BY STATE EDUCATION COMMISSIONER RICHARD P. MILLS
The Meeting in Brief: The Regents will conduct their monthly meeting in Buffalo. The Board will meet with college and university presidents and deans about advocating for resources and other mutual concerns. The Board will visit schools that are improving and also schools on the SURR list. They will hear from members of the Buffalo Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools on future prospects. They will visit other organizations that build capacity to meet standards through work with parents, teachers, and early childhood programs.
School Aid Issues
Budget participants and observers are conscious of the calendar. The 2004-05 fiscal year has already begun, and school budget votes are less than a month away. In three and a half months, the Court of Appeals date for a State aid solution runs out. It’s time to decide.
The Regents item on State aid this month summarizes three State aid proposals – including the Regents Foundation Plan -- now before the Legislature and the Executive. It simplifies an otherwise complex array of proposals, and we think those in the budget discussion will find it helpful.
As the side-by-side chart shows, the three proposals are similar on some points and quite different in others. From the beginning the Regents Sub-committee on State Aid has taken the position that we would raise the important questions, offer good answers based on research and data, and consider the proposals of others. The time for decision-makers to take action is here. Therefore, the main points of difference among the proposals are worth attention.
Include aid for at-risk with aid for all? A separate formula for at-risk students makes that population vulnerable to variations in revenue and side steps the main point: change the formula to make it fair. The Regents strategy that changes operating aid so that it supports high need students effectively is the stronger approach in this case.
Combine aid for students with disabilities and aid for all? Special education aid has many advocates, so here the better argument is for continuing special education aid as a separate program for long enough (probably a year) to allow for a thorough discussion with advocates on the merits of combining the aid categories.
Consider the total aid (with some measure of loss) or simply the increase (with no loss). While the Regents proposal takes the first position, this has not been our major focus. Instead, the Regents aim was to provide major increases to high need school districts at a feasible total State aid amount.
Local share: suggested or mandated? The Regents proposal calculates an appropriate local share but does not provoke the mandate controversy. Our strong accountability system ensures that there would be no long-term advantage to a local community that declined to provide a reasonable local share of the cost of education.
The Regents proposal has the better argument on most if not all four of these points of difference.
Buffalo Schools -- Some Context
Buffalo is in the heart of a region that has experienced huge financial challenges over the last two decades. This reality continues to shape the environment in which educational institutions try to accomplish their missions. It is also a place with great community pride in its history, institutions and people.
Chancellor Bennett and I had a long and productive meeting with Superintendent Marion Canedo and Board President Jack Coyle in March. Among other topics we discussed Buffalo’s work on the Partnership Agreement with the State Education Department, and their ideas on the importance of early intervention in children’s education.
Buffalo was the first of the Big Five school districts to create a Partnership Agreement, which defines local priorities and both local and state actions to meet them. The agreement began with a focus on the important recommendations of the Council of Great City Schools report on Buffalo. The agreement is now in its second edition and the Superintendent and the Board President are already thinking about the third edition. We in the State Education Department have found this joint effort to be constructive.
School enrollment in Buffalo has declined significantly over the last five years and the Board and administration have faced difficult decisions about facilities and staffing as a result. The City of Buffalo operates under a state review board, and this affects the operation of the school system. In addition, a third of the Board members will not seek reelection on the May ballot.
The District has closed eight schools over the last three years and plans to close five more during 2004-2005. During the 2006-2007 school year the district will close an additional five schools. These closings are in response to enrollment decline and sometimes as part of their strategy to resolve achievement issues. Buffalo school leaders and our facilities staff collaborated on a large school renovation program. Buffalo has, on average, the oldest school buildings in service but has obviously worked hard to keep them in good condition.
The system has lost 700 teachers and support staff over the last several years through both attrition and layoffs forced by financial conditions in Buffalo. All labor contracts are due for renewal this summer.
There are 14 charter schools in or close to Buffalo and no other district experiences so large a financial effect from charter schools. In a bold response to the charter phenomenon, the Board decided to welcome charter schools and has even created one – the Enterprise Charter School.
As one would expect with all of these challenges, the achievement results reveal both strengths and some areas to improve. For example, Buffalo has 10 schools on the list of improving schools and I visited an excellent one recently – Hamlin Park Elementary. There are 11 Buffalo SURR schools.
Lunch Meeting with College Presidents and Deans
The Regents will meet over lunch with presidents and deans of colleges and universities in the Buffalo, Erie and Niagara area. The context is promising. It includes statewide planning for higher education – which is built this year on priorities proposed by the higher education community, joint budget advocacy, teacher and leader preparation, standards and the gaps in student achievement, and our shared interest in economic development. Here are some topics to explore with these leaders.
Investment in the core of higher education. The Regents and State Education Department staff have advocated for higher education in the current budget. We opposed the TAP deferrals, sought more funds for the opportunity programs and for Teachers of Tomorrow, and new funding for New Century Libraries and students with disabilities in higher education. This is evolving into an even greater opportunity.
At an April meeting with the Higher Education sector leaders, we spoke about the need for coordinated long-term investment strategies. Annual state budget advocacy has been about restoring deep Executive cuts in TAP and other programs, not about strengthening the core of higher education. With higher education leaders, and the many who depend on what higher education does for New York, we must build the case for investment in the core – facilities, faculty, research, technology, and libraries. The four higher education sectors, along with the Regents, need a “joint ask” in the next budget cycle and all those to follow. In the absence of such a strategy, institutions could become weaker, and even the diversity of the various public and private sectors could suffer as all sectors are forced to act like independent institutions in the competition for basic operating funds. We must commit to building the case for State investment in higher education with our higher education partners.
USNY and the K-16 perspective. While other states try to build the table where issues affecting all parts of education can be explored, and often resolved, New York has long had such a table – the Regents. And we have the structure called USNY – the University of the State of New York. The preparation of teachers is only one issue where New York had an advantage because secondary and post secondary education can work together. Other obvious opportunities are in library development, workforce preparation, raising standards and closing performance gaps, and continuous renewal of the licensed professions.
Dinner Meeting with USNY Partners
During the winter Chancellor Bennett hosted a meeting of USNY partners that included college and university presidents, leaders in public broadcasting, BOCES, school superintendents, library and museum leaders, and State Education Department staff. As Regents learned in March, five SED staff created the framework for that discussion as part of their Leadership Academy training. The USNY partners recognized not only the institutional capacity represented by their organizations on the map of western New York, but also the relationships and potential relationships that enabled them to better accomplish their separate missions.
The purpose of the discussion with these institutional leaders is to deepen our understanding of the potential to accomplish our common mission – “to raise the knowledge, skill and opportunity of all the people of New York” -- by supporting such relationship-building activities in other regions.
Visits to Schools and Other Sites
While in Buffalo the Regents will visit three organizations that build capacity to educate children to higher standards: The Parent Network of Western New York, Success by Six with its early childhood development mission, and the WNED/Center for Applied Technologies in Education/Teacher Center. As we talk with people working in and with these programs, consider how they create the capacity to close the gaps in student achievement, and how Regents policy might encourage such efforts.
The Regents will also visit schools on the SURR list and on our list of improving schools. There is no one best way to visit a school. Each of us brings a lifetime of experience to a school visit, and it might be helpful to reflect on that experience, on Regents policies affecting schools, and on the other schools we have visited. Here is one person’s “field guide” to start you thinking:
· As soon as possible, get out of the principal’s office to observe instruction.
· Resist the urging to visit every classroom and don’t get on a tour. Instead, pick one or two things you want to see -- a math class, a physics lab, a reading session, a chorus – and spend a long time watching and listening.
· Let the teacher talk with the students. The teacher and student work in that room is more important than anything we might say to the children. Let’s listen and see what happens. Think about the curriculum as it is actually experienced by the children. What is the proportion of teacher talk to student talk? Who is left out of the lesson? What are they reading? What are the math problems? What is the teacher doing? Does practice seem similar in other classrooms?
· What’s on the walls? High performing elementary schools seem to have lots of tips and guides to learning in teacher’s handwriting. They value and display student work, and it isn’t all the same.
· Talk with the librarian. How is the library program connected to the classroom? Do the librarians know about New Century Libraries?
· Check out the student art. Is this a place that cares about art?
· What’s the evidence that parents are welcome?
· Does the school feel safe, clean, and inviting? Are the bathrooms in good condition?
· Listen to the school. Effective schools aren’t silent but give off a purposeful workroom sound. The adults are in control but don’t need to raise their voices.
· In private, let the principal know what you observed.
New York Has School Accountability
The Zarb Commission proposed a new office of school accountability, independent of the State Education Department, and led by a director appointed by the Regents with the approval of the Governor. A press account quoted Mr. Zarb as estimating the cost of the new bureaucracy at three to five hundred million dollars for the initial year.
Most would agree that accountability should include clear expectations, measurement and reporting of results, and consequences. All of this is necessary to ensure that public money is well spent. Let’s consider the school accountability system we already have.
What’s the basic outline? New York has standards, exams that certify their achievement, public report cards on every school and an annual report to the Legislature and Executive. Low performing schools are identified publicly, they must create plans to meet specific targets, and there are consequences for non-performance. These accountability methods have presented the gap in student achievement in vivid terms for many years, and the Regents have consistently used the data to advocate for resources for children in greatest need. Schools and school leaders responded to the data and test scores have climbed in every category of district.
Have others noticed? New York was one of only five states with an accountability system that won approval under No Child Left Behind on the first anniversary of the Act. The CFE litigation referred often to the standards, assessments, report cards, and the annual statistical report. Education Week has repeatedly ranked New York’s assessment and accountability systems among the best in the nation.
What about low performing schools? The Regents created a system to identify schools farthest from the standards as Schools Under Registration Review (SURR). The State Education Department implemented that policy. Schools on the list have performance targets and a timetable to meet them. If they don’t meet those targets, they are closed or reconstituted. Since 1989, 260 schools have been on that list, 167 improved enough to come off the list, 39 were closed.
There are other consequences. For example, when the Regents decided that temporary teaching licenses would no longer be used and the practice would end first in the SURR schools, we enforced that decision, in one case through Commissioner’s order and ultimately in the courts. As a result, schools are accountable for providing every child with a qualified teacher. This happened before the conception of No Child Left Behind.
The Regents built and used a comprehensive school accountability system before most other states had to create one in response to No Child Left Behind. We identify schools as High Performing, Meeting Standards, Below Standards/Rapidly Improving, Corrective Action, and SURR. Low performing schools have improvement plans.
New York keeps a list of more than a thousand schools that are improving. In 2005-06 we will recognize rapidly improving schools, but for some time Regents and I have visited improving schools to dramatize the local practices that produced these results.
In response to a statute requiring an accounting of the mandated reports required of school districts, the State Education Department proposed to consolidate more than a hundred plans and reports now mandated by state and federal law into a useful few. This is a deliberate effort to provide mandate relief.
New York schools are accountable for results and they have put state aid to productive use.
We have shared copies of the Regents paper on needed changes in No Child Left Behind with respect to children with disabilities and “adequate yearly progress.” For example, colleagues shared the proposal with advocacy groups, Congressional legislative contacts, senior people in the US Department of Education, and with New York legislators. We also talked with Chancellor Klein and with the Council of Chief State School Officers about the proposal. The US Department has announced regulatory changes: school districts could achieve the 95 percent test participation rates over three years, and teachers who teach more than one subject would have another year to reach highly qualified status, but these do not address our concerns. We are continuing to advocate with an eye toward 2005.
There may be a Senate vote on IDEA, but the differences between Senate and House versions are wide and a conference committee is not expected. On the Workforce Investment Act reauthorization, we have built a foundation of support for changes in the Senate version that recognizes that in New York, adult, vocational rehabilitation, and Perkins funding are under an agency other than the Executive. The proposed changes allow us to decide how funds we are accountable for would be used in one-stop programs. Other states are in a similar situation and will need this accommodation. No action on WIA is expected, as conferees have not been named.
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