Jessica Bakeman reports on politics and education policy in Capital New York’s Albany bureau. In a recent article focused on MaryEllen Elia, our recently appointed New York State Education Commissioner, Ms. Bakeman reflects on what may be a new strategy to fix the persistent problem of failing schools in pockets around the State.

In essence, Ms. Elia’s plan seems to rely on a “tough love” approach with district leaders and parents from the lowest performing NYS schools: ‘You have 2 years to fix these failing schools, or the state will do it for you’.  http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/albany/2015/07/8572658/elia-delivers-tough-message-leaders-struggling-schools

Unlike some observers, I strongly believe that the root cause of failing schools is not directly linked to teachers, administrators or common core.

The primary failure begins when we as a society allow virtually all of our lower-income children to be concentrated into just a few school districts — while continuing to operate dozens of boutique public school districts which serve children from predominantly upper income households.

Extensive research tells us that if we continue to follow this model, it will ensure that the achievement gap will continue to grow.

Whether accomplished through housing choice or school choice: economic, social and cultural integration at the K-12 level has been proven to be the best solution to close the achievement gap.

New York State allows and encourages public school districts to form around — and to exclusively serve — residents of villages, towns, neighborhoods and cities. The impact of this ‘home rule’ approach to public education has created de facto segregation which has produced more egregious and dangerous consequences than the issues debated in the Brown vs. Board of Education case which was decided in 1954 – 60+ years ago!

We can witness how “Separate and Unequal” has become the standard across New York State, very clearly corroborated by NYS Education Department statistics which prove that economic and racial segregation in housing translates directly to school inequality, which results in disparate student outcomes.

There really is no place for personal or private agendas on the part of our appointed and elected officials. Public officials are expected to set a positive example for all people, affirming that our elected leadership is fair, honest and forward thinking.

It may very well be that Commissioner Elia — appointed by the NYS Board of Regents — has been tasked with sweeping the truth under the rug, because she is not talking about the only viable solution, which is to reform NYS Education regulations, many of which date to the late 19th Century.

I can grasp the enlightened self-interest of homeowners in Pittsford, Scarsdale, Briarcliff Manor, Bronxville (or in dozens of other public school districts in NYS which serve students from upper income households) who want to fight for their autonomy to keep ‘those other children’ out of their schools.

These are the very same wealthy and politically active adults who wield undue influence over our elected officials in Albany.

With that said, I’m dubious that any meaningful reform can take place until the specter of political influence is removed from our public education system.

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Bowing to extraordinary pressure from both the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish blocs, NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo has put his weight behind an ‘education Tax Credit’ proposal that is just plain wrong.

No matter how you slice this, it is not just wrong, it is also unconstitutional.

Our federal and state constitutions mandate certain services be provided to all residents and citizens, services which include public education.

Sometimes, economists view the shifting a tax burden required to provide sufficient funding to ensure provision of adequate and acceptable services from one taxing entity to another in order to create the illusion of a tax cut or a public cost savings as a “Zero Sum Game.”

This proposed tax credit program is certainly NOT a zero sum game.

The sole beneficiaries of this proposed tax credit charade will be those families – and their allies and supporters – who elect to eschew the free and publicly supported education system which is intended and expected to provide all children in New York State the opportunity for a “sound basic education,” defined as a meaningful high school education that prepares students for competitive employment and civic participation .

When Rhode Island adopted an education tax credit program a few years back, it resulted in a windfall for the state’s two Jewish day schools. Between them, their students received some $400,000 in scholarship money in the program’s first year.

In Florida, tax credit legislation has resulted in nearly $10 million annually for scholarships for Jewish day schools and yeshiva students.

Now New York, which has some 150,000 Jewish day school and yeshiva students — more than all the other states combined — has a chance of getting an education tax credit program that could deliver millions of dollars annually to Jewish day school families.

Another primary beneficiary of this proposed tax credit program will be supporters of private Catholic schools which have been plagued with declining enrollment and decreased core funding from the Church for several decades.

Offering a small number of self-selecting individuals the option to designate (Read:  Divert) up to 75% of their NY State Tax Liability to fund private religious schools is just plain wrong.

Despite the noble intent of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, public schools in New York State are more segregated today than they have ever been in the past 60+ years.

Whether we measure segregation from a racial, religious or economic perspective, it seems clear that some of our students come to school each day ready to learn, and other students face significant barriers which stand between them and educational success.

There are libraries filled with academic research that points to positive parental involvement as the primary force to ensure student success in school.

Most experts agree that when parents promote reading activities at home, the ripple effect goes beyond reading achievement, language comprehension and expressive language skills to positively impact pupils’ interest in reading, attitudes towards reading and attentiveness in the classroom.

The fact is: Family and home life have more bearing on student achievement than anything else.

Classroom teachers have an important role to play, but when confronted in their classroom by a majority of young people who are not prepared, not ready and not inspired to learn, even SuperTeacher faces a Sisyphean task.

From a purely mathematical (statistical/scientific) perspective, it is not possible to use a standardized test to compare groups of anything – including students – when the subjects of comparison lack a common foundation and have insufficient common attributes.

My point is that while elected officials, union members and many others are busy throwing mud at each other, the real issue of ‘failing schools’ has little to do with teachers, and much to do with economic segregation in residential housing patterns across New York State.

The 700 +/- public school districts in NYS serve some 2.7 Million students in some 4,500 public schools (including public charter schools).

Governor Cuomo’s office very recently released an extensive and well-researched report, “The State of New York’s Failing Schools”.

In just over 200 pages, the Report points out many symptoms of a public education system in NYS which is working for some, but leaving way too many students unprepared to become productive citizens.

The Report focuses in on 178 “priority” or “failing” schools in 17 school districts in New York. It says, “Ninety-three percent of students in failing schools are students of color and 82 percent of these students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Student achievement today at failing schools lags behind state averages in every category”.

Somehow, the Report did not really get to the core of the issue: How to address the concentration of disadvantaged and disenfranchised students in these 178 failing schools — just 4% of the overall number of schools in NYS.

While I think there has been some roll-back on the original proposal from Governor Cuomo’s office to tie teacher evaluations more closely to student achievement as measured by standardized test scores, I remain concerned that the debate around Common Core Standards and standardized testing continues to divide parents and other adults in New York State.

It is my belief that the intent of Common Core is really centered on a return to requiring that our students develop and use critical thinking skills.

For the last 40 years, or so, our public education system has relied primarily on Multiple Choice and/or True/False as a way to measure educational achievement.

The shift to Common Core, which relies much more on analysis and critical thinking, is a shock to many adults who were raised on Multiple Choice.

The Common Core State Standards is a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know — and be able to articulate — at the end of each grade.

The standards were created through a bi-partisan, multi-state collaborative including teachers, school chiefs, administrators, and other experts to provide a clear and consistent framework for educators to ensure that all students across the U.S. have access to the information and resources they need to graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.

One key role for the elected officials in our NYS Legislature is to ensure that real facts about Common Core Standards and subsequent testing are conveyed and explained to NY residents in a calm and rational way.

Another key role for our Legislature is to ensure that sufficient resources – including new and emerging paradigms – are made available to the 178 priority (or failing) schools in 17 school districts in New York.

As Governor Cuomo’s report, “The State of Failing Schools” points out: It’s not about money.

Some claim that their magic solution involves an unproven model such as: Charter Schools; Teach for America; Say Yes to Education; School Vouchers; Private School Tax Credits; or one of many other ‘snake oil’ solutions.

We are so fortunate in New York State to have some of the best colleges and universities, and some of the most experienced experts on teaching and child development.

Why are we – the residents, voters and taxpayers of New York State – left holding the bag: paying the most of any state in the U.S. per pupil, and achieving mediocre results?

I don’t think it has much of anything to do with teacher quality or teacher evaluations.

I think our approach to delivery of public education in New York State is obsolete, and until we are able to honestly and openly evaluate the system, and to seek optimum configuration, we will continue to spend too much; achieve mediocre results; and have this debate long into the future.

Many thanks to those elected officials who have taken the time and put some attention to this critical issue, and please feel welcome to contact me with any questions or concerns on my commentary.

Today (January 14, 2015), JPMorgan Chase announced weaker than expected 4th quarter 2014 earnings.

The reaction in the Market was quick and harsh.

The price of JPM stock slid down minus 3.45% today, wiping out some $7.63 Billion in shareholder value, overnight!

Analysts, prognosticators and pundits weighed in on various aspects of weakness in the franchise and potential management failures.

Meanwhile, seemingly oblivious to our real world, the folks in Corporate Responsibility at JPMorgan Chase released a report on declining summer jobs for youth, perhaps as a means to soften or divert attention away from the stock price and management failures?

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/summer-jobs-young-people-decline-150000168.html

Are they kidding?

The folks they cite in this report who are disparately impacted — “low-income youth and young people of color face diminished opportunities to gain work experience and skills, limiting potential for economic advancement” are the very same young people who are most likely to come to the table with blemishes, bruises and with clear and obvious symptoms of “the achievement gap.”

I think the folks at JPMorgan Chase must have abandoned the concept of using available research and institutional knowledge to help impact solutions in local communities to pursue a much higher-level approach which relies on a premise that is based on “research grants” paid to Aspen Institute and Brookings Institution which are intended to help discover hidden nuggets that otherwise might be overlooked.

If you read the footnotes to this particular report (http://www.jpmorganchase.com/corporate/Corporate-Responsibility/document/54887-jpmc-summeryouth-aw2.pdf), you will find references to 2 basic sources: (1) The Brookings Institution, and (2) Northeastern University.

While no one could legitimately doubt the likely veracity of these sources, would this approach pass the smell test at any legitimate academic institution?

Seems that when a major institution is stepping up to be recognized as a Thought Leader, they ought to at least use decent quality paint to cover over the façade they are trying to use as their primary lead.

The Wizard of Oz would have it no other way!

When the Walrus was just a pup, he attended public schools in Buffalo, NY.

Back then, the best teachers encouraged their students to achieve subject mastery not through rote memorization but through active learning. In general, ‘subjects’ were not taught (or learned) in isolation. There was some integration of ELA into Social Studies; math into science; and reading and writing skills were the foundation for all learning.

Somehow, over the past 4 decades or so, our American education system (in aggregate) has deteriorated to the point where in a recent study conducted by The Economist, the U.S. was ranked 17th in an assessment of the education systems of 50 countries, behind several Scandinavian and Asian countries. Finland was ranked first, followed by South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan, with Singapore coming in fifth. The once-admired public education system in America has reached an unprecedented – and hopefully, unwanted – level of mediocrity.

If we look at public education outcomes by state, we find a wide disparity in student outcomes. In its most recent report on the status of education in all 50 states, Education Week found that Massachusetts is our top performing state, followed closely by Maryland and New Jersey.

Bringing up the rear at number 50 is Mississippi, just slightly worse than Louisiana and New Mexico.

The differences from state to state on some critical measurements are staggering.

Just 59.4% of students in New Mexico graduate from High School, where in Vermont, 85% of students graduate.

It is widely accepted that at-grade reading and math proficiency in the 4th grade is a strong predictor of success in school and in life. Maryland is the best performing state in the U.S. on 4th grade reading skills, yet just 45% of Maryland fourth graders demonstrated at-grade proficiency.

45% is the highest in our country? And, that is more than 10 percentage points higher than the national average?

Of course, we can drill down even further, looking within states as the disparity of student outcomes by district, or within districts, outcomes by school or by teacher.

The facts on disparate student outcomes were part of the inspiration which brought together state leaders — including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states — to seek solutions to this national crisis.

The state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards was launched in 2009, through a collaborative partnership involving the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

The goal is very simple. Implementation of the Standards will refocus schools toward ensuring that students acquire skills which are useful in college and in life. Life is not a series of multiple choice or true/false questions. Critical thinking and reading skills, focused on nonfiction and current event articles rather than fiction, provide a foundation for college, career and success in life.

Understanding the raw components of how to do math problems using logic is much more valuable than memorizing formulas, and it provides the foundation for problem solving across multiple disciplines.

We know that multiple-choice tests are best used for testing well-defined or lower-order skills. Problem-solving and higher-order reading and reasoning skills are better assessed through short-answer and essay tests.

Yet, no matter how you slice it, multiple choice tests are more affordable for testing large numbers of students. In most of the United States, multiple choice tests have become the default form of “high-stakes testing”.

How it came to be that our public education system devolved away from active learning and critical thinking into a series of “drill and kill” classroom exercises followed by mind-numbing multiple choice and true-false tests must somehow be related to the amount of resources required to read, analyze and objectively grade essays and ‘show your work’ problems.

There is also the issue of cost and scale as class sizes have generally increased, school district resources are stretched, and the complexity of material has expanded.

Let’s face it: a standard answer sheet marked with a #2 pencil can be machine graded, and the ability to collect and analyze the data is unmatched.

On the other hand, multiple choice tests are very rigid. Misinterpretation of the problem or information presented by the test maker can result in a false “wrong”, even when the student’s answer has some validity. Similarly, when students have some knowledge of a subject or question, they receive no credit for knowing that information if they select the wrong answer and the item is scored by a machine.

Just a few years ago, some of the best and brightest educators and public officials from across the U.S. launched an intensive collaborative partnership to develop the Common Core State Standards as a means to repair our failing public education system.

The state-led effort was launched in 2009, under the guidance of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Here we are today, just a few weeks away from the beginning of the 2014-15 school year for some 48 Million K-12 public school students across our 50 states.

A large and growing coalition of Monday Morning Quarterbacks – most of whom I suspect were raised on multiple-choice and deprived of active learning and/or critical thinking – have begun to rally in opposition to Common Core.

Very recently, noted media personality Glenn Beck – himself a high-school graduate – added his voice to the nay-sayers about Common Core.

Beck tells us that, “American children shouldn’t be tracked, monitored, and educated from D.C. And parents should have a voice in their child’s education. Common Core standards threaten parents’ rights, children’s privacy, and traditional American values.”

Great rhetoric with no substance; and it fails the critical thinking test.

But it is emotionally appealing to some, and clearly falls into the “True or False, Multiple Choice Method to Maintain International Mediocrity in Education” model.

Want to help destroy the fabric of America? You don’t need weapons of mass destruction or any sort of acts of terrorism. Just keep depriving our children of the opportunity for active learning and/or critical thinking skills they so desperately need to lead a productive and meaningful life.

Charles Lewis has had a long and distinguished career as an investigative reporter for a number of credible and main-stream print, broadcast, video and internet sources.

Charles Lewis’s book, 935 Lies will be released this week.  In his book, Lewis provides some interesting and provocative commentary on why facts, logic and reason are often missing in the rush to war.

His book inspired me to think, “Come on, Rep. Darryl Issa and Rep. John Boehner:  Let’s get the House Select Committee to investigate the real Root Causes of how and why the U.S. is embroiled in a religious war in the Middle East.”

We can pretend that the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi was the premier event of our 21st Century, and is singularly the responsibility of Hillary Clinton, with additional culpability on President Barack Obama.

Or, we might want to take a serious look at what occurred in Washington following the atrocities of September 11, 2001, and the incredible subterfuge which was created by President George W. Bush and his team which led to our military intervention into Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush, Cheney and Company willfully brought the U.S. into religious wars in the Middle East which have been seething since 3,100 B.C.

No matter what we do as a nation, we will never be able to enable peace, harmony and tranquility in a region fraught with the residual effects of multiple centuries of social, religious and cultural nuances which defy explanation to those who are from outside.

Much like Marie Antoinette from 18th Century France, Bush and Cheney were ignorant, audacious and fully disconnected from the realities of the real world of everyday people when they foolishly launched their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.  They deliberately and willfully misled the Congress and the American people to create a real world replication of the 1998 movie “Wag the Dog”.

Now, some 13 years later, a majority of Republican elected officials in Congress are fixated on a variety of meaningless and inconsequential issues, i.e. “What else about Benghazi is the Obama administration still hiding from the American people?”

The American people really ought to be demanding that Congress get to work to ensure that our nation is fully prepared to prosper in the 21st Century.  Something tells me that the events which led to the deaths of ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya are directly attributable to the actions which took place in 2001-2003 when the U.S. orchestrated the escalation of a Religious War in the Middle East.

So, why is it that House Republicans continue their assault on the Obama administration, when it seems to be perfectly clear that the real root cause of all of this mess in the Middle East traces directly back to bad choices and failures of the Bush/Cheney administration?

I’m thinking that a great deal of the problem is attributable to our failed public education system in the U.S. which seems to graduate young people who have never been exposed to critical thinking skills.

Separate and Unequal

April 27, 2014

 

Westchester County in New York State seems to attract a great deal of attention in the media.

 

Not long ago, we learned from a posting on Zillow that property owners in Westchester County pay more in property taxes than the typical resident of any other major American county. The average property tax bill for a single family home in Westchester County comes to $14,829 a year (vs. the U.S. median of about $2,800).

 

There are a number of reasons why property taxes in Westchester County NY are the highest in the nation, but the primary reason is property taxes levied to support public schools.

In a county with a population of just under a million residents, Westchester County taxpayers are supporting some 47 completely autonomous public school districts!

 

Very recently, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino made headlines because he continues to battle the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over compliance with a consent decree approved in 2009 which requires Westchester County to take an active and affirmative role in desegregating local villages and towns in the county which have miniscule populations of African American and Hispanic residents.

 

Some commentators have applauded Astorino for defying the federal government under the guise that, “(Astorino) is doing his job by protecting the neighborhoods of those who worked very hard to live where they live!”

 

I’m fine with the notion that people ought to be able to live where they want to live.

 

However, because New York State allows and encourages public school districts to form around — and to exclusively serve residents of — villages, towns and cities, the impact of this ‘home rule’ approach to public education has created de facto segregation which has produced more egregious and dangerous consequences than the issues debated in the Brown vs. Board of Education case which was decided in 1954 – 60 years ago!

 

We can clearly witness that “Separate and Unequal” has become the standard in Westchester County.

 

It becomes very clear from reviewing NYS Education Department statistics that economic and racial segregation in housing translates directly to school inequality and results in disparate student outcomes.

 

The Village of Scarsdale is one of the communities identified in the Housing Agreement (consent decree) as racially segregated, and thus a priority area for new units of fair and affordable housing.

 

A report released in late April from US News and World Report reveals that Scarsdale High School was ranked among the very best high schools in Westchester County; in New York State; and across our nation.

 

In Scarsdale, no students at the High School receive subsidized meals, and just 9% of students are Black or Hispanic. About 8% of Scarsdale students have been classified with a disability, and 68% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings. Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Scarsdale schools was $27,219, with $17,450 focused on general education students.

 

Meanwhile, just 5 miles south of Scarsdale High School is Mount Vernon High School, where 70% of students receive subsidized meals, and where 95% of students are Black or Hispanic.

 

About 16% of Mount Vernon Students have been classified with a disability, and just 48% of those students spend 80% or more of their school time in regular classroom settings.

 

Most recent total per-pupil spending across the Mount Vernon public schools was $23,560, with just $11,641 centered on general education students.

 

The real test may be in graduation rates.  For the class of 2012, 95% of Scarsdale seniors graduated with Regents diplomas; at Mount Vernon High School, just 52% of seniors graduated with a Regents diploma.

 

The attitudes and actions of public officials should set a positive example for all people, affirming that our elected leadership is fair, honest and forward thinking.

 

There really is no place in our current society for personal private agendas – working against the general public good – on the part of our elected officials.

 

Municipal and school district consolidation seems to be the only rational resolution — why is this solution so difficult to discuss and resolve?

 

I live in Westchester County, NY – the place they say has the highest property tax burden in the U.S.

Our Governor – Andrew Cuomo – also comes from Westchester County — and he has made it his mission to support effective ways to reduce and/or eliminate the government waste which necessitates the high property taxes we pay.

The incredible inefficiency of having 400+ independent government entities operating within Westchester County certainly is a primary culprit for the dubious honor of being named the highest taxed county in the U.S.

The largest portion of property taxes paid is attributable to funding public schools — 41 regular school districts in a county with less than 1 Million in total population.

Each of these districts is ‘self contained’ in that they have their own administration, buildings, and all of the fixed cost infrastructure which gets paid for whether there 275 students served (Pocantico Hills at an average per-pupil cost of $42,000) or 25,000 students (Yonkers at an average per-pupil cost of $19,600).

Contrast this to Montgomery County, Maryland — about the same physical size as Westchester, and with a very diverse population of just under 1 Million, demographically quite similar.

Montgomery County has just one school district which educates all of the 150,000 public school students in the county at an average per-pupil cost of $15,421.

Just about every year, Maryland Public Schools are ranked at the top in the nation. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/maryland-schools-insider/post/maryland-schools-ranked-number-one–again/2012/01/11/gIQA7NEqrP_blog.html

While Montgomery County — perhaps due to its ethnic, racial and economic diversity — is not number one in the state, it seems to consistently score in the top 10, and compares very favorably against the composite Westchester score.

It’s really time for the taxpayers in NYS to put aside the political rhetoric and to find a way to reduce overall costs, whether through actual mergers and consolidations, or through consolidation of services which are not directly related to the classroom.

We can do better, and we must!

Paul Ryan is at it again.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/12/paul-ryan-inner-cities_n_4949165.html

Paul Ryan was born in 1970 in the small city of Janesville, Wisconsin: population 60,000 of whom 95% are white.

He is a product of great intentions gone off course.  Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) was intended to eliminate racial and (by association) economic segregation in public schools across the U.S.

Who could have predicted that post-war U.S. euphoria would bring suburban sprawl, fueled by the automobile and the feverish building of highways which enabled the exodus of primarily white, middle-class families out of central cities into first-ring suburbs.  By 1960, about half of Americans lived in suburbs vs. city centers, a dramatic shift from pre-war demographics.  So, as the population shifted to suburbia, economic and racial segregation became even more pronounced than prior to the Brown decision.

I suspect that when Paul was growing up, attending Parochial Schools in Janesville, he never had a black friend, never spoke with a black person, and was virtually isolated from people who didn’t go to his church and didn’t look like him.

It’s hard to imagine, but I think Paul is probably a decent guy who has been deprived of the opportunity to get to know other people, and to develop an understanding of their culture and the insidious, subtle and generally invisible battles they fight every day.

No excuses here.  Just a dose of reality.

Back where I come from they used to say, “Never criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.”

Despite the grand intentions of the Brown decision, other factors have crept in to render the decision impotent, and Paul Ryan seems to be the poster child for a societal problem we need to fix before the pot boils over and destroys our society.

Liberal

February 9, 2014

When the Walrus was a young pup, he was introduced to a number of new words and concepts.

One of those new words was “Liberal”.

The Walrus learned that people who were categorized as Liberal were those who:

–          Are not opposed to new ideas or ways of behaving that are not traditional or customary;

–          Believe that government should be active in supporting social and political change;

–          Are broad-minded and tolerant of different views and standards of behavior in others;

–          Are politically and/or socially progressive, supportive of gradual reform, particularly political reforms which extend democracy, distribute wealth more evenly, and protect the personal freedom of the individual.

Today, it seems as though some people have bastardized the meaning of Liberal.  These folks seem to want to demonize those who identify as Liberal!

I’ve enjoyed the past 6 decades of my life thinking that: While change is always difficult for us humans, looking at situations in new and different ways is productive, healthy and sometimes truly beneficial.

I’m very sad that some of my fellow Americans are unable or unwilling to embrace this philosophy, but I guess in a free society, that is their prerogative.