NYSAPE Response to Governor Cuomo

January 5, 2015

Dear Governor Cuomo,

We, the undersigned members of NYS Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), are writing in response to the December 18th letter to the Commissioner and Chancellor that Mr. Malatras wrote on your behalf. By responding to the questions posed, we want to separate fact from misinformation. We are also very troubled by several questions that were not included in your letter which continues to demonstrate a disconnect between your office and the public.

We strongly believe in the importance and power of public education for all children. While the vast majority of our students are successful, we cannot rest until our struggling students are supported and given the needed resources to be successful.

Unfortunately, you have based your vision of school reform on a misguided agenda.  That agenda includes ineffective strategies for school improvement. If current policies are not corrected, more state resources will be wasted and our students’ futures will be put at even more risk.

Let’s start at the beginning of the letter.  The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has established capricious and inaccurate measures of proficiency and college readiness.  The proficiency rates that are quoted in the letter (34.8% and 31.4%) reflect arbitrary cut scores set by Commissioner King in 2013.  In 2012, proficiency rates in ELA and Math were 55% and 65% by the cut scores set by then-Commissioner Steiner, based on a college readiness study that he commissioned in 2010.  Prior to 2010, proficiency rates were higher still under Commissioner Mills. In short, proficiency is an arbitrarily defined standard, and there is good evidence to suggest that NYSED has now set the Common Core standards unreasonably high, for political rather than pedagogical reasons.

We understand that you believe that over the past four years “much has been done to improve public education.”  We disagree.  Our high school graduation rate has barely budged since 2011, and the percentage of students earning a Regents diploma with Advanced Designation has been stagnant for several years and decreased this year.  During the past four years, the graduation rate for the state’s English Language learners has dropped by 6 percentage points.

The Common Core proficiency rates were essentially flat between year one and two of the new tests (as were the rates on the final two years of the prior test) and our state’s SAT scores have decreased since 2010.   In short, although we have engaged in four years of market-based corporate reforms—expansion of charter schools, evaluating teachers by student scores, imposing the Common Core standards and more time-consuming, and developmentally inappropriate tests–there is no evidence that New York schools are improving, and there is some evidence that results are moving backward instead.  We believe that there is sufficient evidence to change course.

Clearly the public agrees. The 2014 Times Union/Siena College poll indicates that 46% of New Yorkers oppose the implementation of the Common Core standards, compared to only 23% who support them, while 46% oppose the current use of standardized testing, compared to 29% who support it.  We believe it is time to listen to your constituents, rather than double-down on damaging policies that are hurting our children. It is our intent, by answering the questions that your office posed, to help you advocate for a better and wiser course in the months ahead.

Question 1

How is current teacher evaluation system credible when only one percent of teachers are rated ineffective? The NYC system was negotiated by Commissioner King directly and no one claims it is an accurate reflection of the reality of the state of education in NYC. What should the percentages be between classroom observations (i.e. subjective measures) and state assessments, including state tests (i.e. objective measures)? What percent should be set in law versus collectively bargained?  Currently, the scoring ·bands and “curve” are set locally for the 60 percent subjective measures. What should the scoring bands be for the subjective measure and should the state set a standard scoring band? In general, how would you change the law to construct a rigorous state-of-the-art teacher evaluation system?

The first question implies that the teacher evaluation system called Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), which you insisted be quickly adopted, is deeply flawed.  We strongly agree.  When it was put in place, over one third of the principals of New York State signed a well-documented letter explaining why APPR would have negative consequences for students and harm the profession of teaching.  Since that time, the evidence against evaluating teachers by test scores has only increased.

The New York State School Boards Association recently passed a resolution against the use of student test scores for teacher and principal evaluations, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals has also disavowed their use for this purpose.  In April of 2014, the American Statistical Association clearly outlined how unreliable this methodology is. Opposition to the evaluation of teachers by test scores is growing among parents as well, withonly 31% approving of the practice in national polls. <span “color:=”” #0000cc”=””>

Your question implies that test-score based evaluations are good because they are “objective”—that is, generated by an algorithm devised by the New York State Education Department.  We strongly suggest that you review the evidence—just because a number can be generated based on other numbers does not make it a valid measure of performance. To revise APPR to give more weight to test scores would be a grave mistake.

You seem troubled that only 1 in 100 teachers were found to be incompetent, according to the APPR evaluation system. Do you have research that indicates that the number should be higher or lower?  We strongly suggest that you return the decision on how to evaluate teachers to local education officials and each community’s elected school board. Your recent veto of your own Common Core APPR bill demonstrates that your office does not have a clear understanding of teacher evaluation, and the problems associated with Common Core testing. Albany bureaucrats should not be in the business of designing evaluation systems and arbitrarily determining what acceptable outcomes for each district should be.

Question 2

 How would you address the problem of removing poor-performing educators when the current 3020-a process makes it virtually impossible to do so? Likewise, how would you change the system in New York City where poor-performing educators, with disciplinary problems, continue to be paid in the absent teacher reserve pool as opposed to being terminated?

No one wants incompetent teachers in the classroom.  Tenure assures due process, not a job for life. You have been misinformed if you believe that the removal of teachers using the 3020a process is impossible.

The 3020a proceeding, which was streamlined in 2012, can lead to the termination of a teacher in 125 days or less. Teachers can be terminated for insubordination, immoral character, conduct unbecoming a teacher, inefficiency, incompetency, physical or mental disability, neglect of duty, or the failure to maintain certification.

Most experts say the real crisis in teacher quality, specifically in our high needs districts, is teacher turnover.  According to a study of New York City schools by researchers Ronfeldt, Loeb, and Wycoff, “teacher turnover has a significant and negative impact on student achievement in both math and ELA. Moreover, teacher turnover is particularly harmful to the achievement of students in schools with large populations of low-performing students of color.”

We will not attract and retain the most talented teachers, especially in high-needs schools, by removing their right to due process.

Question 3

What changes would you make to the teacher training and certification process to make it more rigorous to ensure we recruit the best and brightest teachers? Do you agree that there should be a one-time competency test for all teachers currently in the system? What should be done to improve teaching education programs across the state?

We also want “best and the brightest” to be recruited to teaching, which happens by making the profession more attractive to highly talented people who have a desire to commit their lives to guiding and instructing children.

Since 2012 and the onset of “reform”, teacher morale is at a 20 year  low.  New reports have shown that there has been a dramatic drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs—with a 22% decline in New York State in just the last two years. This suggests that the overwhelmingly negative rhetoric targeted to teachers and the assignment of blame for any and all problems in the way our schools are run have made the profession far less attractive. If the current trends continue, there will soon be a critical shortage of teachers, especially in STEM, special education and foreign languages –areas in which it is already very difficult to find sufficient candidates.

If you are interested in advancing teacher education programs, practicing educators should be surveyed, especially recent graduates, to ascertain how their preparation could have been improved.  The idea that the quality of a teacher education program can be assessed by using the student test scores of its graduates is even more unreliable than evaluating teacher quality by means of student test scores.  Likewise, creating a single high-stakes “test” to weed out practicing teachers is a gimmick, not a sound basis for judgment.

Question 4

What financial or other incentives would you provide to high-performing teachers and would you empower administrators to make those decisions?

The idea that teachers should be financially rewarded when their students receive high test scores has been proposed for decades, despite the fact that numerous studies have  shown that merit pay does not work, including a recent three year study conducted by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University.

Merit pay would be a waste of taxpayer dollars that would be far better spent on proven reforms.

Question 5

Do you think the length of a teacher’s probationary period should be extended and should the state create a program whereby teachers have to be recertified every several years, like lawyers and other professions? What other changes would you propose to the probationary period before a teacher is granted tenure?

New York State has a rigorous pathway for teacher certification. In order to earn Initial Certification, a candidate must be awarded a bachelor’s degree, pass no fewer than three certification exams, spend a semester of mentored student teaching with a certified educator, pass a written exam, and complete the performance –based assessment known as the edTPA.

In order to maintain teaching certification and progress to the required Professional Certification, teachers must have 3 years of satisfactory teaching experience, including one year of mentoring. Additionally, they must earn a Master’s Degree. Once teachers have completed all of these requirements and obtained their Professional Certificate, they must accrue 175 hours of additional professional development every five years.

A three-year probationary period during which they are frequently observed and given feedback from principals and other certified observers provides ample opportunity for a school district to assess an educator’s professionalism, growth and ability to incorporate best practices into his or her instruction. It is not unusual for that probationary term to be extended to four or even five years if there are doubts that sufficient progress has not been made. During probation, many struggling teachers leave the profession through the resignation process, so that fewer need to be formally dismissed.

Although teachers are not required to undergo recertification, they are required to engage in ongoing professional development and yearly evaluations, which is comparable or goes beyond the requirements of other, high level professions. Local school districts should be encouraged to continue to develop robust programs and protocols to monitor and support both new and veteran teachers.

Question 6

What steps would you take to dramatically improve priority or struggling schools that condemn generation of kids to poor educations and thus poor life prospects?  Specifically, what should we do about the deplorable conditions of the education system in Buffalo?

The current practice of shutting down schools that are deemed failing is not an effective long-term strategy.  Replacement schools usually do not serve the students in the so-called failing school. These displaced students then remain in a phase-out school with fewer resources, and drop out, or are displaced to another school, with an even higher concentration of at-risk students, thus continuing the cycle of school failure and closure.

Your question is based on the false assumption that schools are solely responsible for the outcomes of poor and disadvantaged students. Neither high-stakes testing, the Common Core, or the continual closing of schools can fix the systemic problems of our high-needs schools. NY State has one of the most inequitable funding systems in the nation, despite the decision of the state’s highest court in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that the funding system should be reformed. You have refused to address this inequity–schools with the greatest needs continue to receive the least resources and support.

As a result, class sizes in our highest need districts have grown each year. Let’s take Buffalo as an example. In Buffalo, many kindergarten classes have grown to 30 students or more, compared to a statewide average of twenty students per class.  In New York City, class sizes have increased sharply since 2007, and last year they were the largest in 15 years in kindergarten through third grades.  If you are truly interested in improving outcomes in our highest needs schools, these schools must be provided with the resources to reduce class size, a proven reform that benefits all students, but especially those most at risk.

In addition, providing resources for health services, counseling, after school child care and recreational programs to reduce truancy and improve attendance would likely have a positive impact on student learning.

Question 7

 What is your vision for charter schools? As you know, in New York City the current charter cap is close to being reached, so would you increase the charter school cap? To what? What other reforms would you make to improve charter schools’ ability to serve all students?

The charter cap should not be raised.  Many researchers including Macke Raymond, head of CREDO, a pro-charter research organization funded by the Walton Family Foundation, now agree that charter expansion and enhanced “competition” do not work to improve public schools. Moreover, charters do not enroll their fair share of high needs students – especially English language learners and special needs students, as acknowledged by the NYC Charter Center and independent researchers.  According to the 2010 amendment to the New York charter law, before charters are renewed or allowed to replicate, they must show they enroll and retain equal numbers of at risk students as the districts in which they are located, and yet neither the Board of Regents nor SUNY have ever rejected a charter proposal on these grounds – despite the fact that many charters have sky high student suspension and attrition rates.  Neither SUNY nor the Regents have provided adequate financial oversight, and in 95 percent of charter audits, the State Comptroller’s Office has found corruption or mismanagement.  Yet when the Deputy Comptroller wrote a letter to the state’s major charter-school regulators asking for stronger oversight, he received no response.

The recent approval by the Regents of a charter school started by a 22 year old who faked his educational background only further reveals the inability of authorizers to carry out their current responsibilities, no less authorize yet more charters that could waste taxpayer funds. Meanwhile, in New York City, where the vast majority of the state’s charter schools are located, about two thirds of these privately-managed schools receive more public funding per pupil than district public schools – a disparity that will  grow even worse with the new law requiring that charters receive free space paid for by the city or be provided space within the district’s already overcrowded public schools. This year, NYC charters are siphoning off $1.3 billion in public funds – while leading to the concentration of the most at-risk students in public schools with fewer resources and less space.  It is no wonder that more NYC voters believe the number of charters should remain the same or decrease than be raised.

Question 8

 Do you support using technology to improve public education, like offering online AP courses by college faculty to high schools students who do not have any such courses now, even though these changes have been resisted by education special interests?

The push towards using more technology in public education is not being “resisted by special interests,” as  your  letter claims, but instead is promoted by special interests – including software companies eager to get a larger share of the $8 billion education technology market. There is no rigorous research showing that more exposure to online learning improves student learning or outcomes in K12 schools, and many studies suggest that expanding the amount of time students spend in front of computer screens has negative effects.

Question 9

What would you do about mayoral control in NYC and do you support mayoral control in other municipalities? What changes and improvements would you make to NYC Mayoral control?

In general, mayoral control is an unproven experiment that has NOT worked to improve NYC schools compared to other large urban districts across the country, and should not be expanded across the state. In New York City, the mayoral control law should be amended to give more local control to the city’s residents, by giving the City Council the authority to provide checks and balances, since the city lacks an elected school board. Our democratic system of government relies on the separation of powers, and an omnipotent executive inevitably leads to abuse and poor decision-making.   At the same time, the new state charter law should be amended, with local control returned to NYC officials, to enable them to determine whether or not privately run charter schools should receive space at city taxpayer expense.

Question 10

There are approximately 700 school districts in New York many of which have declining enrollment. Do you think we should restructure the current system through mergers, consolidations or regionalization? If so, how would you do it?

This question implies that through mergers, consolidations, and regionalization we can improve education while reducing costs. The research, however, contradicts that suggestion.  Studies show that  consolidations and mergers actually increase costs to districts and there is typically no gain in academic achievement. The following summary is from Penn State College of Education:

“School consolidation continues to be a topic of great concern for many small rural school and districts. While advocates for consolidation commonly cite fiscal imperatives based upon economies of scale, opponents have responded with evidence undermining this argument and pointing out the prominent position of the rural school in the economic and social development of community. Additionally, evidence continues to build demonstrating the advantages of small schools in attaining higher levels of student achievement. Larger schools, in contrast, have been shown to increase transportation costs, raise dropout rates, lower student involvement in extra-curricular activities, and harm rural communities’ sense of place.

The consolidation of services is already underway and should be incentivized when it makes sense and benefits students.  It is interesting that while you have proposed consolidation for school districts, you have also supported charter school expansion, each of which are considered a separate local education authority or school district –which appears to be a contradiction.

Question 11

As you know, the appointment and selection process of the Board of Regents is unique in that, unlike other agencies, selections and appointments are made by the Legislature. Would you make changes to the selection and appointment process? If so, what are they?

We believe the Board of Regents must stay independent of the executive branch and the Governor should not interfere in matters of education policy.  The authority should remain with the legislature to intervene when necessary.

There is a fair balance of powers in the NYS Constitution Articles V and XI requiring that the Governor and the Senate have the authority to appoint heads of departmental agencies, and the joint legislature to elect members of the Board of Regents, which in turn appoint the Commissioner of Education.

We do believe the nomination of Regent candidates should be a more transparent, inclusive process, and involve stakeholders from each judicial district, including parents, educators, students, and local legislators.  For the at-large Regent seats, there should be a state-wide committee consisting of parents, educators, and legislators to nominate candidates after assessing gaps that may exist in the Board of Regents’ expertise, diversity in background and geographical balance.

Question 12

Chancellor, the Board of Regents is about to replace Dr. King; can we design an open and transparent selection process so parents, teachers and legislators have a voice?

We strongly believe there should be a more rigorous, inclusive, and transparent process to appoint the next New York State Commissioner of Education as well.  While the appointment process is at the discretion of the Board of Regents as per Article V of the NYS Constitution, the overwhelming dissatisfaction of New Yorkers with the current policies — and the failure of state education officials to listen to parents and teachers – has revealed the need for a new Commissioner who is more responsive to stakeholder needs and concerns.

Questions That Should Be Asked

We were disappointed by the omission of important questions that should have been asked in your letter.  During the past year, members of the public, especially parents, expressed serious opposition to the current education policies during forums that were held across the state. Those concerns, however, were excluded from your list. Here are three questions, which are very much on the minds of parents and that we would like to be asked of state officials:

How will the State Education Department review and modify the Common Core standards given the enormous public outcry against the standards and their implementation?

In October of 2014, Governor, you said that you were working to roll the standards back. You recognized that implementation had been rushed and that there were questions regarding whether the Common Core standards were the best standards for the students of New York State. The public has clearly expressed its dissatisfaction. A plurality of New Yorkers believes that the implementation of the Common Core should be halted entirely.  Many other states are now engaging in a thorough analysis of the standards as they make revisions, both large and small.  New York students deserve the best possible standards.  Please join us in urging the State Education Department to provide a date when an open review of the Common Core standards will begin in New York.

How will we reduce the time students spend on state standardized testing?

Polls consistently report that New York parents do not support the grueling and inappropriate Common Core tests.  Time spent on state testing has dramatically ballooned since 2012. Last year between 55,000 and 60,000 students “opted out” of the grade 3-8 New York State exams.  Make no mistake—this was a deliberate decision on the part of parents to show how displeased they are with the Common Core exams and the way in which these tests have narrowed and diminished the education of their children.

Your support for reducing the effects of test scores on students was but a small step in the right direction.  Please join us in asking the State Education Department to provide a plan to radically reduce the time spent on state exams, rolling it back to 2010 levels, as long as yearly testing is mandated. Please also inquire as to when teachers will be allowed to author better assessments, so that the state is no longer spending millions of taxpayer dollars to corporations that have consistently produced shoddy products.

How will personally identifiable student data be protected?

Data privacy of student’s personally identifiable information is still not protected, nor is the privacy legislation that was passed last spring being enforced.  While the legislation helped to stop sharing with inBloom, it did not address the concerns of parents of the widespread collection and sharing of their children’s personal data that is occurring without their knowledge or consent.

Moreover, allowing data-mining vendors to access children’s personal data has huge risks, including to student privacy and safety. Yet the State Education Department still has not implemented or enforced the new student privacy law, passed last spring, which requires the appointment of a chief privacy officer who will create a parent bill of rights with public input. As a result, numerous districts and schools throughout the state continue to disclose highly sensitive personal student data to vendors without parental knowledge or consent, and are ignoring several federal privacy laws, including FERPA and COPPA, without enforcement or oversight by the state.

In summary, it is apparent that the punitive education agenda of testing and privatization is not working to improve student achievement and instead is having a deleterious impact on our schools. It is time to change course rather than intensify these policies through requiring more school closings, expanding charters, and putting even more emphasis on unreliable test scores.

What New York badly needs is a new Commissioner with a strong background in public education and a deep understanding of how students learn.  He or she should have a healthy respect for local autonomy and the need to work collaboratively with stakeholders. The era of top down, bureaucratic, and monopolistic control of our schools by state officials must end.

We believe that the members of the Board of Regents should be thoughtfully selected with input from the communities that they represent. Most importantly, parents and teachers demand appropriate learning standards that allow teachers to focus on learning, not testing.  With equitable funding, thoughtful standards, sufficient teacher autonomy, local control, and community support, we know public education will better accomplish what we all want–a brighter future for all students.  We also urge you to hold public forums, so you can hear directly from parents, teachers, and other stakeholders how they want their schools improved –rather than remain in a bubble up in Albany, separated from the constituents whose interests you should be dedicated to serve.


NYS Allies for Public Education
– See more at: http://www.nysape.org/nysape-response-letter-to-governor-on-public-education.html#sthash.vMn8W5vD.dpuf

NYSAPE Response to Governor Cuomo