Monday, February 29, 2016

NY PTA Leg. Ed. Convention 2016

This year’s New York State PTA Legislative Education Conference provided a wealth of information and opportunities. Always a great opportunity to learn and be inspired, I was again delighted to go and saddened that so few people did with me. The keynote speaker on Saturday was Regent Judith Johnson.

Her introduction included the idea that all movements for change were led by citizens fed up with the status quo. People have used peaceful protest to bring attention to injustice. A country is only as strong as the people who make it up.

One of the challenges currently facing schools is that a school used to lead to an opportunity for economic equality. Now zip code determines educational opportunity and so schools are no longer the tool for economic growth. How do we provide children with equal opportunity to learn? How do we ensure a sound basic education as required by the Campaign for Fiscal Equality lawsuit which wrapped up in 2006? She introduced four priorities of the regents in order to address the needs of students in New York.

Effective teachers and principals. Student funding formulas need to support this ideal. She highlighted that in times of economic crisis, teachers are blamed. She admits that ineffective teachers should be removed. That being said only a small number of teachers are truly ineffective. The number of new teachers entering the field is low- we need to identify how to recruit new good teachers. This can be done through improved conditions. If we have an evaluation system whose purpose is to fire teachers, it strangles teachers. High stakes tests deteriorate classroom performance. Knowing this and knowing the mandate to alter the evaluation system to be 50% test based and 50% observation based, we need to look at the system for evaluation. Our 3-8 ELA and math tests are not valid or reliable for assessing teacher performance. The current moratorium on using student data for teacher assessment does not stop data recording and sharing with the public or the deadline for adjusted APPR. A group of Regents were identified by the others as a “gang” of 6 because they called the regents, education department and the governor on turning a deaf ear to the research and needs of teachers and students. There is no money in the governor’s budget proposal for looking at APPR.

Assessment system adjustments. The United States uses more testing than any other industrialized nation. High performance on state tests is not equal to achievement. Tests do not improve performance. [I once ran into a description like this: if we want kids to jump higher, merely raising the bar will not improve their standing high jump.] Regent Johnson proposed assessment through multiple measures: personalized, competency based tests and portfolios that allow demonstration of problem solving, curiosity, critical thinking, imagination, and respect. We need a research based system rather than parachute decision making- decisions that just drop from the sky. We need to look at reducing the time spent on standardized, multiple choice tests and increase assessment that reflect "soft" 21st century skills- problem solving, creativity, and compassion. She affirmed that throwing out standardized multiple choice tests is not the plan, but balancing them with portfolios and other measures.

Learning Standards- Aim High New York. In the early 1990s Dr. Johnson worked in a district that was involved in an innovative attempt to use increase rigor through higher standards. They learned that this was a long term project in which professional development was included, and collaboration between team members was essential including those related to the arts. Multi-subject projects were a key component of the experiment. The approach worked. Sadly, the Common Core State Standards ignored the lessons learned from that movement.

The achievement gap is a serious concern. It is related to race and economic isolation. Our lowest performing schools are schools in areas of high poverty. Poverty leads to a loss of hope and a feeling of hopelessness. Trauma, and the incidence of trauma is higher in areas of high poverty, results in decreased academic performance. This leads to depressed performance BUT not all poor children are poor achievers. We need to figure out how to make public schools be the tool for economic advancement. In order for this to happen we need to do what the governor’s commission suggested- reevaluate the state standards. Unfortunately, there is no money in the governor’s proposal for this work.

We need academic prompts to be mindful of student lives. We need to acknowledge that trauma and poverty experiences impact mindset. No one wants to be poor. 6 out of 10 children born into poverty are adults in poverty. In the early twentieth century, schools were the cradle of hope. Are they today? Schools are not about passing a test, but about problem solving and preparation for effective citizenship and caring people. We need to ask what kind of people do we want our students to become? What kind of lives do we want them to live and what kind of society do we want them to create. If it is all about passing the tests, it will not be about cultivating common good and adapting to changing circumstances. School is the only dynamic institution that is shared across our country and unites most Americans. It is time to revisit the purpose of public education.

State Aid. The regents have proposed the need for 2.2-2.4 billion additional dollars of school aid as opposed to the governor’s roughly 994 million dollar proposal. The governor’s proposal does not fund many of the things he wants done. It does include funds for 3 year old preschool, but has not fully funded 4 year old preschool or even kindergarten. It does not include increased aid for struggling schools, especially in the form of professional development. It does not cover the transfer to digital learning, family community engagement, vocational training or multiple pathways to graduation. There is plenty of room available for adjustments in order to meet the needs of our children and society.

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