Commissioner letterhead

            April 2009





ARRA “Race to the Top” Funds

              The Chancellor and I will outline for the Board the thinking nationally about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act “Race to the Top” funds, which is an unprecedented challenge worth almost $5 billion, and possibly more.  While education Secretary Arne Duncan has not defined the terms, we understand that one likely scenario would be large grants to a few consortia of states.  Each consortium would commit to building state-developed national standards that are internationally benchmarked.  Each would pursue a comprehensive reform strategy that embraces the four requirements for the ARRA assurances.  Other scenarios are possible, including multiple challenges focused on individual parts of the reform strategy.  Proponents of this view argue that it would produce new knowledge to enhance elements of the next generation of reform. It is likely that there will be two sets of awards of “Race to the Top” funds. If the piece-by-piece approach defines the challenge, then we would need to decide where to focus.  If the consortium approach is selected, then much depends on forming up with the most able states.

              The “Race to the Top” imagery is powerful.  To extend the mountaineering metaphor, over the last decade states, localities, and many national groups have positioned high “base camps” that make an assault on the summit feasible. That effort is visible in the standards, assessments, curriculum, data systems and much good practice. The summit represents high achievement for all students.  Evidently, the nation doesn’t yet know how or hasn’t been willing to get there.  The opportunity now is to assemble those few states with the endurance, knowledge, innovation, and equipment to pioneer a route to the top.  Once one team has done it, everyone can. It would be an educational challenge like no other.  New York must be in that team.

Budget Update

            The budget was enacted since the Regents last met and at least two budget topics merit particular attention. In full Board the Regents will discuss the Executive’s announcement of potential reductions in staff, effective July 1. Our target level is 199 positions that we will address through a combination of attrition and actual layoffs.  In addition, the enacted budget includes a reduction of 21 General Fund positions, which we will have a full year to reduce, improving the odds of being able to meet it through attrition.  The policy question here is how best to organize our capacity to meet Regents goals.

            The State Aid Subcommittee will discuss how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds enabled the Executive and legislature to avoid a $1.1 billion deficit reduction assessment.  State aid remains essentially level.  With federal support replacing state support, and a two year pause in the campaign to fully implement the formula, it will be difficult to resume the phase-in even in better economic conditions.  The policy question for the subcommittee and Board is, what remains of the decision to transform state aid as a strategy to close the achievement gap, and how will we address this in the next budget?

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Update 

              New York’s application for the ARRA funds is essentially complete pending responses to a few remaining financial questions.  Once the application is signed and submitted to the U.S. Education Department, 67 percent of State Financial Stabilization Funds will be available within two weeks.  Also available will be 50 percent of Title I and IDEA Parts B and C, plus some other funds. This will constitute the first phase of ARRA funding for education.

              This is a streamlined application by which the Governor will verify that certain base-line data already on file with USED are in fact the most recent and correct data available.  We have supported the Executive in this application. The data include assessment results, distribution of highly qualified teachers, improvements in data collection and use, standards and assessment systems,  inclusion of students with disabilities and ELL, support for low performing schools and state spending.  An important section of the application requires governors to sign assurances concerning standards and assessments, equitable distribution of teacher talent, creation of P-16 data systems, and school improvement.  USED continues to provide guidance, most recently on April 1, and SED followed up with a webcast to the field and written material available on our website.

              The second phase of the funding will occur after July 1 following a plan for how New York will spend the funds. In a letter to governors, education Secretary Arne Duncan outlined preliminary metrics that states are to address in their plans.  The final version awaits review of public comment following notice in the Federal Register. Secretary Duncan wrote, “In exchange for this unprecedented funding boost, we are asking you to collect, publish, analyze, and act on some basic information about how our schools educate our children, evaluate our teachers, and measure our success – information that will reveal both strengths and underlying challenges.”   Regents policy and New York’s practice already match many elements in the metrics, including number and percent of highly qualified teachers in high and low poverty schools, efforts to enhance assessments, and progress toward a P-16 data system.  At many points, however, we will have to stretch to achieve the metrics. Here are some of them:



              The secretary wrote that states are not required to make progress on these metrics to receive the phase 2 funds, but the expectation is that states will make progress.  The data on each of the metrics will be made public on the USED website.

              SED senior staff have had several discussions with state and federal control agencies that want to verify the condition of our financial controls. Well in advance of the flow of ARRA funds we have answered many questions about how New York will track and report the use of the dollars.  This matches repeated statements from Vice President Biden and Secretary Duncan that accountability will be unprecedented.

              With all that we know, there are still important elements of ARRA administration that we don’t know, although we are preparing nevertheless.  The Council of Chief State School Officers in its summary of the April guidance noted that we still await information on the competitive grants, including, most importantly, the $5 billion “Race to the Top” funds.  There are other conceptual tensions within ARRA to be resolved, notably how to balance state-led reforms and broad flexibility in the local use of fund; and how to balance the aims of preventing job losses, and taking long-term strategic action to improve results, and short-term term action to build capacity.  USED and state leaders continue to discuss these topics and search for workable approaches.

Raising Graduation Rates

The Regents have deplored current graduation rates and declared their expectations for much greater success for all students.  The Board has had four discussions, based on data, about the rates overall as well as for students with disabilities, black and Hispanic males and English language learners.  We have discussed some positive trends in the data: each cohort does better than the one before, students who persist through a fifth year do better, and those who continue through the summer to an August graduation also improve rates overall.  But we need still better results.  Individual Regents have joined me in challenging individual school districts and in one case, a whole BOCES region to raise rates to 90 percent.  We have listened to national experts and supported the Governor’s effort through a summit on improving graduation rates.  In reporting local rates we have recounted what high graduation rate systems do to accomplish their results. The Board has discussed and in many ways implemented strategies to improve graduation rates, including through quality early childhood education and pre-kindergarten, and ensuring highly qualified teachers for all, challenging curriculum, and adequate funding.  But still we want to see the results improve.

The time is right for the Regents to set a high standard for graduation rates.  Among the nearly 1,000 high schools in New York, 261 have rates below 70 percent and 112 have them below 50 percent.  This is intolerable.  Young people without at least a high school diploma are marginalized economically, politically, and socially even in a good economy.  But in this economy? 

People are ready to follow the Board’s lead in this.  The policies and practices that work are known and observable in schools around the state, and they can be taught and learned.  There is no best way; indeed, districts with high graduation rates offer many options, including traditional four-year programs, fifth years, career and technical education, dual enrollment, alternative programs and summer school.  Even now, we have the financial resources.  The need to improve outcomes couldn’t be more obvious.

Federal NCLB regulations promulgated in October 2008 call for states to set a single graduation rate goal as well as annual targets for districts and schools.  The regulations also allow states to request the ability to credit schools and districts for students who take five or more years to graduate.  New York has anticipated this flexibility in reporting results and should use this now in national reporting.  The EMSC Committee will discuss this issue.

Proposed Regulations for Make Up Credit and Independent Study

The Regents have continually drawn attention to different paths to graduation to enable students to take advantage of unique learning opportunities and accommodate special circumstances, and they will do so again this month.  Making up course credit and independent study are two such examples. Making up course credit is intended to help students master learning outcomes after they have failed to complete a course. Independent study allows students to pursue a subject in greater depth. As these pathways are used more frequently, clarity and rigor are needed to guide awarding of credit so that all students meet the requirements for college and workplace.  The Regents will discuss a draft proposal that specifies the circumstances and conditions under which students may earn credits through make-up opportunities if they fail or do not complete a course, and whether and how students may take independent study and receive credit.

Teacher Tenure – Filling a Gap

A recent Commissioner’s decision under Section 310 of the Education Law revealed a 34-year-old gap in the Department’s teacher tenure regulations. The regulations governing accrual of tenure in a teacher’s certificate area require that he or she be employed as a classroom teacher at least 40 percent of the time.   This is a problem for those who have taken on assignments such as curriculum specialists, professional developers, and committee chairs because it affects their seniority rights and their status for workforce reductions. In March the Higher Education Committee discussed the need for draft emergency regulations, which are scheduled for discussion this month. 

SED staff have consulted interested parties to find a solution.  There is broad but not total agreement on what to do for those who were misinformed about their tenure rights in the past when they took other assignments: We should make them whole by allowing their service in instructional support assignments to count towards tenure and seniority in their certificate area.  There is less agreement about how to proceed going forward.  We have recommended a solution that will not meet the preferences of all parties, but one that is consistent and reasonable.  Given that staff reductions may be inevitable in many districts and BOCES, the Regents will be asked to approve the proposed amendments by emergency action this month particularly to protect those who are currently employed and have been mistaken in their understanding of their tenure rights. 

Efficiencies in Teacher Credential Processing

 The Regents in January discussed a report that identifies planned changes in the Office of Teaching Initiatives that would create greater efficiencies and increased revenue during a time of reduced resources.   This month proposed amendments to regulations will be discussed to address these changes which include:  modifying the individual transcript evaluation process so an applicant would receive up to two evaluations for each application and fee submitted (if an applicant has not met all the requirements by the time of the  second evaluation, a new application and fee could be submitted), restoring the fee for issuing an internship certificate, modifying time extension requirements, and exploring alternatives to the reissuance of Initial Certificates.  This is one of two issues that will be the subject of a joint meeting of the EMSC and Higher Education Committees. (The second concerns supplemental certificates.)

Grades 3-8 Testing Schedule

The EMSC Committee will discuss scheduling alternatives for the 3-8 tests in 2010-2011. In March the Committee discussed the results of the field survey on options for rescheduling the administration of these exams to later in the school year.   This month the Board will consider options that include administering both the ELA and mathematics tests later in the year.

P-16 Data Systems – A Discussion in Two Parts

            Valid data that are well managed, analyzed and understood are an indispensable resource to drive improvement in performance.  The Regents will discuss improvements and opportunities in data collection and management in two related Full Board sessions.  The first, on Monday, will describe what has been accomplished in P-12; the second, on Tuesday, will focus on higher education.

            In part I, the P-12 portion, the Board will discuss recent improvements in our collection, management and use of data, including a dramatic reduction in cycle-time for grades 3-8 test results and the School Report Cards, a new leadership structure that will oversee collection and reporting for all P-16 data.   We received a $7.8 million USED grant to implement other improvements, including new regional capacity to help district staff stay current about data requirements,  district use of performance data to support instruction,  and a student data management certification system to help districts know whether the systems they purchase from vendors meet federal and state reporting requirements.  The Regents item includes a progress report on many other actions to improve data management and better support reporting.

              In part II, the full Board will build on the work of the Higher Education Committee in February with a discussion of the array of data concerning higher education performance, enrollment trends, diversity, consequences of projected changes in high school graduation, and the interaction of secondary and higher education.

              The higher education data will enable the Board to frame policy questions for further work, such as the effect of economic conditions on enrollment, relative success by higher education sectors with underrepresented groups, the ability of two-year college graduates to transfer to baccalaureate programs, and whether or not students are graduating into fields that will strengthen New York’s economy and society.

            These improvements address long-standing Regents aims and are part of the Board’s P-16 Plan.  They will be invaluable as the Regents prepare the next stage of the reform effort and along the way New York’s proposal in the ARRA “Race to the Top” funds challenge. 

Ten-year Charter School Report

The Regents and SED have implemented the charter school law rigorously over the last decade.  The Board has concluded that it’s time for an equally rigorous review of what SED has learned from this experience. The committee will continue discussion of possible issues for inclusion in a comprehensive, researched-based report on charter schools.   This month a representative of the Education Finance Research Consortium will discuss the potential to undertake part or all of this research with the Regents. 

This is a timely project.  Charter schools are one strategy for enabling students to meet high standards.  Which schools’ students have met those standards and how did the schools do it?  One argument in favor of charter schools is that failing schools can be closed easily while successful ones can expand.  Has that happened?  Another supporting argument is that charters can innovate faster because they are less regulated.  Have charters done that?  Above all, how have the charters performed for the children enrolled in them?