The Reform Reform Agenda

In a letter addressed to Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch and ex-Education Commissioner Dr. John King, Jim Malatras (Director of State Operations and Spokesperson for Governor Cuomo) writes:

“We understand that change is difficult and that there are political realities, but please give your opinion without political filters or consideration of the power of special interests and respond on what you think is best as a pure matter of policy.  Leave the political maneuvers to the legislative process so at least the conversation is informed and the public sees what enlightened policy would do.  So, let’s reframe the Albany dialogue from what is politically acceptable to what is the best education program for our future.  In essence, what is the right thing to do for our students?”

These are powerful words from Mr. Malatras, who writes on the Governor’s behalf.  Who better knows about special interests than politicians that depend on donations from special interest groups?  Assuming that the Governor can be unbiased and neutral from special interest groups (a big assumption and a leap of faith), the Governor recently presented his “enlightened policy” regarding educational reform during his State of the State address.  This enlightened policy includes two controversial items: 1) Increasing overall state aid to schools by 4.8 percent only if ALL of the Governor’s educational reforms are implemented.  Otherwise, the increase will amount to 1.7 percent.  2) Base half of teacher evaluations on student scores on state tests and half on classroom observations.

With regards to the former, the Governor’s office has withheld from providing each school district with the estimated aid it will be receiving the following school year.  An article, “N.Y. Schools Rip Cuomo for Withholding Aid Estimates,” published in the Journal News states that the New York State Educational Conference Board wrote the following in a letter given to the Governor: “School districts should not be held hostage in this process.  The current situation is chaotic and dysfunctional.  The governor should release a state aid proposal and associated aid runs without delay.”  Superintendents and school board members from all over the state have called for the Governor’s Office to release state aid figures to school districts to assist with the budget planning process.  These calls have remained unanswered.

By law, school districts must provide a proposed tax levy to the State Comptroller’s Office by March 1.  However, school districts may not find out their expected state aid until April 1 (when and if a state budget is passed).  School boards must formally adopt a school budget by the end of April.  It is no wonder that different groups have joined to try to convince the Governor to issue expected state aid increases sooner rather than later.  It seems that enlightened educational policy has a negative impact on common sense fiscal policy.

With regards to reforms in teacher evaluations, it is incredulous that the Governor is proposing a system of evaluation that is proven erroneous.  For example, a 17-year highly regarded fourth grade teacher, whose students consistently outperform other students in the state, was rated “ineffective” on the state score portion of the current evaluation system.  This teacher in Great Neck, Long Island received one out of 20 points, making her “ineffective.”  This score was derived from a statistical method called value-added measuring (VAM).  It is a predictive algorithm that compares how a teacher’s students are compared against “similar” theoretical students.  The VAM method of calculating a teacher’s score has been discredited by experts, including the group that represents statisticians, the American Statistical Association.  As quoted in an article in The Washington Post, this Association states the following about VAM:  “VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes….VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.”  The full report issues by the American Statistical Association can be read here.

Jim Malatras asks an important question: “[W]hat is the right thing to do for our students?”  One policy that should not be implemented is placing even more emphasis on standardized testing.  I have been receiving many inquiries from parents and friends, who ask me why and how did education turn into test-preparation instead of teaching and learning.  Kids get bored, learning becomes stagnant, and the results on an exam are all that matter.  We already know that counting 20 percent of test scores towards a teacher’s evaluation has a deleterious effect on teaching.  Imagine what would happen if this percentage is increased to 50 percent?  Further, most courses do not culminate is a state exam (art, music, physical and health education, business, technology, computer science, and many others).  How will these teachers be rated?  Will state exams be developed for each of these subject areas?  Will taxpayer money be awarded to test-making companies that are already financial contributors of the Governor?  Taking an already flawed system and extending it even further is not right for our students.

Taxpayers already spent millions of dollars on educational policy passed by politicians that included the development of Student Learning Objectives (SLOs).  Time and money was spent providing professional development to administrators and teachers writing SLOs and implementing them in school districts.  With the Governor’s new “reform” proposal, all this money went to waste.  School districts do not have money to squander as programs are being consolidated or reduced.  Millions of dollars could have been used to save some programs instead of developing SLOs that are now discredited by the Governor himself.

The Governor is highly distinguished in creating an “us versus them” climate among educators.  However, an improvement plan needs to be issued when it comes to listening to others, collaboration, respect, and cooperation.  After all, as Albert Camus (a French philosopher said), “Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.”

Finally, Mr. Malatras and the Governor forget that although public education is an individual property right provided by the State, the actual organization and administration of education belongs to local school boards.  Whether one likes it or not, local school boards are responsible for providing education and for personnel matters.  The Governor’s plan erodes the authority of local school boards and transfers the decision-making process from local school districts to the State level.  Public schools represent the constituents they serve.  When parents have an issue they are allowed to voice their concerns to local school board members.  With the Governor’s education agenda, parents can no longer voice their issues with school boards since these entities no longer are responsible for decisions that affect school funding (tax cap levy), personnel matters (teacher evaluation is now defined by the State), curriculum (testing of students is mandatory), and other issues.  As taxpayers of a local school district, parents have a right to engage local elected members and to voice their opinion.  This long-established tradition of local board meetings to address grievances will essentially become obsolete since the locus of power has now been transferred to the State.  Will parents be allowed to address the Governor’s office?  Will the Governor consider the unique circumstances of each community?  Will taxpayers have a voice or does the democratic process become an incidental casualty of the Governor’s reform agenda?  Responsibility for education should remain where it currently exists, local school districts governed by democratically elected school board members.