing countries.

» The cumulative impact of high-quality curriculum can be significant and matters most to achievement in the upper grades where typical year-on-year learning gains are far lower than in previous grades.

» Because the preponderance of instructional materials is self-selected by individual teachers, most students are taught through idiosyncratic curricula that are not defined by school districts or states.

» Research comparing one curriculum to another is very rare and, therefore, not usually actionable.

The overarching conclusions from the Johns Hopkins’ review are that curriculum is deeply important, that a teacher’s or district’s choice of curriculum can substantially impact student learning, and that—as a result—the paucity of evidence upon which sound instructional, purchasing, and policy decisions can be made is a matter of deep concern and urgent need.

I understand the State Education Department is woefully understaffed and basically has abandoned curriculum development, EngageNY is still in use; however the State does not provide guidance to districts re choices of curriculum.

John White, the former state commissioner in Louisiana calls for aligning teacher preparation and curriculum selection at the school and district level guided by state education departments. (Read here)

Network charter schools with millions of philanthropic dollars do have high state test scores: how many of their graduates go on to selective high schools?  Community charter schools struggle, and without monitoring of testing the results are questionable.

It’s time to wrap up the charter school experiment.

The Board has taken first step, bold steps, to encourage a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion agenda at all levels across the state, its time for next steps.

California is embarking on revisions of mathematics curriculum, moving away from tracking classes, (See here), beyond my expertise, exactly the work states must pursue.

The My Brothers’ Keeper Guidance Document: “Emerging Practices for Schools and Communities” (Read here) sets a framework. 

I know I know, probably a bridge too far, if you don’t try you’ll never get there.

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