April 1997
Report to the State Board of Regents


Unexamined quality

We commonly say that the United States has the best higher education system in the world. But few really examine the data. The Regents forums that began this month on campus climate are a distinct contribution to change this situation because they do focus on the data. We need to do more of this, but we must also be certain that the data are accurate and fair.

What does this mean? I have listened carefully to those who warn of misuse of performance data and they have a point. For example, ranking colleges on the basis of short term graduation rates is misleading because institutions differ markedly in student body, mission, and resources. A community college that attracts older students, with low incomes, who are working full time and raising children will not graduate a high proportion of students within six years, but might look good eight or ten years out. Graduation rates do matter. Higher education in today's climate means debt, and deferred credentials mean lower earning power. We are justly proud of New York opportunity programs that graduate students at a rate higher than national averages because these are indications of the productivity of the programs, the hard work of the students, and the exceptional care that the institutions bring to supporting students toward success.

All sectors of higher education have considerable experience with performance data. But how do we make sure we have the best, reliable data? Conversations with private sector presidents, the SUNY and CUNY faculty senates, and proprietary college presidents suggest that the best approach is to begin with good questions that reflect the interests of students and the general public as well as the institutions. Here are some questions that appear to pass muster:

Why is this worth doing? The Regents goals declare that both students and institutions will meet high standards. We don't really know how close we are to those goals in higher education. And higher education institutions are at a disadvantage in not having greater understanding among the public and elected officials about the performance of higher education.

What does a diploma mean?

Soon after the next school year starts, the Regents will answer that question. Much is already decided -- passing Regents exams in four subjects, the schedule for gradual elimination of the competency tests -- but much is still to be decided. Should students be expected to demonstrate basic competence in another language? How many courses should they have to take and pass? How will students show expected competence in the other subjects covered by the standards? And there are three other questions that arise in some form from virtually every audience: What will we do for students who are in special education? What about students who are not motivated to do well in school and have not taken challenging courses up to now? What about students who are not fluent in English? Our answers to these questions must make sense to educators and to the general public. And that requires unprecedented public involvement.

District superintendents began a series of regional meetings this month. There will be perhaps seventy such discussions in this first series. To maintain a common focus, the district superintendents are using a discussion outline and will report in detail. Later in May and June, the Regents and I will use the early findings to conduct a final set of eight major forums designed to prepare for decisions early in the fall.

In general, some of the answers that make sense to me involve the following elements:

Commitments in New York City

In recent weeks, the State Education Department has prepared for the contingency that after the year's results appeared I might need to recommend to the Regents loss of registration for one or more of the New York City schools under corrective action. In such an event, I would also propose a specific plan to provide for the children's education. We designed the hearing process and schedule, examined available data, distributed performance targets, reviewed local contracts, and I personally informed state and local elected officials of what could happen if test scores didn't improve in certain schools. We are ready to act if necessary.

However, in recent weeks I have had extensive discussions with Chancellor Crew. With new powers and responsibilities under the governance legislation of last session, he has committed to take effective action if any of the redesign schools fail to meet minimum performance targets. The Deputy Chancellor will repeat these commitments at the Regents meeting and will describe the Chancellor's reform strategy for the SURR schools as well as for all New York City schools. If the City acts effectively in cases of school failure, as I believe it will, the State won't have to. Our monitoring and support will continue in these schools and we will report results to the Regents.

Several outcomes of the spring testing program are possible. In many cases, the results will improve after this initial year of operation under the new school designs. In some schools, results could miss the targets even with good leadership, faithful execution of the plan, and strong teaching and curriculum. We have seen this pattern before, for example, in Albany's Thomas O'Brien school which now is a high performer but had some tough years before their reforms showed impressive results. The point is that where State and City reviews show that people are doing the right things, we will press on.

In some cases, however, poor results will reveal fundamental problems in the redesign effort or school operations. In these cases, the Chancellor has said he will move quickly to correct what is not working. Effective action will obviously require more than what has been done in that school already, more than removal of a principal, for example -- many redesign schools have experienced repeated leadership turnovers since 1989. And that deeper level of effort leading to results is what the Chancellor has promised. The kind of action I expect will be systemic, decisive, and focused on improvement in student performance.

Getting the Report Card to the parents

The Regents have insisted that all parents receive the Report Card and have asked whether we should regulate the distribution of these reports to make sure that parents are informed. After careful consideration of distribution patterns and discussion with local school leaders, I conclude that we should not use regulations to accomplish this goal. Here is what I found. A State Education Department survey reveals that outside of New York City, parents in all but a small fraction of the schools received either the State Report Card or a local variation with most of the same data. District Superintendents and the School Administrators Association will see to it that all gaps in the distribution are filled immediately.

Chancellor Crew ordered that a City version of the Report Card be distributed to all elementary schools, and he is now conducting the same kind of survey that we did to check follow-through. Where he finds gaps, he will ensure that parents do in fact get the report. New York City Board of Education has not yet distributed a high school report but is printing one now and will send it to all parents. Chancellor Crew and I have agreed that we will compare City and State Report Cards for the coming year and ensure that a single version is issued to all parents.

I conclude that local school authorities responded to the first School Report Card with a good faith effort to distribute the information. Together, we have introduced a major accountability tool without making it an "unfunded mandate." To regulate it now would be a setback to that local leadership and would lead to calls for funding.

Keep talking about special education

Assemblyman Steven Sanders led an exhaustive public hearing on the Regents special education proposal last month. It was very helpful, and also timely. Many advocate groups are expressing support, and the School Boards Association has been especially active in getting people to talk about the proposal. But we have a lot more work to do.

The Regents special education proposal is not as well understood as it should be. I recently asked a number of legislators to tell me what their constituents were telling them about it and here is what they said: "You are cutting special education aid and doing it abruptly. Disabled children will be excluded from programs that they need." I listened, and then pointed out that under the Regents proposal, all but four districts in the state gained aid, and that the biggest loss among the four losers was less than $400. I reminded them of the proposed doubling of prevention money to $80 million, followed by a four year phase-in of the new method of counting students that would use a base level of 12 percent of enrollment, adjusted for poverty.

To get the facts out to a wider audience, we sent a concise summary of the proposal to all members of the Legislature, as well as to superintendents, school board members, and parent associations. In addition, I scheduled seven editorial board meetings, and additional individual meetings with legislators. So far, we have received two strong editorial endorsements for the Regents position.

There is a sense in some quarters that special education reforms can wait. "It's a money problem," say some, and since there is money this year, there's no problem. It isn't a money problem. It's a problem with performance. As schools change programs rapidly to prepare students for the higher standards, the pressure will increase to move more students into special education. We must counter this by changes in special education to ensure that students who are mildly disabled have all the supports they need to stay in the general education program wherever possible.

A discussion on common ground

I listened carefully to representatives from the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and others who spoke from a conservative perspective on education and found much common ground. These visitors strongly support high academic standards. They deplore what they see as fuzzy thinking in some curriculum practices. They object in the strongest terms to some of the values that they believe schools sometimes teach while claiming not to teach values at all.

We didn't agree on everything. For example, they object strongly to school-to-work programs. However the school-to-work programs that I've seen so far serve students by teaching the basics and showing students what they need to know to think seriously about future career choices. But the important thing is that we found common ground in our hopes for the children. We need to listen to all citizens, and sometimes we learn the most from those with the most challenging questions.

Education is essential to welfare reform

Over half of adult welfare recipients do not have a high school diploma or the equivalent. Getting that important credential, and the skills that it signifies, is directly related to job retention, monthly earnings, type of occupation, and the rising number of hours worked per week.

New York's first year target under the new federal welfare legislation is more than 60,000 people moved off welfare and into jobs. And the targets in the years ahead are much higher. Given that pressure, it's important to know that tens of thousands of New York welfare recipients are in educational programs and can be counted against the targets. And even more important is the fact that these education programs are effective in putting people to work. For example, VESID spent little more than $3300 on average last year to get a disabled person trained and in a job. Education for Gainful Employment, or EDGE, has very similar numbers.

Building partnerships to do difficult work

Interagency collaboration is essential to accomplish goals that we care about, such as getting all students ready for school and all graduates ready for work. It requires shared vision and shared outcomes. We have to learn to trust other agencies and be trustworthy in return. Collaboration doesn't mean convincing someone to do our work. It means joining forces in a planned, long term effort to accomplish tasks that no one agency could do alone. Two recent examples show that we have such partners.

This month, more than a thousand people gathered at 22 sites to take part in the first annual teleconference on how to improve educational and student outcomes. The numbers will climb because two other sites taped the hour and a half conference for use later. It was called Partners for Children, and is a direct outgrowth of our partnership with the United Way, with the Council on Children and Families, as well as the legislative Task Force set up for the same purpose, and also the discussions last summer between the Regents and the board of the School Boards Association. Participants included Regents, all of the Governor's Cabinet involved with health and human services, Susan Hager of United Way, and many local educators and board members, and leaders in human services. We used short videotapes to let successful local collaborative tell how they got their results. Next year's effort is going to be even bigger. The work of collaboration involves learning new skills and we have to keep at this.

The second example of interagency collaboration involves Commissioner of Labor John Sweeney. We have been giving joint presentations for several months to business and education groups because of our common interest in high performance education and a highly skilled work force. Backing us up are several teams in the two agencies who are trying to create a more systematic approach to workforce preparation. There are a great many workforce preparation programs in several agencies. We are committed to getting all of them to work together.

A monthly publication of the State Education Department