Friday, February 27, 2015

Ineffective Teachers

I once sat in a classroom in Brooklyn as students listened to Walkmen (yeah, that's how long ago this was), tossed balls of paper out the windows, and wandered into the hallways and back. The whole time, the hapless teacher, who had invited me in, presented what I had thought was a foolproof lesson on Proper Nouns. He started by saying, "For example, I is a proper noun, because it starts with a capital letter."

This was back in the days when my then-employer, McGraw Hill Education, mandated three days in classrooms annually for every editor. It was a great plan; I learned more in those three days than in any days I spent in the office.

Now, that was an ineffective teacher. After all these years, I still can't imagine why he thought it was a good idea to allow a textbook editor to observe his incompetence. It is possible that he was delusional, or that he desperately wanted an objective witness to report back on the horrors of his classroom. I didn't do that; it wasn't my role. I did go back to the office and revise the lesson.

I have no doubt that there are ineffective teachers. I've seen them from the backs of classrooms; I've suffered through them via my daughter. I have no doubt, too, that there are brilliant teachers; again, I've witnessed them and their work firsthand. My guess is that most teachers, like most employees anywhere, are pretty average.

What we require of our teachers in NYS can amount to a minimal education. We especially desire teachers who have passed through an approved NYS teaching program—that's the only way they can achieve the license to teach. Although they may specialize in a major of their choice, far too many teachers, especially at the elementary level, get their degree in Education. This, to me, is like a lawyer getting a bachelor's degree in Law (if that were even possible). Then, to continue toward professional certification, they must complete a Master's program, again in any area, although locally the Master's in Reading is preferred, because it's commonly thought to be easiest. The debate over whether teachers need education degrees at all continues to rage; here is a good back-and-forth from several years ago.

Teacher education programs lag behind trends in education; in our area we've had collaborations between experts at TST BOCES and local teacher ed programs just to bring them up to speed on Common Core. This is a problem. New teachers turn over at a remarkable clip, many because they are simply overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do that is NOT teaching. Nationwide, the attrition statistic is 40-50 percent after five years. It's a costly fact.

The toughest things about teaching in NYS, and probably anywhere, are not anything you can learn in a teacher certification program. When I volunteered in Caroline Elementary School many years ago, I learned about the effects of rural poverty. I met teachers who washed their students' hair before school because the students had no running water in their homes and who drove to meet parents because the parents had no form of transportation. I met students whose parents would never set foot in the school because of their own hatred of school as children, parents who passed down that hatred and distrust of authority to children age 5 and up. Now, I had worked as a volunteer tutoring gunshot children in Harlem Hospital. I thought I knew all about the effects of poverty on children. But rural poverty is deeper in the shadows, far less visible than urban poverty is. We hear all the time about the needs of NYC schools, but our own local schools have a much lower wealth ratio than schools in the city do.

It's clear that when you start with students who come from poverty, you face all kinds of detriments that affect achievement. In a school like Caroline, you may have third graders with middle school vocabularies and sixth-grade reading ability in the same room with third graders with post-toddler vocabularies and a rudimentary grasp of phonics.

If you give all those third graders the same pretest and posttest, you will find some with enormous growth and some with minimal growth. The third graders with enormous growth may attain that growth no matter who their teacher is, simply because their home life offers vocabulary growth, homework help, outside lessons, books in the home, and so on.

The third graders with minimal growth may show little achievement no matter who their teacher is, simply because they don't eat before school, receive little guidance, lag in attendance, have chores that supersede schoolwork, and so on.

I won't say that a great teacher can't overcome some of the gaps. It's clear that some children achieve despite their rough starts, and that's usually due to teacher intervention. But to expect it every year for every child in every classroom is unrealistic.

Most schools around here have tried desperately to deal with the American promise to educate ALL children—they've implemented AIS programs, mentoring for teachers, even backpack weekend meals for children in poverty. All of those things cost money and take away from regular classroom teaching and learning.

But NYS wants to evaluate teachers, come hell or high water, and the governor wants to do it using a scale of 50% tests and 50% classroom observations. If I were a teacher being evaluated that way, I'd work hard at the start of the year to get all of my poor or low-achieving students classified and moved into 12-1-1 classrooms. I would teach to the test whenever possible, and I would ramp down on lesson plans that involved a lot of interaction and activity, lest my classroom look unmanageable when an administrator dropped in for an unannounced visit (by contract, usually at least half of the visits are announced ahead of time, allowing teachers to prepare themselves and their students, in a playacting version of the usual classroom atmosphere).

Be careful what you wish for, NYS. Yes, there are ineffective teachers, and effective administrators know who they are. Improve 3020a procedures and timelines to make it easier to get rid of them, or implement a tenure system that allows for regular review. The current plan has no chance of succeeding, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with improving teaching and learning.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Equity Begins at Home

As a decision may or may not be made soon (two years later than I ever imagined) about the Cayuga Power Plant, AKA Lansing's #1 taxpaying unit, I thought I'd take a look at the Lansing superintendent's claim that losing the plant would be "too much to bear." I do not doubt for a minute that losing $1.25 million in revenue will hurt Lansing. Their projected budget for 2014-15 is $27,820,000, and they feel that they've already lost $100,000,000 through the Cayuga Plant PILOT, which decreases each year.

According to the department of assessment, school district taxable property in Lansing is currently valued at $776,851,895. If Lansing CSD figures are right, that's down from close to $876M or so. Enrollment at Lansing CSD (as of 2013-14) was 1,136. So the value of property per child is about $683,848.

Dryden educates 1,630 kids and has taxable property valued at $660,328,259, for around $405,109 per child. Newfield educates 752 students with taxable property valued at $281,584,724, for $374,447 per child.

Now, this may be an unorthodox way of looking at school finance, but it hints at why I seem so hardhearted when I hear people insist that the plant must be retrofitted to save the school. What schools don't get in state aid must be made up in property taxes (up to the cap); Dryden currently has the highest tax rate in the county, because it educates a lot of kids but has a minimal tax base.

Lansing is an outstanding school. It offers many things that Dryden and Newfield can only dream of—an enrichment curriculum, two foreign languages with AP courses in both, music theory, an orchestra and a strings program, Project Lead the Way.... Understandably, people in Lansing do not want to give up what they have. Dryden didn't want NYSEG to move out of its Dryden-based building and become a subsidiary of Iberdrola, either. Thank goodness NYSEG still pays taxes on its lines and land cuts, or both Dryden and Ithaca would have lost their #1 taxpayer. (The town of Lansing lists Pyramid Mall as their #1, since the power plant is now on a PILOT. But I believe that ICSD gets revenue from Pyramid and Lansing CSD does not.) As of 2013 assessments, Lansing had eight property owners with assessed value over $10 million apiece. Dryden had two.

If I were in Lansing, would I insist on the retrofit of the power plant? I don't know. I hope I would ask: "Is this the best thing for the region? Is it going to supply something that we need?" Instead, everyone involved seems to be asking, "Is this the best thing for me?"

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Still Amazed...

...that people can listen patiently to a presentation declaring that the school district HAS NO MONEY, that the governor's budget ensures that they'll HAVE NO MONEY, that the best they can do is to try to keep what they have in a (faux) rollover budget—and then get up one by one and list the additions they want to see.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Block That Metaphor

Just a week ago, Steny Hoyer (D-MD) made a plea to House Republicans to stop holding the homeland security budget hostage to their desires to upend Obama's immigration reform. This after a series of hostage-takings involving the debt ceiling. And here in NYS, it's the governor himself who's holding school aid runs hostage, according to NYSUT (or waging a worthy battle, according to the IJ).

Meanwhile, in Syria, real hostages are burned to death or decapitated.

Hostage is defined as "a person seized or held... until certain conditions are met." House Republicans and Governor Cuomo aren't holding hostages. They are playing that babyish game of "If you don't do what I say, I'm taking my ball and going home." It's Cartman, not ISIL.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Advocacy Night

I look forward to the time when Rick Timbs can finally retire—not that he isn't a lively speaker, and not that he doesn't have an important message, but because it will mean that we've finally solved the problem of inequitable education financing in NYS. I don't see that day coming soon.

Rick was featured at Advocacy Night in Auburn last night. I will try to parse his main themes as simply as possible.

The governor likes to say, "We spend more money per student than any state in the United States. We are decidedly in the middle of the pack in terms of results."

It's true! We do spend more money per student than any other state. In fact, there is a district in NYS that spends $92,000 per student per year! (Now imagine how that skews results for the rest of us.) Because the fact is, not only do we spend the most (we're number one!), but also we spend it the least equitably of any state in the Union (we're number fifty!) That's just a fact.

How often have you heard legislators or the governor say, "We're already giving poor school districts way more than we give wealthy districts"? Well, that's true, too. On average, poor districts in NYS get around 8 times more state aid than wealthy districts do. However, our wealthy districts are overall 14 times richer than poor districts.

On the whole, the governor does better than our legislators in ironing out this inequity. For example, in 2013-14, the governor's budget offered $297 more per poor kid and $8 more per rich kid (in additional aid per student). The legislature came back with $83 per poor kid and $220 per rich kid. (Well, to be fair, think about where those poor little rich kids live and who represents them.) After an unimaginable wrangling, the final budget gave $381 more to poor kids—and $228 more to rich kids.

Okay, that was just one year. Then in 2014-15, the governor offered $198 more per poor kid and $45 more per rich kid. The legislature came back with $173 per poor kid and $168 per rich kid. (They're all our kids, after all!) The compromise was $371 per poor kid and $212 per rich kid.

So the rich get richer in New York State. Meanwhile, Rick meets superintendents whose valedictorians can't get into SUNY Geneseo because their transcripts are too thin. When a rich district offers six languages and National Science Foundation projects, and a poor district is lucky to offer an AP course or two online, dollars begin to matter. The comptroller's latest report indicates that one in eight school districts in NYS are in "fiscal distress."

You may think that New York City schools are in worse shape than ours, but you would only be partly correct. Average wealth in NYS is calculated using both income and property value. By that calculation, New York City ranks 1.0, or average for the state. Most of our local districts are below average, with Ithaca and Lansing hovering around average. Newfield and Candor are significantly below average; on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is the poorest district in the state and 10 is the richest, Newfield and Candor are 2s.

Then there's the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). Rick likes to say, "The state had a gap [between revenues and expenditures]. They wanted to eliminate it. So they adjusted something." The something they adjusted was the dollars they owed the school districts from the lawsuit resolved in 2007, the one that required the state to offer a "sound basic education" and to finance it appropriately. The state solved its budget woes on the backs of the districts, despite a court order requiring the state to pay districts a set amount. As Cathy Nolan told us one day in Barbara Lifton's office, "Hey, we didn't have the money!" Try that line the next time you're hauled into traffic court. See how it flies.

Our problem upstate is that the GEA was not applied equitably. The state took more money from those districts who were getting more money from the state. In other words, it took the most from the poorest districts and the least from the richest districts.

Although the state now has a surplus, it has not seen fit to apply that surplus to the GEA, instead adding back a bit at a time. The result is that school districts in NYS are owed $4.9 billion, and we have districts right around here that will have to raise their levies by anywhere from 3% to 15% to make up this year what they lost to the GEA. (Since there's a tax cap, of course, they are unlikely to raise their levies that high and instead will continue to cut personnel. The GEA is not what you'd call a "job creator.")

One interesting aside for those of us in the Finger Lakes: The current education finance formula does not take into account the relative poverty of people who live in areas with high-value property. That includes people who live near lakes, because lakeside property is often extremely high in value. Because the state considers both income and property values in assigning aid, districts that are property-rich and income-poor suffer even more than those that are just plain poor overall. Property wealth is trickily inequitable—the difference in property wealth per pupil in NYS is over $5 million!

That brings us to this year. The governor has said no ethics reform = no budget, and no education reform = no increase in state aid for the next two years. He will not release the governor's school district runs, which means districts have no place to start in building their budgets. I find it hard to imagine that the new assembly leadership will get its act together in time to debate the proposed reforms and release some numbers to the districts before the districts are required by law to release their budgets to the public. The governor's suggested $1.1 billion won't cover the GEA or reinstate foundation aid.

I bet you're wondering what became of those issues you voted on back in November. Well, the Division of Budget (part of the executive branch) is still sitting on regulations for the Smart Schools legislation, that exciting plan to add loads of technology to the classrooms of NYS. Rick suggests that they may have suddenly realized that the plan would lead to significant new debt. Maybe they'll get smart and sit on those regs forever. As for the plan to let districts fight over dollars for Pre-K, Rick has met superintendents who say, "Yes, we'd like to get that Pre-K money, but we've had to close two schools to make ends meet, so we have no place to put Pre-K."

When it comes to the GEA, there are some bills wandering around in committee to get rid of it. Of our local legislators, only Tom O'Mara is a sponsor of the bill the Central New York School Boards Association prefers. See S.2743, which is equivalent to A.2271. Jim Seward introduced a different GEA elimination bill in the Senate, but CNYSBA prefers having two identical bills to make passage easier. If we can get these PASSED by March (Ha!) and add another billion to the governor's proposal (double Ha!), we might be on the road to relieving some of our districts' fiscal distress.

The evening ended with a representative of the NYS PTA showing us how to tweet: "@NYSenate CNY schools & students critically need GEA abolished this year. Pass S.2743." "@NYS_AM CNY schools & students critically need GEA abolished this year. Pass A.2271." "@NYSA_Majority CNY schools & students critically need GEA abolished this year. Pass A.2271." (Did you know that the Assembly has separate Twitter accounts for majority and minority members? Doesn't that tell you something?) But hey, it can't hurt.

LATER: I got an update on the Smart Schools plan, which turns out to be far more complicated than I thought. Suffice to say, it has been designed so that in order to get the money, schools have so much hoop-jumping to do, including the floating of enormous loans, that I can guarantee no one will bother to apply. That won't stop certain people from pointing to it as a Plus for Our Schools. Cross my heart: No one will get ANY technology out of the plan you voted for. None.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Second Verse, Same as the First

Well, it's "unanimous," or at least as "unanimous" as a behind-closed-doors deal can be: The new Speaker will be Carl Heastie, whom the Times calls "flawed," which appears to be their nice way of saying "the usual dirtbag." Not only is the Times article worth reading, but so is this lovely comment by a reader:
Sleekit, cowran, tim'rous Heastie,

O what a panic's in thy breastie,

Hanky panky in thy past,

Hope it's wee and not too vast,

Clean up your act and make it hasty.

From the Assemblyman's own biography on his website comes this accolade:

Assemblyman Heastie is second to none when it comes to his ability to evaluate numbers. This skill was honed at the State University of New York at Stony Brook where he earned a Bachelors of Science in applied Mathematics and Statistics, which he followed up with an MBA in Finance from the Bernard M. Baruch College (CUNY). Throughout his academic career, Assembly Member Heastie has shown an immense love and enthusiasm for math.

Thus the $21K-$50K in credit card debt, the $10K in campaign expenses that were not properly detailed, the $23.4K in travel per diems, not to mention the $10K non-contribution from the check cashing "industry." Dude's a math WHIZ.