If you think you sense a certain tension rising in your local schools – a touch of trepidation, a feeling of unease – you’re not imagining it.
These are symptoms of reform.
Reform is such a funny word. It implies improvement, progress, new and better ways of doing things. But one person’s “Education REFORM” is another’s poorly conceived, expensive slate of dictates from Albany.
The state of New York is now in the thick of rolling out a series of “reforms” that are really and truly changing day-to-day life in your local schools. They are the seeds of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature education reform initiative. New York became part of the program in 2010, agreeing to a series of reforms in exchange for $700 million in federal prize money.
Before you conclude that Race to the Top is all about money, know that the educational leadership of this state is unequivocally behind the reforms currently transforming your schools: the Common Core learning standards; tougher state tests; a teacher evaluation system that tries to calculate student progress; and a new emphasis on technology that will eventually lead to on-line testing.
Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who heads the state Board of Regents, and the board’s chief employee, Education Commissioner John King, insist that these reforms are absolutely, unquestionably necessary if New York’s public schools are to produce graduates ready for the high-tech, think-on-your-feet, unpredictable workforce of the future. Tisch and King are also extremely supportive of Gov. Cuomo’s own education reform agenda, which centered on tougher teacher evaluations and generally holds that teachers and administrators across New York are failing kids with selfish, intransigent leadership.
The problem is that administrators, teachers and interested parents around here are not sold. They’re not buying in. Many feel like they are being forced to implement a series of reforms that they don’t need, cannot afford and that are strangling their ability to run their schools as they see fit.
It’s hard to generalize about these things. But I’ve been talking to people in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties about these reforms for several years now. And I’ve come across little out-and-out support. Instead, reactions to the reforms range from skepticism to something close to outrage.
Take teacher evaluations. School officials almost uniformly insist that, while they support teacher accountability, the state’s new evaluation system was rushed and needed to be piloted for a couple of years. Many don’t like that the system relies, in part, on the questionable use of student test scores. But the chief complaint is that the system takes too much time and costs too much money and, like other reforms, is indirectly weakening local control of education.
Same thing with the new state tests based on the Common Core. Many local educators do like at least some things about the new Common Core standards, which set grade-by-grade targets for what students should know. But they don’t like the fact that teachers had to adjust to the Core on the fly last school year while preparing for mysterious new state tests.
Yes, those tests. There is an echo out there: “There is too much focus on tests!” True or not, I hear it everywhere I go.
There’s more. Many local officials don’t want the new student data portals that the state is forcing on them, in many cases because they have their own portals. They also say it is unrealistic to prepare for on-line testing next year, as the state has tentatively asked them to do.
I constantly hear school people wonder whether the state Education Department is aware of the state-imposed property-tax levy cap and all the cuts that districts have made over the past four years. They talk about a growing divide between Albany and school board rooms across the Lower Hudson Valley. And that cannot be a good thing.
So what’s going on here? Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King sincerely believe that New York’s schools have aimed too low. They proclaim over and over that the state’s graduates are not ready for college or the workforce, based on those international benchmarks we always hear about and other factors. They often focus on the poor performance of students, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics, in big-city school systems.
I’ve talked to King many times about the reforms and asked him about all the criticisms coming his way. He believes that this is the time to lift up New York’s entire education system – and that there is no time to waste. Teachers and administrators may not embrace it, he says, but real change is never easy and inevitably makes people uncomfortable. When I’ve asked him about the financial toll of reform, he has calmly explained that these are the costs of providing better education (an explanation that only infuriates school officials who have to prepare actual budgets).
The thing is, local officials don’t agree that they sky is falling. They do agree that urban school systems are struggling for a variety of social and economic reasons and that these systems need help (including more equitable funding of education). But most say that the majority of school districts around here are doing just fine, even better than fine, and don’t need the state’s help. They insist that a one-size-fits-all approach to reform, aimed at big-city schools, is only hindering most suburban systems.
Reform, they say, is not reform. And there is the source of your tension.