Tag Archives: elections

Dear NYS Assembly Members: Did We Stutter?

Allies of public education in New York have had some hope that Assembly Democrats were getting the message and were preparing to truly challenge Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appalling education agenda.  Speaker Carl Heastie and his colleagues released a proposal with $830 million more in school aid than the governor’s and with none of the strings attached to the aid that made the governor’s proposals so potentially damaging.  Gone were changes to teacher tenure and dismissal, increases in the state charter school cap, and increased authority for Albany to take over schools, all proposals the governor demands in return for raising school aid by $1 billion.  While the Assembly number is still far short of what is required to fully fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that Albany has largely ignored since 2007, it was a push in the right direction.  Senate Democrats are reportedly casting their futures away from Governor Cuomo, and Assembly Democrats and Republicans are calling foul on the governor’s stated intention to shunt aside the Assembly if they do not give him exactly what he wants.  Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, having indicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, is still sniffing around Albany which cannot be comfortable for a governor who is the top beneficiary of hedge fund money in the state and who assembled half of his campaign cash from fewer that 350 donors.

Even better than the brewing dissatisfaction with Governor Cuomo among law makers, even law makers of his own party, is the evidence that voters are increasingly stacking up against the Governor’s education proposals.   A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed that Governor Cuomo’s approval rating has fallen 8 points since December, leaving him with a 50% job approval rating.  More telling, however, was that the poll revealed only 28% of respondents approved of the governor’s education plans, and that 55% said they trusted the state teachers union more when it came to improving education in the Empire State.  71% disagreed with tying teacher compensation to student test scores, and 65% said teacher tenure should not be tied to standardized test scores.  Governor Cuomo’s education proposals are so unpopular that his entire approval rating is being dragged down with voter dissatisfaction with those ideas.

Speaker Carl Heastie entered the infamous “three men in a room” negotiations where Albany’s power brokers convene to discuss what will actually be brought for a vote to the Assembly and Senate.  Governor Cuomo was there, as was Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos whose Republican conference won an outright majority in the 2014 election.  In a break with protocol, Senator Jeffrey Klein, whose 5 person independent Democratic conference previously gave Senator Skelos control of the Senate, was involved in the negotiations, infuriating Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who contends that if Senator Klein can be there representing 5 members, she should be there to represent 25. With an increasingly defiant membership and with clear evidence of popular agitation against the governor’s education proposals, observers wanted Speaker Heastie to face down Governor Cuomo.  Instead, sources with the Alliance for Quality Education noted that a hastily made statement on Wednesday spoke about a $1.4 billion “compromise” school aid increase, $400 million less than the Assembly’s proposal.

One cannot help but wonder if Governor Cuomo has the firstborn children of all Assembly members locked up in Azkaban or something like that.

With all due respect (and no small portion of dismay), I must exhort Speaker Heastie and his conference to realize that this is not a time for compromise with Governor Cuomo.  There is no “reasonable middle ground” with proposals that are so pernicious to the quality of education in the state.  Accepting a half dose of poison is not a virtue.  It is worthwhile to note the affronts to our public schools from the governor that demand remedy:

Our schools are starved of monetary resources.  Governor Cuomo likes to say that money isn’t an issue because New York spends a lot, but his statement fails to acknowledge a simple truth that education costs what it costs and when you have high concentrations of poverty and other situations that complicate teaching and learning, you will need to spend more even if measurable results are slow to manifest.  Worse, however, is the fact that the governor’s claim is a blatant dodge of the fact that nobody in Albany has ever tried to actually fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement that would have increased Albany’s school aid by $7 billion.  Governor Cuomo’s proposal to increase aid by $1.1 billion is barely 20% of the amount needed to fully fund the CFE settlement, and his promise of a mere $380 million if he does not get his full set of proposed education changes is 7% of what is needed.  In addition to simply ignoring the state’s commitments to increase education aid, the governor and legislators have maintained the Gap Elimination Adjustment that Albany uses to take back budgeted school aid in the event of a shortfall, resulting in billions of dollars more in lost school aid cross the state with cuts in personnel and services in most districts.  In his first year in office, Governor Cuomo pushed for and got a property tax cap, which effectively limits how cities and towns might make up for lost state aid due to the GEA and unfunded CFE obligations.

The governor insists that money is not an issue even as he has strangled our schools at every opportunity.  The Assembly’s proposed increase is a mere down payment on correcting this.

The proposed teacher evaluations have no basis in research and will harm education statewide.  With the exception of a few die hard fans who think if they just wish hard enough, value-added modeling of teacher effectiveness will start to work, there is precious little research saying you can reliably and fairly use statistical modeling based on test scores to evaluate teachers.  Worse, we know that the high stakes testing environment instituted under the No Child Left Behind act has narrowed the curriculum and increased test preparation and given us practically nothing worthwhile in return.  No evidence based or frankly rational person would propose at this point to increase the role of standardized testing in our accountability systems for schools and teachers.

So, naturally, Governor Cuomo wants to increase test scores to a full 50% of teacher evaluations.  He wants a further 35% to be in the hands of “outside evaluators,” leaving a mere 15% for school principals.  The benefits of this approach will be non-existent while the damage is already entirely predictable.  The Assembly cannot compromise on this.

Raising the charter school cap will hurt our public schools.  The original idea behind charter schools was to create small, local, experiments in education that would work with students not well served in their schools and feed lessons learned back into the fully public system to see if they could be scaled.  That quickly morphed into the idea of charters as a form of competition seeking to draw both students and resources out of neighborhood schools, and today, the most prominent charters on the landscape are brands unto themselves.  Those charters are politically and financially connected; in New York their financiers have donated handsomely to the governor who has pretty much adopted their agenda lock, stock, and barrel.  More troubling, however, is the fact that the data shows the barely regulated charter school sector not only fails to feed scalable ideas to local schools, but also it acts parasitically.  In New York, charter schools cream students via lottery processes that put unnecessary barriers between the most disadvantaged students and entry.  Once accepted, parents have to agree to levels of involvement that are pose significant difficulties for families with low wage earning adults, and  behavioral expectations as low as Kindergarten result in students who do not immediately conform being pushed out.

The upshot?  No excuses charter school chains have student populations that are less poor, have many fewer students who are limited English proficient, and have fewer students with disabilities and almost no students with difficult to accommodate disabilities.  Once resource competition is factored in, the conclusion is inescapable:  large numbers of charter schools leave fully public schools with student populations that have much greater needs and many fewer resources available to meet those needs.

If the Assembly “compromises” on the charter school cap, it will guarantee further harm to all students.

Tax giveaways for private and parochial school donations while underfunding state school aid is an unacceptable double blow.  The governor’s proposed “tax credit” for education donations allows wealthy donors to take additional tax breaks on donations to private and parochial schools, and it has been criticized as a “back door voucher” plan that would divert money that might otherwise end up in public schools.  Governor Cuomo has also made the passage of the DREAM Act contingent upon passing the tax credit.  It is a sad state of affairs when a governor who has no intention of fully funding public schools would insist upon additional tax breaks for the extremely wealthy that favor private and parochial schools and would hold up the status of children of undocumented immigrants until those tax breaks are in place.  Unfortunately, at least one former opponent of the tax credits has flipped his position, and it is unclear what will come of these negotiations.

Offering the wealthy additional tax breaks to direct donations into private hands while our public schools remain underfunded by $5.6 billion a year should not even be on the table.

This budget process in Albany is no time for a falsely constructed “middle ground” to prevail in the name of “reasonableness.”  The Assembly’s budget proposal is simply a good down payment on the state’s legal obligations to fund public education at levels sufficient to the task.  Removing Governor Cuomo’s damaging reforms on teacher evaluation and dismissal, state take over of schools, charter schools, and tax giveaways to the wealthy is the only reasonable course of action.  There is no “reasonable compromise” between entirely pernicious and minimally acceptable.  Instead of compromising with the governor, Speaker Heastie should demand:

  • A timetable for full funding of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity settlement, adjusted for inflation, and with additional funds to make up for revenue lost because of the GEA and property tax caps.
  • Full repudiation of the GEA in all future school aid budgets.
  • No increases in the charter school cap unless comprehensive eforms place them on an equal playing field with fully public schools, disallow the practices that result in their very disparate student demographics, and subject them to full transparency in their finances and daily operations, especially their disciplinary practices.
  • No consideration of tax breaks for the wealthy to fund private and parochial schools while our public schools remain financially starved by the school aid budget, the gap elimination adjustment, and the property tax cap.

The Assembly needs to remember that Governor Cuomo enjoys a measly 28% approval of his education agenda.  55% of New Yorkers believe that NYSUT would do a better job of improving our schools.  This is a time to hold firm.

Unless, of course, Governor Cuomo really does have your children in Azkaban.  Trust me; we’d like to know.

Democrats, did He Who Must Not Be Named lock your children up here?

Democrats, did He Who Must Not Be Named lock your children up here?

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, Funding, Social Justice, Testing, VAMs

Does Andrew Cuomo REALLY Want Parents to Understand What is Happening With Education?

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sat down with the editorial board of the New York Daily News to discuss his reasons for upping the ante in his campaign to decrease teachers’ workplace protections and to make 85% of teacher evaluations depend upon standardized exams and observers outside of school.  During his meeting, he characterized the NYSUT, which withheld its endorsement during his reelection campaign, as an “industry” more interested in protecting its members than with the children that those members teach, and he bragged about berating a union representative who claimed to represent students.  The Governor also claimed that the only reason there is not more agitation for the kind of reforms that he is pursuing is because parents do not really know what is going on in their schools:

“If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city,” Cuomo said. “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick.

“It’s only because it’s complicated that people don’t get it.”

That’s quite a pronouncement from the Governor when citywide surveys show that well over 90% of public school parents in NYC are satisfied with the instructional environment in their children’s schools, agree that their schools keep them informed of their children’s progress, and would recommend their school to other parents.  That same survey showed that parents’ top concern by far was classroom sizes — “firing a hell of a lot more teachers” did not break into the top ten.

But, you know, Governor Cuomo knows “what is happening with education to their children” far better than the parents.

Of course, it is possible that the most vulnerable parents and student populations are not represented in the survey data which is a legitimate concern, and there is certainly no doubt that there are schools where great many students struggle to learn a basic curriculum.  However, for the Governor to claim that all sits at the feet of our teachers means he is ignoring vast amounts of evidence.  Dr. Aaron Pallas of Teachers College notes:

Anyone who doubts that poverty and district finances matter in the achievement equation need only look at a scatterplot of the percentage of third-graders in a school who are proficient in English Language Arts and the percentage of students in that school who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. In schools where 90 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 15 percent of the students are proficient. Conversely, in schools where fewer than 10 percent of students are free-lunch-eligible, an average of 53 percent are proficient. This is not because all of the good teachers are in low-poverty schools.

So while the Governor’s proposals will make it far less likely that any beginning teacher will ever reach tenure in New York state, his proposed “solution” for schools with very few students reaching proficiency on state exams has literally no connection to the strongest correlation with low performance — poverty.

On a much broader set of issues, I am not at all certain that Governor Cuomo REALLY wants parents who “understood what was happening with education to their children” — because what is happening right out of the Governor’s office is pitchfork worthy.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is happening with funding in Albany? If they did, they would know that both litigation and legislation committed Albany to increase annual education aid to districts by 7 billion dollars in 2007, but that the state remains about 5.6 billion dollars BELOW that target.  They would know that the Governor, who scoffs at the notion that schools are underfunded, continues to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to plug holes in the operating budget by raiding promised aid to school districts, and that the GEA has stolen 8 billion dollars from districts financially squeezed on the other end by the property tax cap the Governor put in place.  They would know that using the funding formula put in place in 2007, Albany is shorting New York City as much as $3-4000 PER PUPIL in a system with over 1 million pupils.

They would know that the Governor’s pledge to increase education aid by $1.1 billion is less than 20% of the funding needed for the state to meet its obligations to schools districts, and that the $380 million he will allow if he does not get the changes he wants represents barely 7%.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is happening with charter school favoritism in Albany?  If they did, they would know that last year as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio was slowing down the expansion of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools because one such expansion was set to kick students with special needs out of their school, Governor Cuomo did not merely support Eva Moskowitz’s multi-million dollar ad campaign against the Mayor and her Albany rally to pressure lawmakers — he participated in making the rally happen.  They would know that after blindsiding the Mayor who was in Albany to rally support for universal Pre-K the same day as Moskowitz shut down her schools and bused her students and parents to the state capitol, the Governor orchestrated budget legislation mandating that New York City pay the rent of all charter schools, even ones that can raise $7.75 million in a single fund raiser.  They would know that Ms. Moskowitz in particular keeps her operations so opaque that she has sued repeatedly to prevent the state from auditing her finances.  They would find out that these supposedly “public schools” have appallingly high attrition rates that come from the almost impossibly strict behavioral standards that are applied even to Kindergarten students, and they would know that a key ally of no-excuses charter schools, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, openly admitted that such attrition is a feature rather than a bug and that the charter sector has no interest in educating all of our children.

I am quite sure that Governor Cuomo does not want parents to understand how Success Academy (and other charter school) donors have showered him with campaign donations, nor would he like them to tie his largesse to the charter sector to the same backers who have been steadily using charter schools to monetize public education expenditures.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is really happening with the PARRC examination proficiency scores?  If they did, they would know that far from representing a dramatic drop in student achievement, the drop in students reaching “proficient” or higher was engineered by the New York State Education Department under outgoing Commissioner John King.  They would know that “proficient” is neither tied to grade level expectations nor to any reasonable definition of “passing,” and they would know that when anti-teacher activists like Campbell Brown or public dollar profiteers like Eva Moskowitz repeatedly claim that our students are “failing” because of those exams that they are being “economical with the truth.”  They would know that when the Governor asks in his “Opportunity Agenda Book“:

“Last year, less than one percent of teachers in New York State were rated ineffective; but state test results show that statewide only 35.8 percent of our students in 3rd through 8th grades were proficient in math and 31.4 percent were proficient in English Language Arts. We must ask ourselves: how can so many of our students be failing if our teachers are all succeeding?” (p. 228)

…he has joined the anti-public school forces in thoroughly misrepresenting the meaning of the current test scores, and that such misrepresentation is almost certainly deliberate.  Parents would also learn that the value added models based on student standardized test scores that the Governor wants to raise to 50% of teacher evaluations are not endorsed by the American Statistical Association, and that there is no strong research basis for using them as such an important component of teacher evaluation.  They would understand that using a test score rigged to drop most students below the proficient level as the majority of teacher evaluation is little more than a set up to fire teachers with no benefit for their children.

Does Governor Cuomo really want parents to understand what is really happening with our democracy?  While Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s indictment for corruption represents old school quid pro quo misuse of public office for private gain, Governor Cuomo represents something potentially more dangerous to democracy.  Just 341 donors accounted for over half of the Governor’s $40 million campaign fundraising.  81.6% of his donors gave at least $10,000.  Among those donors are major backers of charter school expansion, including donors who funded a $4.2 million Students First NY effort to put the state senate in Republican hands and who collectively donated more than $160,000 directly to Governor Cuomo.

If parents “understand what is really happening” then they would likely notice how Governor Cuomo governs as if he is far more beholden to his high profile donors than to the voters of New York.

Do you REALLY want parents “to understand what is happening with education,” Mr. Cuomo?

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, Funding, politics

Dear Randi

Dear Randi Weingarten,

You do not know me, but we have crossed paths on Twitter and education blogging circles.  In fact, I think you have kindly retweeted some of my writings to your followers on a few occasions.  I am writing because I have been following your political actions for some time in this election cycle, and while I think I understand what is motivating a great deal, I am concerned that as the leader of the American Federation of Teachers’ 1.6 million members you have been too willing to accept a “seat at the table” with politicians and foundations, a seat that has come at the expense of the rank and file.  I do not believe this has been your intention, but I also think that it is necessary to question whether or not politics as usual has broken down, whether or not having a seat at the table is worth the comprises necessary to get there. I respectfully suggest that this is one of those times.

Many of the bloggers and education activists I read have been very harsh towards you in their assessments.  Those assessments are based upon what they see as a long series of actions demonstrating a willingness to play ball with so-called reformers and to negotiate for changes in matters like teacher assessment and compensation and the Common Core State Standards.  Mercedes Schneider pulls few punches in this piece detailing cooperation with Eli Broad, the Gates Foundation, and other forces in education reform who have sought to weaken unions, pushed for unregulated charter schools, advocated evaluating teachers using standardized test scores based on the CCSS, and advocated to institute performance pay using those same measures. Blogger Jersey Jazzman wrote you an open letter in 2012 about the Newark contract, making predictions that have pretty much come true.  I know other bloggers and activists who’ve openly pondered nefarious reasons for your willingness to cooperate with people and institutions that have been demonstrably disruptive forces in ways that have rarely been beneficial for schools.

I’d like to make it clear that I do not share that negative assessment.

There are two polar opposed views of how unions ought to deal with efforts like the current reform movements.  The first, which is certainly familiar to many, is best described as following the maxim that if “you let the camel’s nose under the tent, the rest of the body will follow.”  In this view, any concession given to reformers means that a constant wave of detrimental ideas will follow, so union leaders should fight tooth and nail to keep them from happening.  It probably will not work 100%, and the public relations will be difficult to manage, but if reformers keep getting bloody noses, fewer of their ideas will come to fruition.  The other perspective, perhaps more popular in the post-World War II period, believes that having a “seat at the table” is important and more valuable in the long term than constant brawling.  In this view, trade offs have to be made so that policy can be guided into less harmful directions because policy makers only listen to insiders and policy will be made with or without your input.  The stance is less viscerally satisfying, but if the seat at the table is genuine, there is potential to have actual impact without subjecting rank and file and their students to constant turmoil.

I will admit that I see the wisdom of the less confrontational stance.  Policy will be made, and we live in an era when union power has been greatly diminished by loss of membership and political figures willing to attack unions.  If the union leadership is fully shut out of the inside of the political process, then the people who will be left will be lobbyists representing corporate interests and a growing cadre of the super wealthy who have discovered that they enjoy bending politicians to their will far more than they enjoy endowing hospitals and art museums.  In the absence of union leadership with any insider capacity, politicians and plutocrats will bend everything to their will without a voice representing the rank and file even within earshot.  This is not a position of purity, but it promises to keep balance.

There’s just one problem with this perspective.  It only is operable when the place offered at the table is genuine.  If the owners of the table only plan to shoot you underneath it, then preserving your seat can no longer be a viable priority. I respectfully suggest that today is such a time, and that the only move that truly serves your members is to walk away from the table that is populated by people acting in bad faith.

The first evidence of this is the absurd and personal campaign against you by Richard Berman.  As you know, Berman is a political consultant whose preferred tactics are so bottom feeding and vicious that an oil industry executive listening to him talk felt the need to expose him for type of operative that he is.  Berman has spent most of the past year coordinating a direct assault on teacher unions generally and you specifically, relying on hyperbolic tone, misleading information, and a staggeringly personal content.  I must note that you have been dignified, forceful, and inspiring in the responses I have seen to Berman’s attacks, but I also must note that there is a lesson in the mere existence of his campaign.

Berman works for corporate interests, and although he will not disclose his donors, it is not hard to guess the kinds of people behind him.  After your cooperation with Eli Broad on some issues and after your personal efforts to support the standards side of the Common Core, it would be atrocious for his funding to be coming from Broad or Gates, but there is no lack of other corporate interests from the Walton Family Foundation to the Koch Brothers to the Rupert Murdoch to Michelle Rhee’s Students First who would be more than happy to take up the cause.  And why would any of these people and foundations be eager to engage in such a puerile attack on you?  Well, you’ve stepped out of line.  You’ve warned reformers that their obsession with testing and evaluating teachers by tests have put the Common Core State Standards in trouble with teachers and parents.  To me, this was overdue because Race to the Top had super glued testing the standards from the get go, but for your supposed friends in reform, this kind of talk about the obvious is a betrayal.  Worse from their perspective?  You have defended teachers and their union won workplace protections from the lawsuits seeking to strip them from all of our nation’s teachers, and you have been willing to criticize supporters of the suits in public.

I’ve heard and read your defenses of tenure.  They have been eloquent.  They have been factual.  They have been passionate.  And they must be unforgivable to the types of people who hire the likes of Berman. It is fairly obvious that he was hired to “soften you up” prior to the Vergara lawsuit ramping up, and he has been charged with keeping up his attacks as you’ve defended teachers since then.  What’s the lesson here?  You are only favored by corporate reformers and their political allies as long as you stay entirely within the ranks.  Take a step out of line, and well, you are on billboards as the enemy of America’s children and subject to junior high pranking on social media.

More egregious, however, has been the steady stream of betrayals of teachers and schools by politicians who have been wooed by steady infusions of corporate cash and have participated in starving public schools of funds, forcing the CCSS, testing and test based evaluations into schools, and who have promoted charter school policies that concentrate high levels of disadvantaged students into the same district schools they have starved of funds.  Worse, these betrayals have come from Democratic politicians who have traditionally enjoyed strong labor support, and who, in public, claim to be allies of school and labor.  Republican Governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have been incredibly hostile towards teachers and their unions, but they have also been forthright about their oppositional stance.  Meanwhile governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy and mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Newark’s Cory Booker (now U.S. Senator from New Jersey), and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento have pursued public school policies harmful to teachers and students — even if some of them go through the motions of courting traditionally Democratic Party constituencies.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has perhaps been the worst.  Governor Cuomo has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to balance his budget on the back of our schools.  Districts cannot make up the difference in lost school aid with local funds due to his property tax cap.  Governor Cuomo plays favorites with charter school operations that further disadvantage local schools and then attacks those local schools and teachers for poor test performance. Governor Cuomo’s education commissioner went out of his way to set the cut scores on state exams so that only 30% of students would be rated as proficient.  His record has been so damaging that the UFT took the extraordinary step of not making an endorsement in the 2014 gubernatorial election, and while many rank and file members would have preferred a stronger stance to endorse an opponent, it was an important step to publicly acknowledge that teachers in New York have no friend in the Governor’s Mansion.

It is because of these reasons that myself, and many others, were sorely disappointed by your tepid public response to Governor Cuomo’s latest outrage that he sees our system of free common schooling as a “public monopoly” that he wants to “break” and that he believes our state’s hard working teachers do not want to be evaluated.  He signaled not only his plans to double down on the destructive path of privatizing and testing, but also his utter disregard for teachers and the public purposes of education itself.  In response, you told reporters that his statements were most likely “campaign rhetoric” and that you had sent him a private letter explaining his errors.  To call the governor’s statements “campaign rhetoric” is to suggest that he is not entirely sincere in those statements and has tailored them for a political purpose, but I have to ask what in this man’s record suggests that he does not fully believe everything he has said?

Your statement reminded me of segment on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show on October 31st.  On it, Working Families Party co-chair Karen Scharff and actress and activist Cynthia Nixon made the case for people to vote on the W.F.P. line even as the Governor had appeared in the hour before them, implicitly insulting the Working Families Party in favor of his newly created Women’s Equality Party line on the ballot:

“We’ve formed every kind of fringe party for every kind of reason,” the governor said. “We have Democrat, Republican, Green, red, white, blue, working people, working short people, working tall people. We’ve never had a women’s party.”

Many observers believe that the Governor created the W.E.P. line for no other reason than to siphon off votes from the progressive W.F.P. and possibly lead them to lose their ballot line in the future, and they believe he did this because the party made him fight for his spot on their line.  Karen Scharff and Cynthia Nixon made the case that if people voted on the W.F.P. line, they would remain a force in state politics and keep pressure on Governor Cuomo to be the “better Cuomo that we know is lurking inside…”

The thing is that I do not “know” that there is a “better Cuomo,” and I do not believe that anyone can make such a Cuomo show up.  When he has stood for traditional Democratic Party issues they have been issues that carry almost no political risk in this state: gun control, abortion rights, and marriage equality.  While those are significant, it is very clear that when it comes to fiscal policy and our public education system, he is taking his cues entirely from the corporate financiers of his campaigns. When a sitting governor takes 100s of 1000s of dollars from the backers of a single charter school chain, then manipulates circumstances to humiliate a mayor seeking funding and support for universal pre-K, and then enshrines forcing New York City to pay the rent for those schools right into the state budget — then we know full well that he has no intention of playing fair with our schools, our teachers, and our children.

I have seen you on Twitter stating that elections are “about choices,” and perhaps you believe that the Republican opponents to these Democratic Party privatizers are even worse.  You might be right — in the short term.  In the long term, however, it will be even worse if the Democratic Party continues its head first slide down the path of mass standardized testing, invalid teacher evaluations, mass teacher firing and school closings, selling off our educational commons to charter school corporations, and the breaking of one of the last unionized middle class professions in the country.  A Republican candidate may be hostile to teacher unions as well, and may deny teachers and their representatives a seat at the reform table, but I have to ask how is that any worse than being invited to that table only to be betrayed again and again?

Elections are, indeed, about choices, and perhaps 2014 and forward is the time to choose better candidates and to actively oppose those who are eager to sell off our educational commons no matter their party and no matter how they will respond if they make into office over our opposition.  The vote is one of the remaining democratic mechanisms that can still work in an age of dark money elections and politics.  Influential billionaires may own politicians’ ears in between elections, but those same politicians have to get past the voters, and we need strong voices to roundly condemn those who have betrayed public education to forces that seek to profit from it instead of nurturing it for the benefit of all.

When the seat at the table is a farce, we still have the ballot box and the picket line.  I urge you to consider what roles they have in the years ahead.

Sincerely,

Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.

Public School Graduate

Lifetime Educator

Father of Two Public School Children

Addendum: After I published this piece, Randi Weingarten, after a day of travel, posted this piece on the AFT web page about the “difficult choices” facing New York voters.  The statement insinuates that Ms. Weingarten will not be voting for sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo, and while she describes the problems with the Republican challenger Rob Astorino, she is very firm with the Democrat:

It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in New York, especially after campaigning across the country for gubernatorial candidates who unequivocally support public education, respect teachers and will fight for the investment our schools need.

But in New York, the decision is painful. I am deeply disappointed and appalled by Gov. Cuomo’s recent statement that public education is a “monopoly” that needs to be busted up. (Frankly, it’s only hedge fund millionaires, right-wing privatizers and tea partiers who would use that terminology.) Public education is a public good and an anchor of democracy that is enshrined in our state constitution. Public education needs to be nurtured and reclaimed.

Ms. Weingarten concludes her statement by saying, “It’s well past time to fund our schools, care for our children, support our teachers, and stand up for workers and working families everywhere in our state.”

I wholeheartedly agree, and I sincerely hope that this signals a willingness to challenge Mr. Cuomo much more vigorously.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Cory Booker, Gates Foundation, politics, schools, Unions

Andrew Cuomo Makes it Official: He’s at War With Teachers

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently sent some mixed signals on his education platform.  In late September, he declared that the teacher evaluation system in the Empire State needs “refinement” because even using standardized test scores to create value-added measures, too many teachers are found to be effective or highly effective. This month, however, the Cuomo campaign, perhaps responding to criticisms of his embrace of the Common Core State Standards, issued an ad that suggested a softer approach to education.  Featuring Governor Cuomo in a white sweater helping his similarly attired daughter with her homework at a table decorated with white pumpkins and a glass bowl of smooth pebbles, the ad promised “real teacher evaluations” and not using Common Core test scores for “five years.”  That promise, however, simply reflects an existing item in the state budget that delays including test scores in graduating students’ transcripts; it does not promise to not use the test scores to evaluate teachers in any way.  The governor’s softer, rather beige, image is an illusion.

There was no illusion this week, however.

Speaking with the New York Daily News editorial board, Mr. Cuomo emphasized his priorities on education for a second term in Albany:

“I believe these kinds of changes are probably the single best thing that I can do as governor that’s going to matter long-term,” he said, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies — and that’s what this is, it’s a public monopoly.”

He said the key is to put “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”

Cuomo said he will push a plan that includes more incentives — and sanctions — that “make it a more rigorous evaluation system.”

The governor took a direct, insulting, swipe at the 600,000 members of the NYSUT, by saying, “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations — I get it.  I feel exactly opposite.”

It is rare to have one person summarize, so succinctly, nearly everything that is wrong with the current education reform environment.  “Break…a public monopoly…competition, which I why I like charter schools…the teachers don’t want to do the evaluations.”  In those short turns of phrase, Andrew Cuomo demonstrates how he utterly fails to understand teachers, the corrupted “competition” environment he promotes, and the entire purpose of having a compulsory, common school system.  I personally cannot think of any statements he could have made that disqualify him more from having any power over how we educate our young people.

The governor, who expects to win Tuesday’s election by a wide margin, faced immediately backlash over his comments, but he has opted to double down and repeat the rhetoric of calling our state’s public schools a monopoly.  He has even gotten harsh criticism from the Working Families Party, whose endorsement he wrestled for this summer when the progressive party looked to ready to endorse Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout. W.F.P.’s state director, Bill Lipton commented:

“His proposed policies on public education will weaken, not strengthen our public education system, and they would represent a step away from the principle of high quality public education for all students. High stakes testing and competition are not the answer. Investment in the future is the answer, and that means progressive taxation and adequate resources for our schools.”

In return, Governor Cuomo’s campaign spokesman, Peter Kauffmann said, “This is all political blather.”  If anyone in the leadership of W.F.P. still has faith in Mr. Cuomo’s promises to them, I will be astonished.

I am going to address Mr. Cuomo’s statements in reverse order:

1) “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations”

Mr. Cuomo bases this upon teacher opposition to the “rigorous” evaluations that include the use of students’ standardized test scores to determine if teachers are highly effective, effective, or not effective.  Not meeting the “effective” range on the evaluations can cost teachers tenure or it can initiate efforts to remove them from the classroom if they already have tenure.  Governor Cuomo is on record as believing that the current system is too lenient on teachers because under the new Common Core aligned examinations, student proficiency in the state has dropped dramatically while, in his view, too many teachers remain rated as effective and highly effective.  Presumably, the Governor wants to change the evaluation system so that administrator input is less important and so that the “rigorous” method of rating teachers by students’ test scores has more of an impact on their effectiveness ratings.  This is a fatally flawed approach, and it is fated to unleash appalling results for several important reasons.

First, as I have written previously, he has egregiously, and probably deliberately, misrepresented what the student proficiency ratings from the Common Core exams mean.  While students reaching proficient and highly proficient on the exams only reached 36% of test takers last year, the cut scores were deliberately set to reflect the percentage of students in the state whose combined SAT scores reflect reasonable first year college performance.  Unsurprisingly, the numbers of students who scored at proficient and above almost exactly mirrored the percentage of students with those SAT scores.  This cannot be construed as students and their teachers under-performing expectations, and, not for nothing, the percentage of New Yorkers over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree is 32.8%.

So let’s be perfectly clear: the Governor is saying that teachers in communities where large percentages of students do not attend college are automatically “not effective” teachers.

Second, the entire CONCEPT of tying teacher performance to standardized test scores rests on controversial premises and is not widely accepted by the research community.  The American Statistical Association warns that teacher input can only account for between 1-14% of student variability on standardized test performance, and they also do not believe that any current examination is able to effectively evaluate teacher input on student learning.  Further, advocates of value added models tend to make “heroic assumptions” in order to claim causation in their models, and they tend to ignore the complications for their models that arise when you recognize that students in schools are not assigned to teachers randomly.

I know many teachers who wish to improve their teaching and who would welcome a process that gives them good data on how to go about doing that.  I know no teachers who want to be subjected to evaluations that rely on flawed assumptions of what can be learned via standardized exams.

Finally, value added models tend to be incredibly opaque to the people who are evaluated by them.  For example, this is the Value Added Model that New York City used in the 2010-2011 school year:

NYC VAM

This is also the VAM that found teacher Stacey Issacson to be only in the SEVENTH percentile of teachers despite the fact that in her first year of teaching 65 of 66 students in her class scored “proficient” or above on the state examinations, and more than two dozen of her students in her first years of teaching went on to attend New York City’s selective high schools.  Perhaps worse than having a formula spit back such a negative rating was the inability of anyone to actually explain to her what landed her in such a position, and Ms. Issacson, with two Ivy League degrees to her name and the unconditional praise of her principal, could not understand how the model found her so deficient either.  Perhaps I can help.  In this image I have circled the real number that actually exists prior to value added modeling:

NYC VAMreal

And in this image, I circle everything else:

NYC VAMfake

Consider everything that might impact a student’s test performance that has nothing to do with the teacher.  Perhaps he finally got an IEP and is receiving paraprofessional support that improves his scores.  Perhaps there is a family situation that distracts him from school work for a period of time during the year.  Perhaps he is simply having a burst of cognitive growth because children do not grow in straight lines and is ready for this material at this time, or, subsequently, perhaps he had a developmental burst two years ago and is experiencing a perfectly normal regression to the norm.  Value added model advocates pretend that they can account for all of that statistical noise in single student for a single school year, and then they want to fire teachers on those assumptions.  This is what happens when macroeconomists get bored and try to use their methods on individual students’ test scores.

Governor Cuomo assumes that because teachers do not want to be subjected to statistically invalid, career ending, evaluations that they do not want to be evaluated.

2) “competition, which I why I like charter schools”

Charter schools were never supposed to be “competition” for the public school system.  As originally conceived, they would be schools given temporary charters and be relieved of certain regulations so that they could experiment with ways to teach populations of students who were historically difficult to teach in more traditionally organized schools.  In this vision, originally advocated by AFT President  Albert Shanker, charter schools would feed the lessons they learned back to the traditional school system in a mutually beneficial way.  Governor Cuomo’s idea is as far from that vision as it is possible to be and still be using the same language.

The Governor apparently thinks that charter schools are there to put pressure on fully public schools, and that the “competition” for students will act like a free marketplace to force improvement on the system.  This is a gospel that has deep roots, going as far back as Milton Friedman in 1955, and gaining intellectual heft for the voucher movement in the 1990s with Chubb and Moe’s 1990 volume, “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools.”  While vouchers have rarely been a popular idea, advocates for competition in public education have transformed charter schools into a parallel system that competes with fully public schools.  This has flaws on several levels.  First, it is an odd kind of marketplace when one provider is relieved of labor rules and various state and federal education regulations and the other is still held fully accountable for them.  Charter schools’ freedom from regulations was meant to allow for innovations that would help traditional schools learn, but instead it has become a “competition” where one competitor is participating in a sack race and the other in a 100 yard dash.  A sack race, by the way, is an entirely fine thing to participate in, but no race is legitimate when everyone isn’t required to follow the same rules.

Second, the presence of the charter sector as currently operated and regulated actively makes district schools worse off.  As Dr. Baker of Rutgers demonstrates, charter schools generally compete for demographic advantages over fully public schools.  They draw from a pool of applicants who are both attuned to the process and willing and/or able to participate in it.  Once students are admitted, many prominent charters, especially ones that get high praise from Governor Cuomo, engage in “substantial cream skimming” that results in their student populations being less poor, having fewer students on IEPs, and needing less instruction in English as a Second Language.  While charter operators deny engaging in these practices, well documented cases are available in the media.  Dr. Baker’s research confirms that when charter schools are able to do this, the district schools in the same community are left with student populations that more heavily concentrate the very populations of children that the charter schools are unwilling to accommodate.  Charter advocates then claim that they are getting “better” results with the “same” kids and protest loudly that they deserve a greater share of the finite resources available for schools, even when the costs of their transportation and building expenses are paid by the districts.

This isn’t just a sack racer versus a sprinter, then — the sprinter has slipped a couple of cinder blocks into his opponents’ sacks.  Teachers don’t mind that other schools may do things differently than they do in their own schools; they mind very much being berated for the results of system-wide neglect of their community schools, and they mind being negatively compared to schools that make their own rules and refuse to serve all children.

3) “Break…a public monopoly”

That we are poised to have a two term governor who describes New York’s public education system as “monopoly” is such a breath taking circumstance, that I am saddened beyond belief.  The common schools movement in this country was conceived of as an exercise in promoting the public good not merely in advancing individuals.  We wanted universal, compulsory, free education to serve the individual by promoting academic and economic merit as well by promoting the habits of mind and character that enrich a person’s experience in life.  We also wanted schools to promote the good of society by preparing individuals for the world of work beyond school and by preparing individuals to be thoughtful participants in our democracy who value civic virtues in addition to their own good.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have thought of public schools as the center of community civic life, something to be valued because it provides bedrock principles of democratic equality, and as our concept of democratic participation has expanded, so has our concept of plurality in schools.  From literacy for former slaves to women’s suffrage to incorporation of immigrants to tearing down White Supremacism and promoting civil rights, to inclusion of those with disabilities, to gender equality, to equal protection for LGBT citizens — our schools have helped us to reconceive our ideas of pluralism in every decade.

Schools have also stood as important symbols of our commitment to common aspects of our society that all have access to regardless of race, gender, or economic advantage.  There was a time in our nation’s history when we were dedicated not merely to building economic infrastructure, but also to building community, cultural, and natural infrastructure.  There are libraries, parks, museums, and publicly supported arts across our country that are testament to the belief that the world of knowledge, natural beauty, and the arts cannot be the sole province of the wealthy.  Public schools are part of that commitment, but to call them a “monopoly” reveals a mindset disregarding that heritage and which rejects it as a commitment to the future.  Does Governor Cuomo drive the New York Throughway and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City whose entry fee is a suggested donation and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he want to “break up” the Franklin D. Roosevelt  and Watkins Glen State Parks?

What Governor Cuomo appears to believe is that education exists solely for the social mobility of individuals with no regard for the public purposes of education.  David Labaree of Stanford University posited in this 1997 essay, that the historic balance of purposes in education was already out of balance with current trends favoring education for individual social mobility far outweighing the public purposes of social efficiency and democratic equality.  Labaree was rightly concerned that if people only see education as the accumulation of credentials that can be turned in for economic advantage then not only will the civic purposes of education be swept aside, but also that the effort to accumulate the most valuable credentials for the least effort will diminish actual learning.  Governor Cuomo’s depiction of schools as a “public monopoly” only makes sense if he is mostly concerned with how education “consumers” accumulate valued goods from school, but discounts the essential services schools provide to our democracy.  It is an impoverished view that relegates school to just another mechanism to sort people in and out of economic advantage.

Governor Andrew Cuomo may not only be at war with teachers.  He may be at war with the very concept of public education.  If he does indeed win a second term on Tuesday, he must be opposed at every step of his distorted and dangerous ideas about our public schools.

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Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Ras Baraka Wins in Newark Despite Millions in Wall Street Money Going Against Him

Ras Baraka, high school principal and son of poet Amiri Barak, won the Newark mayor’s race yesterday, on a campaign that heavily emphasized the influence of outside reformers who have rushed to impose massive change on Newark’s school system.  According to Bob Braun, 50 year veteran of the Star Ledger, Wall Street interests rushed in the waning days of the campaign with 3 million dollars to try to get Shavar Jeffries over the top. It will remain to be seen if the new mayor has the ability to do anything to slow down or stop Trenton appointed school chief Cami Anderson and her controversial “One Newark” plan, but Mr. Baraka’s victory is instructive.

School reformers will undoubtedly decry this as a set back for “the children” as they often do when people question the endless emphasis on standards, high stakes testing, firing teachers, closing schools and turning them over to charter operators, but we have known for many years now the detrimental effects of poverty in childhood and not one of the corporate reformers’ ideas has any answer for that.  Pointing out that placing unrealistic demands on schools, essentially setting them up to fail, and then turning them over to charter operators who have become an investment vehicle for Wall Street is unfair and anti-democratic is not making excuses — it is demanding that “reformers” be upfront about how they have been monetizing public education.

The Newark race is also instructive because it represents a voter backlash against the general pace of change being placed upon public education from outside the democratic process.  Newark was placed under an astonishingly rapid pace for wholesale reform by former Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie who had gained massive funding pledges from financial interests.  Booker himself is quoted in the New Yorker article as urgently pushing “reform” ahead regardless of what anyone in the path of it might think.  Now I doubt that anyone who is being honest would question that Newark needs change — administrative overhead is astonishingly high just as an example.  (I would like to thank Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters who sent me a fact check from Bruce Baker of Rutgers University.  I sourced the observation of administration costs in Newark from The New Yorker article, but Professor Baker points out that Newark’s administration ranks 24th out of 103 K-12 districts in New Jersey school systems with over 3500 students.  Data from the state DOE can be found here.)

But Booker and Christie’s race to push reform from the top down absent any real effort to build a grassroots coalition for change is illustrative of the entire approach to “reform” that we have seen since No Child Left Behind raised the stakes on public education in the Bush administration.  Everything — from Common Core, to assessments, to value-added teacher evaluation, to tenure reform, to charter school expansion, to creating vast data clouds for vendors to mine — has come at a break neck clip without meaningful involvement of parents and teachers.

Public education is a part of our national “Commons” — our collective cultural and economic resources.  What has been going on in the past 15 years has been a cynical exploitation reminiscent of Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” where individuals pursuing rational self interest deplete or even destroy that resource.  It is certain that many involved in the Newark story sincerely believed they were working to improve Newark’s schools, but it is equally certain that many others were urging that process forward without democratic input because they saw many millions to be made regardless of whether or not the schools became great.

Yesterday, the voters of Newark said “enough” to that.  It is up to the new mayor to bring change for all of Newark’s children and to do so with the input of parents and teachers.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Newark, politics