In his 2012 State of the State Address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he was a lobbyist for students (Hu. N.Y.Times). Speech after speech he uses data that shows that N.Y. State students are lagging behind the rest of the country. He often mentions that New York is number one in spending but 38th in results (Santos, N.Y. Times).
He ignores all of the good news about New York’s schools, such as their recent rating of number 3 in the nation for excellence, according to the Quality Counts report. He also ignores how New York schools dominate lists of excellence such as Newsweek’s top 100 schools.
In a time when teachers and administrators are concerned what will happen to the education our students receive, Cuomo is making blanket rules that forces school districts to spend down their fund balances on a costly, top-down evaluation system. For example, districts across the state are finding that the mandates of Race to the Top cost more local dollars than the dollars received (Stern, LOHUD). Meanwhile, many schools have sound evaluation systems in place and do not have fund balances left to create new ones. What will they do because they are certainly not receiving incentive money for doing the right thing?
When Governor Cuomo said he was a lobbyist for students, for which students does he lobby? Does he care about urban students more than suburban students? What about the students in a rural setting who have already had their budgets cut and class choices limited (i.e. course electives). They have seen their teachers and administrators lose their jobs, and are sitting on busses for an hour as they ride to school. How much do they have to endure? Those students may be concerned about his lobbying skills.
Many schools have cut fund balances, consolidated services, consolidated buildings, and tried to keep property taxes low. Instead of blanket rules for all schools, there needs to be more equality in how schools are being treated. Give the schools following rules the benefit of funding. Too often the politicians in charge care more about their own constituency and other schools get left out of the equation.
We should really focus on what this is all about and it certainly has nothing to do with students. It has to do with a struggle for power between unions and the governor. It has to do with holding back funding in an effort to get an agreement on teacher and administrator evaluation. It has to do with raising test scores on a high stakes test that schools do not control and lack validity and reliability.
If we really want to change education for the better, get rid of the emphasis on high stakes testing and make schools accountable for having their own locally developed measures. Erase the effort to tie evaluation to high stakes testing because high stakes testing scores can be affected by outside influences such as the home environment or a bad interaction on the way to school. In addition, many students have test anxiety, especially in our present testing environment. It’s not an excuse, it’s a reality. Most important of all, we do not want our teachers focusing on test prep, rather than on our students’ needs.
If governors like Andrew Cuomo are truly lobbyists for students they would look at our present system and help change it through offering proper resources for schools and children, making sure students get a positive start to their educational experience through highly effective pre-k programs and stopping the race toward higher scores on a test that is really not appropriate for the students taking it.
In addition, they could allow schools to use some of the evaluation practices that they have presently. Many schools are using goal setting and teacher observation. Many schools are using best practices that encourage professional conversations between teachers and administrators. Many of those same schools are using teacher-centered and student-centered practices that focus on 21st century skills to prepare students for their future.
I understand that there are schools that do not follow the rules. High stakes testing and cutting budgets will not stop that. They’ll cheat on testing and not spend wisely. Use the state education departments to put action plans into place for those schools and if they continue to break the rules punish them, not all of us.
There are millions of teachers, cafeteria workers, teacher’s aides and administrators who wake up thinking about their students every day. They care for those students when they enter their classroom, feed them when they are hungry, educate them all day and worry about them as they get on the bus to go home. Those individuals are the true lobbyists for students and they’re really tired of being on the receiving end of a political fight that has very little do with them in the first place.
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Thanks to Carol Burris, high school principal and co-author of the New York Principal letter for her assistance with this blog.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.