03/23/14 8:30am

Testing

We’ve heard a lot recently about the “new” SAT, the national standardized test created and marketed by the private, not-for-profit College Board and used by many colleges and universities as the most important part of their admissions process. It is in the news because of the fear it instills in almost every high school student in America: the underlying message is “Blow the SAT and forget about your future.” (more…)

11/27/13 9:00am
RACHEL YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen.

RACHEL YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Steven Cohen.

The New York State Board of Regents insists the state’s public school students are not “College and Career Ready.” They claim that public school students are not prepared for the rigors of college reading or mathematics. And, since these skills are thought somehow to be crucial to getting a good-paying job, New York’s public school students who do poorly in mathematics and reading are believed to be in danger of becoming unemployable (or at least underemployed).

However, what seems like a simple, straightforward notion — that high school graduates ought to be ready for college and the world of work — turns out to be something quite different. And by that, I mean the announced public school goal of graduating students “College and Career Ready” is yet another sleight of hand from the Board of Regents.

First, consider exactly how the Board of Regents defines “College and Career Ready.”

If a student passes an algebra test in 8th or 9th grade at a level that correlates to a C in freshman mathematics in college, and if that same student passes an English test in 11th grade at a level correlated with a C in freshman English in college, along with earning 22 credits in high school and passing three other Regents exams, then she or he is set and ready to go to college and into the world of work.

No music, art, advanced study in much of anything; no community service, no sports, no occupational training; no independent work in any academic or other creative field is required. In addition, to do well on these tests, it is not necessary to read entire novels or histories or write papers of any length or complexity. It is not necessary to develop a love of anything or demonstrate an ability to think on one’s own feet.

Second, note that 16 of the 17 Board of Regents members, in addition to the commissioner of education himself, send their children to private schools — ones that have not embraced the reforms the Board of Regents and the commissioner claim are needed to make students “College and Career Ready.” I mention this fact because its relevance becomes obvious once one understands what “College and Career Ready” means for the children of our educational leaders. You see, the colleges that the children of Regents and commissioners of education are expected to attend, places like Harvard University, define “College and Career Ready” differently.

To be “College Ready” at Harvard (and at other selective private universities to which Regents send their children) an 18-year old must have a “good high school education,” one that “do[es] more than prepare you for the next level of  education.” A “good” high school education “should prepare you to take advantage of future learning opportunities of all kinds.” Specifically, graduating high school “college ready” to enter Harvard requires “close and extensive reading of the classics of world literature,” four years of a single foreign language, three years of American history, European history and one other advanced history course, four years of mathematics including at least pre-calculus or statistics, advanced physics, chemistry and biology and one other science at an advanced level and “frequent practice in the writing of expository prose.” Art and music, though not mentioned specifically, are not to be understood as incidental to proper preparation for college.

So it turns out that “College and Career Ready” means two different things depending on whether you are a public school student in New York or a student at an expensive private school. “College and Career Ready” for public school kids means achieving at a decidedly mediocre level when compared to the expectations the Regents have for their own children. Perhaps that’s one reason they would never send them to schools that are benefiting from their wonderful reforms.

For “College and Career Ready,” once one digs a bit below the surface, suggests readying public school students for work that does not demand advanced learning in anything and is not oriented toward preparing students to “take advantage of future learning opportunities of all kinds.” No, these loftier expectations, and the courses and other resources needed to achieve them, are to be reserved for students not subject to the glories of the Regents Reform Agenda, students whose parents have the money and connections to keep them out of the public school system.

Most new jobs created in our economy are low-paying service jobs. We should be concerned that “College and Career Ready” actually refers to a curriculum that guides public school students to these jobs, leaving the few good jobs to students who receive a private high school education that prepares them to “take advantage of future learning opportunities of all kinds.”

Make no mistake about it, “College and Career Ready” is code for education apartheid. Do not let your children breathe the stale air of low expectations, reduced exposure to the arts and music, limited engagement with sophisticated science and little, if any, prolonged, deep and thoughtful contact with great literature.

“College and Career Ready” is a trap. Don’t fall for it. Your kids deserve better. Just like theirs.

Steven R. Cohen, Ph.D., is superintendent of schools for Shoreham-Wading River School District.

10/03/13 2:00pm
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River superintendent Steven Cohen at the meeting to appoint him last June.

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Shoreham-Wading River superintendent Steven Cohen at the meeting to appoint him last June.

In 2001, Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind. At the time there was strong bipartisan support for the idea that no children in the U.S. should fail to receive a sound public education, especially the poor among them. Who wouldn’t support such a noble cause? Twelve years later, however, we contend with the effects of the implementation of this law, which are nothing short of lamentable. In New York, this national initiative is spearheaded by the Board of Regents, a non-elected body of 17 citizens who control all education policy in the state and oversee the State Education Department, whose leader is the commissioner of education, currently Dr. John King Jr.

In a March 2012 presentation to the New York State School Boards Association, Dr. King outlined the Regents Reform Agenda. According to Dr. King, who follows in a long line of school “reform” advocates, there is a general crisis in public education. Most high school graduates, Dr. King tells us, are not “college and career ready.” Children do not get the education they need to supply U.S. businesses with skilled workers, according to the Regents, because the state does not have high academic standards, and because our schools lack effective instruction and supervision. Looking to get $700 million from the federal government’s Race-to-the-Top initiative (a one-time payment of about 3% of total annual state spending on education, half of which was earmarked to create a data system), the Regents agreed to tie every local school district’s curriculum to national learning standards, known as Common Core Standards. The Regents also agreed to base the evaluation of teachers and principals on standardized tests in English and mathematics (grades 3-8) that all students are required to take, including students with special needs and those who do not speak or write English as their native language. This Reform Agenda diminishes subjects other than English and mathematics: history, science, art, music, occupational education, and athletics apparently are no longer essential parts of a high-quality education. The Common Core Standards themselves are based on a rigid view of childhood development, forcing all elementary children to learn at the same rate. And the Reform Agenda has squandered a staggering amount of instructional time and money to create a “data driven culture” rife with technical and equity problems.

But there is no “general” crisis. The Regents bases its Reform Agenda on an incorrect diagnosis. And this mistake leads to bad public policy. Contrary to what the Regents claim, there are many excellent public schools and public school districts in New York and the nation. Many of these districts graduate well over 90 percent of their students. Many high school seniors are accepted to, and flourish in, the nation’s best universities (Long Island, if considered as a separate state, would have the best public education system in the nation.) Most significant, if one considers family income, American students perform as well on standardized tests as students in any country in the world. The Regents Reform Agenda is wrongheaded because it does not focus first and foremost on providing poor children with the material and emotional support they need to focus on learning in school (22 percent of the children in the U.S. live in poverty, 45 percent in low-income families). To no one’s surprise, scores on the most recent state tests correlated highly with the incomes of the families of the children who took them. Unfortunately, the Regents Reform Agenda distracts teachers and principals in successful schools from doing what works, while poor students do not get the support they need to focus every day on “school” learning. (To be sure, poor children learn a great deal, but their real-life curriculum does not follow the Common Core.)

Beyond these concerns with the Regents Reform Agenda lies another, perhaps even more disturbing, story. Most of the Regents send their own children to private schools, so they, unlike the rest of us, have no personal stake in the roll-out of their ambitious, but untested, “reform” program. (In fact, the private schools to which they send their children do not embrace this Reform Agenda!) And although “reformers” do not like us to notice, many of them have personal ties to companies that profit from selling educational materials to public schools, creating an unwise conflict of interest. (There is an annual $500 billion market in public education in the U.S., generated from school taxes.)

ON TOPIC: Editor Michael White column on Common Core

“Reformers” also insist that superior alternatives to locally controlled public education exist — charter schools. However, they are reluctant to admit many troubling facts about these schools: charter schools are funded by public school taxes, but many of them also receive large donations from private foundations and from individuals who have interests in companies that receive public school taxes; many charters have produced test results that do not compare favorably with their public school counterparts; many charters appear to offer superior education because they do not accept students with disabilities, or students who speak languages other than English, or because they encourage students who do not conform to the charter’s rules and expectations to drop out of school. Too many charters divert resources from local public schools, whose revenues are now, more or less, fixed by the new tax levy limit law, while they receive generous donations from businesses and foundations that seek to privatize public education.

Perhaps the Regents should consider some new ideas to “leave no child behind:” first, insist that the governor and Legislature ensure that all children in the state live in safe neighborhoods, that their parents have good jobs, that they have prenatal care, early childhood education, and adequate medical and social services; second, put aside the expensive and faulty APPR initiative, and instead use audit teams of professional educators to issue written reports of all school districts every several years; third, extend the probationary period for teachers and principals from the current three years to six years, to provide an apprentice period as well as sufficient time to make informed decisions about the potential of young teachers and principals.

Bring all children, especially the poorest, to school every day, ready to learn. Evaluate and support teachers and principals in meaningful ways based on detailed analysis of each teacher’s and each principal’s strengths and weaknesses. Assess school districts in depth, from student work to teacher training to Board of Education leadership. If the Regents were to consider these changes, and reject superficial data and calls to privatize this essential public institution, all children might come to school eagerly, districts (and the teachers, principals, and yes, superintendents, who work in them) would be assessed realistically by legitimate and competent external authorities and be provided meaningful direction for improvement, and all new teachers and principals would have to meet a threshold of professional competence that is demanding and fair before they would receive tenure. The Regents Reform Agenda creates problems where none exist, and fails to meet genuine challenges.

It’s time the Regents considered other paths to defend this fundamental democratic institution.

Steven R. Cohen, Ph.D., is superintendent of schools for Shoreham-Wading River School District.