Effective communications has always been a critical strategy for achieving the education reform agenda. It will be so again as the Regents contemplate the next stage of the reform. There have been many dramatic illustrations in the past. Consider the power of A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report to the U.S. secretary of education from the National Commission on Excellence in Education that appeared immediately on nearly every editorial page and seemingly in every political speech in the nation. Here are two examples from the New York experience. The day after the Regents announced their intention to require Regents exams for all students, most newspapers published samples of Regents math and RCT math questions, in many cases on the front page. The testing debate continues even today but much of the public decided on a high standards course that day. For most people, arithmetic no longer seemed enough mathematics for graduation. The first presentation of test scores disaggregated by race and ethnicity outraged many people but made the injustice of the achievement gap unforgettable and a challenge that no one could avoid.
Communications has to evolve to support the Regents campaign to raise achievement. Communications must continue to be accurate. Now it also must be two-way, continuous, and in formats that meet the demands of multiple audiences. It must flow through many media including streaming video, web casts, and blogs, simply because many people look nowhere else for their news.
The Regents will hear about SED’s new strategy for communications this month. It includes a commitment to reach the public, field educators, elected officials, and SED staff with a consistent message. It includes more capacity – more staff as well as new technology. The SED website will be integrated with our communications team. The communications strategy also includes a new structure to connect SED staff members who up to now have tended to communicate with only one of those audiences. Hard-working teams within SED interact with the media, state legislators and the Congress, and with the field in cultural education, professions, the schools and higher education. The aim is to present a consistent flow of information no matter from where in SED it originates. And we want the public to be able to find the expertise it needs in SED quickly. Our communications strategy includes an awareness of the many audiences we have, and the particular ways they expect to hear from us and talk back to us.
An event last month illustrates the need for improved communications and SED’s capability to deliver it. At mid-morning Governor Paterson announced a 7 percent required cut in all agencies’ expenditures to resolve a $630 million shortfall. Three thousand SED employees knew that by noon. By supper time, 10,000 or more family members would be worried about the future of the family paycheck. To share the fact that we could weather this storm, SED financial experts analyzed the numbers, communications staff prepared a factual message of reassurance, and I delivered it to all staff by streaming video over computers on every desktop before the first shift went home. The video was viewed more than 3,900 times that day. What did people think? Dozens responded by email. Tom Dunn, our communications director, created a quick survey and sampled opinion systematically. Now we know what works and how to make it even better the next time. And we got some requests about other people SED staff want to hear from. Using technology, Deputies have already responded to those requests.
The demand for communication never stops. Is my child’s teacher certified? Is there a judgment against my accountant? Will I have my teacher license in time for the job interview tomorrow afternoon? How difficult is the Integrated Algebra exam? What is the graduation rate in the school district our kids will attend if we buy that new house? Information to help the public answer these and other questions is on the SED website. We are determined to make it easier to find. For almost a year, a team of 40 SED staff, with outside expert help, has surveyed web users, identified best practices on top websites around the nation, and commissioned expert analysis of our website’s usability. They are preparing a series of improvements that will be visible to all our web users by December.
As the Regents and SED prepare to roll out new policy, practice, and capacity to secure still higher achievement, communications will be the major strategy. The Regents will have an opportunity to see and discuss how we are preparing to use that strategy.
Graduation Rates: What We Will Do to Accelerate Recent Gains
Graduation rates are improving for most groups of students, and yet too many students still do not graduate from high school. However, we can build upon the encouraging gains to get even better results.
Here are some of the encouraging gains. Results improve in each successive cohort. Persistence pays off. Many students, particularly students of color, graduate after a fifth and even a sixth year of high school. School leaders have devised practices that are enabling more to graduate, and in the gains from June to August, we can see that their efforts during summer school appear to be working. More students are graduating with a Regents diploma. And there has been some narrowing of the gap.
Major challenges appear in ever clearer terms in these new data. ELL graduation rates are very low and actually declining. While graduation rates for black and Hispanic males are improving year by year, in some cases faster than for other groups of students, the overall rates are dangerously low and demand attention. Children with disabilities do better by the fifth year of high school, but the graduation rates are too low. And in the Big Five school districts, disproportionately more children of color graduate with a local diploma, not a Regents diploma.
We know the practices that work at the district level. They include pre-kindergarten, 9th grade bridge programs, rigorous and engaging curriculum such as CTE and hands-on science, use of leading indicators of potential failure, support services such as guidance and attendance reporting, high school literacy programs, and encouraging 5th and 6th year persistence.
We also know state policies boost graduation. The Regents have gained national attention for some of this work, including world-class academic standards, universal pre-kindergarten, foundation aid focused on the highest-need districts, rigorous accountability, demanding teacher standards, higher education opportunity programs, the USNY Summit and the resulting P-16 strategies. Regents policy has undoubtedly spurred districts to develop effective practices. But even by the sixth year, graduation rates are only 73 percent. That represents progress but we want to be arguing about improvements from a base of 90 percent. How will we get there? How will we aid district strategies to help schools get there?
The task now is to press on with what works and craft additional policy actions to accelerate the gains. The Board can empower districts to meet high graduation targets and hold them accountable. The Board can strengthen and align existing state policies. And they can concentrate new policy and practice on groups of districts and students with low graduation rates. To begin the Full Board discussion, we will summarize the data and outline some potential policy questions.
The discussion in full Board will lead to additional work in the EMSC and VESID committees during the September meeting. The EMSC Committee will focus on the low graduation rates among black and Hispanic males. The aim of that discussion is to define the policy problem and its consequences, and have a policy discussion on a course of action. The VESID Committee will discuss low graduation rates of students with disabilities. That committee will examine additional data to better define the problem, and discuss a number of potential solutions, including instructional strategies to improve adolescent literacy, professional development to support those strategies, and best practices in transition planning for students with disabilities. Both committee discussions will support policy action leading to more success in graduation.
In the near future, the Board will bring a similar focus to low and declining ELL graduation rates and what must be done by the Regents, the State Education Department and school districts to improve these results significantly.
Learning Standards Reviewed
Chancellor Bennett asked Regent Cohen to lead a committee to review the English Language Arts standards, as the Board was required to do by Chapter 57, Laws of 2007. The committee fulfilled that mission and has certain recommendations that will enable the Board to renew the standards this year. The Regents will discuss the committee’s report. The committee convened public forums attended by approximately 1,000 people, and heard from national experts including representatives from Achieve, Inc. and Skills for the 21st Century, superintendents from high-performing school districts and many colleagues.
The committee will have a revised draft of the review of the ELA standards in October or November for discussion by the Regents and the public. The committee envisions a single set of standards drawn from the core performance indicators and the “qualities” in the New York state assessments. There will be changes in the format and presentation of the standards to better support teachers, and better inform parents, employers and public officials. And the standards will embed literacy in all parts of the curriculum.
Contracts for Excellence Monitoring Report
Did districts do what they promised with the 2007-08 Contract for Excellence dollars? What is the basis for those conclusions? What will we do as a consequence? These are among the most important questions the Board will discuss in September, with support from an SED monitoring report.
In general, SED found evidence during 183 school visits to conclude that “the majority of Contract districts substantially implemented the Contract provisions as approved by the Commissioner.” All schools publicized the Contracts but public engagement was not extensive and must improve. Approximately half the Contract districts established specific Contract for Excellence complaint processes, while others relied on existing complaint systems. Research-based practices were deployed using Contract funds.
The budget language required additional actions to reduce class size in the New York City schools. SED monitors found that New York City did not achieve its 2007-08 citywide class size reduction targets but did increase the number of classroom teachers by almost 1,900 and made progress toward the targets. SED identified 75 New York City schools with high class size and low student performance. New York City met the projected class size reductions in 60 percent of those schools. We have required a number of corrective actions in New York City; these are described in the Regents item. The 2008-09 class size reduction plan will be approved only after these actions have been taken.
Growth Model: Next Steps
The next steps in the growth model involve scheduling. This month the Regents will discuss the schedule for 1) field review, 2) Board evaluation of field comments and possible modification of the model, and 3) presentation to the U.S. Department of Education (USED). We have four forums scheduled for September and early October. The Board’s proposal is due to USED by October 15. We have a strategy to ensure that the proposal we send fully reflects Board consideration of field advice.
The Regents have reviewed the policy questions concerning a growth model, heard from national and SED experts, and discussed a draft proposal. For about a year we have consulted quarterly with advocates about the Board’s developing policy. Now we are at the point of extensive field input for a final Board decision.
As the Regents recall from earlier discussions, the proposed growth model is intended to recognize and reward improved student performance and close the achievement gaps. It would give schools and districts credit for students making sufficient progress toward becoming proficient and meeting state learning standards. The proposed model shares features with other states’ growth models that USED has approved, and also includes unique features to make it serve New York’s needs. The proposal embodies a “proficiency plus” concept for grades 3 through 8, with enhancements for middle and high school grades. “Proficiency plus” means that schools would get credit for all students who are proficient, and also for all students on track to proficiency. North Carolina’s approach, which has USED approval, is built on a similar concept.
Meeting Current and Future Financial Challenges
A spending reduction of $16,677,000 resulted from the combined 3.35 percent and subsequent 7 percent cuts requested by the Executive. The 7 percent reduction was difficult because it came nearly half-way through the fiscal year. While many positions will have to remain vacant, these spending reductions did not result in staff layoffs. At the September Board meeting, we will outline the loss in capacity and the consequences.
The reduced spending level will be the basis for the 2009-10 budget. The Executive has called on all state agencies to prepare a zero-growth budget for the coming year. The challenge now and in 2009-2010 is to realign remaining staff capacity to the most critical work to meet Regents priorities.
2009 New York State Teacher of the Year
Vickie Mike, a high school Spanish and French teacher at Horseheads High School in Horseheads, New York, is the 2009 New York State Teacher of the Year. A reception and ceremony honoring Ms. Mike and the four finalists will be held during the October Regents meeting.
Ms. Mike has taught for the last 28 years in the Horseheads School District. She has served as chairperson of the Languages Other Than English Department for the last 16 years. Last year Ms. Mike participated in a Symposium of World Language Educators in China. Her commitment to her students, school and community is evident in all of her work, particularly in her travel abroad with students and parents. She is dedicated to connecting her school community to the larger global community and encouraging her students to become citizens of the world.