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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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.

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?

 

We have some 700 public school districts across New York State, and as Governor Cuomo pointed out recently in an interview, “It’s not about more money gets us more results.  Because if that was the case, our students would be doing better than any students in the country, because we are spending more than anyone else.”

No one could successfully argue that the K-12 public education system in New York State is either (a) effective, or (b) efficient.

Designed and governed under assumptions which were likely correct in the 19th century, we continue to operate our schools as though we live in a world where the horse is the primary means of transportation; where oil lamps and candles are used for illumination after dusk; and where young people are needed early and late each day to do chores on the farm.

An article published on February 7, 2014 in The Journal News (http://www.lohud.com/article/20140207/NEWS/302070065/City-rural-schools-say-they-re-underfunded) helps to illustrate some of the complexities in state funding formulas which seem to have disparate negative impact on small city and rural school districts which are more likely to be both ‘high need’ and ‘low resource’.

Digging further into the mystery of school funding in New York State led me to the NYS Association of Small City School Districts, and the December 2013 newsletter, http://scsd.neric.org/newsletters/2013/2013%20SCSD%20Newsletter%20december%202013%20FINAL.pdf.

One of the outcomes of ‘The Campaign for Fiscal Equity’ was a promise made in 2007 by our elected officials in Albany that state funding would be adjusted to take into account both the availability of local resources and the relative “need” of students in each district.

As Governor Cuomo pointed out, we are already spending the most of any state on education, and our overall results are mediocre.

Indeed, it is not how much we are spending, but how the money gets spent.  If our elected officials want to constrain education spending, they need to pass legislation which removes costs from the system.  One way to accomplish that would be through school district consolidation to remove redundancies and spread fixed costs over a broader base.

Another way to accomplish holding the line on spending would be to divert aid from wealthy, high-performing districts and re-direct that aid to low-resource, under-performing districts.

When it comes to educating our young people, there really doesn’t seem to be any “starve the beast” solution on the horizon.

Let’s pay attention to this issue now, because if we don’t fix it now, it will only continue to fester and act as a drag on the economic and fiscal viability of New York State.

In the New York Times on July 23, 2012, Laura Klein posted a very provacactive and strong op-ed piece on the failures of special education programs in NYC.

While I absolutely agree with Ms. Klein, I have some additional thoughts I want to share.

Our current K-12 education model was really conceived around an agrarian society and has not been updated (in New York State) since 1907, or so.

Many changes have occurred in our economy and society since then, with accelerated change beginning in the 1960’s.

Today, even in “traditional” 2-parent households, it is quite unusual to find only one parent in the workforce, and that poses a challenge where the K-12 model is 8 AM to 3 PM, and the workplace model is 8 AM to 5 PM.

Now, factor in the growing number of single parent households in America.

If we look back to 1965, we find that about 10 percent of American children lived in single parent households.

In 2011, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted an exhaustive study looking at changes in family structure in 27 industrialized countries.

That OECD study found that in the U.S., about 26% of children were being raised by a single parent, compared with an average of 15% across the other countries.

More telling: 72% of African-American children today grow up in a single parent household.

In the larger picture, females constitute about 83% of the total number of single parents, and single fathers around 17%, and years of evidence tell us that – although the wage gap has narrowed over time – today’s women earn 77.4 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Extensive research in child development over the past several decades has confirmed that the early years (birth to age 8) form the foundation for a full range of human competencies and are the time when young people are most receptive to the effects of both positive and negative experiences.

Researchers have identified several risk factors which – when present – predict adverse outcomes for children, and when absent (or carefully mitigated) can reduce or eliminate the long-term probability of negative outcomes for children, which include reduced economic success and lower quality of life in adulthood.

The single most predictive risk factor is poverty, which is often accompanied by limited parental education achievement; parental mental health problems; social isolation or neglect; and living in an environment where crime and violence regularly occurs.

Two widely-cited intervention programs, the Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarian Program, used randomized child assignment and long-term follow up to study the effects of early interventions on social behaviors of severely disadvantaged children.

In both the Perry and Abecedarian Programs, there was a consistent pattern of successful outcomes for the children in the program compared with control group members.

Participants in the more intense Abecedarian Program had an increase in IQ which persisted into adulthood. This early and continued increase in IQ is important because IQ is a strong predictor of socio-economic success.

Effects of these interventions also reflected a wide range of positive social behaviors, including higher scores on achievement tests; achieving higher levels of education; the need for less special education intervention; placement into higher wage jobs; more likely to own a home; and less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated (when compared to individuals from the control groups).

Many studies have shown that these aspects of behavior translate directly or indirectly into high economic returns.

One economist (Heckman) has estimated the rate of return (the return per dollar of cost) to the Perry Program is in excess of 17%, which is clearly higher than long-term returns on stock market equity and suggests that society at large can benefit substantially from these kinds of interventions.

It is my contention that investing in high-quality early education programs which are both reflective of the economic realities of today (read: 7 AM to 7 PM) and fully articulated with public schools and the expectations of kindergarten readiness will rapidly change the paradigm noted in Ms. Klein’s essay, and will also create a long term benefit to the U.S. economy.

If we continue to push children along through the K-12 system ill-prepared for future workforce opportunities, we will continue to wring our hands and despair that jobs are moving overseas.

In early July 2012, our national unemployment number came in at 8.2%, yet there were some 3 Million private sector jobs open and unfilled.

Why?

Jobs are open and unfilled for a number of reasons, often related to labor mobility and/or experience and training. A poorly educated individual is just not a good candidate to help bolster our domestic economy, and that is a tragic waste of our limited resources.

If even some of the research on the importance and economic return for investing in quality early childhood education is true, then why aren’t we demanding that our public school systems re-engineer themselves to address our 21st century economy?

I am writing from Toney Westchester County, NY.

Our current County Executive, Rob Astorino, recently decided to charge mostly poor families in our County an extra $120 a month for subsidized child care, while most families still grapple with the worst effects of the recession.

Much like presidential candidate Mitt Romney, County Executive Astorino is sending the message that he is out of tune with the proletariat, and that he has distain for the lower and middle-income people who are the majority of the workforce in New York’s lower Hudson Valley.

Our County Executive recently announced that he would ask for permission from New York State to increase from 20 percent to 35 percent the amount of money charged families who use subsidized child care. Now, two years into his four year term, Astorino has been consistent in his apparent campaign targeted at cutting child care and a number of other services that help to keep the working poor working.

In the end, Astorino knows that this gets relegated to be a ‘women’s issue’ and he knows that women have little, if any, influence on election outcomes.

In fact, equal access to quality child care is way more than a ‘women’s issue’, it is a long-term societal issue.

The positive impacts of quality early care and learning on early cognitive development have been well documented.

Children from households with 2 parents who are both college graduates probably benefit the least from high-quality child care, because they start out with a ‘competitive advantage’ from their home environment.

The children who need the most help — those from single parent households where the mother’s highest level of educational achievement is GED or less — are the most in need of rigorous, reliable and high-quality ECE programs.

The positive impact of universal and equal access to quality ECE is clear: on individuals, on families and on society overall, although the positive program outcomes are more often gleaned from European data because of the political ‘yo-yo-ing’ that exists in the U.S.

Westchester County is one of the highest cost areas in America.

Why wouldn’t the residents and businesses in Westchester NOT want to set an example for other U.S. areas in terms of equal access to high-quality early care, if for no other reason than to create a salubrious environment for employers that need a productive workforce?

In the final analysis, discrimination against children due to economic circumstances has disparate impact on children of color.

Isn’t this just another proof that the housing lawsuit really may have merit?