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.)
“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.