Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The New Commish

It's a job that one has to be somewhat crazy to want. It's a political job. It's a job that forces you to hold hands with people who want each other's scalps. It's a very, very hard job.

Richard Mills held the job for 14 years, which is something of a miracle in retrospect. The men who followed him held it for two and three years, respectively.

MaryEllen Elia will be the first woman to hold the joint position of Commissioner of Education of the State of New York and President of the University of the State of New York. She will also, I believe, be the first commissioner since Ernest Cole in the 1940s to have roots in upstate New York—she taught in Amherst near Buffalo before moving to Tampa in 1986.

She seems to have done splendidly in the eighth largest public school system in the nation (206,000 students!), rising through the ranks to become superintendent of schools 10 years ago. And she was Superintendent of the Year in Florida and in the running for a national title when it all went south. Her board voted her out by a vote of 4 to 3. The NYTimes treats this ouster fairly cavalierly, but the Tampa Bay Times goes into far more detail. Was it a vendetta by members of the board? Was it a reaction to her backing specific people for board positions? A lack of transparency? Racism? Bullying? Was it about poor communication? Lack of respect? Favoritism?

I've served on enough boards to know that things can blow up for myriad reasons, some of which are completely unreasonable. I am happy to give the Superintendent of the Year the benefit of the doubt in this terribly difficult job—while watching her like a hawk for examples of the sketchy behavior noted in her board evaluations, per the Tampa paper. A commissioner of education, no matter what her reputation with teachers and the business community, will not last long if people start to believe she is biased, secretive, or governing by intimidation.

Elia's base pay as superintendent in Tampa was nearly $40K more than her NYS salary will be, but that loss is no doubt softened by the $1.1 million buyout of her contract.

Welcome back, MaryEllen. You've got serious kishkes, and I wish you luck.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

School Vote Results

The School Boards Association reports that 98.6 percent of all state school budgets passed. The exceptions tended to be those districts that tried to get the 60 percent required to exceed the tax cap, notably Tioga, which went out with a proposed 30 percent tax levy increase. But even in Tioga, a simple majority supported the budget! It appears that although so-called "failing schools" remains a motif in the news, the people who vote still support their local schools.

Locally, every proposition passed. Among interesting results on school boards: A former teacher's aide and two former teachers were the highest vote-getters in Dryden and Ithaca, as Joan Stock took a seat for the first time on the Dryden board, and Moira Lang and Jen Curley ousted incumbents for seats on the Ithaca board. The astonishing Carmon Molino, the 2015 TST BOCES award recipient for exemplary board service (and longevity on the board!), garned more than twice the votes of the other winner in Groton's board race (a write-in!). Longtime former president of the Newfield School Board, Linda Korbel, will return to that board after several years away. A write-in candidate, Michelle Wright, won a seat in Trumansburg with more votes than were earned by some winners in Newfield and Groton.

Here are the board members as of July 2015. An asterisk indicates an incumbent. Unless otherwise specified, all terms are three years long.

Paul Lutwak* (1 yr.)Carmon Molino*Jen CurleyAziza Benson*Linda KorbelDouglas Ann Land*
Lawrence Lyon*Matthew DeMatteoMoira LangJulie Boles*William Scott JacksonMichelle Wright
William Harding* Ann Reichlin   
Joan Stock Sean Eversley Bradwell* (2 yr.)  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Scholarship Tax Credits

As of last year, 15 states offered the kind of scholarship tax credit Governor Cuomo plans for NYS. Typically, donors to private schools (and sometimes to public schools) get a nice little break on their state taxes.

Not only does this threaten the separation of church and state, since religious schools are of course included, but it also siphons money directly from public to private institutions. In doing so, it secondarily rewards the rich, because who is likely to contribute to a scholarship fund in the first place?

Here is a map showing the states that have a similar plan right now. Not a lot of blue states there, right? But a lot of early primary states, right? Interesting.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Vote Tomorrow

None of our local districts plan to exceed the tax cap, which, as you will see, varies from district to district. The so-called "2% tax cap" is affected by a variety of exclusions, from pensions to PILOTs to growth factors, so that in our county, nobody's is exactly 2 percent. Our county's districts have stayed below theirs, though some have come quite close to the cap.

Here are the budgets folks will vote for or against on Tuesday, May 19, as indicated on the districts' websites. Remember that the tax levy increase does not equal the increase in what you will pay as a taxpayer; your rate will depend on property assessment data, some of which is not yet available in most districts.

SchoolBudget# of Kids*Budget IncreaseTax Levy Increase
Dryden$37,979,493 1,6302.23%2.47%
Groton$19,060,954 8081.29%0.43%
Ithaca$115,014,480 5,1021.09%2.99%
Lansing$28,370,000 1,1361.98%3.74%
Newfield$18,364,369 7523.10%2.30%
Trumansburg$26,016,051 1,0734.50%2.20%

*Note that my enrollment data derive from state data for 2014 and may be off this year's numbers by as many as 50 students one way or the other.

Voters will vote on propositions as well: For or against appropriations for buses in all six districts, for or against building/repair projects in Dryden, Groton, Newfield, and Trumansburg, and for or against support of the community library in Newfield and Trumansburg. On our old lever machines, the propositions are often at the top, as shown by the yellow arrow here.

Polls are open from 7 AM to 9 PM in Dryden and Lansing, and from noon to 9 PM everywhere else.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

2015 School Board Candidates

Typically, at this time of year, I'm writing my usual rant about how nobody runs for school board anymore, and the same incumbents win endlessly, leading to a stagnant stew of same-old-stuff. I am pleasantly surprised to see that this year, there's enough controversy, mild and medium, to bring new folks out of the woodwork.


Of our county's districts, only Lansing will elect two incumbents who are running unopposed. If you go to Lansing's home page, click on "2015-2016 Budget" on the right, and then click on "Budget Bulletin," you may learn more about those incumbents.


In Dryden, three incumbents plus one new candidate are running for three three-year terms and one one-year term. So there's no contest, but at least there will be a new face on the board. As always, the recipient of the lowest number of votes will get that one-year position, which is a completion of a term for someone who left the board. The candidates' biographies are easily found on the website under "Budget Bulletin."


Groton has one incumbent and three new faces running for two positions. Groton makes its candidates easy to find on its website and is kind enough to include long biographies of each one right up front for any interested voter to find.


Ithaca can usually be counted on to have a contested election, and this year is no exception. Two incumbents, one former board member, and five newcomers are running for three three-year positions and one two-year completion of an unexpired term. I find plenty of budget information on the website, and the candidates' names are listed on the home page, but after digging around a bit, I still don't find any specific information about the people on that list.


Newfield has two seats open, with one incumbent, one former board member, and one newcomer vying for those seats. They don't make it easy, but information on the candidates may be found by clicking on "Budget Info" on the home page and then following various directions.


Trumansburg has a nice new website, but nowhere on it does it say who is running. I had to call the district office to find out what the story is there. It turns out that for two seats, only one petition was turned in, so Trumansburg may well have a write-in candidate for that second seat.


I like to remind people to bullet vote if they prefer one or two candidates or don't know enough about most candidates to vote for a full slate. There is no rule that says you must select two or three or four. You can vote solely for your preferred candidate and give him or her a leg up when the votes are counted. This is especially useful in cases where a candidate with fewer votes will win a shorter term.


And if you wish to write in a candidate on those old machines that many districts still use, you must look way at the top of the machine face, where a series of diagonal slots appears. Push the tab on the first slot upward to reveal a space for writing.


You may vote in school budget and board elections if you are 18 or older, a US citizen, and a resident of the district for at least 30 days. You don't need to be a registered voter, but you may be asked for proof of residency and age.


Here's a list of candidates (in the order in which they will appear on each ballot), along with a grade for each website to indicate how easy it is for voters to find information on those candidates. (To be fair, Tburg is transitioning to its new website, so things are a bit messy, but still....) Election Day is Tuesday, May 19.

DrydenPaul Lutwak*, Lawrence Lyon*, William Harding*, Joan StockB+
GrotonCarmon Molino*, Diana Mackenzie, Jeffrey Lewis, Jason HarriottA
IthacaDouglas Long, Jen Curley, Seth Peacock**, Moira Lang, Eldred Harris*, Sheryl Mauricio, Ann Reichlin, Sean Eversley Bradwell*D
LansingAziza Benson*, Julie Boles*B-
NewfieldLinda Korbel**, William Scott Jackson, Missy Rynone*C
TrumansburgDouglas Ann Land*F

Monday, May 11, 2015

Resilience as a Function of Equity: Poverty Is Destiny, At Least Here at Home

Every once in a while I come across a statistic in my reading that makes me sit up and say WHAT? Today it's a relatively old one, but it's new to me.

The PISA is a set of tests given to 15-year-olds worldwide in reading, mathematics, and science literacy. These are the tests that are often used, rightly or wrongly, to show that US students lag behind those in many other nations.

What the graphic above indicates is that among students with low socioeconomic status*—in the lowest quartile for each nation—the US has the smallest percentage of "resilient" students, meaning students who overcome their socioeconomic disadvantage to score in the top quartile on the PISA. All of the other nations listed on this graphic, and the average of nations in the OECD study, have a higher percentage of resilient students than low-achieving students from that lower quartile of socioeconomic status.

Lest you think that we simply have a higher percentage of disadvantaged kids, the study is clear that we're in fact below average in that regard. On the resilience chart above, China, Vietnam, and even Poland have a higher percentage of children in the lowest socioeconomic quartile than we do. Other countries are simply doing a better job at pushing their disadvantaged kids upward, to the point that they are more likely statistically to perform well than they are to perform poorly.

Studies around resilience in education go back a good 40 years. Some focus on engagement. Some look at "grit." Some look at self-awareness. Some look at mindset.

I'm not going to suggest that these studies are crap, because I'm guessing that resilience is actually some combination of all of those factors. There are lots of models out there now that use aspects of lesson relevance, classroom relationships, and student engagement to try to reduce learning gaps and draw all children into the mix. But there's something wrong with what we're doing. Are we not expecting enough of certain kids? Even with AIS, are we providing less support for them than Switzerland or Singapore does? Is there some kind of tracking going on in other countries that actually benefits disadvantaged students? Are their teachers better than ours at tamping down self-fulfilling prophecies about kids? What exactly is going on?

If I were a grad student in an ed program, this is what I'd be looking at, because I can't think of many things more useful to know.

*It's worth mentioning that OECD measures socioeconomic background a bit differently from many other studies. It includes the International Socio-Economic Index of Occupational Status (ISEI); the highest level of education of the student’s parents, converted into years of schooling; the PISA index of family wealth; the PISA index of home educational resources; and the PISA index of possessions related to “classical” culture in the family home. OECD/PISA has also done its own assessment of equity and overcoming social background. The executive summary is worth reading.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Quick Look at the Nolan-Flanagan Bill

The heads of the Assembly and Senate Committees on Education have cooperated on a bill to amend education law. It's nice that they're on the same page, but it seems unlikely that the bill will satisfy the stakeholders it strives to address. It is worth remembering that we have only an acting commissioner of education at this time, although a new one is imminent—Elizabeth Berlin and Ken Wagner are working together in that capacity—so some of the authority of that office is missing. BTW, a propos of nothing, State Ed has a beautiful new website. The old one was horrendous.

The bill gives the commissioner until June 30, a little less than eight weeks from today, to come up with a new draft plan for APPR, the evaluation process for teachers. Then there is a period for public comment, and within 45 days, the plan must be approved. From that date, which I read as being as late as mid-August, school districts have until December 15 to produce their own plans and have them approved by the commissioner.

That's a lot of plans—719, I believe. The bill may well be a jobs plan as well as an ed reform plan, because I suspect the commissioner will have to hire a boatload of reviewers to get those plans read and approved by the due date.

Included in the bill is the plan to have the commissioner release a certain percentage of ELA/Math questions from the most recent test, with answers, by June 1. I don't know what kind of contract NYS has with Pearson, but I guess they'd better hop to and figure something out, including how many questions it would take not to impact the "validity and/or reliability of future examinations." The sum of $8.4 million is provided, presumably to pay for new questions to replace those being revealed to the public.

I have a question about that provision. First, items have been released in the past, usually in the summer. (From a 2014 State Ed release: "In 2013, 25% of the actual test questions were released in the summer.  This summer, we plan to release significantly more questions from the 2014 tests.") Releasing items in the current school year only makes sense if scoring is available, so that teachers can use the questions and scores to do some kind of analysis. Will scores be available June 1? If not, is this helpful at all?

Teacher evaluation based on tests is now supposed to take into account "CERTAIN STUDENT CHARACTERISTICS, AS DETERMINED BY THE COMMISSIONER, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES, POVERTY, ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNER STATUS AND PRIOR ACADEMIC HISTORY." I look forward to seeing how that change is woven in. It does address the fairness issue, but it lends itself to a certain student-scoring system that could be seriously offensive if not dealt with very carefully.

Then we get a new review system for the 3-8 tests, which begs the question: Was no one in the state looking at those tests till now? Or perhaps no teachers were looking at them? I know that teachers reviewed tests in the past and often helped to write Regents questions. So what was the process in the past couple of years? Anyway, it certainly makes sense to have such a review process, as it makes sense to have a review process of the standards themselves, which is another provision of the bill. State standards were always reviewed and updated with some regularity, and there was an attempt made to ensure that districts were implementing those standards. NYS Ed people were on the feedback teams for the new standards, but there's always room for more review.

As for "reforms in the selection of Regents," other than a change to a date and the removal of a lot of "if...then" language, I don't see anything that really addresses anyone's concerns about that body. Maybe someone can explain that one to me.

So what I see is this: We still have annual tests, although a committee may now review them before they are given and ordinary people may look at them afterward (I believe the latter was always true). We still have APPR that contains some percentage of student progress on standardized testing as a means of evaluating teachers, although now we can add points for disabilities, poverty, ELL status, and "prior academic history," whatever that might mean, and ordinary folks can submit ideas or look at the commissioner's plan briefly before it gets implemented. We still have a Board of Regents that is still elected by the legislature. We still have CCLS, although now "stakeholders" may review them from time to time. Is this enough to satisfy those various stakeholders—parents, teachers, administrators, students? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Parental Choice and Local Control: A Cautionary Tale

Swedish schools were once held up as a model. Then came a series of reforms that enabled parents to choose schools via vouchers. This free-market system was designed to provide competition that would vault Swedish education into the stratosphere. Instead, student scores on the PISA plummeted, teacher morale declined, and segregation increased. Instead of a well-balanced system of equivalent schools, Sweden ended up with a mess of haves and have-nots with little oversight of the educational system as a whole save at the city council level. A new OECD report encourages Sweden to go back to the drawing board, to "establish conditions that promote quality with equity," to "support high-quality teaching and learning," and to develop a more nationalized vision of educational priorities. The locally verboten words data and accountability are thrown around a good deal, as one would expect from a think tank. But the disastrous results in Sweden over a dozen years of poorly regulated school choice should be a warning to those who support vouchers and charters.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Playing Around with Budget Data

Our newspaper consortium provides us with this nice database, which is excellent for playing around with and viewing NYS schools through a fiscal lens. The average spending increase this year is 1.9 percent, and the average tax levy increase is 1.6 percent, but as usual, the interesting factoids are in the outliers.

For example, you can see by sorting for tax levy that poor Tioga CSD is going out with a 2.4 percent spending change that translates into a 30 percent tax levy increase (yes, that is above the cap). It appears that Tioga has pretty well spent down its reserves and is viewing this as a one-time correction. Watch this space to see if they get the supermajority they'll need to approve that leap.

Then there's little Jasper-Troupsburg, west of Corning, which reduced spending this year yet still faces an 8 percent tax levy increase. I'd tell them to consolidate, but they already did, back in 1987.

Sorting by enrollment indicates that Tuxedo, which I wrote about here, is declining by a terrifying 45 percent. Port Jefferson in Suffolk County declined by 10 percent but still managed to increase its budget by 5.1 percent. Port Jefferson's tax levy is nearly Dryden's whole budget, for 600 fewer students.

A better comparison might be Montauk and Groton, one with a budget of $18.9 million for 339 students and the other with a budget of $19.0 million for 825 students. Per student, Montauk's kids are getting an education with the same monetary value as Olivia's at Cornell. (Fire Island and a few other tiny districts cost substantially more per student than any Ivy League School and show clearly what people mean when they talk about economies of scale.)

Sorting by county shows that in Tompkins County, Groton has the smallest proposed tax levy increase and the greatest drop-off in population. Enrollment in Dryden and Newfield has grown slightly. Ithaca's spending growth is smallest; Trumansburg's is largest. Everyone seems to be within the tax cap.

Go ahead, play around. It's not often that you see statewide inequities laid out quite this neatly.