In his April 5 commentary (“Education Reform in New York? Fuhgeddaboutit.”), Robert Pondiscio writes that “the era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them…[is] over” in New York. I could not disagree more. The Board of Regents and I are forging ahead with our work to ensure that all students have access to high-quality teachers in high-quality schools led by high-quality principals. We simply have a different view of how to best deliver those things to our students.
To frame his argument that New York has lost its way, Mr. Pondiscio begins and ends his piece by pointing to two recent decisions by the Board of Regents—first, our decision to return to the SUNY Trustees ten applications seeking the early renewal of charter schools in New York City; second, our decision to drop one of the exams needed to become a certified teacher in New York State.
Let’s look first at the charter school decision. In making its decision to return the applications to the SUNY Trustees, the Board of Regents did not comment in any way on the efficacy of the schools seeking early renewal of their charters. Rather, the Board based its decision on the Charter Schools Act, which does not allow this kind of early renewal. It has long been the practice of all authorizers to renew charter schools in the academic year in which their charter term expires to ensure the most recent data is used in the renewal evaluation. Granting early renewals to the ten applicants would circumvent this accountability protection and result in charter terms ending many years from the conclusion of the current academic year—in some cases, the new charter terms would run all the way until 2025.
But there are bigger issues at stake here. As a senior advisor to a network of New York City-based charter schools, Mr. Pondiscio naturally has a vested interest in promoting the growth of that sector. As Chancellor of the Board of Regents, however, I have a very different outlook and a very different set of obligations. The Regents are responsible for the education of more than three million New York State children who attend traditional public schools, charter schools, nonpublic schools, and those who are homeschooled. As a Board, we are obligated to ensure that all those children have access, on an equal basis, to excellent schools and teachers. That responsibility extends to students with physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities, students who speak little or no English, students who are desperately poor and homeless, and students who exhibit severe behavioral problems.
The Board of Regents will approve only those charter school applications that clearly demonstrate a strong capacity for establishing and operating a high-quality school. This standard requires a strong educational program, organizational plan and financial plan, as well as clear evidence of the capacity of the founding group to implement the proposal and operate the school effectively. The Board and I carefully consider those factors in deciding whether to open or renew a charter school. And we will consider those factors only at the time the law intends for us to make such determinations; we do not and we will not act prematurely to advance anyone’s political agenda.
Let’s also examine the Board’s recent decision to drop the Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST) as a certification requirement in New York. Mr. Pondiscio described that decision as a vote “to make teaching a ‘literacy optional’ profession in New York.” A literate person might well use the word “hyperbole” to describe that over-the-top description of this change in certification requirements.
Here are the facts. Students in New York’s teacher preparation programs already take many courses that require them to read and write at a high, college level. Let’s not forget that teaching candidates must also take and pass four years of college courses to even reach the point of taking the certification exams—so they have already demonstrated that they possess the literacy skills needed to get through college.
The Regents took this action based on the recommendations of the EdTPA Task Force, comprised of college deans and professors, and after gathering extensive public feedback. These experts were concerned that the test is flawed, with many of the questions appearing to have more than one correct answer. In a recent interview, Charles Sahm, director of education policy at the conservative Manhattan Institute (Mr. Sahm was not a member of the Task Force that recommended the changes) noted that he took the ALST test; here’s what he said about it, “You can take it for $20 online. And I have to say, I only got 21 out of 40 questions right on the reading comprehension.” In short, the test is a flawed measure of literacy skills.
Even with this change, New York’s teaching certification requirements remain among the most rigorous in the country, requiring the vast majority of teaching candidates to pass three other assessments before earning certification; those assessments also require students to demonstrate literacy skills. We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants.
But let’s get to the crux of Mr. Pondiscio’s argument. He believes that education in New York is heading in the wrong direction. Again, I could not disagree more. The Regents are moving forward to bring greater equity to students in all our schools. And nowhere is this more evident than in the deliberative, transparent, and inclusive approach the Regents and Commissioner Elia are taking to develop our Every Student Succeeds Act state plan. Our goal is straightforward—we will submit to the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) a plan that supports the development of highly effective schools and encourages and enables all schools to become or remain highly effective.
Critical to the success of our State plan is the way we approach the issue of accountability. In a recent post on the Brookings Institution’s “Brown Center Chalkboard” blog, Brian Gill nailed it when he wrote, “It is time for accountability in education to be liberated from its narrow association with high-stakes testing. A single-minded focus on one form of accountability overlooks opportunities to create a rich system of incentives and supports that employs multiple accountability tools to promote improved practice.” That single-minded focus on test scores did not help children in poor, low-performing schools. We will change that.
The ESSA state plan ultimately adopted by the Board of Regents will improve teaching and learning, and it will promote greater equity for New York’s schoolchildren. By improving teaching and learning, we seek to increase teacher effectiveness in providing high-quality instruction aligned with state standards while fostering a positive learning environment for all students. By promoting equity, we seek to reduce the gaps in achievement that currently separate whole groups of students.
One final note about accountability. I have said repeatedly that, ultimately, it is a parent’s decision whether to have his or her child take the state assessments. I have also said that no school and no child should ever be punished because of a school’s low test participation rate. At the same time, I believe that assessments can be useful tools—provided they are diagnostic, valid, reliable, and provided they yield practical and timely information to teachers, administrators, and parents. So our goal is to continue to improve our tests; when we do, participation rates will improve as a natural consequence.
For too long, New York has neglected the needs of too many students. I am proud to head a Board that is dedicated to changing that paradigm.
Betty A. Rosa is Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.