Sed letterhead June 2008





Schools Deliver Performance Gains

Grade 3 through 8 performance in both English language arts and mathematics improved this year. We will describe what districts and schools did to achieve these results at the Regents meeting. The Regents will discuss the data in the EMSC committee, but here is a broad view.

In both ELA and mathematics, the proportion of students meeting or exceeding the standards increased. In mathematics, the combined measure of 3-8 performance of students at levels three and four is nearly 81 percent. In ELA, that combined measure is 68.5 percent. In both subjects, the old pattern of decline after 5th grade is changing for the better, which suggests that students may be holding on to their higher skills in the earlier grades as they move through the system. It remains to be seen whether this pattern begins to produce higher graduation rates, but the trend is positive.

The data show year-by-year declines in the proportion of students scoring at level 1, which is good because level 1 scores signify serious academic difficulty. This result suggests that schools continue to focus on students farthest from the standard.

There are a number of indications that gaps are closing. For example, Black and Hispanic students on average improved performance for the second year in a row. The proportion of students with disabilities at level 1 dropped by a large proportion in several grades. The big cities are showing strong increases over last year in the proportion meeting or exceeding standards. These district gains are one indication that the major increases in state aid, increasingly focused on the highest need school districts, were a wise investment. The public clearly expects even more, as do the Regents.

The importance of consistent information about the most important content was a factor in both ELA and mathematics improvements. In assessment terms, the “item maps” which are linked to the standards and which drive the test design were very stable over the years. While performance is improving in both subjects, mathematics gains over the last three years are particularly strong. Why? Starting in 2003, the Board commissioned an expert panel of practitioners to create a grade-by-grade curriculum. It is clear to all which concepts students must master at each grade. SED and school districts collaborated to deliver consistent guidance to teachers through “math tool kits,” math resource centers, and other professional development.

This activity was particularly evident in the Big Five school districts. Why are we seeing these gains in the Big Five districts? Leaders in the big city districts said that it would take time in large systems for the curriculum to take effect, and they were right. But their efforts are now bearing fruit.

Can we trust these results? Yes, we can. New York’s testing system, including the grade 3 through 8 tests passed a rigorous peer review last year. The peer review was conducted by the US Department of Education. In addition, distinguished national experts on the Technical Advisory Group meet regularly to challenge every detail of New York’s assessment system. And at critical points in test design, SED assessment experts commission independent parallel analyses to double and sometimes triple check the work of our test vendor.

What of the future? One interesting result is that students in all categories of districts are improving – those in high need districts and also in the low need. At some point, however, our kids will push the tests to the limit and the Regents will need to raise the bar again. And the Regents have already begun to lay the foundation for these decisions by renewing the standards.

Actions to Improve Administration of 211 Waiver

The Regents will review a proposed emergency regulation to strengthen the Department’s administration of waivers permitting retired educators to accept paid employment in public schools. Under Section 211 of the Retirement and Social Security Law, retired educators, outside of New York City, between the ages of 55 and 64, must receive approval by the Commissioner for remuneration in excess of $30,000 while receiving their public pension. Legislation enacted in 2002 lowered the age at which a waiver is required from 70 to 65.

As we carry out the law our main focus is to insure that school districts have the best available leadership. Both research and common experience show that leadership is indispensable to effective district and school operations. In some cases, such as the sudden departure of a leader, the failure of a search to locate a suitable candidate, or other special conditions, a school board must turn to an experienced retired person for an interim appointment. This applies not only to superintendents but also to school business officials, other administrators and teachers. The legislature recognized this by permitting retired persons to work under certain circumstances while continuing to collect their pensions.

We have followed the law faithfully. But every administrative process can be improved. I have promised to improve this one. As you know, I suspended the 211 waiver process for 60 days to conduct a thorough review and make any necessary improvements, with a particular focus on transparency, effectiveness, and legislative intent. We have consulted with many interested parties, including Regents, the Attorney General, the State Comptroller, and the leaders of New York State United Teachers, the New York School Boards Association, and the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Here are the actions that I believe are most likely to improve the waiver process:

The regulation would require a district to document that it conducted a sufficiently rigorous search for a non-retired educator, why the non-retired candidates were not acceptable, and submit a comprehensive recruitment plan that would lead to the employment of a non-retired educator as soon as possible. It also would allow a waiver in emergency situations in which there is no time to conduct a full search. Waivers would be limited to one year with a one-year extension for extraordinary situations. There would be an exception for waivers for classroom teachers in hard-to-staff schools and in subjects where there are shortages.

In addition, the regulation would prohibit an interim superintendent from participating in the search for the new superintendent and prohibit retired school leaders from being reemployed with a waiver from the same school district or districts in which he or she worked during the last two years prior to retirement. Finally, it would require public disclosure when a retired educator is employed under a 211 waiver including disclosure of the compensation package and that the retiree will receive a pension while so employed.

Improved Rate-Setting for Special Education Programs

The Regents will discuss how rate-setting works now and how to improve it. Rate-setting establishes tuition for over 850 approved special education programs in private schools, public schools, special act school districts, BOCES, and the state-operated schools in Rome and Batavia. The existing process is complex and lengthy for all parties. Many rates are appealed during the year because changed circumstances require greater expenditures than anticipated.

The proposed improvement includes allowable cost parameters, regional cost differences, accommodation for enrollment fluctuations, and appeal procedures that will improve timeliness. The Regents item describes how rate-setting works now, presents a schedule for improvement and describes progress so far. This is an example of how a complicated and unpopular process can be reengineered to become more efficient and customer-friendly.

What Will a Growth Model of Accountability Look Like?

This month the Regents will discuss a proposed growth model for New York’s accountability system, which is required by the 2007-08 state budget. Staff worked with consultants to draft a model that reflects the experience of other states and includes unique features to make it appropriate for New York. The growth model supports Regents policy to close the achievement gap and improve student performance. This model will credit schools and districts for students making sufficient progress toward becoming proficient and meeting state learning standards. Growth models used elsewhere are designed for different purposes, for example to compare schools against like schools or to attribute growth to particular teachers and schools. The item before the Regents this month describes the growth model and how it would work, capacity for implementing the model, and a schedule for securing field comments. With the Regents concurrence, staff will seek public comment.

How to Accelerate Academic Program Registration

The Governor’s New York State Commission on Higher Education recommended that the Regents review the process for considering higher education program proposals and develop a mechanism for expedited review. Department staff and representatives of SUNY and CUNY identified five strategies to improve and expedite the system: review regulations; revise program registration materials; review program proposals collaboratively, track program proposals, and enhance communication to support a transparent process. Staff will describe plans to implement the improvements and assess outcomes.

Should Regents Modify Policy on the IEP Diploma?

The Regents P-16 Plan calls for action in three categories to raise achievement: students, structures, and systems. The actions concerning students concentrate on groups of students needing additional support to achieve standards, including students with disabilities. This month the Regents will review their policy on the IEP diploma. SED reports data suggesting that the IEP diploma may be over-used. While 1 percent of the student population, or 8 percent of students with disabilities, have significant cognitive disabilities and might be expected to qualify for an IEP diploma, in fact 2 percent the total or 14.8 percent of students with disabilities leave school with the IEP diploma. The spread between expected need and actual use of the IEP diploma is even greater in the large cities and high-need rural districts.

The concerns are that the decision to use the IEP diploma in a particular child’s case may be made earlier than necessary, resulting in lower academic expectations and parents and students may be unaware that employers and educational institutions do not consider the IEP diploma equivalent to the regular high school diploma.

The VESID Committee item outlines three policy questions. Should the IEP diploma be replaced with an alternative credential? Should it be continued but under conditions that limit its use? Should it be renamed to eliminate confusion with a regular diploma?

The Regents Discuss Teacher Policy with PSPB Leaders

The co-chairs of the Professional Standards and Practices Board will report to the Higher Education Committee on their work last year and what they propose for 2008-09. The board’s work in 2007-08 appears consistent with the Regents policy agenda. Attached to their report is a proposed set of standards to strengthen professional development. The board’s advice on this topic responds to the Regents P-16 plan which states, “Focus professional development on effective practice in areas in which academic needs are greatest.” Their advice also seems consistent with the Regents current thinking on the importance of improving instruction using research-based practice.

The Regents created the Professional Standards and Practices Board while adopting major changes in teacher preparation and certification policy more than a decade ago. The PSPB is most productive when its work is aligned with Regents and SED priorities. The PSPB proposes five topics for 2008-09: alternative certification, link between theory and practice, special education certification, preparation and supply of career and technical education teachers, and preparation of teachers for high-need schools. The Regents have expressed interest in all these topics. The PSPB might want to coordinate its schedule of discussions on these topics with the Regents 24-month policy calendar.

Teacher Certification Responds Faster to Customers

Two elements of world-class education systems are strong instruction and deep teacher capacity. The Regents P-16 Plan recognizes this, and the Board views effective teacher certification policy and administration as one set of levers to deliver those results. The Regents also expect SED to focus on customers and deliver immediate and visible improvements. SED’s teacher certification team has produced good results.

Teacher certification and the SED Information Technology group collaborated to redesign work flow, add new tools, and raise staff skills. Today, 96 percent of applications for teacher certificates arrive online instead of on paper. Applications forwarded from college programs, which are 89 percent of the total, are approved automatically. The remaining 11 percent require individual evaluation, and for those cases cycle time to the certificate has declined from 20 weeks to 8.

Customers can now track the status of their applications on line. This has reduced the number of phone calls by 43 percent in one year. A huge volume of phone calls still remains (745,000 calls last year), and we have additional cycle-time improvements on the way this summer through technology-based handling of fingerprinting.

Two Governor’s Commissions Could Transform Educational Spending

The two commissions led by Stanley Lundine and Thomas Suozzi respectively, recommendations that connect at important points. The Subcommittee on State Aid will review the commissions’ reports. The comments here consider the reports together and focus on just three of the many issues: BOCES capacity, mandate relief, and school district reorganization.

School district capacity to improve performance and cost effectiveness would benefit from implementing recommendations of the two commissions to strengthen BOCES. The two bodies apparently appreciated the historic mission of BOCES to provide high quality, low cost services. Taken together, these recommendations would lift the cap on district superintendent salaries, encourage Big Four district participation, encourage BOCES to take on back office district functions, and provide major new services including regional collective bargaining and operation of regional high schools. It makes sense in a time of rising concern about the cost and quality of education that New York would turn to the institution that has had this mission since its creation. A great barrier to success is the cap on district superintendent salaries. That cap does not allow market forces to help determine salaries and has made it impossible to fill district superintendent vacancies in some parts of the state, while elsewhere it has made a shallow pool of candidates even more limited.

Mandate relief is a perennial issue. The Regents have attacked the problem by advocating for legislation to eliminate, consolidate and reduce school district reporting. The Commission on Property Tax Relief recommends the same. We are working with the Senate and Assembly on legislation. The commission also recommended barring new Regents regulations in the absence of extensive analysis of financial impact. Many educational mandates come initially from federal and state legislation and the Regents must comply with these laws.

School district reorganization is a third issue. Current law makes district reorganization a long and uncertain process. The commission’s proposal is to give the commissioner of education the authority to order district reorganizations subject to the approval of the Regents. There are many implied controls if such a power were conferred by the Executive and Legislature. For example, any such proceeding would have to be utterly transparent, and reflect extensive public input and expert analysis by individuals accepted as unbiased. Even one failure in this trust would put the power at forfeit in the next legislative session. Reorganization carries no guarantee of cost savings, but this new tool should be easier to use when there are clear opportunities to improve cost and quality.