Teaching Profession Opinion

Dear Gov. Cuomo, N.Y. Schools Need More Than Good Intentions

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 25, 2015 5 min read
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Though we are New Yorkers, we try to write with relevancy for all who lead education. But, sometimes, the best examples do come from our state....well, maybe not best, perhaps a better word is striking.

New York’s Governor Andrew M. Cuomo was recently re-elected to a second term. He has enthusiastically claimed the “we must improve schools” podium, stepping into his school improvement agenda including pre-k programs and teacher evaluation. From Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s recent State of the State Address.

We should provide real pre-k for all our children. Currently we have universal pre-k but its only provided by 67% of the school districts and on average, they only offer two and a half hours per day. We will expand the pre-k program to full-day pre-k, five hours. And we will start with students in the lowest wealth school districts. Let’s do it today.

A good sound bite and a good intention. However, in New York, as in many other states, even kindergarten is not mandatory. Many districts with the most challenged revenue issues have stretched to provide half-day kindergarten programs. No child can be well served by a five hour pre-k program followed by a half day kindergarten. The current funding structure will not allow a district to develop a five-hour pre-k program and increase the kindergarten program to be a full day, simultaneously. Funding must change.

To the unknowing it may not seem difficult. But to those working in schools the issues of finance, space, staff, transportation, program development, and professional development arise as simply the first issues to confront. Can we all agree pre-k is a valuable program that can successfully help students be better prepared for the thirteen years of education that await? If so, can we agree this is a funding challenge and join to solve it together?

Teacher quality is another of his concerns. We humbly suggest that successfully affecting the quality of education does not begin by alienating the thousands of professionals who do the work of teaching. They are attempting to deliver an increased graduation rate while changing standards and changing measures. The elusive goal post was put in place coupled with a new evaluation system. Now, the Governor is advocating for another change in this evaluation system. After schools have exhausted themselves learning about the best way to develop local assessments that are valid, reliable, and fair, the Governor, with suggestions from Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, is advocating for those local exams to be set aside. The proposal is to evaluate teachers half on their students’ state standardized tests results and half by a combination of “impartial observations and those of a school administrator.” Embedded in that statement is a bias that school administrators are not impartial observers. In any event, these past years of learning new systems and reaching for new goal posts are being set aside and new rules are in the offing. Can we agree to sit together and before defining the solutions, agree on exactly what the problem is?

Beyond teacher evaluation, the assessments raise a question again. The most obvious oversight is in the reality that state tests do not exist for every course k-12. With all that has been researched and written about the value of standardized testing for our youngest students, and the questions that arise about the appropriate use of standardized testing in subjects like art or orchestra, and debate; how will this idea evaluate all teachers fairly? What processes are/will be used to develop these state tests? The 4-8th grade test implementation was a bumpy road. Aside from errors in the assessment, the cut-points for grading were changed. So as unfair an assessment as this was for students, no lesson has been learned as the use for teacher evaluation is being considered. The history of the High School Regents exams is rife with teachers’ questions about the value, balance, and level of the assessment of the work required. Will there be a most devastating unintended consequence of this move toward more state tests and their greater impact? Will it run counter to 21st century demands for deeper learning, more cross disciplinary literacy, increased problem solving capacities, more collaborative learning opportunities, higher demands for performance and communication of learning?

With hopes that the Governor’s intentions are truly aimed at the improved educational experience for all students, we embrace the vison also described in State of the State speech:

Yes it’s hard to reform education. I know the politics of it. I know the problems. I know the issues. But can you imagine how smart this state would be? When we actually educate all our children to the best of their God given potential, when every black child and every white child and every urban child and every rural child is educated to their full potential?

Policy makers interested in improving schools play a critical role. Specifically, they will respond to the problem as they define it. We remain open to the hope that the Governor of New York State believes his solutions are well informed. But, we do not see “bad teachers” as the problem. On the other hand, earlier learning is essential for many children so let’s rally to that effort.

We have the opportunity for extraordinary partnership to develop to bring schools forward. There is common ground. From north to south, here’s a perspective. Ann Casey Foundation Vice President, Ralph Smith, is directing the national campaign for grade level reading. In Sarasota and Mantee Counties of Florida, he recently commented on the coalitions with community foundations and agencies that the counties have gathered to help support the programs to help young children read. What a great thought: rather than fire shots at one another within the system, let’s invite everyone to join together on behalf of children. It takes a vison that is inclusive...how about that Governor Cuomo?

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