During Governor Cuomo’s recent budget address, he stated, “We all agree that there is a crisis in education.” He cited U.S. Census data from a few years ago that ranks New York 38 of 50 states with a percentage of adults with a high school diploma or more. Used in this speech to benchmark New York’s education system, this statistic refers to the educational attainment of any adult in the state who may have been educated in another state or country.
It is likely that the Governor used this data point to create more urgency for improving schools. Education should always be a priority for ensuring the overall advancement of a society. Nonetheless, it is important that New Yorkers consider multiple and various types of data before making a generalization about all schools and school systems around a single data point and one for which relevance is questionable. Such generalizations have the potential of justifying systemic changes that may be good for some student populations but deleterious to others.
The real crisis is child poverty. Sadly, the United States has one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world at approximately 22%. New York State’s child poverty rate is consistent with the national average.
Other State-to-State Comparisons
In spite of our high level of poverty, recent data reveal that New York may be actually beating the odds. In its national ranking of school systems by state, Education Week, in its 2012 “Quality Counts” report, placed New York State in the #3 slot behind Maryland (#1) and Massachusetts (#2). Each of those states had respective poverty rates of 13% and 14%. Comparing the “Quality Counts” rankings of education systems across the country with state-by-state child poverty rates indicates that New York is one of the top performing states in spite of its high child poverty status.
Other recent reports also reflect how New York may actually be one of the leaders in education. According to a recent study on “business-friendly” states conducted by CNBC, New York ranks #1 in the nation for what business needs from schools. It is #2 for technology and innovation. Perhaps there is a correlation. Here are a few other related facts:
- New York schools have more Intel semifinalists — 105 — than any other state. The next closest state is California with 41. 1,839 students apply with 300 making semifinal status. New York has a third of these students.
- New York ranks second in the nation for the number of students successfully completing Advanced Placement courses.
What about the International Rankings?
Again, poverty is the real crisis. American students attending schools with less than 10% poverty would be ranked number one on the PISA, the international assessment that school critics use to condemn public education. What also makes the school ranking more interesting is that no other countries involved in the international testing have child poverty rates close to 25%.
While these reports may provide a different perspective on public school performance in the State, it is important that we do not fall into the comparison trap. Americans are competitive and like to see rankings and standings. However, school systems across the country have different standards for graduation, so a comparison of states by graduation rates is irrelevant unless we have information about how they are assessed – by what standards – and which students are being assessed – their poverty and language status. Academic proficiency is often more about where one lives rather than how well one has learned.
What does all of this have to do with South Orangetown?
New York State has mandated sweeping changes to its education system that include an expanded student assessment system in which student testing – on-line and in school – will proliferate in an effort to systematize the state’s collection of data on student and school performance. Teachers and principals will also be evaluated on how their students perform on tests, even though there is limited research to support making such connections and even though 80% of staff are not in instructional areas that culminate with a state assessment. New tests will have to be created.
There is also an initiative to align New York’s curriculum with the Common Core Standards, a national curriculum that is being adopted by many states. While much of the nature of this work has great potential for improving schools, some of it comes at a price – of time, money, and misdirection.
This costly and unfunded mandated reform that overhauls the public school system is being driven by the aforementioned misuses of data. Great organizations and school systems always strive for continuous improvement, but such improvement must be driven by real and local data.
In South Orangetown we have consistently graduated over 90% of our students with Regents diplomas and with over two-thirds receiving “advanced” distinction. Yet, we are being asked to make a radical shift in how we use our resources to conform to a new state assessment system that we and neighboring districts have projected to cost much more than we have been provided by the state. As a district we received less than $25,000 for work that may cost us between one and two million dollars over a four year period. The initial costs are projected, but we have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first year. These costs collide with the current period of fiscal austerity.
How will we pay for these new reforms?
The New York State Legislature and the State Education Department can mandate regulations and laws that must be implemented at the local level but funded by local taxpayers. In New York State, there are over 150 unfunded or underfunded mandates that are paid for by the local taxpayer. When new mandates are added, the district must find room in their budgets to fund them. Finding room means eliminating existing programs or staffing to accommodate the mandates, whether or not they are beneficial to the needs of students in the local district.
There may be some elements of New York’s reform agenda that will improve many schools. Every faculty profits from efforts towards continuous improvement and finding better ways to help students learn. However, this takes money and time, and every school district has different needs that do not necessarily align with every other system in the state.
To mandate untested initiatives without funding will prove to be disastrous for many school systems. It is particularly frustrating for school districts, such as South Orangetown, in which the school-community has already identified instructional priorities, uses student performance data, and constantly engages the professional community in ways to enhance the learning experiences for our students, to be asked to conform to an agenda that will narrow the scope of our plan. What makes this even more frustrating is that we have to pay for it by defunding local priorities.
On Saturday, January 28, 2012, administrators, Boards of Education, and PTA leaders from across the county will be meeting with state legislators to share their concerns about school funding and unfunded or underfunded mandates. We will keep you posted about any progress in getting legislative relief.