January 2008

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Enhancing School Improvement and Accountability

The Regents, State Education Department and the schools completed a prodigious body of work in 2007 to establish Foundation aid, expanded pre-kindergarten, and the Contract for Excellence. To cite just one part of this work, the Regents adopted nine separate sets of regulations related to Chapter 57, all on an emergency basis, which combined immediate guidance to the field with repeated invitations for comment, which in turn produced stronger regulation and commitment.

2008 will be equally rigorous. There is more to Chapter 57 than the Contracts for Excellence. In January, the Regents will discuss enhanced accountability, but the real focus is on school improvement. There are 444 elementary and middle schools identified as in need of improvement. The goal should be to drive that list to zero. There is vast experience in New York with strategies to improve schools. For example, all district superintendents have led SURR visits and some have led a dozen of these teams. Local superintendents know that it is an honor to be selected as team members, and a whole generation of superintendents has been tested in this way. The SURR process is not all that it could be in that schools improve but they do not soar to excellence. Nevertheless, the tradecraft of school improvement can be learned and shared, and those who have these skills are respected. The Chancellor, in a letter to the field, committed us to engage that talent.

The Regents will establish a distinguished educator capacity and there are models we can build on. When we needed experienced hands in Roosevelt, for example, we called two district superintendents and a former school superintendent. They engaged that school community and with the Roosevelt Board and later the new superintendent, they helped create the foundation for a turnaround. Want a rough approximation of a distinguished educator? Look to that example. District superintendents and leaders of NYSCOSS know New York’s most accomplished school leaders. When we need that leadership to serve as distinguished educators, we will call them, confident that they will respond. Building the policy framework to take that concept to scale is one of the Board’s tasks this year.

Chapter 57 calls for growth measures of accountability, targets for improvement, better information for parents and teachers, joint intervention teams, and renewal of the standards. Most of this the Regents anticipated in the P-16 Plan. Part of our task will be to ensure coherence in an accountability and school improvement system that includes the Board’s original policy on accountability, the layers added by NCLB and IDEA, and now Chapter 57. We need a powerful simplicity and a system that is practical.

Two other points: better data and effective use of national experience. In the 2006-07 school year we released 13 separate sets of data. The Regents and the field agree that these data releases must be strategic, predictable, and above all, accurate. This year the Board will adopt a year-long plan for data releases and will expect that schedule to be kept both by the field in providing accurate data, and the State Education Department in reporting to the public and field. To learn from national experience with school improvement, the Board will convene a series of conversations with experts on school improvement, supported by the funding from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Wallace Foundation. The Regents expect to see the research base for all of their policy decisions.

Career and Technical Education

The Regents intend to expand enrollment in Career and Technical education (CTE). The public and the employer community demand this. We have a model that is effective in most of the state but for whatever reason, it has not thrived in the cities. The Regents will convene a regional committee meeting on CTE in New York City on January 28th to focus attention on this opportunity.

In January, the Regents will decide whether or not to approve the design of a five-year plan using federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act funds. Adoption of the plan is scheduled for February. The plan addresses improved student access through incentives and local financial support and promotion of effective practices; improved transitions along the lines the Regents have already proposed for the Smart Scholars, or dual enrollment, program, better linkage with high skill, high wage, and high demand careers in New York, stronger teacher preparation programs; and effective outreach to students. Much of this is related to the Regents P-16 Plan and current budget priorities.

New York has a thoughtful CTE design that reflects national research and best practice in New York. In December the Regents received a report (EMSC-VESID D-5), which shows enrollments, graduation rates, and test scores among CTE programs in different categories of school districts. That report outlined what we can do to improve quality, and how Regents proposals for challenge grants in the State Aid proposal and Smart Scholars can help. The item also proposed a January convening of experts to advise us on how to strengthen CTE.

What is the current model in New York? CTE programs must be approved in relation to rigorous Regents requirements. Approval, which must be renewed every five years, begins with self-study of capacity in relation to Regents criteria, followed by external peer validation. Course work integrates academic and technical subjects. Students complete 22 credits, pass five Regents exams, and also demonstrate competence on an industry-approved measurement. CTE students tend to perform as well or better than non-CTE students on the Regents exams.

District superintendents report that initially, teachers of technical subjects objected to devoting so much time to academics, but strong student performance has diminished this view. Students in CTE programs can see why the science, mathematics, and English are indispensable to their ability to perform in the technical fields they value. Those of us who have visited technical programs have seen this countless times: students doing complex algebra so they could troubleshoot the wiring systems that were all around them; students in commercial art programs deeply engaged in English so they could present their work professionally. A photograph in my office reminds me of what’s possible. It’s of a student showing me the research he did to design and build an historical reproduction of an inlaid table. But he didn’t expect to pass the English Regents exam scheduled a week later. “Why not,” I asked. “You used research, history, writing, and math skills effectively to create this piece of craftsmanship.” Months later the district superintendent introduced that student to me again. All he said was, “I passed.”

Two-Year Policy Agenda

Good policy requires hard work and time for research, consultation with the field, and reflection. In December the Regents discussed a proposed two-year policy agenda which listed topics that might begin and come to decision in particular quarters during 2008 and 2009. We followed the draft in preparing the January Board agenda with the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor. The Policy Integration and Innovation Committee asked Board committees to discuss the proposed policy agenda to prepare for Full Board adoption of a version that fully reflects the Regents intent.

The benefits of a policy agenda are obvious. It enables the Regents to signal to the public and the field when they will address important issues, and this strengthens public engagement. It enables the Board to protect its time to deliberate. And it allows the Department to focus its capacity to support Regents policy work.

Regents Advocacy

The Regents six budget and legislative priorities created in September focus the Board’s advocacy. The Board asked for a core message, a set of advocacy materials, and a schedule of activities. The Board will discuss all of these items in January. The core message appears in short form and a longer version, both of which are based on the P-16 Plan and the priorities. There are two sets of advocacy materials, one for state action and another for the Board’s federal advocacy. The schedule of activities reflects Chancellor and Vice Chancellor decisions about how best to deploy the Board’s strength to advocate for each of the priorities. They considered committee membership, interests of individual Regents who are not on a particular committee but who nevertheless have special knowledge of a priority, and Board member relationships with legislators. State Education Department staff will support Regents in this work through coordinating schedules and keeping the advocacy material current.

Two Reports

The Regents will discuss two reports that will appear in the legislative process this year. They are the reports of the Temporary Task Force on Preschool Special Education and the Commission on Higher Education.

Deputy Commissioner Rebecca Cort was co-chair of the preschool special education task force with Deputy Budget Director Kim Fine. This report addressed difficult issues: rate setting, eligibility, continuum of service options, and Universal Pre-kindergarten programs that integrate children with and without disabilities. The VESID Committee will review recommendations in this report that can be accomplished by the Regents, together with other issues that can be resolved only by amending statute.

The Commission on Higher Education made comprehensive recommendations to strengthen public higher education. Regent Cofield and I served on this commission. The Report endorses the Regents work to create a strong P-16 system, encourages P-16 partnerships, and supports the Board’s renewal of the standards to ensure that high school graduates are college-ready. The most significant potential result could be a sustained state investment in public higher education. If this is achieved after last session’s historic adoption of a Foundation formula for K-12 and a rapid expansion of pre-kindergarten funding, New York would have a comprehensive P-16 funding system, which would be a spectacular advantage in the global competition for talent.

Regulations to Implement IDEA Changes

The Regents will decide how to amend regulations to accommodate changes in federal and state laws related to children with disabilities. The proposed regulations cover a range of issues but the most significant are the transfer of responsibility from district of residence to district of location for students placed by parents in non-public schools, and the parents’ right to excuse particular members of the committee on special education and to modify the IEP without a meeting of the committee. There has been opposition to these two changes but federal law (IDEA) explicitly provides these rights to parents. Continued use of federal IDEA funds requires that New York comply with the amended federal law.

School Leadership

Over the last decade, the Regents have addressed leadership education and certification repeatedly in policy and regulation. In January the Board will consider whether or not to modify the required content of approved programs in school leadership and to require that as of February 2009 individuals completing school leadership programs must pass an assessment of leadership knowledge and skill prior to receiving certification.

Organizational Design and P-16 Data

In December, we announced that the Board had sought and secured major foundation support to undertake two elements of the P-16 plan: building capacity for school improvement and designing a P-16 data system with USNY partners. Immediately after that announcement, the Chancellor and I described this opportunity to the field and promised extensive engagement with our partners. Now the work begins. In January, the Board will talk with representatives of McKinsey and Company and the Parthenon Group, two of the national consulting groups who will work with us.