There is a widening gulf – a not-so-grand canyon – between how our school community in the Lower Hudson Valley sees the world and how our state education leadership sees the same old world.
As an education reporter covering the state-imposed reforms, I am repeatedly struck by this dichotomy. Everyone professes to be in the education game for the kids – the very same kids – yet the state Board of Regents and Commissioner John King find themselves in an increasingly nasty stare-down with this region and Long Island, plus lots of folks from New York City and the rest of this vast state.
The Regents (particularly Chancellor Merryl Tisch) and King promote their “reform agenda” as if it came down from above and is unquestioned, pretty much ignoring the torrent of criticism unleashed at countless public forums and in many letters and emails (often unanswered) to Albany. At the same time, teachers, administrators and parents in this region have moved from respectfully criticizing state officials to openly mocking them.
It is not a pretty situation. So here is my summary of how the state Education Department and the Lower Hudson Valley see the main issues of the day.
The big picture
The State: New York’s public schools have done a poor job of educating its students. Large numbers of students have received high school diplomas despite being unprepared for college or the workforce. They have poor writing skills, do not grasp key math concepts, and are not adept at problem-solving or working in teams. Minorities in big city school systems have been most poorly served, but even suburban schools are not where they need to be. Educational standards need to be not only higher but transformed to reflect the high-tech, constantly changing needs of industry and to keep our state and nation competitive. Get on board or get out of the way.
The LoHud: A state-imposed, one-size-fits-all approach to reform is naïve and counter-productive. Many suburban school systems do a fine job, pushing their students to excel while leaving room for creativity, individualism and local emphasis on the arts. Here’s the thing: parents and local school officials always have a better sense of their schools’ strengths and weaknesses than state and federal bureaucrats trying to adapt business models to education. The state’s approach to reform is foolish and losing credibility by the day. Get out of our backyards.
The Common Core learning standards
The State: The Common Core standards are smarter, more up-to-the-moment and, yes, tougher than our former educational goals. They present a coherent, rich framework for what students need to know and how students need to be able to think. School districts can still devise their own curricula, lesson plans and creative local programming – as long as students meet the standards. Yes, the transition to the Common Core is difficult and challenging but cannot wait. Today’s students deserve the best possible education this year and next year, not when schools feel they are comfortable with the Core.
The LoHud: The standards are pretty good, better in some areas than others. We need time to review them. However, any good will that the Common Core might have inspired is being lost because its implementation in New York has been irresponsibly rushed. We’re building the plane in mid-flight. The standards for each grade assume that students have grown up with the Common Core, but they haven’t. Teachers and curriculum leaders are grasping to figure out what the state wants instead of doing their jobs. The roll-out needs to be halted for a couple of years so we can figure out what comes next. Stop the madness.
The State: A limited amount of standardized testing is a necessary way to see if students are progressing. The results can be used as a tool to improve instruction. Our new tests are tougher but also better. We had to put them in place right away to ensure districts would align themselves to the Common Core. Without the new tests, the change would have been too slow. We need to find ways to reduce overall testing, in part by encouraging districts to use other methods for their teacher evaluations. And, yes, we will keep moving toward on-line testing until we’re ready.
The LoHud: Are you kidding? You want us to reduce testing? We set up new pre- and post-tests because we had to rush our teacher evaluations systems into place. The new 3-8 tests set us up for failure to prove your contentions that the schools are failing. Your cut scores are non-sense (which the state quietly acknowledges by not requiring remediation for all students who failed to hit state targets). Now you won’t let us see the tests, meaning that we can’t learn what our students need. And now the state is introducing new high school tests? Here we go again. Oh, by the way, we have a million questions that have to be answered before we’re ready for on-line tests.
The State: The new APPR system will result in better classroom instruction. Now all teachers are being observed on a regular basis and administrators are focused on helping each teacher become the best he or she can be. Using student test scores to help measure the impact of teachers was difficult but daring—and has made our evaluations more precise. Success! Don’t forget: 80 percent of a teacher’s overall evaluation is determined by locally chosen measures.
The LoHud: Ugh! There is no way that the time and money we were forced to put into the new evaluation system was worth it. Districts in this region already had serious, meaningful evaluation systems. We’ve learned little from the new system, despite having to work like crazy for over a year, putting aside other priorities, to satisfy the state. The bottom line is that no one can draw conclusions about a teacher by comparing his or her score to another teacher elsewhere in the state. Each district – each school – measures things differently. But we’re stuck with the scores, anyway.
Sending student data to inBloom
The State: Analyzing student data is at the forefront of education reform. We need to measure whatever information we have to better serve students. It is a priority.
The LoHud: Are you nuts? We can analyze data in-house with BOCES. If we ship identifiable student records to a private cloud, we’ll never get it back. Who knows how it will be used 5 or 10 years from now to track students. It’s a ridiculous, unethical idea and the fact the state won’t listen to us is making us crazy.
Mandates and spending
The State: New York spends plenty on education, more than on anything else. Districts should have what they need to produce better results.
The LoHud: Is the Education Department even aware of the property tax-levy cap? We can’t raise revenues, but they keep burying us under programs and requirements that force us to spend money on things we don’t want. Meanwhile, we’re cutting staff and programs. For what?
The State: Districts still have control. We’re just helping them to better use it.
The LoHud: We’re losing control. Leave us alone.