Receivership (Education Law 211-F (8) I know, it’s the law of the land – that is the State of New York. But that does not make it a good law. Nor is it a given that its tenets can be translated into a feasible strategy for school improvement. Yet as of July 2015, it is the law and thanks to the powers that be, Buffalo and its School District are at the epicenter of educational controversy once again. As of November 10th, the Buffalo School District and its students have been thrust into the position of becoming the test case of the State’s new Receivership law. The failure of the Superintendent and the Buffalo Teachers Federation to sign a Memorandum of Understanding has provided Commissioner MaryEllen Elia the impetus to flex her statutory powers to enforce the agreement without the Union’s consent. The Commissioner’s action has given Buffalo’s Superintendent Receiver extraordinarily authority to dictate changes he deems necessary “to make demonstrable improvement in student performance” in 5 “persistently struggling schools”.
The Commissioner’s decision should come as no surprise to anyone who has been watching her interactions with the District. During her first visit to Buffalo, after just a week on the job, she delivered an ultimatum to the Board. Couching her concerns in the reform cliché of “urgency” she signaled her intention to force the District into compliance with this new mandate. This ruling makes good on that promise/threat (depending on your point of view). However, the issuance of a 107 page opinion, accompanied by a 10 point executive summary, raises more questions about the implementation and the efficacy of the Receivership model than it answers. It has also set the stage for serious examination of and opposition to this law.
Since the passage of the Receivership legislation and the frantic rush of the State Education Department to create regulations to implement the law, I have raised questions about the law and its ultimate impact on urban schools and students. My concerns are elevated by the complacency and blind acceptance of, assumption that, and ignorance of…….. a law which was created to influence educational reform, but developed by politicians to be imposed by bureaucrats. And although its scope, for now, is confined to a small number of schools, Receivership and its implementation bear an eerie similarity to that of the Common Core. The timeframe for implementation of the Receivership model is evocative of the infamous claim by former SED Commissioner John King, regarding Common Core, that he was building the plane while flying it. Buffalo’s Superintendent Receiver has to pilot a jet because he has one year (the clock started before State Ed fully developed regulations for Receivership) to show “demonstrable progress” in the “persistently struggling” schools. Failure will allow the Commissioner to order the Board to hire an outside receiver, who will be given three years to accomplish the impossible.
Receivership, like the Common Core has not been field tested. Oh, but that’s what we’ll be doing in Buffalo! Other districts will have the opportunity to learn from our experiences. And we will have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. But at what cost to our students?
Questions about Common Core’s development, validity and impact on student achievement are also relevant to Receivership. The Receivership law is not based on educational research: Where are the models that demonstrate successful receivership? Oh wait; there is a model of receivership right here in New York. In 2002, the New York State Ed Department took over Long Island’s Roosevelt School District and held it in receivership for over a decade. The District was returned to local control in 2013. And where is Roosevelt School District today? On the list with one of its five schools designated as a “struggling school” slated for receivership.
So, I repeat. Where are the models that demonstrate successful receivership? What does a receiver do that positively impacts student achievement? Buffalo’s Superintendent Receiver identified ten specific changes he wants to make at the schools. For example, he will now be able to move “effective” teachers without their agreement to “persistently struggling” schools. But how will he determine who the “effective” teachers are? Are they the teachers whose students have scored at the proficient level on the ELA and Math exams? Since 40% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student assessments that seems like a plausible criterion. Yet from our own experience, as students, we know there are many intangibles that contribute to making good, effective teachers. Another question; Will “effective” teachers be moved from current schools in good standing? The Receiver’s plans must spell out and provide verified data to answer these and other questions. The State has tied this plan to “accountability” and we should demand that transparency and openness also anchor it.
Buffalo is a fragile District. We have new leadership in the Superintendent Receiver, appointed two months ago; numerous vacancies in key administrative positions; a teacher’s contract that needs to be resolved; and more. The Board is fractionalized, to put it politely. In addition, we are still required to address previous State Education mandates, “out of time schools”; creation of new schools; and the Office of Civil Rights complaint related to our criterion schools that has yet to be resolved. As we are now forced to add Receivership to this list, the ultimate question is: Will receivership help us to positively increase student achievement or is this yet another “quick fix” mandate impacting our most vulnerable students but offering little to change their educational landscape?