Monday, January 5, 2015

The Gathering Storm

The battle set to occur over public education in NYS reminds me of the strife in Syria, if only because there are no clear good guys. I am not a fan of the Board of Regents, whose fuzzy if well-meaning Good Ideas tend to translate into crippling unfunded mandates. I am not a fan of the Governor, whose lack of experience with public schools is matched only by the lack of experience of the members of his last Education Commission. I am not a fan of the unions, who have foolishly demonized the new standards and have too often fought tooth-and-nail to protect their worst instead of helping to raise them up or kicking them to the curb. In fact, sort of like with Syria, I am only on the side of the children, who are ill-served by everyone else in the battle and have neither voice nor power.

Cuomo's first shot across the bow in the most recent dust-up was his letter to the Commissioner and the Chancellor (or rather Director of State Operations Jim Malatras's letter on his behalf). Malatras ordered both to respond rapidly to his list of questions so that the Governor might include their ideas in his State of the State. The tone was brusque and not a little inappropriate—the Regents and their hire, the Commissioner, serve at the pleasure of the legislature, not the executive branch.

But despite the chill, the Chancellor responded as requested, whipping out a quick 20 pages on teacher evaluation systems, removal of poorly performing teachers, teacher training and certification, incentives for high-performing teachers, struggling schools, charter schools, technology and virtual learning, mayoral control of schools, the selection process for the Board of Regents and the replacement of the Commissioner, and school funding. Not surprisingly, the Regents are happy with their own selection process and their plan to choose a new Commissioner. They are fine with having the Mayor of NY run those schools but think extending mayoral control should be a local decision. They are okay with charter schools but suggest that the cap be raised in NYC, where there's strong demand—and that the state close charters that do not improve performance or provide equal opportunity. They think the school finance system continues to be inequitable. They are pretty happy with recent changes to teacher certification exams (which are, on the whole, much tougher than anything that existed 10 or 20 years ago). They point out that teacher evaluation is determined locally by negotiation, but they do suggest a variety of changes in the law that could add rigor. They suggest that removal of bad teachers takes forever due to the outsourcing of hearing officers, and that 3020-a reviews would move much faster if there were a State Office of Administrative Review.

Chancellor Tisch also managed to squeeze in comments at the end about school segregation and the DREAMers Act, neither of which the Governor's office mentioned. That racial and economic segregation and educating immigrants was not even on the executive branch's radar shows how removed the Governor and his people are from the day-to-day life of schools. Today's editorial in the NYT calls segregation and funding inequality the "heart of the matter" when it comes to the crisis in education today. It reminds the people who run our state that they owe the schools about $5.6 billion a year above what they've been paying. It points out that "New York State, which regards itself as a bastion of liberalism, has the most racially and economically segregated schools in the nation."

Do you think that might have something to do with low graduation rates, poor test scores, demands for charters, etc.? Is it possible that the problems in schools directly reflect the underlying problems in our increasingly unbalanced, unjust society? Nah, let's just juggle some percentages on our teacher evaluation forms and call it substantive reform.

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