BY STATE EDUCATION COMMISSIONER RICHARD P. MILLS
he Meeting in Brief: The EMSC-VESID committee will continue its discussion of proposed strategies for high schools, students with disabilities and English language learners. The committee will also discuss an evaluation of the existing policy on Career and Technical Education. This report is intended to support that effort. The Committee on Policy Integration and Innovation will discuss performance targets that are part of the previously adopted Commissioner’s performance agreement. The full Board will discuss a draft implementation plan for the early education policy the Board adopted in February.
Is There Hope for High School?
Yes, there is hope. New York has many excellent high schools. Right actions might turn hope to certainty for the low performers. But deciding which are the right actions is hard. As we saw in January, and in greater detail in February, high school graduation rates are unacceptably low: only 64 percent of students who entered the 9th grade in 2001 had graduated four years later. Details are even more disturbing: 30 percent of ELL, 37 percent of students with disabilities, 40 percent of Hispanic, and 43 percent of black students graduated after four years. But there are reasons to think this can improve and with knowledge of both the data and the experiences of other players, Regents can accelerate improvement. Reasons for hope come from several quarters. Here they are in brief, followed by details intended to support discussions in the EMSC-VESID Committee and later, the full Board.
Reasons for Hope
Some high schools with the lowest graduation rates are taking effective action. We can pay more attention to what they are doing and find ways to back their efforts. The Regents have the policy framework in place: standards, assessments, accountability, P–16 governance, and other elements. Additional policy actions that only the Board could take could accelerate improvement. Nationally, many research-based efforts seek to improve high schools, and they are backed by strong foundation support. We could listen more to what they have to say. The Summit and its aftermath reveal a willingness among USNY institutions to join forces to improve high school, and the Board can make fuller use of the advantage of P-16 governance. And finally, the global economic challenges will soon compel changes in education, whether we are ready or not. The Regents can continue to guide this transformation by encouraging wider awareness among educators.
Lincoln High School
Lincoln High School in Yonkers is one of the 127 schools with the lowest graduation rates, and one to watch. People like to point to one factor – principal, teachers, curriculum, or students – as the power source for improvement, but Lincoln is firing on all cylinders, with support from the superintendent and board. Let’s start with the students.
Students in a finance class and in the kitchen of a culinary arts class, a future teachers group, and just kids I talked to in the hall described where they are going next and what it will take. They described what the employers expect in terms of academic skills and what the business world calls the soft skills. Where does that come from? Seemingly from most teachers, with a strong assist from the Yonkers business community. Many students had completed work internships, and could report what they learned and why that experience was important. Their schoolwork was demanding – student reports in video format, student-led group preparation to actually teach a lesson to the 4th grade, the culinary class presentation of desserts to professional restaurant standards – but it was also inherently interesting. A long bulletin board in the hall displays college acceptance letters. I asked a classroom of seniors if they were headed to college and all roared back, ”Yes!” Whether they plan to attend college or not, all students write a college admission essay when they take the English Regents exam. After that, college is one step closer.
Students can’t enter the 9th grade at Lincoln casually. Within the first week, they are expected to make contact with five adults. It’s an application of the adage that every student must be known by at least one caring adult. Most 9th graders have the same lunch period so they get to know one another and large groups of them share the same teachers, so that the faculty can talk usefully about kids in difficulty. The 9th graders are also under the care of a warm but no-nonsense administrator who knows them all by name, and gets to the heart of the matter fast when one of them gets in trouble. The principal carries a personal data assistant in his pocket with every student’s schedule. I discovered that when I asked if it’s possible to have an academically weak senior year. He demonstrated that it is not.
The teachers were also impressive. In private, they expressed the same high expectations that I heard from students, the superintendent, and the principal. Out of one another’s hearing, teachers pointed to the principal as the source of the school’s strength, and he pointed to them. To get a better idea about what entering students would know, several teachers trained with their middle school colleagues in scoring the 8th grade tests, and two actually shared in the scoring. Teachers are asked to do administrative duty only when it’s essential. One essential task is calling home when students are absent. I talked to one teacher who did that gladly. Who could be better than a teacher at delivering this message: to succeed, you must show up. And the principal reinforces this message when he sees students who should be in school but aren’t.
Principal Edwin Quezada is in his second year. His intensity, vision, and commitment to student success bind everything together. Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio prepared and selected him and Mr. Quezada is fulfilling the obligation all leaders bear by developing another future leader. The principal knows his students and where they are. He knows the data cold. Everything about Lincoln – the way Mr. Quezada spends his time during weeks and weekends, the building’s appearance, the way the faculty uses student time, and the way people talk with one another -- reinforces the values of civility, achievement and excellence at Lincoln.
Kati Haycock of The Education Trust offered me advice about visiting low performing schools. Principals in such schools, she warned, give the visitor a vague mission statement but say nothing about the master schedule, and often don’t really understand it. Look for that schedule, she said, because it often reveals weak academics. At Lincoln, however, the master schedule is on the wall behind the principal’s desk – printed by hand. Why not let the computer do it? “Computer technicians don’t know schools,” said Mr. Quezada. He and the superintendent showed how Lincoln’s schedule had English classes in parallel so that the adults can quickly transfer a student in difficulty to an intensive, small-group English class. Students sometimes claim success when they score 55 on a Regents exam, but Mr. Quezada demands 65, and until students achieve that, they are in intensive classes.
There are many possible lessons here. As in other schools I’ve visited among the 127, school leaders, teachers, and students in Lincoln High School appear to be using effective practice. That doesn’t mean they are doing everything right – they are far from graduating everyone who enters ninth grade -- but we should be cautious about telling them where and how to change. Do our policy and practice offer all the right incentives? Where should we change? One irritant that we offer to Lincoln is different definitions of graduation rates, depending on whether it’s the “accountability cohort” or something else. What they want from us is an aggressive, clear standard that they must attain.
Another lesson is the complexity of the tradecraft it takes to operate a high school. For example, where exactly does one learn how to create and use the master schedule to ensure both academic rigor for all and flexibility to move a kid in academic trouble into a place to get help today? Do our leadership education regulations guarantee that new leaders will learn that and countless other skills that the best field leaders use every day? The Regents could ensure that they do.
How do we ensure that the best leaders move from safer berths (not that any principal's job is easy) to the lowest performing high schools? What if new superintendents were to qualify for a special designation on their certificates after successful service as principal in such a school? Perhaps the Regents could change the incentives. And how do we ensure that policy actions at state and district levels align with high school operations to achieve results? We could start this with the help of teams from the 127 low graduation rate high schools.
Learning More about High School
Improving high schools is a national issue as it was in the late 1950’s and again in the early 1980’s, and this is good because so many people are thinking hard about the problem. The National Governor’s Association convened a National High School Summit early last year, where Bill Gates declared the American high school obsolete, and where data about the new economy and low high school and college completion rates were never out of view. Achieve, Inc., which was a partner in the Summit, recently compared states on the rigor of high school curriculum requirements in relation to work and college expectations, and has convened state teams that are trying to improve state policy. This is consistent with the ideas of The American Diploma Project. The Education Trust has documented practice in effective high schools, including some in New York, and also keeps the pressure on states by comparing their results. The Gates Foundation and The Broad Foundation have invested many millions in promising leaders and school practices. The Edison Project invested heavily to reinvent the elements of high school. The US Department of Education convened several high school meetings around the nation over the last two years so that state teams could share information, and New York participated. New national data systems compare similar schools and identify those that outperform their peers. High Schools That Work is a long-standing effort, that the Regents drew upon in creating the Career and Technical Education option. The National Center on Education and the Economy continues to examine practice among our global competitors. And these are only a few of the opportunities to learn more about high school. The Regents could make it a priority to bring more knowledge about the work of these groups to their policy table and also to practitioners.
Using the Summit to Improve High School
The USNY Summit presented the case for better high schools as one of three critical changes in policy and practice to raise achievement and close the gap. The Regents have already adopted policy in the other two – early education and higher education – and have moved quickly to implementation. Alarming data presented at the Summit focused USNY leaders and business partners on what we could do together. There has been follow up. Linda Sanford in her leadership position at both IBM and The Business Council has led many regional discussions with business and education leaders about the need for innovation, and education has been the dominant topic in all of them. The District Superintendents convened more than a dozen post-Summit regional meetings to promote Summit themes. Regent Phillips and I attended the most recent one in Rockland County, which concluded with commitments to action by Rockland education, cultural institution, business and elected leaders. NYSUT’s New York Teacher has repeatedly carried articles that reinforce the Summit’s urgent message about the gap, and advisory groups representing NYSCOSS, the School Boards, and other professional organizations continue to talk about these ideas. Chancellor Ryan and Provost Salins of SUNY have engaged BOCES and New York City education leaders to help eliminate teacher shortages. The Summit Call defined a communications strategy, which we are pursuing now through speeches and editorial board meetings that take off from the graduation rate data. The Regents can keep the Summit Call to Action in the public eye at every Board meeting.
It’s hard to know if New York educators are sufficiently aware of the implications of globalization to actually change practice. The Chinese educators and students I met are. In New York, most professional meetings touch on global challenges, and the daily press is full of accounts of wrenching transformation in our economy. But aside from what I saw this month in Lincoln High School, I don’t know yet whether we talk about it in school. Continuous attention to globalism is essential to high school reform. Why? The global perspective, coupled with economic necessity, may be the only thing capable of sustaining the urgency needed to close the gap.
The essential points bear repeating at every opportunity. Young people, no matter where they live in New York, will not be entering a local labor market but a global one. It’s difficult to imagine an enterprise that is immune from the global race to innovate, expand options, cut costs, obliterate old industries, and create and satisfy new markets. The skill content of most jobs is rising, or at least changing, continually. Hundreds of millions of people around the globe have entered the same economy that we live in within the last half-decade, and more are coming. All societies that can afford it seek rapid educational gains as a matter of national economic policy. Some of them don’t have to reform existing systems because they had so little to start with and can build anew and quickly by adapting the best of what the world has. Some of them are so large that they can get it wrong most of the time and still field a bigger team of educated people than we can. And some are so small and vulnerable that they have no choice but to benchmark the best and innovate at breakneck speed – or die economically. Many of these competitors could falter because of other weaknesses, but we can’t count on that.
The global implications for high school will affect what we teach, who teaches whom, how schools are organized, and how long we can afford to preserve structures that don’t produce results. The transformations in high schools could be as painful and perplexing as in every other system, or we could manage the transformation. The responsible course is to try to direct our own path with our colleagues through these changing conditions. One thing is certain. High schools won’t escape change.
What Other Actions Can the Regents Take to Improve High Schools?
The EMSC-VESID Committee will discuss the potential strategies that were before them in January and February. They are: set targets for high school graduation and measure results, make local school boards accountable for graduation rates, check teacher qualifications and order changes so that teachers are certified in the subjects they teach, strengthen teaching through professional development focused on proven curricula, update school safety plans and order immediate change where needed, engage the public and students, and support improvement among the highest performers. The forgoing pages have outlined other actions the Regents could take. Here are some summary suggestions.
Keep expectations clear and the pressure on. Since a 64 percent graduation rate isn’t nearly good enough, the Board can set a higher target, insist that schools meet it, and prepare for a still higher target shortly.
Ensure alignment. The problem of misaligned strategies is common. Here’s an example. We have partnership agreements with the Big Four school districts. They devised plans to improve specific results, and then together local and State Education Department leaders defined performance measures, local actions, and state actions. Everyone is working hard. But the actions don’t align so that everyone’s effort contributes to the goals. We found the problem and are fixing it.
Do the right work at the right level. We’ve heard that before. State leaders can’t direct high school operations, tune all the factors that produce a productive school, or sustain the human relationships at the ground level. Local leaders can’t define teacher or leader certification requirements, guarantee quality college programs, design statewide testing and accountability systems, or establish graduation requirements. The desire on both sides of the partnership to do the other guy’s work is hard to resist. But we must. Our work and their work is hard enough, it’s essential to the whole, and no one else can do it right.
Listen to experts. Some experts are scholars while others are practitioners. We need both kinds, but there are plenty of both, so we don’t have to make this up. Regents can invite a steady stream of experts to advise us on high schools. Who would refuse?
Demand a solution, but don’t impose one. The most powerful thing the Regents do is to change the rules in favor of the students: everyone must graduate with a real diploma, ready for work, citizenship and further education. The Regents do this through the standards, the assessments, accountability, the graduation requirements, and especially, the data. For example, the Board can draw attention to poor transition rates from middle school to high school and low college completion rates. The Board can reveal how many hours of instruction students really have. Such facts presented persuasively compel change.
Consider where, specifically, the Regents might build on their policy framework. That framework is excellent. The questions that follow were suggested in conversations with New York educators and leaders at The Education Trust and Achieve, Inc. and they may suggest useful Regents actions, but we can only pursue a few of them:
Assemble the best minds. Regents have from time to time mentioned creating an external panel on high school. Up to now it has seemed useful to narrow the focus to the lowest performers. After a year, we have learned a lot from those school teams. We know that we don’t want to disrupt high schools that are already successful. But problems are not confined to the 127 schools, and many high performers could help in the work at hand. We should also bring in the national and international resources and ideas on high school reform.
A successful panel would begin with a carefully drafted charge for the right changes to meet our current situation. The expected results: recommendations for Regents action. The work would be in two parts. We would first hear from a panel of national experts with diverse views. Then a longer-term panel of expert practitioners and scholars from New York would build upon what we have heard from the national and international scene. The combined effort would be led with the same intensity, intelligence, and integrity that guided the mathematics standards committee. It would be even more difficult and risky than that venture. But now may be the time.
Commissioner’s Performance Agreement and Measures
In February the Regents, through the work of the Committee on Policy Integration and Innovation, approved the Commissioner’s performance agreement. This month that committee will discuss baseline data for the measures in the agreement, and also potential targets. Rebecca Kennard has led the Deputies and me in assembling the data. If those committee discussions reach a conclusion this month, the committee will recommend that the Board adopt the targets, which will become part of semi-annual performance reviews beginning in July 2006.
Early Childhood Policy Implementation Plan
The Board will discuss a plan to implement the new Regents policy on early childhood. The Board made the essential implementation decisions early on. For example, the Board decided to seek legislative action to lower the minimum age of attendance to five. They decided to engage a broad community of providers, parents, advocates, and scholars in creating options that led to the policy. They are now partners in this work. The Board decided to build the policy on the research. This provides a discipline that will focus implementation on only the actions that are most likely to produce results. The Board decided to embed pre-kindergarten and full day kindergarten in the state aid proposal. The detailed implementation plan follows from these sound, early moves, but there is a lot of hard work remaining to draft legislation, support local startup, and prepare teachers.
Career and Technical Education
This report was postponed from February. Career and Technical Education (CTE) is part of the high school reform and one of the specific strategies being pursued in the Destination Diploma work. The Regents will discuss a second report on the independent evaluation of CTE policy implementation from MAGI Educational Services. Also included is a NYC profile. Here are some findings:
Recommendations are summarized in the Regents item. The most significant recommendations include:
At this month’s Higher Education and Professional Practice Committee meeting, staff will report on how they are addressing the issues that were raised by the Regents during the February discussion on the draft regulations for school leaders including reciprocity for experienced school leaders from other states who wish to work in New York, and concerns about the certification examination requirement.
The Regents Higher Education and Professional Practice Committee will discuss proposed amendments to the Regents Rules concerning the profession of public accountancy. In June of 2005 the Committee discussed draft amendments and directed staff to make revisions while continuing discussions with the field. This month the Committee members will review the revised draft, discuss policy implications of the proposed amendments designed to improve public protection aligned with the Federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and decide next steps in the regulatory process.
Dr. Kenneth Jackson is the Jacques Barzun Professor of American History at Columbia University, and a distinguished historian. On the evening of the first day of the March Regents meeting, the Board of Regents will host an evening with Kenneth Jackson and members of the Executive and Legislature. Professor Jackson will speak about the unrecognized but indispensable role New York played in shaping American democracy and character. In his words, “events in New York, more than any other place, have dominated and defined the larger American experience.”
Nowhere can this story be better told than at the New York State cultural institutions, and at the State Museum in particular. This event will underscore the importance of renewing the State Museum and conserving the treasures held by the Archives, Library, and Museum. This renewal and conserving work are priorities for the Regents. The Executive budget includes $40 million to renew the Museum and build an urgently needed facility for collections and related research. The Assembly budget bill includes $20 million to support Museum renewal and the Senate bill includes $20 million for the collections and research facility.
A monthly publication of the State Education Department
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