April 2005
Report to the State Board of Regents


Meeting in Brief:  The Regents will meet in Binghamton this week with a focus on workforce development. They will talk with USNY leaders about this issue, and then meet with regional business leaders about the intersection of global competition and educational performance. The Regents will visit many educational programs. The EMSC-VESID committee will act on charter schools and continue its discussion of the minimum passing score on Regents exams. We welcome two newly appointed members of the Board: Regent Carol Bellamy and Regent Roger Tilles.


Workforce Development

    A college president and a corporate CEO told similar stories at a University of the State of New York (USNY) meeting last month. The president reported that in spite of a selective admissions process, 40 percent of the freshman class depended on the campus academic support center to reach expected performance. The business leader described the hiring process in his company. A thousand applicants yielded about 40 new hires, but only 6 survived the probationary period. Both the college president and the corporate leader pointed to weak communications skills as the major barrier. 


Weak communications skills–writing, speaking, listening, spelling, grammar, usage, and vocabulary–keep one from a good job or a college degree.  Think of that.  A failure to communicate blocks one from the good life. And then consider the global implications. It’s been said you can buy in any language but to sell, you need to know the other person’s language–and culture, and history also. And of course, a lot more than communications skills are called for now.


We should ask hard questions about what’s required now, and brace ourselves for tough responses.  This Regents meeting is a good place for such questions. We might ask business leaders in large and small companies to describe the competition they face now in a global economy. The clothes we wear, cars we drive, food we eat–these are produced all around the world by those who, for now, have won the right to produce against determined competitors – competitors who study to take their places. No one is untouched because there isn’t a purely local economy set apart from global forces.  We read of the pace of global change, but what does it feel like to a person trying to meet overseas customer expectations and price competition?  What is the skill set required of an employee today, and how is that changing?  And what is the response required from education?


The business community has moved beyond an earlier focus on technology to new awareness of the power of innovation: the capacity to combine knowledge from many fields with great speed, flexibility and imagination to solve new problems, and awareness of what happens to companies and societies that harden and lose the capacity to innovate. In this emerging phase of the knowledge economy, educational institutions must become more nimble, more connected to the world, and more aware of how much is at stake. And the standards against which all of us in education will be measured will be higher than ever.


In that context, let’s ask higher education leaders how admission requirements have gone up, and why, and how undergraduate and graduate education is changing. And we might ask them to describe the competition their institutions face.


The rising student achievement reported last December is reason to celebrate. Schools worked hard for these results and so did the students. So why do we see the need for urgent improvement?  Everyone on the globe who can is trying to accomplish the same skill and knowledge gains that we seek. True, some nations that are competitors now may stumble if they fail to resolve other challenges–the aging of their populations, social inequalities, to cite two–but we are not immune to these problems either.


New York’s disadvantage in the global competition is the great divide in educational achievement and opportunity along lines of race, ethnicity, income and disability.  Look at the numbers again. We have a two-fold problem: to close the gap for some and raise the achievement for all. One of our advantages, however, is in the institutional capacity called USNY, the University of the State of New York. As we realize that advantage we will be better equipped for what is to come.


Seizing the New York Advantage: USNY


New York has an advantage in the global race for talent. That advantage is the University of the State of New York (USNY) and the able people who work in member institutions.  We have that advantage because of the size and excellence of USNY institutions, and also because all of them are under the care of a single board–the Regents.  While others try to build connections among the institutions, New York already has them.


It’s a common error to think that economic power can be built by enhancing one part of the system: a better high school, a technical college, or a research university. All of these are essential. But all depend on the whole system. Societies cannot produce enough university-trained mathematicians, for example, without excellence in mathematics at every step. For that reason alone, we will again thank those who built the revised grade-by-grade math standards, starting with pre-kindergarten. And we will recall that the Math Standards Committee also proposed ways to use the preK-12 standards to spur students on to collegiate achievement in mathematics.


Here is the advice we received early on from USNY leaders: Think systems. Build the habit of joint effort. Look at all the resources. Seek problems to solve, not areas to control. Think about the barriers to getting good things done. Create a new framework for University-wide action. The Board and the Department are putting that advice into practice in policy decision and implementation.


Regents have hosted three regional conversations among USNY leaders and four more are scheduled to prepare for the Regents November 2 USNY Summit. Part of the discussion in Binghamton will be with USNY leaders, using the format we have developed for the regional conversations. 


Proficient Performance: The Case for Urgency


The Regents will decide within months the extent to which students must achieve full proficiency in required subjects in order to graduate.  This is not a testing question, although the Regents exams and a long list of approved alternatives are used to measure proficiency. The learning standards define what students should know and be able to do and panels of expert teachers choose the cut points that distinguish proficiency.


This decision requires a judgment about the sufficiency of educational outcomes and the capacity of the education system to prepare students to the levels we already agree are essential. The system has changed dramatically in recent years. Instructional practice, particularly in reading and mathematics, teacher preparation, leadership, and use of data to guide improvement, have improved. Has the system changed enough?  Is there evidence that it is on a trajectory of continuing improvement?


The results show that among general education students who take five Regents exams, there is little difference in the proportion passing at 55 and those passing at least three exams at 65 or above.  The proposal before the EMSC-VESID committee is therefore supported by data from the 9th graders of 2000. We also see strong gains in the classes coming up behind them. For example, performance on the Regents mathematics exams is rising in the classes that follow the 2000 cohort. And the representatives of the 136 high schools with the lowest graduation rates appear to be able and committed professionals who are determined to raise achievement.


We have heard a suggested alternative to the original proposal that would not average Regents exam scores but would instead require one exam at 65 in the first year, two in the second, and so on, with full implementation of five exams in 2009.  That’s a good concept because it is simple to administer, but would produce a slower phase-in. A faster phase-in might be feasible. If the Regents decided to start with three in the first year, that would mean in New York City that another thousand students would have to pass three exams at 65. To reach four exams, it would require another 2400 students to reach that level, and for five exams at 65 or above, approximately another 6000 would have to accomplish the goal. The numbers seem relatively small until we recognize that the cumulative increase of about 9500 students represents over 30 percent of the cohort.  In the end, the Board may want to balance hard data with judgment about “how fast lower performing schools can make systemic improvements,” as one District Superintendent remarked after leading a SURR visit.


Other states use an appeal process, and the Regents are also considering an appeal under strict limitations. This would affect an estimated 3,000 students statewide. The number is small, but it would address a concern about fairness.



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Last Updated: April 14, 2005