Sunday, February 28, 2016

Thanks Dr. Brown

Last Friday, the State Education Department released the official accountability status for schools across the State.  This is the system that labels our schools as Good Standing, Focus or Priority.  It is based on a number of determinants related to student progress (and by extension school and District progress), measured over two consecutive years.  This latest accountability update is based on the period, 2013-14 and 2014-15 and will take effect in the 2016-17 school year.

The news was good for Buffalo Schools.  In fact, the news was very good for Buffalo Schools.  The District was notified that the accountability status had changed for a number of schools.  And that the change was extremely positive.  The list of schools in Good Standing has grown from 15 to 20 and while the Focus schools still number 15, there are now 20 Priority schools, down from 26.   Another outcome of the change in status is that ten schools which had been placed in Receivership with the Superintendent are now out of Receivership, while five new ones have taken their place.  A chart with all the schools and their designations can be found on the District’s webpage,

While I have an issue with the accountability system and its application in determining the status of schools in our District, I will reserve that for a more in-depth article on high stakes tests and Receivership.  For now I think it’s appropriate to recognize the concerted efforts of many people, who have worked, within the confines of this system to meet its requisites, and should be acknowledged and thanked for their diligence.  I believe it’s been a team effort, inclusive of students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff, community partners and Central Office staff.
The news of the improved accountability status comes on the heels of a significant increase in the District’s graduation rate for 2015.  A few months ago the State certified our graduation rate as 61%.  At the time community leaders and the media hailed this accomplishment.  But to be fair, this increase continues a positive upward trajectory in graduations that began in the 2013-14 school year when we saw a 58% rate up from 49% the year before.  While the significance of this increase was not overlooked by some of us, the State, main stream media and other community “stakeholders” were less than enthused.  Why?  Quite frankly, they did not want to have any success attributed to our previous Superintendent, Dr. Pamela Brown.

The academic progress that the District is experiencing at this time did not happen over-night.  We can look back to Dr. Brown for providing the leadership that led to these outcomes.   Dr. Brown would be the first to give credit to her staff, the students, parents and community stakeholders who support our schools.   Yet, the foundation for these academic improvements was set two to three years ago and was supported by organized, sustained and committed planning and implementation of strategies to improve learning and achievement.     We can look to petty politics and a punitive mindset that deprived Dr. Brown’s administration of being recognized for the positive momentum she created.  Since some (fill in the blank) were so quick to attribute blame for the District’s poor performance to Dr. Brown’s tenure, it is only right that her supporters commend her for the progress made as a result of her Superintendency.

It may be too little and too late, but I ask community members to join me in recognizing the accomplishments of Dr. Brown during her tenure in Buffalo.  We are seeing the positive results of her work each and every day.   Dr. Brown, thank you for your professionalism; for your competency; for your knowledge; for your grace and dignity under fire; for your perseverance and for your contributions to the Buffalo School District and children.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Open Letter to Dr. Kriner Cash: High Stakes Tests and Criterion Schools

Dear Dr. Cash:

Over the last few months I have raised a number of questions, in written and oral communications, about the use of the NYS ELA/Math standardized test scores as part of the admissions criteria for Criterion Schools and in the identification of Receivership Schools.  These questions are particularly salient given recommendations made by the Governor’s Common Core Task Force and the NYS Regents’ subsequent adoption of same.  As you know I have also written to State Education Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Tisch (January 3, 2016 and January 21, 2016) requesting clarification of the practical impact of these recommendations and for an opportunity for open/transparent dialogue with diverse education stakeholders.

My requests to the Commissioner have been met with stony silence and disregard.  And Dr. Cash, you have responded to my questions by citing attorney advice that current litigation precludes comment.  This pattern is habitual, so I was not surprised by the failure to acknowledge or answer my letters.  Imagine my surprise, however, to find a letter written by the Commissioner that responds to concerns that I raised and also raises a new question for this District.  

On December 22, Commissioner Elia wrote a letter to Patrick Rooney, Acting Director, Office of State Support, US Department of Education.  Ms. Elia states that this letter follows up on an earlier request from the USDOE concerning the State’s plans for addressing the federal test participation rate. (A 95% participation rate is required.)  The Commissioner is obviously speaking to last year’s unprecedented test refusal by over 20% of NYS students. 

The Commissioner also appears to be referencing several Task Force recommendations in this letter although she frames her response as follows:  “Per the request of the United States Department of Education, please see below our efforts to demonstrate that we have already and will continue to take actions to address the low participation rates that occurred in the 2014-15 school year.  These actions have been developed after extensive discussions with key stakeholders and are intended to specifically address many of the reasons cited by stakeholders for the significant increase in the rates of non-participation compared to historical trends.”

I am particularly interested in the following responses provided by the Commissioner as they relate to the concerns I have tried to get answers to.

Eliminate high-stakes for students by reminding districts that the Department neither requires nor encourages districts to make promotion decisions using student performance on grades 3-8 tests.
The Department has communicated to districts that, pursuant to New York State law and regulation, promotion decisions in grades 3-8 should be based upon multiple measures and should never be based solely on state assessment results.  In addition, the Department plans after consultation with stakeholders to take actions regarding the use of state assessments to determine the provision of Academic Intervention Services to students.
Eliminate high-stakes for students by reminding districts that, until December 31, 2018, scores on the grades 3-8 tests may not be included on a student’s official transcript or permanent record.
The Department has communicated to districts and BOCES that, pursuant to New York State Law and regulation for the period commencing April 1, 2014 and expiring December 31, 2018, no school district or BOCES may place or include on a student’s official transcript or maintain in a student’s permanent record any individual student score on the grades 3-8 tests, and any grades 3-8 test results sent to parents must include notice of this and must inform parents that the results are being provided for diagnostic purposes.

Dr. Cash, I don’t know if these directives have reached the District at this time, but I understand the digital transcripts of our students continue to document students’ ELA and Math scores.  Please advise if that is not the case or when this issue will be addressed.

Since mid-December I have tried, without success to have questions answered by the Commissioner or her designee and you regarding the impact of Task Force recommendations on our Criterion Schools’ admissions criteria.  It appears that the State only seeks and values input from a select group of stakeholders and that “transparent” and “open” are just words on a page.  Yet, in this letter the Commissioner’s response to the DOE appears to answer questions I’ve asked regarding our continued use of the ELA/Math test scores in our criteria for admission to Criterion Schools.  It’s a contradiction to say that “test results sent to parents must ……inform parents that the results are being provided for diagnostic purposes” and then use those results for non-diagnostic purposes.    I have already heard from one parent whose child did not get into a Criterion school and is questioning the use of the ELA/Math test scores.   No doubt there will be others.

Have we provided this letter to parents?  If so, please share a copy of this letter.

I continue to push these issues because all voices deserve to be heard.  I look forward to your response.

Barbara A. Seals Nevergold

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Why We Requested Legal Counsel

Contrary to what the Buffalo News portrayed as the actions of petulant adults, who “lack seriousness about education”, the Board minority’s request for legal counsel was the result of thoughtful deliberation and ongoing questioning of a pattern of behavior that is detrimental to the District and to our students.   The following memorandum (that was accompanied by exemplary documents) is the latest in a long succession of correspondence sent to members of the Board and the administration.  It was also sent to the Buffalo News, which decided to ignore the substance of this memo in the editorial even though a news story appeared on the subject the day before.

” For more than a year the minority members of the Board have written repeatedly to express our serious concerns about the behavior of Board member Paladino.  You (Mr. Sampson) and other members of the Board appear incapable or unwilling to address Mr. Paladino’s behavior and/or actions that ultimately impact the integrity of this Board and expose the Board and the District to litigious actions by District staff and community members.   There are numerous documented instances of a pattern of behavior by Mr. Paladino that is associated with legal actions filed against this Board and against him personally.  We have submitted numerous requests to you, as Board President, and to the Board as a whole to take a stance in opposition to this behavior.  

The Board majority’s refusal to address Mr. Paladino’s actions, indeed the silence of the Board as a corporate body sends the message that we all condone this behavior, even as members of the minority are consistently vocal in our opposition.  We are compelled to go on the record once again, not just to refute the statements, actions and behavior of Mr. Paladino but to request that the members of the minority have special counsel assigned to indemnify and defend us; to support the exercise of our fiduciary responsibility, to oppose attempts to disenfranchise our constituents by silencing our voices and assist us in matters where our interests/concerns diverge from those of the Board majority. 

The incident that has prompted this letter and request occurred at the special board meeting of January 6, 2016.  This meeting was called to consider an employment matter involving an employee who has a human rights complaint against the Board and Mr. Paladino, as an individual.  This complaint was initiated by the employee in February or March 2015 and amended on at least one occasion following publicly expressed egregious remarks made by Mr. Paladino about the employee.  In the open session of the January 6th meeting, Mr. Paladino made statements about the employee, using her name and describing “her incompetency on the job”.  He alleged that “She has cost the District hundreds of thousands of dollars in letting statutes go by.  She has cost the District, God know what issues that we have not even seen.  She has failed to disclose, she has failed to cooperate with the Superintendent, and she is a person who does not rise up to the standard of ability that we would expect for a General Counsel in this School District….”  He said much more aimed at the minority board members.  These remarks are a matter of public record in the Board minutes and also on a video recording of the meeting. 

Dr. Harris-Tigg did not attend this meeting.  However, Ms. Belton-Cottman, Ms. Kapsiak and Dr. Nevergold all spoke in opposition, citing the impropriety of these remarks; the potential for them to be construed as retaliatory; the unfairness of making unsubstantiated allegations and the inappropriate behavior of a Board member ignoring the potential legal damage he created.  No other Board member tried to intervene or speak to the damaging and inappropriate nature of Mr. Paladino’s actions. 

We believe that the continued tolerance of this behavior leaves the Board minority vulnerable and totally at the whim of the bloc of 5 and also puts the District at risk.  Our concerns regarding this matter have been ignored.  At the end of December 2015, costs incurred as a result of the legal actions against this Board exceeded $225,000.  A number of cases are pending and the legal fees continue to accrue.  Consequently we believe that the Board is threatened collectively and individually and the District is jeopardized by legal actions which result from actions that we have not initiated and do not condone.  On May 12, 2015, the minority members submitted, for the record, a request to be represented by special counsel.  Given the foregoing and what we anticipate will be ongoing exposure to legal liabilities, not of our creation, we are submitting this request again. 

We are submitting this request to be placed on the Board agenda for discussion at the February 10th meeting.”

To no one’s surprise the “discussion” was one sided as the majority members assumed a familiar posture of silence.  Again, they not only refuse to address the obvious costs incurred by the District when the corporate Board is sued in tandem with the Board member whose actions are responsible for the legal action.  But, they ignore the bigger picture of the “LESSON” their in-action teaches our students. 

We have a Code of Conduct that is supposed to operationalize the NYS Dignity for All Students Act.  We teach children that it’s wrong to bully and it’s also wrong to allow a bully to get away with his bad behavior.  In the language of anti-bully education, we encourage them to be an “up-stander” and to speak up about the harmful behavior they observe. However, the Board majority’s behavior communicates the message to students “Do as I say.  Not as I do.”  The Board minority is working to be exemplars of “up-standers” and our request for support from a legal professional is responsible and necessary.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Superintendent Cash Breaks Silence (?) on Question of Standardized Tests

I’ve only been asking, since mid-December when the Common Core Task Force’s Report and Recommendations were released, for answers to:  1) what the impact of these recommendations is on the District’s Criterion Schools’ admissions’ criteria in addition to Receivership (this was a question posed specifically to Superintendent Cash, aka Buffalo’s Receiver and 2) what implementation strategies are proposed to enforce these recommendations.  In addition I asked that the Commissioner convene a task group to study the impact and develop the implementation strategies.  I couldn’t get an answer from either the Superintendent or the Commissioner. 

That is until tonight!  I pushed to have this item added to the agenda, however when I brought it up I got a stony-faced answer from Dr. Cash that he been advised by legal counsel that he could not comment on the question now, or maybe ever, due to the pending legal action.

Now, that answer is hardly a surprise given the lawsuit that was recently filed, regarding the Receivership Law.  However, the Superintendent had the obligation to respond to my questions in December, long before the litigation was initiated. 1) There was an obligation to answer this question, not just because I asked it and as a Board member I was entitled to a response from the Board’s one and only employee.  2)But the children, whose opportunity for admission to a criterion school may be negatively impacted by the use of these standardized tests deserved to have an answer to this question in a timely manner. 

The answer that there will be no answer because legal counsel have so advised is, in simple terms, a cop-out, unfair to our students, and a dis-service to them and to the community.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What Would Frederick Douglass Do?

It’s been almost six weeks since I initially wrote SED Commissioner Elia, the Board of Regents, the Governor and members of the New York Legislature about significant questions arising from the Common Core Task Force’s Report and Recommendations.  On January 24th I wrote a second letter, which included the names of 115 supporters requesting that: the Board of Regents authorize the State Education Department to conduct a detailed, open and transparent review and analysis of the use of the ELA/Math standardized tests results as determinants to assess school qualification for receivership; to invite parent, educator, student and other stakeholder input and feedback in the process; to clarify the recommendations of the Common Core Task Force as they apply to the state assessments and use of assessment data, and to develop future recommendations for appropriate determinants for school receivership.”  True to form, as of February 7th, I haven’t heard a single word from any of these educational and political leaders (except for Senator Kennedy). 

As an individual, who researches and writes about African American history, I do not confine my recognition of the importance of Black Americans’ contributions to American History to one month.  But I would admit that the advent of African American History Month 2016 influenced my reflections on the continued lack of respect and simple courtesy of state officials’ ongoing failure to respond to the concerns of nearly 700 education stakeholders.  There are many African Americans, men and women, whose lives provide instructive, inspirational and timeless examples for current day activists, but Frederick Douglass quickly came to mind.  An ex-slave, freedman, abolitionist, author, journalist, statesman, orator, businessman, etc Douglass was a towering example of ???
sthe College Tour but wesaid:  example of self-advocacy.
 to mind.  An are instructive, inspirational and timeless   Butself-advocacy.

In a letter written in 1849, he said:  “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”   

So what would Frederick Douglass do if he was in our shoes?  Continue the struggle!  And the demand for answers to the questions we have about the use of standardized tests (high stakes tests) to label our children as failures, defame our teachers; disenfranchise our communities by vesting control in Receivership and ultimately undermine public education.e continued lack of respect and simple courtesy associat

The online petition posted on the January 24th has garnered over 525 signatures and comments.  The following are a few of the comments left on that petition.  I have omitted the names, but the petition is on-going and I am still encouraging public education advocates to sign this petition and join us.  We are not voiceless even though the Commissioner and the Regents have chosen to IGNORE our call for accountability.

“Not only is it ridiculous to use these tests - found to be unreliable and unfair to students across the board - as a measure of student or teacher success, to use them to still rank schools to the extent of determining which should be classified receivership schools while admitting it's unhelpful in several other areas is both nonsensical and inappropriate. The issue of how we handle receivership schools in general is already fraught with problems; there is no reason part of determining that classification should include scores from these tests.”

“Closing a school doesn't help anyone but those who are looking for excuses to fire people. Schools reflect their communities, so if a school is struggling, so is the community. The state should recognize this relationship and throw every resource it has at uplifting and supporting the families, the infrastructure, and the employees already working in the school and community. That the vast majority of schools in receivership serve low income populations shows that it's not necessarily a problem of bad apples, but of challenges insurmountable with the limited resources those schools have.”

The Common Core Aligned Standardized Tests have been manipulated for political use and do not meet psychometric standards. As an educational psychologist, I urge that they no longer be used to identify receivership schools or for any other high stakes decisions.”

“I ask only to point out, that rarely does the public hear of an alternative to the current testing system that we view schools in receivership. How do we go about schools that need to improve for all students? What is the direction to identify fairly the schools that need the most help? If not via test scores and data, then how? Now that the state is final admitting that we have a flawed system of evaluation within the state, where do we move from starting today?”

“As a former Buffalo Public School teacher I feel for my former colleagues. The number of challenges the inner city teachers face daily, (some minute to minute) are insane. No TEST nor standards are going to magically make these challenges disappear. Instead these Standards and Tests are just adding to student, teacher, administration, and parent frustration and setting the children even farther behind in life.”

“There have been many years shed over the prep work to get the kids prepared for these tests. My children are losing their zest for learning. It is very sad that as a parent I am unable to help my children due to the rigorous teaching of extra steps and analyzing sentences in chapters. Reading should be fun and educational. Math should be challenging and useful, and age appropriate.”
“Our high school is proud to have over 45 (over 59) languages spoken by its students. I am happy to be part of such a diverse community. Stop the testing, and stop expecting everyone to be the same. Diversity is strength.”

“In the three years that Common Core standards have been around students, teachers, and schools have only gotten worse. The standards and the tests are terrible. My children who used to love learning and school now dread it. They are over tested and stressed out. They are not learning in a way a child learns naturally. I live and teach in a community that is in the lowest poverty range with a large population of refugees and immigrants. They are left behind with these standards. Shame on the politicians, governors, and big businesses that have stripped the education in this country of all that was good. The damage is irreparable. Stop this now! Have a conscious for God’s sake!”

“As an educator, these are the types of dysfunction that are causing parents and educators lose faith in education. Making changes constantly and then not expressing what the expectations are, shows the ineptness of the Board of Regents and the NYS Department of Education.”

“I believe that the correlation between poverty and performance in school (testing results) is a simplistic and wrong direction for decision-making in education. Fix the class sizes, create community(ies) around schools with the necessary supports both before and after school is a more practical, common-sense approach to addressing the educational needs of all children.”

Finally, the message to Albany is:  you can be silent; you can ignore us, but we’re going to stay in the struggle; we’re going to demand a response and we will be heard – sooner or later.  After all March is Women’s History Month!