There’s a lot of conflict in education these days, but experts agree on one thing: something needs to change.
“New York State has high academic standards and spends more money per student than any other state in the nation,” said a report by the New NY Education Reform Commission issued last week. “However, we are not seeing enough return on investment, especially for the large number of students from a background of poverty. New York lags far behind most states in graduation rates; only 74 percent of New York’s students graduate from high school, and only 35 percent are college ready.”
That’s why Gov. Andrew Cuomo convened the the 25-member commission last April: to better prepare New York’s 2.7 million K through 12 students for the future. The commission issued its preliminary recommendations last week to mixed reviews.
“The recommendations contained in the commission’s Preliminary Education Action Plan represent immediate opportunities to begin developing a world-class education system in the Empire State,” Cuomo said in a statement. “… This is a solid start.”
But others weren’t so pleased, particularly given the fact that the report does nothing to address the state’s educational finance crisis.
“The emphasis on increased efficiency and effectiveness of student performance has merit, but the pressing fiscal issues that hinder improved student performance initiatives did not receive the comprehensive and timely consideration they require,’’ said Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium. “These recommendations, though well meaning, don’t move the ball far enough down the field to stop the increased slide of these districts into fiscal and programmatic insolvency.’’
The commission is made up of 25 education, business and community leaders, including the state’s education commissioner, superintendents, politicians and higher education professionals. It held 11 public hearings statewide over a period of four months, taking advice from students, parents, teachers, business leaders and community members and compiling thousands of pages of testimony. Based upon that testimony, the commission made the following initial recommendations:
Implement full-day pre-kindergarten for highest-needs students
Create “community schools” to streamline services and resources
Extend the school day and the school year
Improve the state’s ability to recruit, prepare and retain top-notch teachers and administrators by:
Increasing admission requirements for candidates pursuing teaching degrees
Providing more classroom time prior to obtaining certification
Creating a “bar exam” for teachers to ensure competency
Incentivizing teacher performance
Create early-college high schools and career education programs to better bridge the gap between high school and higher education
Incentivize the innovative use of technology
Pursue efficiencies such as district consolidation, high school regionalization and shared services to increase student access to educational opportunities
Create a performance management system for schools to improve transparency and accountability of district leadership
The full report can be read at governor.ny.gov/assets/documents/EducationReformCommissionReport.pdf. A final report is expected to be released in the fall of 2013.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten who served on the commission, was pleased with the work it had done, particularly the inclusion of a ‘bar exam” for teachers.
“This assessment would replace today’s patchwork of pre-service tests as well as require prospective teachers to show a clinical-based understanding of how to teach before walking into a classroom,” Weingarten said.
She also expressed faith in the state’s ability to accomplish the recommendations made.
“It offers constructive, doable, evidence-based recommendations that, if adopted, would immediately help New York public school students and their educators by providing greater educational opportunity,” Weingarten said. “By offering a full range of sound proposals — such as preparing teachers well; preparing our youngest for kindergarten; ensuring that wraparound services are available to students who need them; offering career technical education, early high school and other programs that prepare students well for college and career—the commission has produced a commendable, comprehensive report.”
Most educational experts agreed that the recommendations were sound. They were less certain, however, that they would solve the problems with the state’s educations system.
“All of us want to provide greater access to early childhood education programs, improve teacher quality, and ensure that students receive the social and educational support services they need to succeed,” said Timothy G. Kremer of the New York State School Boards Association. “But many challenges lie ahead to bring these goals to fruition. The real work will be finding the resources and political will to implement them properly. We hope the governor and legislative leaders can find a way to help schools provide these programs and services without draining already tapped out taxpayers.”
Timbs and the SSFC went one step further, calling the recommendations disappointing because they failed to address “fix Albany’s highly flawed and inequitable system of delivering state aid to schools.”
In a statement, SSFC called for a commission more like the state’s Medicaid Redesign Team, whose members have hands-on experience in public education finance and related issues.
The SSFC called for the following modifications:
Reallocation of all available resources to eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment cuts
The creation of an equitable Foundation Aid formula for 2014-15
Additional funds to support school district mergers and regional high schools
Additional funds for pre-kindergarten programs
The elimination or reduction of cost drivers that impede the mission of school districts
“It is no secret that there are gross inequities in aid cuts and in the distribution of aid to school districts,’’ said Timbs. “The more than 400 school districts that make up the SSFC need solutions to stem the massive aid cuts they have endured in recent years — cuts that deny children a sound, basic education. They need solutions like an end to state-created funding cuts, increased mandates and changes to the Foundation Aid Formula— changes that would distribute aid based on need, rather than politics.’’
Local officials also expressed concern over the financial issue.
“When I think about the funding, that sends me into the stratosphere,” said Dr. Richard Johns, superintendent for the Liverpool Central School District. “I think that we haven’t even begun to see the total costs of these state mandates. In this district, we’ve cut back from 34 administrators to 24 over the last four years, and we’ve got all of this new clerical stuff to account for. The APPR [Annual Professional Performance Review] pplication alone has consumed hundreds of man-hours in this district.”
Beyond the cost, however, Johns objected to the one-size-fits-all nature of the recommendations.
“What they’re trying to do is noble,” he said. “It’s high time that somebody said we’ve got to do a better job in public education. We can’t fail the percentage of kids that we’re failing. But there can’t be this ubiquitous solution that’s handed down from on high.”
Liverpool has had its own teacher evaluation and student achievement programs in place for a number of years, which Johns said are rigorous.
“In a district like Liverpool, we have a pretty good clue what we’re doing,” Johns said. “We hold all of our professionals to a very high standard, and they readily aspire to meet those goals. I think we have a model that works very well. We spent years putting it together. We know exactly where every child is with every piece of learning that we consider to be important and enduring. In Liverpool, frankly, all this stuff will bog us down.”
Johns also expressed disappointment, as he has numerous times in the past, in the teacher evaluation system as it stands.
“It’s no longer about how we teach kids; it’s about what kind of score can I get on the APPR and other places?” he said. “We’ve lost our soul when we start looking at teacher ratings rather that student learning.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.