Sunday, September 27, 2015

Evil Triumphs When Good Men Say Nothing

The title of this article paraphrases a quote from the 18th century statesman, Edmund Burke, whose admonition cautious that: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  This sounds like a lofty observation, yet three hundred years later this statement still resonates with our daily reality.  This country was built on the First Amendment doctrine of Free Speech, the constitutional right to voice one’s opinion. However today, we live in the era of “free speech” as exemplified by Donald Trump and other privileged males.  Their “free speech” is perverted to couch sentiments laced with hate speech, fear mongering, bigotry and racism.  They dismiss their incendiary rhetoric with claims of refusing to be “politically correct”. They believe that their freedom of speech gives them the right to malign, degrade and/or threaten individuals, who do not, conversely, have the right to respond in kind.  And they use their status and power to silence those who even dare to express a semblance of “talking back”.  Their behavior reminds me of an old saying: “you can dish it out, but you can’t take it!”
The subject of free speech and the right of parents, whether they’re teachers or not and community members, to address the Board of Education during Board meetings has been an ongoing issue contributing to increasing tensions and frustration for stakeholders.  The Board majority’s obvious disdain for the Public Comment segment has been an open secret for months.  However, recently their opposition culminated in a Resolution proposing to limit and/or restructure this opportunity for public input.  The Resolution cited regular appearances by some speakers, as well as the repetition of subject matter, as a central rationale for the policy change along with an intent to have more efficient meetings.  On a more hopeful note, the Board recently initiated a discussion; open to the public, which appeared to suggest that an honest dialogue would ensue about how to resolve this issue.
And then the September 23rd Board meeting took place.  Keith Jones came to speak to the Board.  Mr. Jones, a custodial grandfather and community activist, is a frequent speaker and often criticizes board members, particularly the majority members.  Yes, Mr. Jones has had some harsh words for the Board and certain members specifically.  Last week, however, before Mr. Jones opened his mouth, he was accused of threatening Mr. Paladino during a previous meeting.  Mr. Paladino and Mr. Quinn both demanded that Mr. Jones not be allowed to speak, setting the stage for his removal.  Initially, Board President Sampson objected to Mr. Paladino’s demand but proceeded to instruct Mr. Jones on how he should address the Board.  As Mr. Jones attempted to explain his previous remarks, he was repeatedly told to be quiet by the Board President.
In an appalling display of the misuse of authority, the Board President gaveled Mr. Jones into silence threatening him and ultimately having him escorted from the board meeting by security.   Many in the audience were appalled and expressed their belief that Mr. Jones was treated unfairly.   Remember that he was accused of threatening the man, who wrote to a distinguished scholar and consultant for the District on the OCR matter warning him to “stay out of our way, Dr.”   And just a few weeks ago Mr. Paladino sent a message to the incoming Superintendent telling him that he would fashion “a career ending casket” for him, if “he messes with me”.   Mr. Paladino attributes his comments to his right to free speech.  Members of the minority bloc have repeatedly asked the Board to address Mr. Paladino’s unprofessional and unacceptable behavior.  They have refused.  The message of this refusal:  We tell our students that bullying is wrong, but we fail to be role models for them.   Further, that discrimination is sanctioned by the Board majority when it comes to one of their own.
The Board Policy 1513 on “Public Participation at Board Meetings” provides no process for the ejection of a speaker or the restriction of a speaker.  These actions are being devised as “needed” and are capricious.  Members of the Buffalo Parent Teachers Organization have voiced their concerns and demanded a review of this shameful event.  Board member Sharon Belton-Cottman has also voiced her objections as to how this matter was handled.  We support the call for a review of how this situation with Mr. Jones was handled.

Mr. Jones’ removal, not only from the podium but from the Board room, was not coincidental to the majority’s plans to restrict, reconfigure or even eliminate the speakers’ segment of the board meetings. This incident involves the right of the constituents of this District to express their concerns, grievances, and preferences to the Board.  And it is a question of freedom of speech.  Yes, Board members may not like to hear what the public has to say.  We may have to hear the same people week after week and they may bring the same complaints week after week, but that is part of the job that we took an oath to fulfill.  The Board Policy states that the Board: “….encourages public participation…..The public’s opinion is of great value and the Board welcomes the public’s input.”  Behavior from public officials that is inconsistent and contrary to its own policy should be questioned. The Board should be required to support its own policy and be responsive to its constituents.  Silence is complicity with bad doers.  If anything is going to change, we need the public to speak up and demand change.   

Monday, September 21, 2015

Buffalo Schools at the Crossroads_Putting the Emphasis on the Wrong SylLAble

No one understands better than the minority members of the Board that the Buffalo Schools have serious, systemic problems.  As our new Superintendent has observed those problems extend throughout every unit of our District.  We also know that as the elected governing body, the Board has an obligation to develop and implement informed policy that addresses the issues impacting our schools.  The Board is also responsible to manage itself through good governance and establish a model for sound management of the District. But as a body we have often fallen short of this requisite.

The complexities of the educational landscape and the challenges posed by external regulatory agencies demand that Board members are knowledgeable and pro-active in response to current demands imposed by these agencies.  The District’s future is tied to how well the Board and administration respond to these mandates and the outcomes of our decisions.   Case in point:  The District has two significant actions pending from the New York State Education Department and the U.S. Education Office of Civil Rights. 

Last year, the Office of Civil Rights found the District in violation of providing equal access to the criterion schools, e.g. City Honors, for Black and Latino students.  This finding required the Board and staff to work with an outside consultant, Dr. Gary Orfield, who studied the reasons for this violation and recommended several changes.  The Board’s initial plan to address Dr. Orfield’s recommendations was rejected by the OCR and the District has been given until September 25th to revise the original submission. Our failure to provide an acceptable plan to OCR can result in the Office’s withholding millions of dollars. Obstructionism by one Board member prevented a thorough, in-depth review of the original submission.  It will be incumbent on all Board members to demand time for a full vetting of the revised plan.  We cannot afford a repeat of the previous process.

The designation of 25 Buffalo schools as “persistently struggling” or “struggling” by the New York State Education Department is the most recent decision that has a major consequence for the District.  The District has one year with the 5 schools identified as “persistently struggling” and 2 years with the remaining 20 to demonstrate progress. During this period, the Superintendent has been named the Receiver for these schools.  In this role, he has broad powers to institute changes, including staff, curricula and schedule.  However, if NYSED determines that the changes are not significant than the Commissioner will appoint an outside receiver to run these schools.  The Receivership Law gives the Superintendent the discretion to make decisions about these schools without the approval of the Board.  And while some individuals believe that the Superintendent will use this power to totally circumvent the Board, I don’t believe that it would be prudent or in the best interests of these schools for him to act as a solo entity.  However, this is a discussion that must take place so all parties are clear on the future direction regarding these 25 schools.  The Board has the responsibility to ensure there is clarity.

At a time when the State is requiring greater parental and community engagement, Board members Quinn, McCarthy, Pierce and Paladino propose to do the opposite.  On September 9th, they submitted a resolution to restructure the board meetings, in the name of efficiency and effectiveness.  The public speaker segment, for example, included “many of the same speakers; consumed almost 40% of our meeting time” and presumably prevented the Board from “conducting the actual business of the Board...”  Really?  In addition to limiting public access, this resolution is intended to control “content and frequency of board committees and board general business meetings….”  Again, to what end?  Limiting not only open Board meetings but Board education as well.

Rather than focus attention on the issues the Board should address, we are distracted by this call for efficiency and effectiveness.   There are many crucial issues the Board should have addressed some time ago; Why not question if “receivership” is in the best interests of our schools; whether the standardized tests, used to judge our “struggling” schools and students, and questioned by parents and educators across this state are fair and equitable; how will the Board and Superintendent collaborate on the 25 receivership schools?   And if that’s not enough, why not address the issue of an evaluation measurement for our new Superintendent?

I write today to urge Community stakeholders to question the Board’s priorities.  Members of the minority have been and will continue to question those priorities.  Don’t be distracted by tactics that place the blame on “speakers” for the Board not getting its business done.  Until the Board and Board members educate themselves on the pressing issues of receivership, high stakes testing, OCR complaints (because now we have a second one), we won’t get the business done that we are required to address.  It’s time to put the emphasis on the right syllable.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Commissioner Elia’s Message_ Loud and Clear

During a visit to Buffalo just nine days into her tenure, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told the School Board, in no uncertain terms, that we needed to fix the schools or she would use all the authority at her disposal to do it for us.  Between that first visit on July 17th and last week when the District received a second visit from the Commissioner, a flurry of activity has taken place.  New State regulations have designated 25 Buffalo Schools as receivership Schools under the authority of the Superintendent (for now).  Plans are underway to create models that will show “demonstrable improvement” for those schools in the coming year.  The Board has also hired a new Superintendent, Dr. Kriner Cash, whose appointment received active and unprecedented endorsement from the Commissioner.   It would appear that the District is on track to addressing the significant issues identified by the Commissioner.  So, it was somewhat of a surprise that Commissioner Elia scheduled a second visit to our schools the day after Labor Day.  This visit may be a signal that given the Commissioner’s Western New York roots and her strong pronouncements about the District’s future, we can anticipate greater activism on her part with respect to Buffalo’s schools.

Unlike the first visit during which time was set aside to meet with the Board and members of the DPCC, the Commissioner focused her attention on two “persistently struggling schools”, South Park and Burgard.  She addressed her questions and concerns about these schools to the principals and their staffs.   She also met separately with several groups of district staff stakeholders:  City Hall administrators, representative principals and teachers, including the respective union leaders of the latter two groups.  Accompanied by Regent Catherine Collins, Ms. Elia spent the day in these District meetings.  Although not specifically invited to attend these sessions, I joined the Commissioner and Dr. Collins at South Park and Burgard as well as the principal meeting.  In contrast to her predecessor, she has been open to meeting with members of the Buffalo Board and to my knowledge has provided equal access.  Board member Paladino also attended the meetings held at South Park High School.

The Commissioner was blunt regarding her assessment of the situation at Burgard and South Park High Schools.  She came armed with data regarding teacher effectiveness ratings and student performance as measured by standardized tests.  Wasting no time, she told Burgard and South Park staffs that she discerned a “disconnect” between these two measures.  She said that while the majority of teachers, in both schools, were evaluated as effective or highly effective, student achievement was not correspondingly ranked.  In other words, students with effective teachers are expected to receive test scores that mirror their teachers’ ratings. How did they explain this discrepancy, she queried?  The staff members were hard pressed to respond. Her assertion about this disconnect and her question left no doubt that the Commissioner believes that there is a “connect” between these two measures.    Although, not a subject for in-depth discussion, the pointed attention given this issue communicated the Commissioner’s support for the hotly contested teacher evaluation system pushed by the Governor and the Legislature.   

The Commissioner continued with inquiries about professional development opportunities; administrative follow-up on compliance; and implementation of teaching strategies resulting from the PD.  She also asked about concrete strategies that were being instituted to improve student attendance and parental engagement, for example.  Demonstrating her knowledge and grasp of best practices, the Commissioner offered a number of suggestions for consideration in improving attendance and other outcomes.   

Following up on the Commissioner’s focus on the teacher evaluation and high stakes testing, I asked  her about State Ed’s response to the Opt Out movement.  How will the refusal of the ELA and Math exams by over 220,000 students affect the validity of these tests in the future and their use for accountability?  Given her previous comments on the teacher evaluation/high stakes test connection, the Commissioner’s answer was consistent.  She responded that as I had noted the Opt Out movement did not have strong support in urban schools districts.  Fewer children in these districts refused the tests; therefore the scores from last year’s tests could be compared to this year’s scores.  No change is forthcoming, she said.  The opportunity for dialogue on this issue was not offered and I dropped the subject, at that moment.  However, I don’t believe that the answer to my question is as simplistic as the Commissioner indicated.  There is a question of the validity of the ELA and Math tests, for a number of reasons; there is a question of the impact made by the Opt Out movement on the future use of high-stakes tests; and even though urban districts in the State, like Buffalo, had relatively few students opt out of the standardized testing, we are part of the New York State Education system.  As the system is impacted, so are its parts.

Commissioner Elia’s visit was billed as a “listening tour”.  Yet, her message carried more weight. Her message to Buffalo is unambiguous and has not changed since her first visit. She expects and education regulations demand “demonstrable improvement”, verified by data, in the “persistently struggling” and “struggling” schools. There is little to no tolerance for failure to achieve progress as defined by the State.  And, apparently little room for dialogue that contradicts or questions the State narrative.  As she told the staff at South Park, major shifts are required or “you will be taken over”.  I can assure the Commissioner that we heard her. We would hope that she will hear the voices of the hundreds of thousands who do not share her vision. We encourage her to open a dialogue; to include more stakeholders, especially parents and community members; to consider the arguments against high stakes testing and to re-evaluate the Common Core Learning Standards.  She has an opportunity to partner with Districts throughout the State in strengthening public education.

Commissioner Elia concluded her visit to Western New York at the Sweethome School District.  The News reported that she thanked the teachers there for “all their work”.  I didn’t hear any thanks to Buffalo teachers but I would suggest that on her next visit the Commissioner find an opportunity to acknowledge the work of these educators as well.  That’s a message that needs communicating, too.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Opt Out Movement: Live ON and Thrive!

Originally viewed as a fringe movement fueled by a few disgruntled people, the Opt Out Movement has grown over the last few years to become a force that is having a significant impact on New York State’s educational system.   Opponents have raised numerous questions and made assertions about the genesis and intent of this movement.   Up front, this is what the Opt out movement is not:

Ø  A conspiracy devised by organized labor to thwart teacher evaluation comprised of a component linked to student performance as measured by NY State standardized tests
Ø  The manipulation of gullible parents by these same labor unions or other professional educational groups/individuals
Ø  A scheme to protect vulnerable students – in this case students whose parents believe their children are brighter than the test results indicate (Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan blamed the “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”)
Ø  An attempt to prevent standardized testing of any kind

A grassroots movement, led by parents and including educators, Opt Out has gained momentum.  The founders have worked painstakingly to educate parents and share the Opt Out arguments against high stakes testing.  This year that message resonated with parents, across this state, who made the decision to refuse the tests for over 220,000 students.  My granddaughter, a third grader, was one of those students.  Her parents decided to refuse the tests after they reviewed the 3rd grade ELA and Math tests and researched the literature documenting the reasons these tests are flawed as accurate measures of children’s abilities :  1) they are not developmentally appropriate – reading levels are far above the grade level being tested 2) the tests are not diagnostic; they don’t provide information that helps the teacher target individual student learning needs 3) the results of the tests are returned too late in the year to impact teaching for that school year 4) almost all children take the same test, regardless of their cognitive ability or their English language proficiency; it’s a one size fits all approach 5) children are being demoralized and frustrated by long hours of testing. 

Furthermore, the “high stakes” emphasis on the tests encourages teaching to the test at the expense of time for other subjects such as art and music.  In addition test results are being used to grade schools and to evaluate educators, even though statistics experts dispute the validity of this methodology.   The Governor has pushed for up to 50% of the teacher/principal evaluation to be derived from the test results. The other critical use of these tests results is for “accountability”.  The data generated from these tests contribute to designations of children as “well below proficient”, “below proficient”, “proficient” and “exceeds proficient”.  Individual schools and Districts are labeled “persistently struggling”, “struggling” (these are new labels), “focus” or “good standing”. 

The outcome of the Opt Out Movement can be seen in the conversations about “high stakes” testing, teacher/principal evaluation tied to these tests and the validity of using these tests to measure individual student performance as well as school and District performance.   The impact of 220,000 opt outs, over 20% of New York State students who didn’t take the test raises serious questions about the validity and reliability of the test results especially from the 2015 testing.
Although, he has not publicly questioned the “high-stakes tests”, Governor Cuomo has now called for a re-evaluation of the Common CORE Standards to which the tests are aligned.  He plans to impanel a commission to review the Common CORE implementation between now and January 2016. The State Education Department and its new Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have not known how to respond to the astounding number of test refusals.

Initially, the Commissioner threatened to contact the Federal Education Department to determine if the State could punish Districts by withholding federal funding.  Before the Feds could respond, however, she received a resounding “NO” from both the Governor and Regents Chancellor Tisch. Next, she condemned the Movement and those supporting it, especially educators as “unethical”.  She has since backtracked on that statement. She has also pronounced that parents absolutely have the “right” to refuse testing of their children. Finally, the Commissioner has pledged to create a “tool kit” for Superintendents and other educators to teach them how to convince parents that their children should take the tests.  She also has pledged a personal tour to talk to parents and convince them about the importance of these tests. Parents have long asked for a dialogue with State Education officials.  However, Ms. Elia seems to be offering a monologue instead.  But time will tell.

I am a proponent of the Opt-Out Movement.  I believe in the purpose/goals/validity of this Movement.  Many of the pressing issues faced by our districts are related to high stakes testing and the accountability measures by which we are judged.  The passage of the Receivership legislation sounds a clarion alarm for a closer examination of the impact of high-stakes testing on our schools.  The question should be asked about the validity of the 2015 ELA and Math scores when one-fifth of students opted out of these tests.  Even though there were fewer urban students refusing the tests, the State must look at the implications for the entire system.  Local school districts are having serious conversations about the Opt Out Movement and its impact on their students and their school system.  It’s time that Buffalo join in the conversation.  I’ll propose that the Buffalo Board begin a dialogue about the impact of high stakes testing and resultant policies that impact our District.   Our students deserve to have their educational leaders educate themselves about such a momentous and timely movement.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Letter to Regents Catherine Collins re: Teacher/Principal APPR and High Stakes Testing

Regent Catherine Collins, PhD

Dear Regent Collins:

I am writing to thank you for your previous no vote and to urge you to stay the course as the Board of Regents convenes on September 16th to consider making the new teacher-principal evaluation rules permanent.   I implore all the members of the Board of Regents to fully examine all the negatives associated with coupling these evaluations with high stakes tests.  Like so many others I have questions about the validity of these tests, as they are used to measure the proficiency of our students.  Furthermore, the opt-out of the 2015 tests by over 200,000 students adds significant doubt to the relevance of using these tests as part of the teacher/principal evaluation scheme.  Before the New York State Education Department institutionalizes these tests as a major component in the teacher/principal evaluation system these questions should be answered.  

While I write this letter to voice my opinion/concern as an educator, community member and grandmother of two Buffalo Schools’ students, I am also a member of the Buffalo Board of Education.   As a member of that body, however, it would be unconscionable not to note the recent revelation (September 4th) that the company we hired to calculate the APPR ratings of our teachers made a major error in their formula resulting in inaccurate ratings for 45% of our teaching staff.  This miscalculation was only uncovered thanks to the diligence of one teacher, who questioned her individual rating.  In all likelihood a recalculation of the evaluations will result in upgraded evaluations for the majority of 1,089 teachers.  I am angered by this company’s critical mistake and horrified to imagine the damage that would have been done if this problem had not been uncovered.   Who knows how many other districts will encounter a similar problem? This is a glaring example of another compelling argument for not approving these rules, which should weigh heavily in the Regents’ deliberations on this issue.  I’m sure that if the data is thoroughly examined the Regents will come to the conclusion that these rules should not become permanent.

Regent Collins, thank you again, on the behalf of the children of this District for your commitment to ensure better educational outcomes.    Your vote is crucial in supporting this goal.


Barbara A. Seals Nevergold

Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, PhD