June 13, 2012

In My Opinion: State of confusion in public schools


---- — Whether you feel that New York’s public-school reform agenda is necessary or not, there is much to be concerned about regarding its rationale, how it is being pursued and its potential, negative impact on student achievement.

New York public schools are ranked third nationally in the comprehensive, annual study by Education Week. They were second last year, an excellent record.

Gov. Cuomo justifies rushing into reforms by stating that New York is “38th in the nation in education.” This census data referred to graduation rates for all adult New York residents over age 25 in 2007. It has nothing to do with current graduation rates or the quality, and effectiveness, of public-school instruction.

Most of the Governor’s Education Reform Commission members have backgrounds in business, politics, think-tanks, charter schools, labor and universities. Public-school parents, educators, administrators and board members are conspicuously missing. Reforms from this group will be better suited for scoring political points and ensuring higher profits for education-related corporations, not a better education for our students.

It’s hard to see how Albany’s efforts to this point will produce higher-quality schools, quite to the contrary. Overall, state aid to public schools is at the same level it was five years ago. The tax cap and a significant increase in the number, and cost, of state-mandated services, are squeezing school budgets. More than 30,000 teachers have been laid off over the last three years, with more to come. Crucial academic, athletic and extra-curricular programs have been gutted or eliminated.

In the meantime, Albany politicians and the State Education Department spent only half of the $700 million from the federal Race to the Top grants on public schools, covering a small fraction of the program’s mandated costs to districts. For example, a study by the Fordham Institute estimates that new Common Core curriculum mandates for math and English language arts alone could cost New York public schools $583 million over current spending for instructional materials.

One place Albany is spending $32 million of the rest of that money is for testing services from education services giant Pearson, Inc. Pearson has a significant lobbying operation in the state capitol. Last December, Attorney General Schneiderman’s office launched an investigation of Pearson’s lobbying activities.

Recent headlines regarding the infamous “Talking Pineapple” test question and math questions with no right answer highlight the problems the company has had in designing their new tests. This testing program does not advance the education of New York students and may actually set back public education in New York state.

Prior to this reform agenda, New York students were already tested more than any other kids in the nation, providing ample information on student progress. The new test mandates require an additional 12 days of testing for most students, starting in third grade. That’s 12 fewer days of instruction, more than that, if test-preparation time is included.

The rationale is that we need more data to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness. A plethora of research studies have shown that the primary factor in advancing student achievement is time on task. Two and a half weeks of testing is not time spent on the task of learning.

Another problem for the reform agenda is the rush to implement it, due to a timetable based more on politics than education. The Common Core standards are still evolving. The requirements for the new teacher/administrator Annual Professional Performance Review system are still not finalized. Despite this, the governor, our legislators and the State Education Department demand that schools implement both mandates next school year, and pay for it all without additional state aid.

The state’s public-education system is teetering on collapse. Reforms should be well thought out and paid for by the state, to avoid forcing schools to slash necessary, and popular, programs or raise taxes.

Timelines and testing requirements should follow the “first, do no harm” rule and not hinder the primary function of schools: student learning. Fewer teachers providing instruction and less time devoted to learning is not a step forward.