Archive for September, 2009

More time for learning?

September 30th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Several papers around the state have had articles citing President Obama’s call for a longer school day and year.  See here, here, and here, for example.

Back in April, I participated in a “student town hall meeting” on “Why is there so much reluctance to reconfigure the school year?”  It was conducted by Albany public radio station WAMC with students from Berlin Central High School, in rural Rensselaer county.

When I got a chance to speak, I told the students, “Before we can ask taxpayers to pay for more time, our first obligation is to assure them that we are using the time we have now to best advantage.”

So I asked the students, what they thought — are we using the time we have now the best we can?  They were unanimous in saying no, a lot of time is not well-used, especially in the senior year.  A few said they wished class periods were longer.

I also noted that most students do pass state tests, meet state standards, and graduate from high school.  The implication of that is that most students don’t need more time to learn what we expect them to learn — some do, but most do not.

But it also begs the question — do we have the right expectations, or should we be asking more of students?  The students who responded felt we should be aiming higher in our standards.

I did say, to the horror of my own children, that I think we should have a longer school year, and we should be using the time differently.

By the way, the kids were impressive and the WAMC program was a wonderful example of the power of career-like experiences to engage students in learning.  It was evident many of the students had invested lots of effort into researching the subject.

You can listen here.

Category: Achievement Gap, National Policy | Comments Off on More time for learning?

Learning standards: imagination vs. knowledge?

September 29th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Einstein said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  Without citing Einstein, I asked my then 13 year-old son what he thought.  I liked his answer — “you need some knowledge to apply your imagination to, both are important.”

This question arises in efforts to revise learning standards.  In national education policy circles a debate is raging over the correct balance that new standards should strike between emphasizing content (or knowledge) and skills (imagination might be characterized as a skill).

The skills-emphasis side is reflected in the 21st Century Skills Project, while E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Foundation are frequently cited as leading content-emphasis advocates.

Two years ago, the Council called for New York State standards to be revised to place more emphasis on skills, including skills which cross disciplines and therefore cannot be readily taught in a single class (“Skills for Life“).  We did not expressly endorse the 21st Century Skills Project, however.

Writing recently in the Boston Globe, education scholar Diane Ravitch dismissed 21st century skills as a fad — “…skill-centered, knowledge-free education has never worked.”  In this column, at least, I think she oversimplifies the debate as an either/or, all one thing or all the other proposition.

Reacting to the debate, one New York superintendent wrote to me,

“…there is a brave new world that has already arrived in which learners are being drenched with a never ending fire hose of information that they have to learn how to navigate, evaluate, interconnect, transfer and apply. The knowledge we (and kids) need is the knowledge that enables us to effectively and efficiently handle information that is all too available.”

To me, Andrew Rotherham, a former staff member for our national affiliate, the American Association of School Administrators (and the Clinton White House), comes close to striking a sensible balance.

He expressed concern that the 21st century skills movement could devolve into faddishness.  But he also emphasizes that while the skills themselves are not new — they were important in the 20th century too — what is new is a need for universality.  He writes,

Today, by contrast, our commitment to a more equitable society as well as the demands of our economy mean a deliberate effort must be made to ensure that all students learn how to think, analyze, problem-solve and so forth.

Elsewhere, Mr. Rotherham suggests that schools need to become more purposeful about teaching these skills and that the infrastructure of education — curriculum, assessments, and pedagogy — must be rebuilt to support an effective balance.

These are crucial issues that the state and nation will be wrestling with in the months and years ahead.  Superintendents should be conveying their perspectives.

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Debating Obama education policies

September 28th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

On Thursday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan began outlining the Obama Administration’s thinking on reauthorizing major federal education programs, last done in 2001 with the appellation, “the No Child Left Behind Act.”

In a speech to 200 leaders of education groups and think tanks, Secretary Duncan said his Department will now convene a series of meetings through December to allow stakeholders to make make more specific recommendations.

These meetings will build on the Secretary’s “Listening Learning Tour,” which took him to 30 states to discuss reauthorization.

A news release from his department noted that Secretary Duncan “…said he wants the next version of ESEA to create tests that better measure student learning and to build an accountability system that is based on the academic growth of students.”

He also wants the law to “…create programs to improve the performance of existing teachers and school leaders, to recruit new effective educators, and to ensure that the best educators are serving the children that are the furthest behind.”

The release also noted that the Secretary said the NCLB has “significant flaws” — that it “…puts too much emphasis on standardized tests, unfairly labels many schools as failures, and doesn’t account for students’ academic growth in its accountability system.

“But,” he contended, “the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when they are not.”

He credited the NCLB for highlighting the achievement gap in schools and for focusing accountability on student outcomes, and said he is committed to policies that work toward closing that gap while raising the achievement of all children.”

He stressed, also, “I will always give NCLB credit for exposing achievement gaps, and for requiring that we measure our efforts to improve education by looking at outcomes, rather than inputs.”

Note:  New York State started dis-aggregating student test results by raical and other groupings before the NCLB was enacted.

Secretary Duncan also repeated what are common themes for him — his background as a superintendent in Chicago, his belief that the best solutions do not come from Washington, and that the federal government “should be tight on the goals—with clear standards set by states that truly prepare young people for college and careers — but … loose on the means for meeting those goals.”

Following the speech, the Washington Post noted criticisms of the Administration’s overall education policy directions (Unions Criticize Obama’s School Proposals as “Bush III”), citing the continuing emphasis on test-based accountability and reliance on charter schools.

A day before, Post columnist Ruth Marcus contrasted the Administration’s impact on education with the “headline turmoil” engulfing its proposals on health care, financial regulation, and emissions control.  She wrote, “Obama is overseeing a quiet upheaval in the nation’s approach to education from preschool through college.”

This influence is evident in news covered by several of our recent blog posts, including leadership appointments in the State Education Department.

Here is a critique from the generally conservative Fordham Foundation (note:  the foundation is not affiliated with the New York university of the same name).

Secretary Duncan concluded his speech by tellling of Martin Luther King’s 1965, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which Dr. King admonished white clergy for urging patience upon African-Americans in their quest for civil rights, explaining “why we can’t wait.”

Duncan ended his remarks stating, “education is the civil rights issue of our generation,” a theme anticipated in the Council’s 2007 “Education is a Civil Right” reform agenda.

Category: National Policy | Comments Off on Debating Obama education policies

Charter schools getting too much attention?

September 24th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

A study of student performance in New York City charter schools is adding to the attention given charter schools as a reform strategy.

The New York Times reported,

Students who entered lotteries and won spots in New York City charter schools performed better on state exams than students who entered the same lotteries but did not secure charter school seats, according to a study by a Stanford University economist being released Tuesday.

Charter schools, which are privately run but publicly financed, have been faring well on standardized tests in recent years. But skeptics have discounted their success by accusing them of “creaming” the best students, saying that the most motivated students and engaged parents are the ones who apply for the spots.

The study’s methodology addresses that issue by comparing charter school students with students of traditional schools who applied for charter spots but did not get them. Most of the city’s 99 charter schools admit students by lottery.

I haven’t read the study yet, but the design seems to avoid defects in some past efforts to compare student performance across schools.  Fair enough.

The Council did not oppose the original 1998 charter school law, but we did express reservations about the funding mechanism and feel those concerns have proven justified.

But here is another reaction to the study:  the fixation on charter schools as a school improvement strategy is excessive, especially if one feels they are effective.

In a prior post on incoming SED Deputy Commissioner John King, I noted that he attributes the success of charter schools he oversees to “autonomy with respect to budget, staffing, curriculum and instruction, and school culture in combination with greater accountability for performance.”

According to state aid data, charter schools enrolled almost 50,000 students last year, or less than 2 percent of all public school students.

If the combination of greater autonomy and accountability are essential to charter schools’ success, why limit their application to schools that now serve only 2 percent of all students?

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NYSUT President: Taking charge of our professions

September 23rd, 2009 by Robert Lowry

New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi warns members of his union, “The economic and political realities we face today make it critical that we act to support one another and to take charge of our professions before others — some well-meaning, but many not — define our professions for us.”

Writing in NYSUT’s bi-weekly New York Teacher (“Taking charge of our professions“), Mr. Iannuzzi observes,

Indeed, to take charge of our profession, we must be willing to develop and accept sound, research-based changes even when they make us uncomfortable; we must be willing to reject unwise changes; and we must develop the skills to demonstrate the difference.

He continues by addressing two issues that arise in New York State’s bid for a share of the $5 billion federal “Race to the Top” education reform fund — the roles of student performance data and charter schools.

Read the rest of this entry »

Category: Achievement Gap, Leadership, Teachers | 5 Comments »

New draft of common (national) standards released

September 23rd, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported, “Experts convened by the nation’s governors and state schools chiefs on Monday proposed a set of math and English skills students should master before high school graduation, the first step toward what advocates hope will become common standards driving instruction in classrooms from coast to coast.”

The proposals are available for review here.  The groups are seeking comments through October 21.  Their plan over the coming year is to draft more detailed grade-by-grade standards.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Internal tracking only

September 17th, 2009 by Robert Lowry


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Consolidation considerations

September 17th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Today’s Buffalo News reports on a public forum on the possible merger of Fredonia and Brocton, two Chautauqua County school districts located on the Lake Erie shoreline, southwest of Buffalo.

My sense is that politicians and policymakers often perceive school officials as obstacles to consolidation, but in fact school leaders are usually ahead of their communities in recognizing the potential benefits of consolidation.

The News article on Brocton-Fredonia does not convey any public reactions from the forum.  But it does show the Fredonia superintendent trying to lead community members to an honest understanding of his district’s prospects.

The article notes,

Fredonia Superintendent Paul DiFonzo said that even if the merger does not go through, the Fredonia system will experience change, with continued program and staff decreases as student enrollment continues to drop in the face of increasing costs.

Superintendent  DiFonzo explained, “Centralization will amount to change.”  But he added, “The Fredonia district is changing right now. Change can either be forced or we can take some control over it on behalf of our students and our community.”  Later, he asked,“If we don’t look at this opportunity [centralization], where are we going to go down the road?”

The superintendent’s comments also highlight the key consideration driving many merger explorations — more than saving money over the near-term, the focus is on assuring the long-term capacity to offer viable education systems.

The News notes that both districts have suffered steep enrollment declines — in excess of 12 percent over just four years.

Historical experience is that mergers don’t always produce immediate savings, because the elimination of duplicative administrative positions is offset by “leveling-up” compensation and benefits of collective bargaining units from the prior districts.  But several reports do estimate significant eventual savings, especially for very small districts.  Here is one widely cited example.

As we reported a few months back, the University at Buffalo produced a thoughtful review of the benefits and limitations of school district consolidation.  It prioritizes other regionalization strategies, including “unleashing BOCES.”

Category: Finance | 1 Comment »

Video Clip of New SED Deputy Commissioner John King

September 16th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

On Monday, we reported that the Board of Regents had approved the selection of Dr. John B. King as Senior Deputy Commissioner to oversee the State Education Department’s pre-K through high school activities.

Here’s a 13-minute video clip of Dr. King accepting a “hero” award from the Robin Hood Foundation for his work as Managing Director for Uncommon Schools.  The Foundation says its mission is to fight poverty in New York City “by finding and funding the best and most effective programs and partnering with them to maximize results.”

Dr. King leads off saying, “I am convinced that schools can be the difference between hope and despair, because of the impact public education has had in my life.”

He explains that both his parents were New York City public school educators, but both passed away by the time he was 12.  He describes some harrowing childhood experiences — for example, living alone between ages 8 and 12 with his father who was then suffering from undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease.  He said that “School was my refuge.”

He also describes the successes of charter schools he has founded and led.

Also, here is a piece of testimony which Dr. King delivered last June to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.

He begins, “I am here today to talk about my experiences as an educator and to ask the Committee to support initiatives to increase the number of high performing charter schools serving low-income students.”

He attributes his schools’ successes to “autonomy with respect to budget, staffing, curriculum and instruction, and school culture in combination with greater accountability for performance.”

He notes that Boston’s Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, which he founded in 1999, has been “the highest performing urban middle school in Massachusetts for five years running and a school that has closed the racial achievement gap on state exams.”

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Governor plans leaders meeting on state budget for September 23 — UPDATED

September 15th, 2009 by Robert Lowry

Yesterday, Governor Paterson announced plans to convene a meeting next week with legislative Leaders to discuss options for addressing the state’s estimated $2.1 billion current year budget deficit.

The Governor did not reveal any proposals to close the gap, nor whether he would offer proposals in advance of the meeting which is to take place next Wednesday, September 23rd.

Another blog notes, “He had initially planned to call a special session sometime this month, but both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator John Sampson, the Democratic conference leader, suggested a deal be reached among leaders before rank-and-file members return.”

Last month, the Governor expressed hopes that an agreement on gap closing actions could be announced before Labor Day.  That did not happen.


Karen DeWitt of public radio covers some of the key points about the Governor’s announcement yesterday.  She notes:

Some Democratic Legislative Leaders have told various news outlets that they want to wait for the state’s mid year financial reports in October, or perhaps put off decisions until December, in the hopes that the reports of the national economic recovery will be evidenced in New York. Paterson predicts that won’t happen any time soon. He says New York usually comes out of a recession 11 to 20 months after the rest of the nation.

The Governor had originally wanted to hold a special session on the date now scheduled for the leader’s meeting, and had hoped that legislators would be ready by then to vote on a deficit closing plan. He’s asked lawmakers for their ideas, but says he hasn’t received any plans. Paterson also did not propose his own ideas. In the past several budget crises, the governor has released detailed plans, but he’s also received much of the blame for the bad news about proposed spending cuts, taxes and fees. As a result, his poll numbers have plummeted.

She also identifies one of the political challenges in reaching agreement on any budget changes:

The Governor, who in the past has preferred to meet behind closed doors with just the Democratic Legislative Leaders, will likely need support from the Republican members of the Senate, as well. Democrats hold a narrow 32 vote Majority, and Democratic Senator Hiram Monserrate goes on trial for felony assault charges Monday. If convicted, he would have to leave the Senate, and the Democrats would not have enough votes to automatically pass any legislation, without the help of at least one GOP Senator.

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