10/03/13 2:00pm
10/03/2013 2:00 PM
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.

04/25/13 8:00am
04/25/2013 8:00 AM
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Riverhead school board members voting on resolutions Tuesday night. The board also adopted the 2013-14 budget.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Two of seven Riverhead school board members were not at Tuesday night’s meeting at which the board adopted its 2013-14 budget.

While kicking around ideas for this week’s editorial, one of our editors suggested we write about how the 2 percent tax levy cap has made it less attractive for members of the public to run for a seat on their local Board of Education.

The cap, he suggested, has limited how much difference members of the school board can actually make.

“Didn’t we already write that editorial?” another editor remarked.

So we went to the archives and, lo and behold, here’s what we wrote on May 10, 2012:

“It may seem strange that in all the school districts from Wading River to Orient there are only two contested seats this year — and in two districts seats will go empty for lack of candidates. But given the circumstances, it’s not strange at all. How many people would want to join a school board when the most pressing business is not how to improve programs but what to cut to satisfy the state? And if you’re worried about taxes, that worry is misplaced given that the state limit is about as tight as it gets.”

It appears the same holds true this year, with just 15 candidates running for 13 school board seats in the seven school districts in Riverhead and Southold towns. Only two districts, Riverhead and Oysterponds, actually have a race this year.

The only district with any significant interest from the public is Oysterponds, where five people are running for three seats — that’s one candidate for every 12 kids in the elementary school. This year’s scariest statistic of all is that there are only two new candidates in the six other local districts.

There was so little interest in the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District that, unless a write-in candidate arises and wins, one seat could remain empty at the start of next school year.

Here are five factors we believe explain the dwindling interest in serving on school boards:

• As we stated last year, the tax cap further shifts the focus of all school boards to cutting, or desperately trying to maintain, programs rather than creating new ones. It’s a system that favors the status quo over improving our children’s education. A concerned parent could easily be frustrated by being placed in that predicament.

• An apparent decline in transparency has led to a general distrust of school boards. In some districts, public work sessions were once common, but they’ve since been replaced by more frequent executive sessions.

• Outspoken school board members are becoming a thing of the past. It’s more common nowadays to find board members who work in unison with district administrators than it is to see ones who offer up a differing viewpoint. The school board members who challenge the status quo often end up losing interest and moving on.

• School taxes are the single largest item on our annual tax bills, and that number almost always goes up. It can’t be much fun being the one person on your block who voted to put a tax hike on the ballot.

• Even the most content school board members are fed up with unpopular state and federal mandates they’re being forced to comply with. Before programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top emerged, school board members had much more control over how the district operated.

So what’s to be done? Clearly the powers that be in Albany play a major role in shaping local education programs. Naive as it may be, we can only hope there will be a concerted effort in the capital to re-examine the impacts of state education law and policies on our districts. For our part, we need to stop thinking that the only reason to run for a school board seat is either to improve programs or to cut taxes. We need people who’ll represent the center and take on the essential work of balancing fiscal and curriculum concerns to maintain school systems we can take pride in -— and afford.