By Gary Stern
It would be a serious understatement to say this is a “time of change” for New York’s schools.
There is so much going on that it seems I can only reach school people between meetings, when they are out of breath and only able to speak in strings of acronyms. They are sometimes short on patience, as well, since they are often busy doing things they would rather not be doing (like dealing with the state/federal reforms or budget-related problems).
So I sat down today with Lisa Davis, executive director of the Westchester/Putnam School Boards Association, to ask her to outline the major school issues of 2013-14 in a nice, neat package. Davis is as up on this stuff as anyone. A former member of the Chappaqua Board of Education, she now represents and speaks for more than 40 school boards. She regularly talks to not only school board people, but administrators, teachers, politicians, businesspeople and everyone else who has an interest in what’s going on in the schools. (Note: The Rockland County School Boards Association has a new executive director, Pam Frederick, whom I met recently and will catch up with soon.)
In the video above, Davis discusses her Big Issues of 13-14, more or less in the order we discussed them. I had hoped that Davis might rank them, like on the David Letterman Show, but real life is just too complicated.
And I will expound on them right here:
1. Common Core implementation: Everyone seems to be trying to get a grasp on the new, grade-by-grade Common Core learning standards, but doing so is not easy. They represent not only new standards, but new philosophies of learning. One early concern that is starting to get a lot of attention is that the Core requires elementary-level students to learn a lot of concepts in earlier grades than before. What are the implications? “I’ve heard some concerns that certain expectations may not be developmentally appropriate,” Davis told me. “There are things you would always do to build motor skills and pre-reading skills and pre-math skills that may go by the wayside so teachers can focus on curriculum units.”
2. Testing (as in more testing or too much testing): School districts are still coming to terms with the lower grades many students got on the new, tougher 3-8 tests tied to the Common Core. About two-third of students statewide were found to be off-track in math and ELA. New, tougher Regents tests for high school will start arriving this year. “At the early grades, we don’t want kids to feel like failures,” Davis said. “We think we are doing a pretty good job educating our kids around here. How does it help to say that so many are failing?”
3. Teacher evaluations: School districts are completing their first “improvement plans” for teachers who did not grade well on the first round of new evaluations. Districts are very concerned, Davis said, that teachers may sue, particularly if they believe their evaluators were not well trained or that the new system was rushed into place. “Right now, we don’t know what the repercussions will be from a legal standpoint,” she said.
4. The state and money: The state’s cap on property-tax levies may drop next year to 1.6 or 1.7 percent. So school districts, which have made pretty steep cuts over the last four years, will be hard-pressed to increase revenue. At the same time, the state’s little-understood Gap Elimination Adjustment has cut tens of millions of dollars in state aid from local districts. The much-despised GEA, put in place in 2010 to help reduce the state’s deficit, produces across-the-board cuts in state aid to school districts. “We’re talking about a lot of money that is the equivalent of teachers’ jobs in each school and many programs that have been cut,” Davis said. “I don’t think people understand what’s happening. The state is balancing its budget on the backs of schools and claiming a major accomplishment.” Davis said that schools may have to start cutting favorite local programs, like science research programs in high schools. “We will see these programs start to go away because they are not required to graduate and they require staff you need for other things,” she said.
5. Unfunded mandates: Davis’ group, the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents and many others have put lots of hours into calling for the state (pleading, really) to cut back on its many rules and regulations that force school districts to spend money. But the effort has gotten nowhere. Instead, the state’s reforms keep forcing districts to spend more and more (even as the tax cap and GEA strangle their income). “We’re not giving up,” Davis said. “But it is very frustrating that there is virtually no political will in Albany to look at changes that could reduce expenditures for schools and put money back in the classrooms.”
6. The pressures on poor, urban districts: The same pressures that are weakening all districts are having a profound effect on urban districts that already faced unique financial and social challenges. Davis said that new Census data coming out soon will show many more children in poverty in the suburbs – because it will take into account the high cost of living instead of relying on national poverty guidelines. “Poverty has been very under-estimated in Westchester,” Davis said. “This is going to be a very important thing to get people to look at and understand. These numbers may show the reality. Then it will be a question of how we give kids the supports they need to do well in school.”
7. The loss of local control: “The bottom line is that local control has been the bedrock of our education system,” Davis told me. “Those on the ground have the best understand of what works and what’s not working. But our districts have less and less control over how they educate their kids.”