A School Challenge for New York
New York Post
July 28, 2009
by Thomas W. Carroll
On Friday, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a new set of Race to the Top grants — $4.35 billion for states willing to innovate in their schools. To compete, New York will have to make a number of major changes in educational policy.
Here are four issues that must be addressed:
Allow student test scores to be used in evaluations of teachers and principals: Language slipped into the state budget at the request of teachers-union lobbyists in April 2008 banned the use of student-performance data in tenure decisions. If not repealed, the provision may scuttle New York’s chances for Race to the Top dollars. Draft guidelines for the program state: “To be eligible . . . a state must not have any legal, statutory or regulatory barriers to linking student achievement or student growth data to teachers for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation.”
On Friday, President Obama — with teachers-union head Randi Weingarten sitting in the audience — underscored this point, warning: “Any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways if it wants to compete for a [Race for the Top] grant.”
Increase the supply of high- quality charter schools: The federal Education Department will also be assessing whether an applicant state is committed to increasing the supply of strong charters. In particular, New York’s cap on the total number of charters (now 200) conflicts with the feds’ preference. The Education Department also will judge “the extent to which the state provides charter schools with facilities funding.” New York now provides no facility aid for charter schools; it doesn’t even offer a loan-guarantee fund to make it easier to finance charter facilities.
Create high standards and rigorous assessments: Race to the Top requires both; the president warned off states that “are low-balling expectations for students.” Unfortunately, New York is one of those low-ballers. It has a strong set of academic standards, but its assessments and their scoring do not measure up.
With New York’s grade 3 through 8 assessments and its Regents exams, the cut scores (or thresholds) for passing grades have been dropped in recent years — one reason that state exams show rising scores, even as New York is simultaneously ranking lower on the more rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress exams.
Create alternative pathways for aspiring teachers and principals: The draft guidelines are specific on this requirement, “particularly routes that allow for providers in addition to institutions of higher education.”
Right now, New York certification is solely the province of schools of education. Yet many high-performing schools find graduates of these programs to be ill-prepared for classroom instruction, especially in urban settings.
To allow even more innovation, New York might want to consider allowing groups other than education schools to certify teachers or principals. Candidates include Teach for America, the KIPP fellows program, New Leaders for New Schools, the teachers unions, and any high quality charter network that can demonstrate it has developed a more effective way to prepare teachers or school leaders.
One hopeful sign here: One of the most creative local programs on this front is the “Teacher U” initiative developed in part by Hunter College’s iconoclastic dean of education, David Steiner — who has just been named the new head of the state Education Department.
THESE four reforms are not all that the Race to the Top competition requires. But addressing these four problems is crucial if New York State wants its application to be considered seriously.
With state government highly dysfunctional at the moment, the effort to shape New York’s response likely will be led by Steiner and the Board of Regents, headed by Chancellor Merryl Tisch.
The Race to the Top competition may be just the impetus New York needs to develop a coherent strategy for improving its public schools. What remains to be seen is whether the state’s leaders have the political will to put aside their differences and line up behind a winning plan.
Thomas W. Carroll is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability.