Commissioner letterhead

February 2009





Federal Stimulus Legislation

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the so-called stimulus package, has become part of the context for budget decisions across the nation. This legislation is massive, complex, and rapidly evolving as I write this. Consequently, no written summary remains current for long. Nevertheless, we can prepare now to act when the matter is decided. The Board’s discussion is timely and will help us anticipate the work ahead.

The Regents will discuss an oral summary of the stimulus package in whatever form is current when the Board meets. This legislation is intended to address the weakening economy by producing jobs and preventing further job loss in the short term and making longer-term investments to support a healthy economy in the future. Education would be funded in two ways: first, through existing federal funding titles currently administered by SED, and second, through a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to help states and communities counter state and local budget reductions. Current versions of the bills seem consistent with the Regents USNY reform agenda.

There will be expectations on all sides for states to act quickly and responsibly when the Act is signed. While the scope and magnitude of this proposed legislation are new, some things are familiar: The Legislature and Executive appropriate and the SED and the Regents are partners in that much of the funding would follow existing federal education programs. The good working relationships we have with the Executive, Legislature and the state control agencies are important. SED experts in federal programs and finance will be expected to administer the funds efficiently and will no doubt be expected to account for the use of these funds. We must be responsive to the field, which must use the fund effectively. We will have to be ready to communicate expectations and answer questions quickly and accurately.

State policy makers and local educators are aware that bill language envisions a two year flow of funds, and many are wondering what to expect in the third year. There is no guaranteed funding for a third year. New York must be ready to make efficient and accountable use of the two years of funds to build capacity and raise achievement so we do not face a crisis in the third year.

Cost Containment and Student Achievement

The Regents will discuss cost containment options in the Subcommittee on State Aid and the VESID Committee this month. There is intense interest in a Regents-led effort to define practical and measurable strategies that both contain costs and support student achievement gains. It is evident that the broad categories contained in the Regents state aid proposal have support. Now the Board and SED turn to the details. In addition to the Regents work on state aid, many local and regional leaders as well as two gubernatorial commissions and our partners in the field have contributed ideas to the search for workable cost containment strategies. The aim should be to find the set of proposals with the biggest potential cost savings and the broadest base of support. Regents leadership will be the catalyst.

The Subcommittee on State Aid will discuss options for regional transportation services and shared services through BOCES, as well as other possibilities such as regional high schools. The VESID Committee will continue to discuss strategies for cost containment in special education.

Professional Development Standards for Teachers

The co-chairs of the Professional Standards and Practice Board for Teaching discussed a draft of proposed professional development standards with the Higher Education Committee in June 2008. Now the revised proposal returns to the committee for a decision. The proposal includes ten standards, with associated indicators of achievement. There are many themes of interest to the Regents, including quality teaching, research and data-driven practice, student diversity, and technology. In making the decision to endorse the proposed standards, the Regents might apply this test: How will the professional development standards lead to instructional practice that will produce significantly better student outcomes?

Data System Improvements

Reliable data are as indispensable as standards, curriculum, teaching, and practice in the drive to raise achievement and close the gaps. The Regents will discuss an item that summarizes the problem with data management, and then defines several actions already taken and results we promise for the spring of 2009 to help resolve the problem.

We have listened to the field to understand the problem and heard from independent experts who have evaluated our systems for collection, management, and reporting data. In brief, the data releases are not timely, districts cannot easily review and verify data they enter, and processes for correcting errors are laborious for districts and the Department alike.

We are aided by expert advice from consultants, including a strategic review by the Parthenon Group. SED has a new data leadership structure in a project team with staff from EMSC, Information Technology, and VESID, which is guided by deputy leadership in P-16 and the Office of Management Service, a project manager for our contract with the Grow Network, and a pending appointment of a new chief data director who will give overall guidance to data collection, management and reporting in P-16.

Among the deliverables this spring are electronic reports to districts to speed data verification, built-in data checks to prevent errors as districts enter data for state reports, and elimination of duplicate data collections in general and special education.

Higher Education Data

The Higher Education Committee requested a comprehensive review of higher education data including what it shows, how and why it is collected, and how it is different from P-12 data in some instances as well as what it implies for Regents policy. This follows the Board’s discussions about the mid-point review of the Statewide Plan for Higher Education.

Higher education in New York is complex. The four sectors—SUNY, CUNY, independents, and proprietary institutions--offer an extraordinary array of programs for all professions, doctoral research, liberal arts and sciences, technical fields of every kind, and recent immigrants who may have had interrupted education or no education at all. SED staff will outline how data informs decision making and the identification of achievement gaps in higher education. For example, student persistence to sophomore year is an important measure. Many students drop out before they get to sophomore year, but there are institutional practices that can overcome this problem. Another example is the two-year graduation rate. Many students who attend two-year colleges and transfer to four-year colleges without receiving an associate’s degree are not identified as graduates.

The Board and SED created a P-12 view of performance data to good effect. This enabled the public and the field to see performance gaps and address them, securing higher achievement for so many students. The data were instrumental in transforming the state aid system. Data became the foundation for accountability and school improvement strategies. The Board has the same policy lever in higher education. In fact, it has committed to enhance its current structure with an expanded focus on P-16. Consider the case of the opportunity programs. These programs help students who initially do not meet academic requirements for admission to higher education and lack the economic resources to attend. Yet the students admitted to the opportunity programs overcome the barriers and complete higher education at rates that approach the graduation rate of their institutions. The data reveal their success and illustrate a need for sustained investment in programs that work.

Grades 3-8 Testing

The EMSC Committee will continue the policy discussion about the grades 3-8 testing program. One over-arching Regents policy aim is to use the tests as part of a strategy to encourage growth in student achievement at all levels, including students who are already high performers. That aim will require changes in test design.

The timing of this discussion is right because the existing testing contract is drawing to a close and SED must develop a request for proposals and go through the normal bidding process to have a new contract ready in 2010-2011. The Board has discussed several policy questions, including the optimum time to administer the tests, and how SED will report results within a ten-week cycle after the last test administration. Regents will expand the discussion to the purpose of the tests, and the appropriate combination of multiple choice and short and long written answers. The policy questions and their answers are inter-related. The purpose, for example, will influence the selection of question types, and both of these issues are relevant to the schedule for reporting results. The Regents item lists the benefits and costs of various test dates, and advantages and challenges concerning the types of questions.

School District Fund Balance and Reserves

The Audit Committee continues its series of discussions on trends or patterns that are evident in audit findings reported by the Office of the State Comptroller. The purpose is to identify opportunities for Regents policy and SED follow-through to eliminate the causes of adverse audit findings in the future. This month the topic is “School District Fund Balance and Reserves”. The SED audit team finds that appropriate guidance on the matter is readily available and we will reach out to school boards, districts, and BOCES to bring this to their attention.