Category Archives: MaryEllen Elia

Eva Moskowitz Cancelled Her Own Pre-K

Eva Moskowitz, the founder and head of the Success Academy charter school network has control issues.  In many aspects of life, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Steve Jobs was famously involved in the many details of design and development of Apple’s products, arguably responsible for the level of innovation that drove an entire industry.  The private sector, in fact, is often lead by people who are extraordinarily demanding of themselves and of everyone in their organizations — which may well drive people close to them nuts but which gets results for consumers and investors.

That’s not remotely the best way for public education to operate.

To be sure, schools and school systems need involved, high energy, and dynamic leaders.  But they also need leaders who understand and can navigate the complex system of loosely coupled and interlocking stakeholders who have legitimate say in how schools operate.  They need to respond respectfully and thoughtfully to potentially contradictory demands and navigate an optimal course forward.  School leaders need to understand and accept accountability to the tax payers whose money from local, state, and federal revenues fund the system.  “My way or the highway”ism might be functional for some aspects of entrepreneurship in certain visionary companies — it is absolutely awful in public education.

Ms. Moskowitz exerts extremely tight and thorough control over the operation of Success Academy, and she is extremely zealous in her insistence that nobody other than the State University of New York charter authorizer has any say whatsoever.  In fact, Ms. Moskowitz has been to court multiple times to prevent that New York State Comptroller’s office from auditing her books — which are full of taxpayers’ money that the Comptroller is supposed to monitor.  Charter school laws do free up the sector from a great many of the labor and education rules that govern our fully public schools, but Ms. Moskowitz has been singular in her insistence that no governmental authority can so much as examine her books.

So it was hardly surprising that when the New York City received money from the state of New York to open free public pre-Kindergarten programs, Ms. Moskowitz wanted a share of that money to support the program at her schools.  It was also not surprising that she immediately refused to sign the contract that the city required of all pre-K providers – including other charter school networks – that got money.  The city insisted that the contract to provide some oversight of pre-K programs was required to fulfill its obligations under the state grant that provided the funds in the first place. Ms. Moskowitz insisted that didn’t matter.  In this March Op-Ed announcing that Success Academy was suing the city for the pre-K money without the contract, Ms. Moskowitz makes it crystal clear that she believes charter schools cannot be made to answer to any state or city authority other than SUNY.

Ms. Moskowitz’s argument here involves some sleight of hand.  Yes, charter schools were granted legal permission to operate pre-K programs.  However, as Jersey Jazzman notes very cogently, this particular money was coming from the New York City DOE which made a proposal to the state for pre-K funds that required the city to engage in oversight of the program including making certain that all applicable federal and state laws and regulations were followed.  Ms. Moskowitz filed suit against the city because the city refused to violate its own agreement with the state when it applied for the universal pre-K funding in the first place. Further, again as noted by Jersey Jazzman, the law that Ms. Moskowitz insists grants her the ability to run a pre-K requires a school district to seek participants including charter schools, but it also allows the district to deny organizations inclusion in its application and allows those organizations to apply individually for funds.

Simply put:  Success Academy did not want to apply for pre-K funding on its own, AND they did want to be held to the same rules as every other pre-K provider included in New York City’s application to the state.

Neither the state nor the city decided to budge on the matter, and with a lawsuit still in process, Success Academy announced last week that they were cancelling all of their pre-K programs.  In typical Success Academy fashion, Ms. Moskowitz declared that the state and city were putting “politics” ahead of education, said the mayor had a “war” against her schools, and lamented that the courts would not “rescue” the pre-K classes.

analog volume meter

 

Cancelling their pre-K has absolutely nothing to do with Success Academy’s financial need. The money at stake was around $720,000, and while that is not chicken scratch, Success Academy could put together that sum easily.  This is an organization that can put together a $9 million fundraiser for a single night’s event.  This is an organization that spent more than $700,000 in a single day for a rally in Albany (including almost $72,000 for beanies) and which expected $39 million in philanthropic money for fiscal year 2016 – BEFORE the announcement of a $25 million dollar gift from billionaire Julian Robertson.  This is also an organization that is entirely capable of applying for pre-K funds from the state directly, and while it is not guaranteed that their application would be approved, given Success Academy’s extremely powerful and politically influential circle of close friends, I have little doubt they’d get money.

Success Academy could have very well “rescued” its own pre-K program by calling up any of its billionaire patrons, by submitting their own application to the state, or by signing the city’s agreement with the state for the money under city control.  But Eva Moskowitz wanted none of that because this isn’t about Success Academy’s pre-K classes or the very young children she is using as props.  This is about Eva Moskowitz being able to plant her flag on any available pot of public funding and demand that she be given it with no oversight or accountability whatsoever.  This is about control, plain and simple.  Control of public funds.  Control of the process that distributes them.  Control of the politicians and agencies that are entrusted to oversee them.  Ms. Moskowitz saw available funding to expand Success Academy’s footprint, and she was given every fair opportunity to access it either with or without city oversight.

She wanted to dictate the terms of how that money got to her schools.  The only one who cancelled Success Academy’s pre-K program is Eva Moskowitz and her demand for control.

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Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, politics, Success Academy

Andrew Cuomo – Still Petty and Destructive

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave his 2016 budget address, he sounded like a changed man.  Less that 4% of his speech was dedicated to P-12 education compared to over 20% of his 2015 budget address where he detailed a brutal agenda to make student test scores 50% of teachers’ evaluations and calling the existing teacher evaluation system, which he had previously championed, “baloney” solely because it failed to find more teachers incompetent.  Governor Cuomo charged hard at this agenda, ramming it through the budget process, but then he took a beating in public opinion polling and set off the largest opt out movement in the nation.  After months of various agencies and entities trying to walk back the harshest measures of the 2015 budget bill, Governor Cuomo’s 2016 speech in Albany presented a far less ambitious P-12 education agenda, highlighting only the light concessions he had made on standards and testing and promising to find enough money finally to stop stealing school aid from districts via the hated gap elimination adjustment.  Observers could have been forgiven for thinking this signaled a change in Governor Cuomo’s approach to education and that he might be willing to finally recognize that growth and support are better tools than test and punish.

Not a chance in Hell.

Last week, the state Division of the Budget, which reports directly to the Governor, announced that 70 schools which had improved sufficiently to be removed from receivership would no longer be eligible for state improvement funds.  The argument is based upon the fact that $75 million in state school improvement funding is only available to schools on the receivership list even though New York State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman argued that removing the money just as the schools have made progress “makes no sense.”

The Governor’s Division of the Budget could have responded in any number of ways.  They could have expressed pride in the success of schools that were removed from the list and pledged to find other ways to support their growth and development.  They could have lamented the limitations of the state receivership law that potentially leaves schools in the untenable position of having to function under constant threat of being closed even when they meet their improvement targets or of losing critically needed funds.  They could have called for an immediate legislative fix allowing the Division of the Budget to keep school improvement funds allocated while schools actually improve. After all, isn’t the purpose of examining school performance and requiring clear improvement targets about improving the schools?

Not a chance in Hell.

Spokesman for the budget division, Morris Peters fired back,  “To suggest that these schools should remain eligible for the funding even though they were removed from the program is contrary to the law and, most importantly, a blatant disservice to the children who have been condemned to these failing schools and received sub-quality education for decades.”  Mr. Peters went on to claim that NYSED had “unilaterally” removed the schools from the list, so they could not get the money.  Not a word about the improvement the schools had made.  Not a word of regret that schools which had made actual progress would lose funds.  Just a snarl worthy of the nastiest we have ever seen coming out of education “reform” in New York stapled to a gripe about NYSED actually exercising its legitimate authority.

It is helpful to revisit education authority in New York.  Contrary to Mr. Peters’ petulant gripe, the executive branch of New York has almost no direct education authority whatsoever.  Most of that authority resides with the New York State Education Department which is run by the Commissioner of Education appointed by the state Board of Regents.  The Regents, through the Commissioner, oversee the complex and sprawling University of the State of New York which includes over 7000 public and private schools, 248 public and private colleges and universities, 7000 libraries, 750 museums, the State Archives, 48 licensed professions employing over 750,000 practitioners, and 240,000 certified public school teachers, administrators, and counselors.  The Regents themselves are selected by the Legislature to represent different judicial districts and at large seats, and they elect their own Chancellor. The Executive Branch, meaning the Governor’s office, has no legal authority over the USNY and its board of Regents whatsoever.

This is not to say that the Governor is without any authority or influence.  The budget is a powerful tool with which to shape agendas, and Mr. Cuomo has wielded it like Mjolnir to smash everything in sight.  The Governor can also pressure legislators to pass favored policies, and he can cultivate a working relationship with the Regents.  Certainly, Governor Cuomo and former Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch enjoyed a chummy enough partnership, exchanging letters towards the end of calendar year 2014 that became a rough outline of Mr. Cuomo’s 2015 education agenda.  However, the Board of Regents has a new Chancellor, Betty Rosa, a former New York City teacher and administrator, who told reporters that if she were a parent and not on the Board of Regents, she “would opt out at this time.” Time will obviously tell, but it is very likely that Governor Cuomo will face far more challenges from Chancellor Rosa than he would like.

Which makes the sneering disdain from Mr. Cuomo’s budget spokesman so glaring.  Under the terms of waivers from the worst provisions of the No Child Left Behind law that New York got from the Obama administration, the state has to identify and provide interventions for so-called priority and focus schools that comprise the bottom 5% and 10% of schools respectively.  Additional legislation in New York requires that schools be identified as “struggling” and “persistently struggling”among the 5% designated “priority schools,” and these schools have very short timelines within which to make progress before they are at risk of extremely drastic consequences such as being closed and turned over to private management.  The more savvy reader will note that, based upon test scores, there will ALWAYS be a “bottom 5%” of schools in the state, so even if schools currently on the list are removed, a fresh round of schools will be eligible for priority school status immediately and given the same threats.

Not that that matters to the Governor’s office which complained bitterly that NYSED used its authority to recognize schools facing severe consequences and had improved.  Apparently, it doesn’t even matter that many of the schools removed from the list had actually made progress in the previous year according to federal accountability reports that were not available when they were originally listed.  If I had to guess, I’d wager that Governor Cuomo is most upset that the schools are no longer legally under threat of being shut down and given to charter school networks so clearly favored by him and by his campaign donors.  Recognize that the schools in question were making progress?  Recognize that remaining on the list would keep them under constant threat even though they had succeeded in beginning the improvement process?  Recognize that progress should be supported and call for ways to continue to support the schools even though they no longer met the criteria for “struggling” and “persistently struggling” schools?  Recognize that some of the interventions slated under the state grants – such as developing community schools with wrap around services for high need students – are interventions that all schools with students in extreme poverty should consider?

Not a chance in Hell. This is Andrew Cuomo’s Albany.

 

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Filed under Betty Rosa, Funding, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, politics, Testing

NYC Hasn’t Gotten the Opt Out Memo

Let’s begin with one simple premise: nobody at the New York State Education Department wants to see Opt Out continue to be a significant factor in the Empire State.  The United States Department of Education sent a variety of states letters explaining they had an obligation to test 95% of all student in all subgroups without fail, even offering various measures from cajoling to threatening that the states could take to get all of those students to sit down and be tested. After some initial stumbles, NYSED settled on a “kinder and gentler” approach, trying to coax the 20% of eligible families to opt back in to the tests.  Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Governor Andrew Cuomo quickly ran away from NYSED Commissioner Elia’s suggestion that districts with high opt out might lose funding.  In short order, Commissioner Elia affirmed that her office had no intention of withholding funds and admitted that parents had the legal right to refuse to submit their child for the state exams.  In the following months, Albany introduced a series of changes to the exams – such as reducing them by a few question and removing time limits – that they hoped with allay parental concerns, and Commissioner Elia’s office put together a “tool kit” for district and schools to use to explain the exams to parents.  The information provided for both letters and presentations emphasizes what NYSED sees as positive and necessary aspects of the tests instead of negative consequences for low test participation rates.

Parents and educators may disagree about the significance of the changes and about the accuracy of the information in the state materials, but the strategy was obvious: Gently persuade parents and communities back into the fold.  This was certainly a sensible approach considering the pasting Albany took not only on state testing but also on the entire education agenda championed by Governor Cuomo throughout 2015.  Even before he managed to bully his plans to use state tests as 50% of teacher evaluations through the Assembly, voters disapproved of his education agenda by extremely wide margins.  The Governor took such a pummeling in the polls on education in 2015, that his 2016 budget address only had 364 words on P-12 education that more or less reduced his entire platform to “yadda yadda yadda…teachers are swell.”  When it comes to public education in the Empire State, our leaders in Albany have spent most of 2016 trying to pour gallons of honey on their plate full of vinegar.

Someone in New York City did not get the memo, apparently.

Test refusal was not a significant issue in New York City last year, although a handful of schools saw much higher opt out rates than the city in general. But the office of New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina apparently wants to take no chances of it gaining more than a toehold.  Pro-testing forces upstate seem happy to rely upon outside groups to carry the “opt in” message and to focus on emphasizing what they see as meeting test protesters part way, but the offices in Tweed aren’t taking any risks that opt out can grow and thrive in the Big Apple. In the run up to the tests, The New York Times reported ongoing and serious negative talk about teachers who spoke out against the tests and in favor of opting out:

At a forum in December, Anita Skop, the superintendent of District 15 in Brooklyn, which had the highest rate of test refusals in the city last year, said that for an educator to encourage opting out was a political act and that public employees were barred from using their positions to make political statements.

On March 7, the teachers at Public School 234 in TriBeCa, where only two students opted out last year, emailed the school’s parents a broadside against the tests. The email said the exams hurt “every single class of students across the school” because of the resources they consumed.

But 10 days later, when dozens of parents showed up for a PTA meeting where they expected to hear more about the tests, the teachers were nowhere to be seen. The school’s principal explained that “it didn’t feel safe” for them to speak, adding that their union had informed them that their email could be considered insubordination. The principal, Lisa Ripperger, introduced an official from the Education Department who was there to “help oversee our meeting.”

Several principals said they had been told by either the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, or their superintendents that they and their teachers should not encourage opting out. There were no specific consequences mentioned, but the warnings were enough to deter some educators.

One could possibly claim teachers speaking against the tests are engaging in political speech against contract rule – or one could argue they are expressing a professional opinion on the negative impact of testing they see with their own eyes in their own classrooms.  Certainly, the letter from PS234 teachers, as described, focuses on the consequences to students’ learning conditions rather than on any political outcome, but DOE is clearly trying to back channel messages to principals and teachers that negative comments about the test are off limits.  That would certainly explain an incident at PS 84 in Williamsburg where a principal chastised a fifth grader handing out Opt Out information until the child cried and then herded all third through fifth grade into an impromptu assembly to tell them to “get this opt out stuff out of your head.”  The principal went on to tell students not to listen to their parents and that the state exams would make them smarter.

That was not the behavior of a professional educational leader who feels free to allow open discussion of an important issue within the school.  For that matter, the principal’s behavior was arguably in violation of long standing case law on students’ first amendment rights within school.

Susan Trout, a Manhattan parent, forwarded a letter that her child’s middle school principal sent to all 8th grade parents, warning them about the consequences of a large number of opt outs:

This is a “low stakes year” for the eighth graders. Their performance on the exams will not be used by the high schools for placement or for admissions. It is not, however, a “low stakes year” for *******. If we do not test 95% of our students, the school will automatically be categorized as a School Under Review by New York State. This will result in a series of measures which may force us to change our curriculum, our staffing decisions and our program. It most certainly comes with close review of the school by the state, along with the paperwork to defend the school’s performance. This may negatively affect the students who will be at ***** for the next couple of years.

According to Ms. Trout, parents in her school who wrote to the principal expressing their desire to opt out of the test were then contacted individually by the school’s parent coordinator with the following message:

Hello.  By refusing to participate, you are putting us in jeopardy of no longer being considered a school in good standing.  We must have 95% participation to keep our school grade as is.  I would ask you to reconsider having your children take the test.  It is actually good practice for  their high school career since they will be tested a great deal in the college application process!

She then contacted the office of the Public Advocate in New York City for clarification, and got quite a different answer:

Regulations state that if a district has 3 consecutive years failing a SPECIFIC category, then they can be identified. If one year it’s because of special Ed scores, next year participation rates, the next was a whole other category, then no changes. Has to be failure of the SAME category 3 years running.  Even the handful of districts that fell below 95% for 4 years in a row (handful in NYS) were still not penalized or labeled. The label forces a plan put in place to fix the category/reason for failure, in this case, a parent boycott. The state knew better than to go forward with any consequence. 

Districts that were focus districts last year AND had less than 95% were taken off the list. Doesn’t make sense that % alone would cause them to be labeled. I realize all of the above specifies districts, not schools. However,confirmed by DOE staffer: there is absolutely NO POLICY that says one instance of <95% participation would result in “automatic characterization” of anything by NYS. It’s not an “automatic” process and is in fact based upon the previous 2-3 years in the event that a school falls below 95% in one year.

The information given by DOE to the Public Advocate’s office is diametrically opposed to the information a middle school administration circulated to parents.  Ms. Trout asked her parent coordinator about this discrepancy and was told that the information was from a “directive” from the district superintendent. Again, this is completely out of proportion to what any other level of education governance in the state is saying right now, and it is vexing, not because the city administration believes in testing, but because it is relying on incomplete and often misleading means to support the tests.

There was a brief moment, when it looked like the NYC educational bureaucracy was softening a bit.  Chancellor Farina was reported as having said in a private meeting that she would consider opting out a child if that child had a certain kind of Individualized Education Plan or was a new arrival in the country with very limited English, and Mayor Bill de Blasio met with opt out advocates in order to hear their views, clarifying that he still thought the tests were important.

Any hope that there was room for openness at Tweed, however, was shut down rapidly as the tests began this week.  Chancellor Farina said that her earlier comments were taken “out of context” and she further chastised parents who opt out, saying: “I believe students go to school to be held accountable for their work…What are you saying about your child?  What are you saying about your belief in them to do something that they’ve been gearing for all year?” This statement is fairly breathtaking.  It is one thing to believe in a system of school accountability that includes standardized testing, although the history of the No Child Left Behind era is pretty clear on this: test based accountability has had 15 years for results and it does not have themBut the Chancellor’s statement frames the accountability tests as objectives of the school year unto themselves.  The tests hold students “accountable for their work”?  The state standardized accountability test is “something they’ve been gearing for all year”?  I can honestly think of few ways of framing this worse than Chancellor Farina just did.  My children are preparing for many important things in their education this year – sitting in a standardized exam that takes longer to finish than the LSAT or the MCAT is just about the least important thing they could do.

I suppose — I just suppose — that we could be at least a little grateful for the wild spinning and random lashing out from the Chancellor’s office.  NYSED has tinkered a smidgen around the edges of the tests and they’ve taken a softer tone with the public.  But there can be no doubt – they want Opt Out to go away so they can keep these tests as the status quo.  Chancellor Farina, on the other hand, is being aggressive about her dislike for Opting Out, leading to repeated situations where parents are being told information that is flatly contrary to NYSED’s stated policies. History suggests that this level of overreaction and misdirection aimed at parents backfires.  If Opt Out grows in NYC, we might just have the Chancellor to thank for it.

Opting Out

 

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Filed under Activism, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, Opt Out, Testing

New York Testing Gets a Bit Weird

I cannot imagine that it is easy being New York Stated Education Department Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.  Brought to Albany in May of last year, she came to a post where her predecessor, Dr. John King Jr., had strained relationships with many parents and communities to the breaking point.  Commissioner Elia arrived in the wake of record breaking test refusal in her new state, and her obvious job was to mend fences between NYSED and school districts and parents while not backing off of the Common Core Standards, the accompanying testing, and plans to use test data in the evaluation of districts, schools, and teachers.  In most respects, she was an ideal pick for the job.  She is clearly a believer in today’s reform environment, having taken on a $100 million grant for Florida’s sprawling Hillsborough district from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation  to implement the foundation’s vision of teacher effectiveness (a vision that turned out to be an expensive bust that lost funding and was ultimately abandoned by the district).  More importantly, Commissioner Elia is a lifelong educator with thorough knowledge of how complicated the stakeholders in education can be, knowledge that seemed to elude her predecessor whose actual school experience was mostly limited to no excuses charter schools.  Regardless of one’s opinions about Common Core or state testing, Commissioner Elia seemed well positioned to ease tensions in the Empire State.

That was the theory, anyway.

Commissioner Elia began her tenure with a “listening tour” where she visited districts across the state to hear concerns and make the case that the state was heading in the correct direction – even if that direction was causing widespread concerns.  This was meant to distinguish herself from Commissioner John King who was widely regarded as unwilling or unable to listen, and to present herself as an NYSED Commissioner eager to discuss with the public.  One can probably give Commissioner Elia credit for both speaking to the public and for sticking with her belief in the importance of annual testing.  In a talk at Sweet Home Middle School in the Erie County school district where Commissioner Elia began her teaching career, she told attendees that “Life is one big test.  We have go to get to the point where people are at peace with that.”

Commissioner Elia’s tone took a turn by the end of the summer, however, when both she and representatives from the federal DOE discussed the need for plans to reduce opt outs in New York.  The Commissioner probably felt that she would have some support from both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch.  After all, Governor Cuomo unleashed a torrent of harsh measures using annual testing in his 2015 budget address, and Chancellor Tisch, speaking to the New York State Council of School Superintendents, compared opting out of state tests with refusing to vaccinate your child.  Commissioner Elia probably felt she had plenty of back up when she followed her conversations with Washington on possible consequences for districts with high opt out numbers with her own opinion that the movement was “not reasonable” and that any educators who supported it were “unethical”.

In short order, however, the Commissioner found herself standing alone with both Chancellor Tisch and Governor Cuomo emphatically denying any plans to threaten school districts with loss of funding if they had high opt out rates.  Commissioner Elia quickly admitted that parents have the right to opt their children out of the state exams, although she also emphasized that she hoped to convince them otherwise.  Governor Cuomo followed this in September by announcing a commission to review the Common Core standards and their implementation in New York.  The Regents, meanwhile, after giving districts more time to work out how to use state tests in teacher evaluation, announced a two year moratorium on the use of the state tests for those evaluations – although local tests will still need to be used.

Then last week, Commissioner Elia announced the latest changes to testing in the Empire State – removal of time limits on the state examinations:

“I heard from parents across this state and from teachers that part of the stresses that we had on our kids was that they were timed, and particularly younger children,” the commissioner said in a question-and-answer period following her testimony on Gov. Cuomo’s $145 billion budget proposal.

“So if they are working productively, then they will be able to continue the assessment in a setting where they can read, comprehend and respond to the questions that correspond,” Elia said of students who will be taking the tests this year.

Interestingly enough, it is possible for standardized tests, especially criterion referenced tests, to be administered without time limits.  After all, if the purpose of a test is to see if a child knows a specific bit of content or skill, the ability to do it in 5 minutes versus 10 minutes is not as significant as actually knowing it.  And I will go out on the limb and simply acknowledge that anything which reduces the likelihood that 8 year olds will vomit and wet themselves during testing is a move in the right direction.  That’s the good news.

On the other hand, one does have to wonder how this move reduces the amount of time consumed by state testing, and the logistic challenges with schools potentially having to proctor students for very various lengths of time will be interesting.  Moreover, will all of these moves by high authorities in Albany – increasing the length of time to modify and implement Common Core Standards, a temporary moratorium on high stakes purposes for the state standardized exams, removing time limits from the exams themselves – do anything to make a dent in the state’s nation leading opt out numbers?  All of these options were available a year ago, but Governor Cuomo and Chancellor Tisch chose to pursue a punishing agenda on teacher and school evaluation, only backing off when the governor’s approval ratings plunged and the scale of test refusal became clear over the summer.  With the federal government strongly urging state education authorities to get a handle on their test refusal situations (or risk sanctions from the USDOE), it seems most likely that all of these moves are designed to keep opt outs from increasing this year and to convince parents who refused the tests last year to come back.  After all, visibly beating up on schools and teachers got them where they are now.  Maybe a velvet glove will help.

Opt Out leaders are not buying it.  Former New York school principal and current director of the Network for Public Education Carol Burris sees Opt Out as permanent fixture in education unless more dramatic changes are made.  According to Ms. Burris, leaders in the movement remain unconvinced and are energized by USDOE moves to convinced states to lower the boom on test refusal:

Jeanette Deutermann, lead of the Long Island, New York Opt Out, agrees. And she is furious with what she sees as the scare tactics being spread by the media based on the threatening letter issued by Acting Secretary of Education John King.

“As opt outs take root in NY and spread across the country, the federal and state governments continue to play a bizarre game of “yes we will, no we won’t” concerning funding threats. This year the threat took a different spin. The Feds gave the states a great little ‘bullying toolkit’ which basically says, ‘these parents aren’t afraid of us. Make sure they’re afraid of YOU.’ They came up short on one key fact: the USDOE and the SED have no authority to strip our schools of funding for a parent-led action. Our schools are in compliance. Our children are administered the test. We, the parents, direct our children not to take it. There is no law or regulation in NY that affords the SED the right to arbitrarily decide to withhold funds from our local districts.”

Other leaders in test refusal agree, citing the efforts from Albany as entirely missing the point of their concerns over the tests and accompanying policies.  President of Community Education Council 31, Michael Reilly, told Chalkbeat: “I think she’s trying to put a bandaid on the issues that parents and educators have raised…This is one attempt to appease parents. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s well thought out.”  Lisa Rudley of New York Allies for Public Education was dismissive and said that Commissioner Elia was still treating the tests as more misunderstood than in need of major changes.  Time, of course, will tell, but New York’s strongest opponents of the current testing environment are thoroughly unconvinced and confident that test refusals will continue.

Maybe next year, Governor Cuomo can propose a new iPhone for every family that opts in.

 

 

cat on leash

NYSED Trying To Convince Opt Out To Just Take The Test Already….

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Filed under Common Core, John King, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, Testing

Andrew Cuomo and the Difference a Year Makes

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo began 2015 with a hard charge against public schools and public school teachers in particular.  Having called public education a “monopoly”  he wanted to “bust” during his reelection campaign in 2014,  he vetoed a bill his own office had proposed that would have protected teachers and principals from consequences because of low test scores for a two year period, and his office opened a correspondence with Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch where they both agreed that it was necessary to change teacher and principal evaluations to greatly increase the portion determined by growth measures on standardized tests.

The Governor came out swinging for New York’s public schools in his 2015 State of the State Address, delivered on January 21st:

Education – the great equalizer. And this is the area, my friends where I think we need to do the most reform and frankly where reform is going to be difficult, given the situation of the way education is funded in this state. Our education system needs dramatic reform and it has for years and I believe this is the year to do it. This is the year to roll up our sleeves and take on the dramatic challenge that has eluded us for so many years for so many reasons.

Governor Cuomo dedicated 2,254 words of his 10, 324 word speech to P-12 education, and he certainly kept his promise to put forth “dramatic reform.”  He attacked the quality of teachers by citing a entry exam that nearly a third of prospective teachers did not pass in the previous year.  He attacked the then existing teacher evaluation system in the state, which he had previously championed, as “baloney” because it rated too many teachers as effective and highly effective.  The Governor justified this by citing that “only” 38% of students were “college ready” and he rattled off other proficiency levels on state exams as more proof that very many more teachers have to be rated ineffective.  In doing so, he failed to mention that the cut scores for “proficient” and “highly proficient” were deliberately pegged by the New York State Education Department to scale scores that only about a third of students were expected to reach.  Despite this, Governor Cuomo took it as a matter of faith that many more teachers deserved to be labeled ineffective, and his proposed teacher evaluation system shifted 50% of teacher evaluations to student growth on standardized exams.  Further, he demanded the use of outside evaluators for teacher observations, and the book that was released with his address specified that those evaluators would count for 35% of teachers’ ratings, leaving local administrators with only 15% of input on their own teachers.  He also called for tenure to be limited to teachers who received 5 consecutive years of effective ratings, and he offered a $20,000 bonus for highly rated teachers.  That was joined by a proposal to allow school districts to get rid of any teacher with two ineffective ratings.

The Governor went on to scoff at the idea of more money helping the schools he labeled as failing, and instead called for any school that is deemed failing for three years to be turned over to another school district, a not-for-profit, or a turn around “expert” and he specifically cited charter schools as part of that effort, calling for statewide cap to be lifted.  Governor Cuomo addressed funding, but largely to hold the state’s school hostage to his reforms: he proposed an increase in funding of 4.8% or $1.1 billion if, and only if, the legislature passed his reforms – otherwise, the increase would top out at 1.7% or $377 million.  Mind you, this is in a state where Albany has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment for years after the economic crisis eased, cutting promised aid from school districts to plug holes in revenue shortfalls for the entire state budget.  This accounting trick has cost New York public schools billions of dollars in promised state aid from an aid budget that itself was short $5.6 billion needed to meet long promised commitments to equity in school funding.

The Governor forcefully went after this agenda, spending copious amounts of political capital and goodwill among the public, and while he did not get everything he wanted, on teacher evaluations, he finally forced state lawmakers to give him precisely what he wanted in order to meet the budget deadline.  By all accounts, Governor Cuomo had won a sweeping change that was bound that transform New York into a cutting edge laboratory in the “test and punish” philosophy of education “improvement”.

What has happened since then has been a lot different.

Over the summer, NYSED’s new Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, went on a “listening tour” of the state to, in theory, hear concerns of parents and teachers after the rocky tenure of her predecessor Dr. John King, Jr., but she also made her take on high stakes testing apparent by calling life “one big test“.  Commissioner Elia’s “charm” took a different turn when she announced to reporters that her office was in communication with the federal education department over potential consequences for schools and school districts that failed to test 95% of all students.  However, that stance was almost immediately reversed by Regents Chancellor Tisch who declared that Washington was leaving the matter to the state and that the Regents had no intention of withholding funds, and even Governor Cuomo echoed that sentiment, leaving the new Commissioner out on a limb from which she bid a hasty retreat.

Things got even weirder in the Fall when Governor Cuomo, citing widespread dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards as well as questions about their quality and lack of input from stakeholders, announced a new commission to review the standards, review New York’s curriculum guidance and support, and review the testing environment in the state.  The commission returned in December with a framework of proposals, including pushing full transition of changes to how standards are implemented and teachers are evaluated out to the 2019-2020 school year, although critics remained only cautiously skeptical.

Meanwhile, Regents Chancellor Tisch was seeking wiggle room in the reform environment as well.  As early as April last year, she suggested that school districts would need an additional year to implement the evaluation system passed in the state budget, and in December, the Board of Regents went further by pushing the deadline for using state test scores in teacher evaluation to the 2019-2020 school year as well.  While most districts are still operating under the previous evaluation system where 20% of teacher evaluation is based upon state scores, 20% based upon local measures, and 60% on observations, this move by the Regents means that the portion tied to the contentious state tests needs to be replaced locally – and if implementation of the new evaluation system happens in the following year, towns will still need more local measures since the state tests will not be used in evaluation.  Currently, 83 districts managed to negotiate an approved implementation of the new evaluation system, but they will now need measures other than the state exam.

Governor Cuomo took to the stage again this month to deliver his 2016 State of the State address, and the tone could hardly have been more different.  Last year, more than a fifth of the 10,300 word address was dedicated to his punishing P-12 education agenda.  This year? 364 words.  Out of a 9,683 word speech.  Barely 3.75% of his address.  And what did he offer?

  • He bragged a little bit about reforms that he made no mention of last year – like increasing parental involvement and reducing testing and the Common Core recommendations.
  • An increase of $2.1 billion in funding over 2 years.
  • Using that money to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
  • He made a vague call to turn “failing” schools into community schools, and repeated a positive platitude or three about charter schools.
  • Suggested that we can attract and keep the best teachers – by offering a $200 tax credit to cover their out of pocket expense. New York teachers may not have to worry any more about choosing between decorating their classrooms and a visit to the dentist.

This is, shall we say, a far less ambitious and far less confrontational agenda for a Governor whose donor base expects sweeping changes that benefit their interests.  Is there something that might account for such a dramatic change in tone and ambition?

 

Oh, right.

After months of Governor Cuomo’s aggressive charge against New York teachers, and after months of protests across the state, the Common Core aligned state assessments were given and reports of huge opt out numbers came in.  In August, those numbers were confirmed: 20% of New York State students eligible to take the tests, roughly 200,000 in all, refused them. This was huge increase over the previous year, and a majority of New York school districts did not test the 95% of all students required by federal law with a substantial number seeing refusal rates above 50%.  Governor Cuomo, aided by Chancellor Tisch and former NYSED Commissioner John King, managed for foment a full blown parents’ revolt against his education priorities, and everything we’ve seen since the budget bill last April – Commissioner Elia’s threats and rapid retreat, Chancellor Tisch pushing the new evaluation system off for a year, Governor Cuomo’s Common Core and testing commission, the Regents delaying using state test scores in teacher evaluations, Governor Cuomo reducing his own education agenda to “YaddaYaddaYadda – Teachers are swell” – is likely a sustained effort to put out fires and take the urgency out of test refusal.

This being Andrew Cuomo, of course, changes in tone are not necessarily tied to changes in substance.  While state tests may be on hold for teacher evaluations until 2019-2020, that merely represents a delay, and districts will still have to use some kind of test data for 50% of teacher evaluations when the new teacher evaluations actually get started next year. Assemblyman Charles Barron correctly points out that Governor Cuomo’s promised increase in school funding is more spin than substance, amounting to barely a portion of what the state still owes school districts under agreements made long ago.  In fact, the governor’s proposal would use much of that increase to stop hacking away at promised, inadequate, aid via the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which is a bit like asking school districts to be happy that they will only be starved rather than starved and punched.  Finally, nobody should forget how Governor Cuomo made a long list of promises to secure the endorsement of The Working Families Party and head off a challenge from his left in 2014 – only to give the progressive party the royal shaft.

Andrew Cuomo wants New York’s families and teachers to believe he is a changed and humbled man.  History suggests it is a scam.

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Filed under Common Core, Funding, John King, MaryEllen Elia, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, politics, Testing

Dr. John King Jr.’s Experience and the Failures of Today’s Reform

When current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that he would step down at the end of this calendar year, President Obama immediately stated that current deputy secretary and former Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, Dr. John B. King, Jr. would replace him in January.  Supporters of the Secretary designee took to Twitter with #ISupportJohnKing, touting his personal biography and what they called his lifelong experience in education.  It is undeniable that Dr. King has an immensely impressive, even inspirational, biography.  Orphaned at a young age, the future Secretary of Education credits New York City school teachers with “saving” him, and he has built upon his obviously prodigious academic talents to earn degree credentials second to none.  After a short stint teaching, he co-founded the Roxbury Prep charter school in Boston before helping to lead the Uncommon Schools network of no-excuses charter schools.  He was tapped in 2009 to become the assistant commissioner of education at NYSED, and in 2011, he was elevated to the Commissioner’s office at the age of 36.  It is without question, that he is a man of enormous drive and intelligence, and, as his supporters say, he has extensive experience in the field of education.

But what if it is totally the wrong experience?

This is not an idle question because while public education advocates often note how frequently major proponents of reform have no practical experience in education before being elevated to positions of influence and authority, all experience is not equivalent, and there is plenty of evidence that Dr. King’s experience in education leaves him ill prepared for the political exigencies of educational leadership outside of the no-excuses charter sector.  In fact, the first time in his long career in education that Dr. King was truly answerable to political and parental constituencies was when he was elevated to lead the NYSED, and it was a disaster.  While informed and dogged in pursuit of the policies which landed him his office, he demonstrated no legitimate understanding that he was leader of a system of education that depended upon support from lawmakers, parents, and the body politic in general.  Policies on the Common Core State Standards and associated testing were both disruptive and demanding with little effort to help teachers and families adjust, and promises to listen to what educators were saying about policies went unfulfilled.  Public meetings where parents voiced their opinions on new state policies did not go well, forcing him to cancel scheduled meetings and change the format to decrease his contact with constituents.  Lawmakers similarly found Dr. King unresponsive to their concerns, leading to a rare display of bipartisan sentiment in Albany as legislators called for his removal.

While I know many critics of education reform in general and of John King in particular who have a wide range of opinions on why his tenure at NYSED was as stormy as his public affect was passive, the simplest explanation that I can see is that there is nothing in Dr. King’s experience that remotely prepared him for the responsiveness needed in our fully public school system.  When he took the Commissioner’s office at NYSED, that was the first time in his entire career in various sectors of education where he was accountable to the political constituencies that have voice in public education policy and practice.  Consider his role as a charter school leader.  While the charter school sector is publicly funded, it is not remotely fully publicly accountable.  Some charter operators are exceptionally aggressive in defending themselves from public oversight, but all of them are deliberately separated from the democratic processes that oversee the funding and operation of our fully public schools.  A school principal is a an educational leader and a political figure with constituencies among elected officials, taxpayers, parents of children in the school, the children themselves, and teachers.  Public school superintendents are similarly situated although at a higher level than school principals.  Charter school operators excuse themselves from much of that, periodically subjecting themselves to review by their authorizing bodies, but otherwise functioning not only outside of local, elected accountability systems, but often excusing themselves from following education law – and gaining support from the courts to do so.

Even in responsiveness to parents, charters are not particularly obligated to be especially deferential.  The “no excuses” sector of charter schools in particular tends to place heavy demands upon parents and vigorously enforces narrow behavioral norms on children as young as five years old.  Since charter schools are schools of choice, the response to any parent concerned over disciplinary or academic practices can be limited to “maybe this isn’t the school for you” or other means to counsel out families.  The Uncommon School Network that Dr. King led before joining NYSED is an exemplar in this respect with Roxbury Prep inflicting a 40% out of school suspension rate upon its students in 2013-2014 (which, sadly, is an improvement on a the previous school year’s 60% out of school suspension rate).  This pattern is typical among the entire Uncommon Schools network which have much higher suspension rates than their neighboring schools in the three state where they operate.  And since there is no political authority to which charter schools need to answer and since parents who dislike these policies do not have to be considered, it is hardly surprising that many such school demonstrate stunning cohort attrition rates, such as North Star Academy, an Uncommon affiliate in Newark, New Jersey, where only 25% of African American boys who enroll in 5th grade are likely to make it to 12th.

This level of inflicted control without giving voice to any constituency was and apparently still is unproblematic to Dr. King who points to the measured outcomes for the students who manage to adapt to and remain within the system.  Dr. Pedro Noguera of New York University, speaking at the Courageous Schools Conference in 2011, recalled a visit to Roxbury Prep where he asked Dr. King a pointed question about the type of messages his students were receiving:

I’ve visited this school, and I noticed that children are not allowed to talk in the hall, and they get punished for the most minor infraction. And when I talked with John King afterwards, I said, “I’ve never seen a school that serves affluent children where they’re not allowed to talk in the hall.” And he said, “Well, that might be true, but this is the model that works for us, we’ve found that this is the model that our kids need.”

So I asked him, “Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.” And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.

It is unlikely that there is a competent principal or superintendent of schools in the country who would be surprised to face questions about methods and policies, but Dr. Noguera’s recounting demonstrates the extreme limitations of John King’s experiences.  His extreme focus and concentration upon executing an agreed upon set of priorities are traits that serve executives well in the business world (although even there an ability to pause, evaluate, and change direction are necessary), but in our fully public schools that focus has to be tempered by full awareness of and a degree of deference to the overlapping and sometimes in conflict constituencies that oversee, fund, and participate in our schools.

This is trickier than most expect.  A typical school district looks like a highly integrated, top down system of management that is mostly analogous to a corporate structure.  You have an elected school board (corporate board elected by shareholders) that hires a superintendent of schools (CEO) who is then responsible for hiring various central office administrators (corporate vice presidents and other chief officers) and school administrators (upper and management) who in turn hire and manage classroom teachers (customer contact personnel).  From the outside it looks very neat and corporate with an easy flow of directives from the top of the organization all the way down to the classroom, but the reality is far more complicated than that and of necessity.  When Karl Weick analyzed the concept of “loosely coupled systems” he used educational organizations as a clear exemplar precisely because tight top down control is not truly compatible with how schools and school systems work, which actually lends a number of clear advantages to the system.  Within the loosely coupled system, different elements of the organization are connected to each other, but each retains significant individual identity and may only influence the behavior of the others indirectly.

A result of this is how different relationships and associations that exist outside of the formal organizational chart of the school system can exert a great deal of influence upon how the school system responds to needs both inside the school and within the community.  Phil Cusick explains how this operates in his 1993 work, The School System: Its Nature and Logic:

Of the different types of associations in the system, the primary is the designation of the formal organization’s participants according to role and status…..

A second type of association in the personal but purposeful relations among those with formal designation and within the formal system….Each chapter in this book reveals participants deciding how they will behave and seeking out colleagues inside the organization with whom to act out their decisions.  The formal organization is filled with these personal and purposeful associations, too numerous to be formally recognized, which operate inside and drive the organization.

The third type of association consists of those that join people inside with people outside the schools. The system is replete with freestanding, single purpose associations that include parents, students, policymakers, critics, change agents, teachers, and administrators, combining their efforts to achieve some end.  These are the most interesting, because they reveal the breadth of the system and thereby justify the assertion that the system extends far beyond the schools….

…Not only do those outside seek to influence those inside.  Those inside and those outside are part of the same system.  They adhere to the same principles of free conscience and free association, and they join efforts and act out their visions of education in the same arena.  This constant shifting into multiple and overlapping groups and groups into coalitions is what makes school board politics, as described by Cuban (1975), so entertaining. It is also why school administrators tend to be cautious and to regard their communities warily.  Their authority is always open to challenge by one or another group: either one of the system’s recognized groups or a group organized for the purpose of opposing an administrative action. (pp. 219-221)

To be certain, such associations have not always protected students’ interests, especially students in the Jim Crow era where local “interests” maintained White Supremacism, but powerful associations of advocates for children of color, for students with disabilities, for gender equality, and for LGBT students have used these same mechanisms to influence change at every level of the system.  The weakness of Dr. King and of many of today’s reform advocates in understanding and navigating these systems should be apparent, and their general surprise at the backlashes they have faced further indicates their lack of understanding of the how the system operates.  Bill Gates himself openly admitted “The cities where our foundation has put the most money is where there is a single person responsible. In New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, the mayor has the responsibility for the school system.” That may have been expedient in pushing his favored reforms from the top into schools, but it has pretty well failed to win over lawmakers, teachers, and parent constituencies who still operate within a system that provides them with the means to influence the direction of policy and have a say in outcomes.

Gates is occasionally able to admit that he was mistaken in an area he intended to reform, but he seems oddly incapable of grappling with why those efforts founder. It seems evident that he has spent precious little time trying to actually understand how public education functions at either the organization or system level.  Similarly, reform advocates who get Gates support, such as John King, often have extremely limited experience with the majority of the education system and seem absolutely flustered when it does not respond like the tightly controlled systems they prefer.

This does not mean, of course, that people with extensive experience in the education system will reject the reforms embraced by Gates and his beneficiaries.  Dr. King’s successor in New York State is Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, and she has precisely the kind of biography that would teach one how to operate a statewide school system – and she is as dedicated to common standards and mass standardized testing as anyone in the country.  That’s a talent set that seems in short supply on the reform side of the debate, and until they stop acting as if public input is something that can be bullied out of the way or papered over with slick ad and social media campaigns, they will continue to lurch about our schools, running into growing opposition to their priorities.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, charter schools, Gates Foundation, John King, MaryEllen Elia

NYSED’s Incoherent Opt Out Muddle

Pity those poor zealots of standardized testing in Albany.

No matter what they do, no matter what tactic they employ those pesky parents who are sick and tired of standardized testing consuming their children’s education won’t come around to see the error of their ways.

First, Governor Andrew Cuomo, perhaps taking an anticipatory victory lap days before his November re-election, unleashed a torrent of bad ideas upon his favorite punching bag – New York’s unionized public school teachers.  He vowed to “break up” the “public monopoly” of our free public school system which dates back to the formation of the New York Free School Society in 1805.  Governor Cuomo’s preferred method of “breaking” public education is the use of standardized test scores and growth models to designate schools and teachers as failures ripe for state take over and firing.

Then New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Governor Cuomo took up the role of pen pals after the election, declaring the need for much tougher teacher evaluation and tenure rules using, you guessed it, an even greater role for growth measures based on standardized test scores.  Governor Cuomo followed that communication by vetoing a bill he himself had proposed that would have given teachers and principals a two year grace period from professional consequences as a result of the still new Common Core aligned state examination, and then quickly announced a punishing agenda that led to 50% of teachers’ evaluations being tied to growth measures on the state examinations.

Dr. Tisch, for her part, attempted to take on the role of the velvet glove with a prepared speech to the New York State  Council of School Superintendents in March where she lamented the Opt Out movement in New York and compared it to the anti-vaccination movement:

Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college?  Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in district, region, and State?  Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education?  Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few?

I do not pretend that test results are the only way to know, but they are an important piece of information.  They are the only common measure of progress we have.

We are not going to force kids to take tests.  That’s not the New York way.  But, we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.

We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up.  Most of us don’t refuse to get a vaccination.

Did you get that?  Standardized testing is as good for curing problems in education as vaccines are for preventing polio.

Dr. Tisch dug herself deeper in later comments, first trying to claim that the new teacher evaluation system over which Governor Cuomo held long overdue state aid hostage did not necessarily mean teachers would be evaluated 50% by student test scores, and then she publicly suggested that communities with histories of high test scores (i.e. wealthy, white communities) might be excused from the new evaluations – leaving a lot of African American and Hispanic teachers who teach predominantly in urban poverty on the hook and sparing their white peers.

When Commissioner John King, in a spectacular case of failing upward, left the NYSED to join Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in Washington, D.C., his replacement, MaryEllen Elia, formerly Superintendent of Florida’s sprawling Hillsborough district, was already known as a major fan of the Common Core standards, standardized testing, and evaluating teachers based on those tests.  Commissioner Elia immediately embarked upon a “goodwill tour” of sorts to listen to and to speak with stakeholders across the state.  The new commissioner did not waiver in her support for high stakes testing or in her opposition to opting children out of those exams, telling one audience that “Life is one big test.”

Then the opt out numbers came in with the results of the tests themselves, and New York’s rate of test refusal in 2015 jumped to 20% of all testable students, a huge leap from the previous year’s numbers.  And the charm offensive was over, with Commissioner Elia declaring to reporters that her office was in communication with the Secretary of Education in Washington over the potential “consequences” at hand for districts and schools where parental opt outs meant that fewer than 95% of students were tested as required by the No Child Left Behind act.  In other statements, she declared that opting out of the state tests was unreasonable and called school personnel who encouraged it unethical.

And almost as quickly as that was said, the backpedaling began.  Chancellor Tisch reported that the her office was told by the federal DOE weeks earlier that financial consequences were up to the state and that NYSED had no plans to do anything, saying, “I think when you withdraw money from a school district, what you’re doing is you’re hurting the kids in the school district. So I don’t think that’s an effective way to deal with it.”  The King of Test-Based Punishment, Andrew Cuomo, also declared that the state had no intentions of withholding money from communities that failed to reach 95% of students tested.  Commissioner Elia bid a hasty retreat from her earlier threats, first pivoting away from punishment to saying she planned to spend the next year trying to convince parents not to opt out of the exams and then saying that parents have a right to opt their children out of the state examinations.

The quick retreat from talk of punishment is no doubt tied to the dreadful politics that would be involved of playing games with funding, given that the funding in question is federal Title I money intended for districts with high percentages of children in poverty.  Withholding those moneys from the smaller number of districts and schools with high poverty and high opt outs while leaving affluent communities with high opt out numbers untouched would be a political firestorm, not to mention it is highly questionable whether NCLB was ever intended to punish schools and districts because of the actions of their parents.

The 2015 round goes to Opt Out:

mic drop

The future is, of course, murkier.  There is no chance at all that Commissioner Elia, Chancellor Tisch, and Governor Cuomo intend to back away from the central role of standardized testing in education policy for New York just as there is no indication that they really understand the multitude of reasons why parents are opting out.  Commissioner Elia’s “tool kit” for convincing parents to test their children will be an object of some interest, and there can be little doubt that significant pressure will be placed upon superintendents and principals to reign in their parents where Opt Out is strong or to block it from being established where it is not.

If Opt Out in New York grows by similar numbers for the 2016 examinations, the entire system will be on the verge of collapse, but it would be wrong to assume those numbers will materialize.  2015 was a particularly turbulent year with Governor Cuomo aggressively pursuing an agenda that made test and punish the centerpiece of New York schooling.  Further, the Opt Out movement’s future growth will also depend upon making inroads in urban and minority communities where support has been slower to grow than in the suburbs.  Nationally, African American and Hispanic parents are less likely to support opting out and less likely to say they would do so for their children than white parents (although they, like white parents, also value demonstrations of their children’s learning that are not based on standardized tests far more than they value the tests).  Given the civil rights history of the United States, it is not hard to understand and to appreciate why these parents might be more inclined to seek accountability for states and municipalities to take care of their children.  If Opt Out is to grow, it will need to listen to those concerns and articulate a compelling vision that addresses them.  Goodness knows, we can expect Commissioner Elia to tell them the test is the only way to hold schools accountable.

There are, of course, strong arguments to make for parents concerned about the historic failures of states and cities to hold themselves accountable for children of color.  The trends that harm education overall when standardized testing becomes a goal in and of itself hurts minority and urban communities even worse.  School closures, unaccountable charter schools, and the loss of non-tested subjects are trends that take their biggest bite out of those communities.  Further, contrary to the claims of testing advocates that only mass standardized testing can be used for accountability, districts and schools can use low stakes sampling to monitor the system and individual teachers can use small scale, formative assessment systems to track student progress.  The massively disruptive tests that replace the curriculum are not necessary.  Further, as Julian Vasquez-Heilig demonstrates, local accountability models not only exist, they are promising to bring communities back into how schools are held accountable.  These arguments need to be made more and more in public because we can count on NYSED to claim they are simply impossible.

For now, however, Opt Out has momentum on its side, and the bullies in Albany have backed down in a major way.

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Filed under Activism, MaryEllen Elia, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, Testing

NY Commissioner Elia: The Time for Charm is Over; Let’s Start the Empty Threats

When MaryEllen Elia took over as Commissioner of Education in New York, she began by traveling the state to speak with various constituents about the direction of education in the Empire State.  This was no doubt in response to former Commissioner Dr. John King Jr.’s decided inability to listen to and to engage with stakeholders in public education, and Commissioner Elia should be granted kudos for being willing to step outside of her office in the current climate.  According to Principal Carol Burris, who attended the meeting between Commissioner Elia and New York State Allies for Public Education, MaryEllen Elia was cordial and generous with her time.  However, as was obvious from her resume in Florida, it is plain that New York’s new Commissioner is a true believe in the Holy Trinity of education reform: Common Core standards, high stakes standardized testing, and punishing schools and teachers whose students do not measure up on those examinations.  It is clear that the “listening tour” was more about changing the style than the substance of the New York State Education Department.  Ms. Burris, who recently took an early retirement to dedicate herself to defending public education, noted:

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that the medium that delivers any message is of equal, if not greater, importance than its content.   Clearly the Board of Regents believes that by pivoting from the stiff and professorial King to the attentive and engaging Elia, parents and teachers will come to their senses and begin to like the Common Core and its tests.

So while I will give Commissioner Elia some marks for actually speaking with stakeholders and for accepting opportunities to speak with opponents of her favorite education reforms, there is no reason to think she will change anything of substance.

And now the charm offensive is over.  It is time to start in with the threats.

In a conference call with reporters, Commissioner Elia reported that the NYSED is discussing with the US Department of Education potential consequences for schools with high numbers of students who refuse the state standardized examinations.  The Politico New York story was followed by a story in The New York Times which states:

Officials at the federal Education Department have awhile to decide what to do. The state will not officially report its test participation rate to the federal government until mid-December, and the number will not be considered final until sometime after that, the State Education Department said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the federal Education Department’s spokeswoman, Dorie Nolt, said the agency was looking to the leadership of New York’s Education Department “to take the appropriate steps on behalf of all kids in the state.”

New York led the country in students refusing to take the state standardized exams with roughly 20% of students between grades 3 and 8 and in 11th grade refusing.  These numbers are not, however, evenly distributed with large numbers of the 200,000 students not sitting for the exams in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. However, as reported in the Times there were also high needs districts dependent upon Title 1 funds for students in poverty who had large opt out numbers.  Commissioner Elia told the Times that federal officials had asked her what “plan” she has for “dealing” with districts that have high numbers of opt outs.

So will this be how Opt Out ends?  With the federal DOE and NYSED joining together to punish districts who do not meet federal testing numbers until everybody agrees to play along?

Outlook not so good

In order to understand whether these threats have any teeth, one has to understand why they would be made in the first place.  There are several interconnected issues.

95% of all students in all subgroups must be tested annually.  Under the 2001 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as No Child Left Behind, every school in the country must test every student in mathematics and English every year between grades 3 and 8 and once in high school.  There are no exceptions allowed to this.  Based upon this requirement, there are a number of schools and districts where test refusal has dropped the percentage of tested students well below this threshold.  However –

NCLB testing requirements were meant for schools, districts, and states, not for parents and students.  When Congress passed NCLB on a bipartisan vote, their intention could not have been clearer.  They were concerned about historic evidence of communities and states quietly shunting certain populations of students outside of accountability measures and subsequently ignoring their educational needs.  This same argument has featured prominently in recent debates over renewal of NCLB and the fate of annual testing.  Regardless of what anyone thinks about the merits of annual testing of all students versus gradespan testing of samples of students, the intent of the legislation was to make certain that schools and states could not duck out of accountability for all of the students enrolled in public school.

In fact, the federal DOE made that same point to New York when it rejected some provisions of the state’s renewal application for waivers from various NCLB provisions.  The state requested that English language learners who have been in the country for less than two years be exempted from the state English examination, but the Federal DOE cited that the state has only a limited exemption capability and then referenced that the state is required to create a “single, statewide, accountability system” and that this “requirement is necessary to ensure that schools are held accountable for the academic achievement of all students…”  The state is extremely limited in its ability to exempt students from the examinations, and the schools are supposed to be accountable for their students’ learning.  To that end, New York State has contracted and administered a system of annual statewide testing, albeit a controversial one, and schools administer those tests.

However, nothing in the statutes can make a school force students to take a specific standardized exam, and there is no mechanism for punishing a student for not participating in an exam that makes up none of that student’s grade.  Schools across the state have implored parents to not opt their children out, they have put out contradictory information about what consequences might befall a school that falls below 95% of children tested, and they administered the exams to every child whose parents did not refuse them.  However, there is no statutory authority that allows a school or school district to compel taking the exam, and it is contrary to the intent of NCLB to hold them accountable for actions beyond their control.

Consider another federal education law: the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  Under that law, schools and school districts must provide all students with a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment,” and schools are required to be proactive about students who are potentially disabled, conducting “child find” before the student falls behind academically.  School districts are sued routinely for failing to live up the provisions of IDEA, but if parents decline to participate in the evaluation process for special education services, the school is not held accountable for failing to evaluate and has only limited means to proceed without parents. In the case of IDEA, this is made explicit in the regulations.

NCLB does not address parental consent for or against annual standardized testing, but that is because the legislation is meant to hold schools, districts, and states accountable – not parents.  So long as all districts and schools are doing their best to ensure that as many students are tested as is possible, they are clearly fulfilling their obligations under the law.

About those waivers from the Federal DOE: While the Federal DOE did not grant all of New York’s waiver requests, the state is operating under a broad waiver from many of the more punishing provisions of NCLB.  This waiver specifically allows the state to identify schools that fail to make Annual Yearly Progress on standardized exams as Priority and Focus Schools instead of as schools for restructuring. 20% of Title I funds under the waiver no longer need to be spent on supplemental services and/or transportation for school choice options, and are replaced with funding for specific state programs and increased parental involvement.

Test refusal in large numbers in districts receiving Title I funds will complicate the state’s ability to identify reward schools, priority schools, and focus schools, but that is a matter between Albany and Washington, D.C. rather than between either capitol and individual schools.  Given that school districts have gone as far as to use the arguably abusive “sit and stare” policy to try to coerce test participation, there is no argument that either Albany nor Washington can make that holds entire schools responsible for the actions of a portion, plurality, or majority of their parents, so what argument is there to withdraw Title I money from specific schools when the entire state operates under waivers?

In a decade and a half has ANY school ever lost Title I funds for missing testing numbers? In a word, no.  Fairtest is a nonprofit that monitors testing across the country and advocates for changes to our standardized testing environment, and they are unaware of a single school, anywhere, that has ever lost Title I funds for missing the 95% testing requirement.  The scale of the Opt Out movement in New York may be a new phenomenon, but that does not suddenly grant Washington and Albany the power to do something they’ve never done before.

So what if Commissioner Elia and the US DOE find some way to claim statutory authority?  What then?  What then would be a political firestorm of epic proportions.  Apart from obvious lawsuits, imagine the situation. NYSED or the federal government threaten sanctions for failing to test 95% of students, but their only real option is to withhold Title I funds which are allocated to schools with significant percentages of students in poverty.  So that would leave a community like, say, Rockville Center on Long Island, which had a 62% opt out rate this Spring, essentially untouched. Why?  Rockville Center’s population’s is much wealthier than the state average, and its single middle school only has 10% of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunch.

Compare that to the Earth School in Manhattan.  According to this statement from the Movement of Rank and File Educators, 100 students at the ethnically diverse elementary school refused this year’s tests.  Earth School is 44% African American and Hispanic and 43% of its students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.  Or how about Dolgeville Middle School upstate where 64% of its students qualify for free or reduced price lunch and whose district had an 89% opt out rate?

Does anyone actually think that Albany or Washington could withstand the fury they would unleash by withholding federal money meant to aid schools with high percentages of student in poverty – inflicting great harm on students who are among the urban and rural poor – while leaving affluent suburban schools mostly unscathed?  The situation would be patently discriminatory on its face, and it could never stand either in the court of public opinion or in state and federal court.

NY Commissioner Elia and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may be threatening to pull out a gun against Opt Out, but the first rule is never pull a gun you are not prepared to fire.  In this case, it would help to make sure the gun is loaded and is not, in fact, a banana.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, MaryEllen Elia, NCLB, Opt Out, Testing