“The State of New York’s Failing Schools” is the title of a report recently released by Governor Cuomo. As the title implies, this report is a compilation of selected data on 176 “failing” schools throughout the State. The schools are primarily located in urban districts like Buffalo, New York City, Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers, Utica and several others. Buffalo has 27 schools in the Report; Rochester has 15 and Syracuse has 18. The schools were identified using the criteria that they are schools “among the lowest 5% in the State in terms of combined English Language Arts and Mathematics performance that are not making progress, as well as those schools that have graduation rates below 60% for the last several years.”
The Report provides a school by school snap shot of each school’s rating on the State ELA and Math standardized tests, enrollment numbers and the number of years the school has been “failing”. Other relevant data includes descriptions of the makeup of the student body citing the percentage of students who are minority and those who receive free or reduced lunch (a measure of poverty). The Report also tallies the amount of state funding provided to these schools as an indication of how much the State has invested in these “failing” schools with little to no successful outcomes, a point stressed by the Governor. The per-pupil expenditure is compared to the 2012-2013 national average and the difference, in almost every school, reinforces the claim that these schools have not only been amply funded but over-funded.
As for outcomes, the Report suggests that teachers have the greatest accountability for the failures in the system. Since 2012 a new State initiated evaluation system has focused on measurements that purport to establish a direct link between teacher competency and student achievement. The Governor laments that it is a flawed system since more than 90 percent of teachers have been rated highly effective or effective. He cites these ratings as “incongruous” with student proficiency ratings. The Report prints the teacher ratings for each school as well to reinforce this deficiency. Another interesting, if superfluous bit of information in the report is the Assembly and Senate Districts for each school and their respective Legislators.
To make sense of this Report, I think that one has to look beyond the specific information to the overall intent of the piece. As a result the Report can be viewed for what it truly is….a piece of propaganda that the Governor is using to bolster his Educational Reform Agenda and what some have described as its “draconian” solutions for the problems in our educational system. This Report is biased and slanted but offers just enough credible information to make the reader believe that it’s valid. It’s also difficult to refute statistics, especially if as a layman you have no extensive knowledge of the subject. Even the format -- tables, charts, documentation etc. can be intimidating and difficult to argue with. Propaganda is intended to present a compelling argument to support the maker’s claims while omitting alternative conclusions in the analyses of the problem.
For example, the Report posts numbers on the breakdown of the minority status and poverty of the student population in the “failing” schools. What’s striking about these statistics is that in the vast majority of the schools, the percentage of minority students ranges from 90 to 98% and the percentage of free lunch recipients ranges from high 80% to low 90%. These statistics are important as they confirm recent reports about the high incidence of segregation in New York’s public schools and the high poverty rate. The Governor’s plan does little to address these disparities, however, or consider the known relationship between poverty and achievement. Further, far from being a question of spending too much money in our schools, a recent report has raised the question of the lack of equity in State educational funding.
The ELA and Math scores are another example of how “some” information is used to make a point about the dismal proficiency scores. There is no analysis of the changes in testing tools or cut scores (the passing grade) that have occurred repeatedly over the last ten years. Nor is there any discussion about the most recent changes in the ELA and Math tests due to the adoption of the Common CORE Standards. In fact, the State Education Department predicted in 2013 that there would be a high failure rate on the new Common CORE ELA and Math tests because of these changes. The result was that the statewide passing rate was 31.3% for ELA and 31.2% for math. And guess what? The 2014 statewide test scores showed a minuscule increase, 31.4% and 35.8% respectively. The over-reliance on standardized tests as THE measure of achievement has ignited a test-refusal/save public education movement -- of parents, educators, politicians, school board members and others -- across this state and across this nation. The Report doesn't examine this backlash nor does it explain that ALL children, regardless of learning ability or English language capability, take the same test! Is this truly a measure of student achievement for all students?
There are other examples of why we should look at this report with skepticism. But, the moral of this story is that the art of propagandizing is alive and well. “The State of New York’s Failing Schools” is propaganda that distorts information for the purpose of promoting the Governor’s educational reform agenda. I urge readers to learn about this agenda, which advocates legislative authority for the appointment of a Receiver to take over “failing schools and districts; the creation of more charters; an even more restrictive teacher evaluations process and other tactics designed to weaken the teaching profession; continued excessive administration of standardized tests and the ultimate dismantling of public education. Make your own conclusions but get the full information so you can make informed decisions. Don’t settle for the propaganda!