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As the excitement of Governor Spitzer's resignation wanes and the state prepares for next week's leadership change, we can start to think about the practical implications of the leadership shakeup upon the city's schools. Upon taking office in January 2007, Spitzer promised to equalize funding disparities statewide in accordance with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, and last April, the state legislature approved the budget he proposed, which included a $7 billion increase in school aid over five years, of which $5.4 billion would go to New York City. Recently, citing budget woes, Spitzer delayed the payment schedule, reducing the amount of money going to the schools next year.
Now, his departure could complicate the battle to win back state and city school funding -- or at least change its tone. Parents and advocates are planning to take to the steps of City Hall next Wednesday to demand that the mayor and governor restore the funding they promised to the city's schools -- but the governor who made the promise now will not be the same one who must decide whether to keep it.
Instead, that decision will fall to David Paterson, who will become governor on Monday afternoon, so it's good news that Paterson has supported the Campaign for Fiscal Equity since his Harlem state senator days. In addition to supporting equitable school funding, Paterson also has a reputation for championing the rights of the physically disabled; he has been legally blind since childhood. And charter advocates who were thrilled by Spitzer's lifting of the cap on charter schools will be pleased to note that Paterson is a fan of school choice.
Plainly stated, the Weighted Regents Pass Rate sucks. For those of you who don't know, the Weighted Regents Pass Rate is an assessment of a school's performance based on students' Regents test scores, and it's one component that makes up a high school's progress report grade.
As you can probably guess, the Regents pass rate part stands for: What percentage of students pass their Regents exams? I guess that one's okay. If you're being taught well in a course, you would likely be able to pass that Regents test (except for Math B, I know many kids who've scored in the top 5 percent on the SAT and have had to take Math B two or even three times).
But the "weighted" part gets tricky.
See, because of that little weighted part schools are given extra points for getting kids to take their Regents early or to achieve "mastery" by scoring an 85 percent or above. This little, tiny, eensy-weensy "weighted" part now puts the whole test prep culture that is so darn prevalent in our schools on STEROIDS. It is now become the SUPER DUPER AWESOME PUMPED UP EXCELLENT-TASTIC TEST PREP CULTURE.
And because of that SUPER DUPER AWESOME PUMPED UP EXCELLENT-TASTIC TEST PREP CULTURE a lot of students' lives get kind of messed up.
I have a friend who passed her Math B Regents exam in 8th grade based on the rock solid, well-oiled test prep curriculum at her middle school. She then came to high school, got dumped into precalculus, didn't know any of the material, struggled and even failed her first two years of math. She eventually had to be put in classes that were prerequisites for a test she'd already passed. This made her look kind of bad on her college applications and messed with her self-esteem.
So, while the school got points for having a student take the Math B so early, the student suffered.
In my discussions with the DOE regarding the NYC Student Union's positions regarding the progress reports, I have consistently argued that the Weighted Regents Pass Rate needs to be cut down or removed. The DOE's reply has been that it is the only measure of "longitudinal growth."
Regents aren't supposed to measure any "longitudinal growth." This growth DOE officials speak of has more to do with the day's weather, test-taking skills, and student anxiety than it does with the quality of teaching and learning that goes on in the school.
Regents are there to make sure that teachers are teaching their students and students are attempting to learn the subject matter at hand, to hold standards. That's it. When it comes to measuring a school's success, a simple Regents Pass Rate will do.
Cross-posted at NYC Students Blog
In the last few years, the city's schools have gotten better about identifying overweight students and suggesting more activity for them, but physical education still gets short shrift at most schools, according to the Gotham Gazette. The DOE's Office of Fitness and Physical Education implemented a fitness test, called the FitnessGRAM, to give students and their parents more information about their fitness level. But because of the pressure to focus on tested subjects and space and staffing constraints, most elementary schools continue to offer far less than the state-mandated 120 minutes per week of physical activity, instead suggesting to parents ways to help their kids be active and eat healthfully at home. I wonder how many families are able to respond to the FitnessGRAM results the way the DOE expects them to. And even if every parent of an overweight child changes his or her habits because of the test results, should we let schools pass off state-required health and fitness instruction to students' homes?
At a recent Legislative Breakfast in District 3, a member of the state legislature explained that the city's representatives in Albany face challenges as they seek to restore education money to the state budget because of Mayor Bloombergâ€™s cuts to the city's education budget. The money in question at the moment is $193 million in education funding increases promised for next school year by Governor Eliot Spitzer as part of the settlement of the long-running Campaign for Fiscal Equity legal case.
Education funding comes from both city and state. Because of the way the city budget works, it was possible in the past for the city to use state education funding to close city budget gaps and not pass the education dollars on to schools. State legislators have tried to ensure that if they increase state education funds, the city will maintain its part of the funding; this is called â€œmaintenance of effort.â€
State legislators from other parts of New York may well ask why they should vote to restore funds for New York City schools when the mayor, far from showing â€œmaintenance of effort,â€ is slashing hundreds of millions from the cityâ€™s education contribution.
What should parents do? Keep up pressure on Mayor Bloomberg to restore the $340 million he plans to slash from next yearâ€™s school budget. If pressure on the mayor is successful, our schools may reap a double bonus: restoration of state funds as well.
As the mayoral control forums have heralded in an open season against the last five years of New York City school reform, I've heard a growing defense of large high schools. Last week at a New School event, Merryl Tisch called on the DOE to "revitalize the concept of large high schools," noting equity issues in the assignment of students to small schools; increased curricular and extracurricular options generated by a larger student body; and increased bureaucracy of having 1,500 principals citywide. Now, in today's Post, we see the smiling principal of 4,500-student Francis Lewis High School, where despite the problems caused by overcrowding, students are successful and happy. It's useful to know that some students prefer having "something for everyone" over small class sizes â€” although that's a choice students and schools shouldn't have to make.
Yesterday the DOE released its long-awaited "Annual Arts and Schools Report" (pdf), an optional survey completed by 1,079 principals about their arts offerings in the 2006-2007 school year. The DOE says the report is important because it ushers in a new era of detailed reporting on arts education data, but the real story is that few elementary or middle school students get the bare minimum arts education required by the state. The New York Times, unlike the Sun, got the story right: Only 4 percent of elementary schools have the resources to provide the range and depth of arts instruction the state requires, and the vast majority of middle schoolers â€” 71 percent â€” receive less than the state-mandated two half-unit arts courses in the 7th and 8th grades.
The city is "not providing a well-education" to its children, said Richard Kessler, the director of the Center for Arts Education, which is ramping up its role as an advocate for arts education. He told me the city's anemic arts education has a lot to do with the inexperience of many new principals, who have never been taught the importance of the arts and whose own educational experiences likely lacked quality arts programming as well. Giving the arts and other marginalized subjects the role they ought to occupy will require "major in-service and pre-service" training for principals, Kessler said, but the DOE's plans, outlined in the report, represent only "tinkering around the margins" of existing programs.
Kessler was a member of the DOE's arts education task force, convened last summer when ArtsCount was announced in part to address criticism that the elimination of special Project Arts funds would lead principals to reallocate funds from the arts to other subjects. Ultimately, it sounds like the task force played a minimal role in creating the report or recommending its outcomes. The DOE also appears to have backed away from a major goal it outlined last summer: to use the arts data to hold principals and schools accountable for meeting state requirements in the arts and to make the school-by-school arts data transparent and accessible so parents can use the level of arts programming as a factor in choosing a school. The level of deficiency in elementary and middle school arts offerings indicates that principals can't justifiably be held accountable for a nearly systemic failure.
The report's "next steps" section includes news that the DOE will make lesson plans and standards-aligned curriculums available to teachers and that efforts are underway to make principals "better consumers" of existing arts resources. But with deep budget cuts looming and math and reading test scores continuing to make up 85 percent of schools' grades, what resources and incentives do principals have to spend their limited funds and time on the arts?
More bad budget news -- and this time, it's not just for schools. The mayor announced yesterday that all city agencies will have to trim an additional 3 percent from their budgets next year because of decreased state aid.
It's not clear whether the cuts will actually happen -- the Times suggests that the mayor's announcement yesterday may have been a gambit to pressure Governor Spitzer into finding more money for the city -- but if they do, they will be catastrophic for schools, despite the mayor's insistence (again yesterday!) that "you can always make do with less." Last month, when the mayor cut 1.75 percent of schools' budgets (and announced a cut of 5 percent for next year), Insideschools heard from dozens of principals that they were cutting tutoring, after school, and enrichment programs, as well as funds for supplies and professional development. An 8 percent total cut for next year would be severe.
Since the discussion of mayoral control has been heating up for a little while already, I was hoping at yesterday's City Council hearing on the subject to hear some concrete recommendations for how the city's school governance structure should be improved. But much of the morning session at least was spent conflating the issue of mayoral control with the myriad issues many parents, teachers, and advocates have had with the control exercised by Mayor Bloomberg. Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson repeatedly had to ask his colleagues to stay on task as they questioned Chancellor Klein on subjects as far-ranging as testing, the cell phone ban, and the progress reports.
Still, as council members discussed their frustrations with the current education administration, they also gave some hints about what the council's working group on mayoral control will recommend to lawmakers in Albany. It was clear from the council's questions that reverting to the old system of local school board control isn't a real possibility in 2009. Instead, and in keeping with its grievances of the last five years, the council appears to be seeking public â€” and more specifically, parental â€” checks on the mayor's power over education. Jackson said the group would likely recommend that the Community Education Councils, currently powerless, be given a formal, significant role in approving DOE decisions. David Yassky, one of the chairs of the council's working group, suggested that the CECs take on a role in the budget process similar to that which community boards play in the municipal budget progress.
And Jimmy Vacca, the third working group chair along with Jackson and Yassky, asked Chancellor Klein and Deputy Mayor Walcott what they thought about the creation of an independent research body being created to authenticate DOE data. "Having independent analysis is always a good thing," Klein said, noting that the DOE is in the process of setting up such a group right now. Later in the day, David Bloomfield suggested that the city's Independent Budget Office might be an appropriate home for the independent analysts, since that office is already "a reliable source of objective, professional budget analysis."
Recently I served as a judge on a panel considering the proposals of 5th graders for a fundraiser at their school. These kids combined a statistics and economics lesson with a writing assignment -- all for the purpose of raising money for charity.
The children surveyed schoolmates about what kind of fundraisers the community would prefer, analyzed the survey results, and then wrote persuasive essays, backed up by data, about why their proposal should be the one accepted over all the others. Options included a movie night, sports field day, a stuffed animal sale, and other things along those lines. The proposals were rendered anonymous by whiting out the authorsâ€™ names, and the panel of judges included parents, teachers, as well as kids from another class.
Later in the spring the kids will actually carry out the winning fundraiser and donate the proceeds to a charitable cause shown by the survey data to be one that the kids in the school care about a lot. Right now polar bears and global warming are the front-running causes. What a great piece of curriculum!