Thursday, July 23, 2015

WTF, Buffalo?

It's not every failed candidate for governor who winds up on a school board. Carl Paladino, whose supporters like to call him the next mayor of Buffalo, is just one of nine on the dysfunctional Buffalo School Board, but he for sure gets the most press. With Trump-like sensitivity, he likes to refer to the African-American women on the board as "the sisterhood," and he's been vocal in wanting to hold off on handling the Justice Department's complaint about racial bias in the district when it comes to choosing students for elite "criteria" schools. He's also quite happy to blame the unions for the disgraceful state of the schools. He is even subject of a civil rights complaint all his own.

Buffalo may be the most messed-up district in the whole state, and a lot of that seems to be political. They're on their fourth interim superintendent. Their last real superintendent was forced out after two years. The last interim superintendent quit in disgust. Twenty-five of the district's schools are now in receivership. The new Commissioner, who once lived in the neighborhood, has told Buffalo to shape up or expect a takeover.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a former official is indicted for absconding with Title I funds (for a no-show job for her son, which seems to be a NYS motif). Forty percent of Buffalo students are chronically absent. FORTY PERCENT! Seventy percent of the city's schools are segregated, a complete reversal of progress that was made in the 1970s and 1980s.

Is there any solution? Well, Carl Paladino is of course in favor of charter schools, largely because, as the Alliance for Quality Education has pointed out, he benefits financially from every single one that goes up in the Buffalo region.

Instead of recusing himself, Paladino actually is the most vocal proponent of charter schools on behalf of the majority of the school board. He recently led the way when the majority members of the school board passed a resolution in support of immediate conversion of four public schools into privately-run charter schools and even offered an amendment that would set the stage to potentially convert all of Buffalo public schools into privately run charter schools.

I can't imagine any qualified person taking a job as superintendent in Buffalo. Some have gotten partway through the process and thrown up their hands. Former deputy commissioner Ken Slentz got cold feet in June. Sito Narcisse, a leading candidate with an outstanding record in Boston and Prince Georges County, just bowed out yesterday. This Buffalo News report gives a pretty nice picture of the typical board meeting. Who wants to put up with that?

For a while, Jean-Claude Brizard was considered a front runner. He ran Rochester schools and then Chicago schools, neither for long, and he's a big charter school guy. Before that, the frontrunner was the Associate Superintendent for Student Support Services, and after that, it seemed to be the Associate Superintendent for Human Resources, Darren Brown, who is now the interim.

But honestly, all bets are off. The politics are just so deranged, as the county clerk (a former board member and relative-by-marriage of Paladino's) calls for moving school board elections to November, something I would think was a great idea if it weren't coming from this guy.

I tend to appreciate people who run for school board. It can be a thankless job, and most applicants really care about kids. But I think Buffalo's school board would be doing their city a favor if they all stepped down and let the people of the city start over. For the sake of their children, who aren't attending school, aren't graduating, and, one posits, really aren't learning, they should give up their paid positions (Buffalo school board members get $5000 annually—a pittance compared to Rochester's $20-$30K, but much more than us unpaid heathens in the hinterland) and let someone else try. Every year they remain is another year lost to a generation of children.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Still Fighting the Same Old Fight: Reauthorizing the ESEA

The fight we're still fighting is the one between federalists and states' righters. More than anything, that fight defines this nation and differentiates it from any nation on earth. Some nations have tribal warfare. We have a constant tension between centralization and decentralization. If you believe, as I do, that the only way we'd have any sort of civil rights in this country is via a strong central government, it's often disheartening to see slippage back toward states' rights. But that's where we're sliding, and the Senate's revision of ESEA is just one result.

A little history: LBJ signed ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) into law back in 1965 as a Great Society civil rights act, one that aimed to ensure equal rights in education. The original law offered federal grants for impoverished districts and children and gave money to the states to improve educational quality. It provided a large infusion of federal dollars into what had been a state- and locally-funded arena. The original law gave us Title I through Title VI; later amendments added funds for "handicapped children" and for bilingual education.

And for the first two decades of the ESEA, we saw progress in shrinking the achievement gap, especially between African-American and white students. But as other pieces of the Great Society came undone, so did the ESEA. The Reagan Administration took away some of the regulations in Title I in an attempt to move control back to states and localities. The Clinton administration's 1994 Improving America's Schools Act was a critical reauthorization of ESEA, because it merged the new standards-based reforms with federal funding. Now states had to prove that their schools were improving overall, based on those schools' meeting rigorous state standards. Accountability was now built into the system. States had to develop state assessments, measure progress, and report it publicly.

It wasn't much of a leap to the dreaded No Child Left Behind reauthorization of 2002. It's worth remembering that both George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy promoted this bill, for very different reasons. Again, accountability was key; the NCLB called for annual testing and AYP, annual yearly progress, that measured schools against each other and against the state-designed yardstick. Now schools that did not meet standards were punished by being labeled "failing." At the same time, resources were drying up at the state level, and the federal support was not adequate to help schools meet the goals. Even educators who had strongly supported ESEA now turned against it.

Many other things occurred in the 1990s and 2000s that slowed the progress that had been made post-ESEA. Head Start came under fire, and much of its funding went away. Desegregation efforts ground to a halt. The nation stopped thinking that giving money to poor people was a good thing, and we saw the final death throes of the War on Poverty. But it's the focus on accountability that probably changed ESEA in the public eye from a civil rights act into a punitive unfunded mandate.

To see the tension in living color, all you have to do is to look at the polar-opposite reactions of the NEA, our largest teacher's union, and the Leadership Conference, our biggest lobbying group for civil rights, to the Senate's new proposal for ESEA reauthorization. The new legislation is titled "Every Child Achieves." It gets rid of AYP. It sets a cap on test time. It funds community schools—schools that act as a central clearinghouse for social services as well as education of children. It allows states to design their own accountability systems that involve more than just testing. The NEA is all for it.

Yet by moving away from federal oversight, the ECAA opens us up again to civil rights violations, and that's where the Leadership Conference gets up in arms. "We do not have confidence that the law would be faithfully implemented or that the interests of our nation’s most vulnerable students would be protected," says the conference. "The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students."

The Leadership Conference remembers, as few do, the original purpose of ESEA. It was not supposed to be about punishing teachers or schools but about providing equal opportunities. For a while, it seemed to work; then new philosophies and priorities took over, and the achievements of the '70s stalled. The new ECAA moves so far away from the goal and so far back into local control and options that I tend to agree with the Conference: It runs the risk of codifying "a system of achievement gaps and opportunity gaps, with no one to answer for them but the affected students, their families, and communities."

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Some Troubling Stats from Rural Schools

I learned a handful of surprising-to-me things at this year's Rural School Conference.

1) Over four years, the tax cap has cut voter turnout at school elections by 30 percent. This is from Tim Kremer of the NYSSBA. It's maybe not that surprising—the usual "no" voters probably feel they can stay home because the school budget increase is predictable. However, when you consider that the budget election is also the school board election, this pitiful decline in what was already a sad figure means that if you run for school board on a particular wedge issue and can get a handful of friends to turn out, you can win.

2) Despite the horrendous participation rate, NYS voters still rate education their #2 issue. This one came from Steve Greenberg of Siena Research. I guess education's important, but not important enough to do anything about.

3) After federal sequestration in 2013 killed Head Start in Dolgeville, 1/5 of entering students tested as high risk on their kindergarten screenings. The loss of Head Start is compounded by the loss statewide of Even Start, which provided parenting, financial, and navigating-the-system skills for adults in poverty.

4) Out of 155 districts classified as high-need/rural, only one, Beaver River, received a rating of "Reward" (high-achieving) in 2013-14. Reward districts show growth, good graduation rates, including for at-risk students, annual yearly progress, etc. That's just not happening for high-need/rural schools. Beaver River is lucky enough to contain a military base, giving it an unusual demographic that probably propels its stats upward.

5) Within a school population of 2,400, Fulton, NY, has a shocking number of homeless/abandoned students (over 100). This contributes to the district's below-average 65 percent graduation rate. In case you think homelessness is strictly a big-city problem, we're talking about a small metropolis of around 12,000.

6) Despite upstate NY's aspirations to be a center of high-tech or other industry, our levels of highly-educated workers are dismal compared to most of the Northeast. John Sipple of RSA used a lovely map to demonstrate; sadly I can't duplicate it here. The census reports that the nationwide percent of citizens age 25 or older with a bachelor's degree or higher topped 30 percent in 2011. In upstate NY, we have large swatches of 0-24% with isolated pockets above that level. Ithaca is over 50 percent, making it close to unique in all of the state. Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hamsphire, and even southern Maine are better educated than we are. Think about that the next time you're arguing for a high-tech zone in the Southern Tier.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Random Thoughts from Rural Schools

Back from the Rural Schools Conference in Cooperstown, where leaders from impoverished districts live it up for a couple of days at the pricey Otesaga. A few random thoughts:

1) Whatever the theme, we end up talking about poverty. It might be nice to share teaching strategies or successful online communication tips someday, but we're too deep in the weeds of rural poverty. It's everyone's primary focus. One session I attended dealt with how to track down every single child in a region who might be eligible for PreK, because they're dealing with kids in many cases who are preverbal and not even close to being prepared for K. One dealt with how to establish a community school that connects parents to desperately needed social services while extending the school day for their kids who need help and a safe place to be. Everyone talked about the scourge of drugs (meth/heroin) and how they're making the lives of small, poor children even more perilous. We heard from John Sipple that we cannot rely on schools to be short-term poverty eradicators, but time and again, we heard from schools that were trying their very best to be exactly that.

2) Even as we talk about poverty, we don't completely get it. I heard over and over how technology was going to bridge the gap for poor rural schools, allowing them to supply kids with the AP courses or shared classrooms that kids in richer districts get. Yet at the same time, we were hearing about families who lived off generators that they turned on for a couple of hours a day. Even universal broadband isn't going to fix that.

3) A flipped Senate won't help upstate schools. Many assume that the State Senate is a seat or two from flipping Democratic. Yet even if the IDC suddenly votes with the Democrats, that's not automatically a plus for upstate schools. Democratic senators are largely downstaters, pro-charter, pro-voucher, etc. It's a sad fact that our GOP senators are often upstate schools' best friends. We'd need a lot more than a simple majority—we'd need a sudden glut of upstate Democrats voting as a bloc. Seems unlikely.

4) Teachers as Regents? Not the greatest plan. Yeah, I was unimpressed by our new "backcountry" Regent, Bev Ouderkirk. Did we need to replace a progressive 70-something Regent with another 70-something Regent whose goals seem to be to oust the Regents leadership and turn the clock back? Her self-comparison to Susan B. Anthony and Hillary Clinton (I think she was trying to illustrate some sort of lineage of strong women that led directly to the new commissioner, but just couldn't help including herself) was especially disheartening. I'm not a fan of the current leadership, or even of the Regents as a concept, but I think we're all better off if they work together rather than sniping per the NYS legislature. Think about who wins in that scenario. (Hint: Not children.)

5) On the other hand, the new commissioner seems to be someone to reckon with. I still don't know why anyone would want that job, but she's a bit of a pistol. Ours was the first group MaryEllen Elia formally addressed in her new tenure, and she did not pontificate or do much more than greet us and thank us for our service. Nor did she just fly in and out for an hour or two as John King was sometimes wont to do; she stuck around and met a lot of people. We'll see.

More to come as I sort through my notes.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Not Pearson, but Still

There are honestly so few companies able to cope with developing a testing product for a whole state that it is unusual for an RFP to get more responses than you can count on the fingers of one hand. In NYS, the account has gone back and forth between McGraw-Hill/CTB and Pearson, with Pearson winning a five-year contract in 2010. Instead of renewing that contract, NYS has decided in 2015 to go with Questar, formerly Touchstone Applied Science Associates, a company out of Minnesota that does nothing but tests.

When the Common Core Standards were being developed, two consortia started to develop accompanying tests, to be called PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessments. But after spending enormous amounts of money getting those tests off the ground, states started dropping out one by one, or, as in NYS's case, never opting in and deciding to create their own, state-centric tests. Pearson holds the contract for PARCC, and McGraw-Hill/CTB holds the contract for Smarter Balanced. From the original 26 states that signed on for PARCC, fewer than 10 are left. Mississippi dropped out early this year and signed on with Questar. Arkansas dropped out this month, and who knows what they'll decide to do.

It's a little surprising to see how pleased the unions are at NYS's move from Pearson to Questar. The teachers themselves seem a bit more cautious, at least on the UFT's FB page, recognizing, as one person posted, that this might represent the "same crap, different company." It helps that the new commissioner is promising that teachers will have significant input into the new tests.

To a large degree, Pearson brought this on themselves with some awful errors that were widely publicized. But there's also a level at which Pearson became the scapegoat for a testing regimen it did not birth. NYS's even larger contract (by $12 million) with Questar is for the same thing that the Pearson contract was for—tests at grades 3-8 and a plan for computer-based testing.

So what are we celebrating? Well, maybe we can celebrate the fact that this is a US-based corporation. Maybe we can be glad that it has an office in Brewster, NY. Maybe it's nice that the teachers will be involved, as they are for the Regents exams, although we'll have to see how that plays out.

But it's worth remembering that tests are written and edited by people, and the same people move around quite a bit. Questar's VP of Assessment Design spent two years at Pearson. When I look up Questar folks on LinkedIn, I find lots of connections to people I know, because people I know have written test items for Pearson, and McGraw-Hill, and Questar, and probably the other two testing companies. We all tend to go where the work is.

Here's what we've lost by scapegoating the tests: Any means of making intelligent comparisons between and among states. If only nine states out of 50 are using PARCC, that's not very useful. If we go back to a system by which each state can develop its own tests, we're right back where we started, with different states determining what "proficient" means to them, as in this chart:

chart by ICLE

When you let the nation determine what learning is state by state, you come up with a mythical system in which Mississippi kids outrank Massachussetts kids in reading and math. Hey, 81% of our kids are proficient in math, so suck it, Massachussetts, with your lousy 39%! That's where we're headed, once again. States' rights forever! We might not let them fly their Confederate flags, but we can let them pretend that their kids are learning. Is that really what we want?

Questar isn't Pearson. That's about the best I can say about them for now.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Creating/Rejecting a Monster

To witness the effects of the Republicans' toxic brand this year, all you need to do is look at the Party running as fast as it can away from its own creation. Donald Trump is the spawn of reality TV crossed with talk radio, and even though they created him, the Party leadership can't stand what they have wrought.

"If I Cannot Inspire Love, I Will Cause Fear!"

Whereas Frankenstein's monster tried but failed to balance ego and id, Trump is 100% ego. He need not commune with the hoi polloi like other candidates; he need only be himself and get a lot of TV time. And he's right about that strategy! Back in the '80s, when I volunteered at Harlem Hospital, I asked one of my young teenage gunshot patients what book he wanted, and he requested Trump's biography, then a bestseller. "I love that guy; he's soooo rich!" In Trump world, the only truth worth speaking is the bottom line.

So with Trump riding high in the polls, the GOP is through being the party of God and is full bore the party of Mammon. As Trump echoes conservative talk radio and sounds the alarm on immigrants, the Middle East, and China, all of the other GOP candidates look completely irrelevant.

Meanwhile, Back in the Village

My town of Dryden was once solidly Republican—the kind of Republican that grew out of family history rather than serious ideology and was nurtured by friendships, community involvement, and church. As the Tea Party influence grew in the region, we Democrats started hearing from unhappy, once-committed Republicans who no longer recognized their own Party.

This year, for the first time, the Dryden GOP isn't running a slate of candidates. They aren't running a single person for Town Board or Town Supervisor. They will have one candidate for Town Clerk, and that's it.

"Who Was I? What Was I? Whence Did I Come?"

Instead, the Democrats' competition will come from the Independence Party, which likes to bill itself as the "largest third-party organization in the nation," an achievement derived specifically from the fact that when people register to vote, they often check "Independence" thinking that it means that they are then independent, or unaffiliated with a party. To be fair, the Independence Party in NY now addresses that problem as part of their party platform, a platform that is otherwise remarkably bland. Dream Act? They're for it. Medical marijuana? Ditto.

Typically in Tompkins County, people run on the Independence Party as a second line, running on the Republican line first. Our county Republican platform, it should be pointed out, is solidly anti-science, small-government Tea Party. In other towns in the county, folks are blithely running on both lines again this year, quite as if they hadn't read either platform. But here in Dryden, the Independence Party has taken charge, led by Tom Hatfield, who once led the Dryden GOP but had a change of heart when the Party started going off the rails during the Bush years.

I'm not saying the Dryden Independence candidates aren't solidly red. They pretty much are. It remains to be seen what their local platform will look like, but it's certainly possible to make predictions. I just think it's fascinating that the villagers, at least some of them armed with pitchforks, since it's haying time, are fighting back against the product of their once-beloved GOP. With luck, this won't be a campaign where church attendance or saluting the flag or "extreme environmentalism" are prime topics of conversation. And maybe, in time, the Republicans in town can take their Party back.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

TC3 to Become TC2?

Tompkins Cortland Community College spans two counties and is supported by financial donations from both. This year, the college went to the counties to request an increase of 4%. Cortland votes first; Tompkins votes in July. At their budget and finance meeting in early June, Cortland legislators agreed on a 2% increase, with all committee members but George Wagner voting yes. Then at their legislative meeting in late June, the whole body voted against any increase at all, with the chair of the budget committee flip-flopping on his original vote. Now either Tompkins picks up the slack, which is doubtful, or the counties allow the college to suck up its reserves, or the college continues to lay off personnel—or renames itself TC2.

George Wagner is quoted as saying that he thinks the college should become its own self-supporting organization. I wonder if he feels that way about all public schools.

The community colleges of New York State were established postwar as state-supported institutions, primarily technical schools at the start. Early on, the state asked local communities to start pitching in to support the technical colleges, which were to become part of a system of community colleges. Funding was set in a 1/3-1/3-1/3 model, with 1/3 coming from the state, 1/3 from the community, and 1/3 from tuition.

Legislation in the 1970s was supposed to increase the state portion to 40%. In 1999, Comptroller McCall put out a report explaining that the state had only met that goal once since it was imposed, and that it had in fact dipped below 30%, causing tuition to increase. Since that time, the legislature occasionally proposes increases on the part of the state, but funding of the colleges continues to be a battle, with students generally taking up the slack as tuition rises, and two-year education becomes out of reach for many families. Most recently, Governor Cuomo has asked to tie college funding to a variety of performance standards, just as he has for the pK-12 schools.

Half of Cortland High's graduates who go to college go to a two-year school, and I'm willing to bet that 98% of those go to TC3. If they're like Dryden's graduates who attend TC3, probably half of them or more need the community college's remedial courses to advance any farther educationally.

Sure, we need to improve pK-12 so that we're not teaching high school make-up courses at TC3. But until we do that, we'd better think about what we get out of our community colleges and whether or not that's worth supporting. The current funding structure isn't working.