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Do You Question Your State Education Department?

Do you question your state education departments enough? Do you question them at all? When you receive a memo from the state, do you take the opportunity to read it and respond? Or do you instantly press delete?

It is our responsibility as educators to question what goes on around us. We should not simply delete an e-mail because we do not like it. We need to read what those memos say and ask for clarification if that is what we need. Too often, educators read the memo or letter, shake their head or complain, and then move on to something else.

Perhaps if we ask for clarification things won't seem as bad? Unless we get an answer we do not like...

Our loss of academic freedom due to mandates and accountability force those who even work for state education departments to believe more in private or Montessori schools than in the public education they are supposed to lead. Is it because state education departments are filled with a mixture of those who came from the "trenches" and others who have very little public education experience...if any at all.

Every state education department needs a mix of those who did not have a career in education and those who have had a long history in it because it's important to have an outside perspective that questions what has happened and can give insight into something new. However, we need the strong voice of educators who have had long careers and know what schools have to work with day in and day out.

Unfortunately, the relationship between schools and state education departments seems to have been relegated to memos and accountability.

Memo After Memo
All schools get memo after memo after memo from their state education departments. It feels very top down, even though the memos may begin with, "Dear Colleagues." They often direct schools on what they have to do next. This year feels different. Every memo comes at a time when schools are trying to find a balance with accountability and unfunded mandates.

I have never responded to memos from the New York State Education Department. However, one particular memo mentioned they were creating a new portal for student data, and they cautioned us about third-party vendors.

Part of the memo said,

"Currently, most districts and schools, consistent with FERPA, contract with third- parties and other vendors in order to provide services that meet their local instructional and management needs. These services include student information systems that maintain and schedule course enrollments, special education service management systems, school lunch and transportation systems, online learning systems, professional development systems, curriculum planning and content tools, and local formative and interim assessment systems.
The EDP will help address four challenges that occur when districts contract with these third-parties:
(1)Costs are higher than they should be. When districts contract for educational technology services, they are paying for two things: the cost of the vendor's product and the overhead cost to "integrate" or ensure that the vendor's out-of- the-box product works with local data systems and local user accounts."

The NY State Education Department seemed to be suggesting that schools should move away from third party vendors. I asked for clarification.

Although I understand that part of the reason why this portal was created was due to parent concern over sharing the private data of their children, I feel some of the wording you used is contradictory to some of SED's actions. It seems as though you are suggesting that districts should move away from third-party vendors where these portals are concerned. However, at the same time SED has a five-year $32 million contract with Pearson Education. Are they not an outside vendor?

In addition, if the portal was created to protect student data, I do have a few questions.

• How can schools and parents trust that SED will maintain confidentiality with student data?
• It seems as though SED is offering the portal as a free service for the next couple of years but then it will become a paid service. Is this true? Wouldn't it be better, as our education department, to offer this for free of charge indefinitely considering many schools are dealing with budget cuts and so many unfunded mandates?
After all, all of New York State's public schools should benefit from the Race to the Top Grant.


Ken Wagner responded:
"We are not suggesting that LEA's move away from relationships with third-party vendors. Many of these vendors provide critical services and a good value.

What we are trying to do is help set standards for those services (including emerging national standards for data storage, data transfer, and data standards) so that, if you elect to contract for educational software services, you can so in an easier and more cost effective manner.

It will be completely up to districts whether to continue to use these EDP services once the RTTT dollars go away.

If districts do elect to continue to use the EDP, our goal is to build and maintain a system where the only costs to districts are the costs of the third party tools they would like to purchase plus an overhead cost to maintain the underlying set of standards.

The most relevant question for the next few years will be:

(1) Is the EDP project successful in supporting these standards and simplifying the process of district procurement and use of educational software tools?

(2) If so, is the cost of maintaining the system low enough to be offset by the savings incurred?

If the EDP project is not successful, LEAs will simply continue to do what they are currently doing, including paying extra (estimated at 10% to 30% overhead) to cover the cost of making local data work with third-party products."

The following are my thoughts that I sent in response:
Although I appreciate getting a response I am still left feeling confused. In the PDF memo that was sent, you wrote, "Costs are higher than they should be. When districts contract for educational technology services, they are paying for two things: the cost of the vendor's product and the overhead cost to "integrate" or ensure that the vendor's out-of-the-box product works with local data systems and local user accounts." That seems to contradict your earlier comment that they offer good value.

"What we are trying to do is help set standards for those services..."
Does NYSED really believe they can set the standard? Many school districts are floundering with the Common Core implementation as well as APPR. Shouldn't we begin there first by offering more than just EngageNY and more mandates?

It will be completely up to districts whether to continue to use these EDP services once the RTTT dollars go away. This seems odd to me. Districts will get used to a portal that they may or may not be able to afford in the future?

If districts do elect to continue to use the EDP, our goal is to build and maintain a system where the only costs to districts are the costs of the third party tools they would like to purchase plus an overhead cost to maintain the underlying set of standards. So the system is not built yet? School districts may have a difficult time trusting something that has not been built yet. It's like building a plane while flying...which is exactly like the accountability system.

The most relevant question for the next few years will be:
(1) Is the EDP project successful in supporting these standards and simplifying the process of district procurement and use of educational software tools?
Some schools have successful relationships right now with third-party vendors and this might not be a good idea for them. Like everything else in New York State, will this become another mandate that we all have to use their portal?

If the EDP project is not successful, LEAs will simply continue to do what they are currently doing, including paying extra (estimated at 10% to 30% overhead) to cover the cost of making local data work with third-party products. Once again, this seems to go against the statement about critical services and good value.

I never received another response.

Bait and Switch
If state education departments really want to help schools they need to get some of the trust back, and that is going to take some work. Public schools are tired of the constant accountability and one-sided memos. Some states offer very little guidance and often lead to more questions than answers.

Many teachers and principals, including me, are trying to find the good in all of the bad. We are trying to accept the Common Core State Standards and focus on the shifts. We can only hope that the Core will help students. Teachers and administrators are doing the work but it's hard to know what we are working toward. If NY State wants to know why schools may not use their portal, it's because we don't trust that they will keep it private. We only trust that they will only use it against us.

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