Saturday, April 30, 2016

Commissioner Elia in Secret Meeting(s) with SOME Members of the Buffalo Board of Education? Yes!

So, let me get this straight?  Commissioner Elia comes to Buffalo and she meets with Mr. Sampson, Mr. Quinn, Superintendent Cash and members of the business class?  Or should I say bloc? According to the Buffalo News (April 30, 2016), this meeting occurred at the Mansion on Delaware. The News described the meeting as follows: 
In a private room at the Mansion on Delaware, some of the city’s most influential business leaders held court with State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash. School Board majority members Larry Quinn and James P. Sampson, who is running for re-election in the West district, also attended.
Elia talked about the importance of holding schools and teachers accountable for their performance in the weeks before the election.
The article does not identify the date of this secret meeting, but in a previous article, Tiffany Lankes dropped the fact that Mr. Sampson missed the Buffalo Association of Black Journalist’s candidate’s debate on April 12th because he was having dinner with the Commissioner.   Or could the meeting have taken place on March 31st when the Commissioner visited two of Buffalo’s Persistently Struggling schools to reinforce her message about the importance of students taking the standardized tests.  In fact, her message was so well received that one of the principals of the schools promised to have an “opt-in test assembly” and boasted about talking a number of parents out of refusing the tests for their children.  Ironically, unlike her meeting with parents, in the suburbs, the previous day, the Commissioner did not ask Buffalo parents to “trust her”.  And she certainly didn’t reach out to the minority Board members and invite us to meet with her in the Mansion on Delaware.
But, I’ll get back to that issue later.  Let me ask this question.  And I hope that some of my readers will join me in asking the Commissioner or her Board for an answer.  Since when does the Commissioner of the State Education Department insert herself into local Board elections?  Or even give the appearance of engaging in the process of a community selecting its School Board representatives?  How many other secret meetings have been held with the parties named and unnamed?  And what other topics regarding the Buffalo Schools have been on the agenda?  More Charter Schools?  More Buffalo School closings? Neighborhood Schools?  How the moneyed class will try to influence the outcome of the Board elections?  Certainly the list is endless when it comes to the machinations of the majority members of the Board.

The Commissioner’s actions may not be illegal, but they are dismissive of a group of stakeholders, including Board members; they are disrespectful; they are divisive and they are not acceptable.  The Superintendent also has some explaining to do.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Checking in with a few updates

This week’s column offers an update on several hot button issues that I’ve written about this year:

Opt Out - Over the last few weeks the subject of high stakes standardized (NYS ELA and Math) tests and the Opt Out Movement has occupied much of my thought, actions and writings.  As of last Friday, those tests have come and gone, but the debate continues.  However, this week I won’t dwell solely on the arguments opposing these “meaningless” tests (the Governor’s word, not mine although I agree with him).  I also want to update readers on a few related issues of note.

Last week I recounted some of the reports I received from parents and teachers about the strategies being used to convince, cajole or intimidate parents, students and even educators into “opting in” to these tests.  Unfortunately, we were not unique as similar incidents occurred all over the state.  It’s a sad state of affairs when educators either buy into or are forced into supporting a system that promotes activities counter to sound educational practices, violate parents’ rights and foster intimidation of students by the adults, who should be their role models.  To be fair, many educators did speak up to support parents and students in spite of the bureaucracy and threats of retaliation.

Last year, nearly 240,000 or 20% of New York State’s student population opted out of the tests.  The numbers are not all in, but indications are that this number will hold steady and may even increase this year.  In the meantime, advocates are raising a number of important questions about the tests and the changes the Commissioner said would improve them.  The New York State Education Department supposedly operates on data, which it uses to make decisions re:  policy for example.  The Department had a number of opportunities to collect important axillary data related to test administration.   

1)       How are the test results impacted by children who “opt in” to the tests but are absent one or more days during the testing cycle (the ELA and Math tests are offered during a three day period); so how are the tests scored?  Do those children receive a proficiency ranking? And how are the results factored into the final accountability statistics for each school? And consequently for a District?  How will the accountability of schools and Districts that exceeded 5% opt outs be impacted?

2)      This is the first year the tests are not timed; in other words students were able to take all the time they needed to complete the exams.  And some did; reports are that some students worked ALL day, e.g. from the beginning of school until the end of the school day.  What is the impact of removing the time limits?  Will that improve test performance in general?  The timed tests were 90 minutes, however what was the average time taken by students to complete the tests?  What was the impact on staff time to monitor the tests?

How will the Department collect, analyze and employ this data?   There are concerns, however that the Department did not collect any data associated with question two, specifically.  We’ll see when the report on the test results is released, perhaps in August.

Disparate use of ELA/Math Tests Results in Admissions Criteria for City Honors/Olmsted – This is an issue I’ve been addressing since last December.  The ELA/Math tests are part of the admissions criteria for these schools.  Students whose parents opted out of these tests in 2015 and applied for City Honors or Olmsted were given a score of zero out a potential maximum of 9 points.  After extensive questioning of District Staff, Dr. Keresztes disclosed that applicants from private schools, which do not give the ELA/Math tests, did not receive a zero for this missing score.  Instead the administration doubled their score from the cognitive test, a practice which has been going on for some time.  This inequitable treatment of Buffalo Schools’ student applicants to the criterion schools as documented is unacceptable.  The Superintendent agreed to develop a remedy for this problem, which impacts 95 Buffalo School students.  After more than two weeks, we are still waiting for a resolution.  Parents are concerned and they are impatient.  And so am I.  All students deserve to be treated fairly.  This situation must be resolved immediately.

The School Board Candidate’s Debate or One out of Two Is Bad – On Tuesday, April 12th, the Buffalo Association of Black Journalists held a candidate’s debate at the Burchfield Penny Gallery.  Only the candidates from the Central and East Districts were fully represented.  With the exception of Dr. Harris-Tigg and Ms. Belton Cottman, none of the incumbents showed up.  It’s worth noting also that Ms. Belton Cottman is running un-opposed.    Debates offer an opportunity for candidates to (re)introduce themselves to the community, state their experience and competencies to fill the position, expound on their core issues, and differentiate themselves from their opponents.  This was the first general debate. Future debates are scheduled and one would hope that all candidates will engage in these events.  School Board member is an elected position and as such voters have the right to expect that all candidates, including the incumbents, will honor the system and provide their constituents with comprehensive, which includes face-to-face, information so voters can make an informed decision.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

ELA Tests _The Buffalo Experience

On April 5th, 6th, and 7th, 14,984 Buffalo school students in grades 3-8 were “offered” the first of two high stakes, New York State standardized tests; the English Language Arts.  In the event anyone does not believe that these tests are high stakes, consider the following: 

·         A week before the test was given, New York State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia made a high profile visit to the area.  On the first day, she visited several schools in Districts that had high opt out numbers last year, met with parents and educators to convey her message that she’d heard their concerns, explained that the tests had been improved and that parents should trust and have confidence in the tests’ value as educational markers of high standards.

·         - On the second day, the Commissioner visited two “persistently struggling” schools in Buffalo.  Presumably she got an update on the schools’ progress, commended staff and students and urged them to take the tests.

·        - She met with the Buffalo News Editorial Board, which dutifully reported on the Commissioner’s sincerity, underscored her message (she’s trying to improve the tests) and the need to stay the course, e.g. keep Common Core, keep the tests and keep Buffalo’s schools in receivership even the ten schools that have successfully earned removal from the receivership rolls.

·        - Furthermore, the BN, aka Biased News, published no less than five articles, editorials and opinion pieces stressing the misguided logic and futility of the Opt-out Movement.  In typical propaganda-ist style the articles extolled the “benefits” of the tests and the rationale for subjecting children to take them.  These articles rarely provided objective views that acknowledged the arguments opposing these high stakes exams.

·       -  Today the BN published an article that blames Gen-X parents for the Opt Out movement citing this generation as “independent, cynical and defiant of authority”.  You have to read it to believe it!
·         Business First decided to one-up the BN in an article, citing their own data analysis, which maliciously labeled WNY students and claimed that “The opt-out movement”…..” largely seems to be a revolt of underachievers”.

According to the BPS District the parents of 1,089, 7.8%, far below suburban opt out, refused to have their children subjected to these tests.  While the Commissioner has affirmed a parent’s right to make educational decisions in the best interests of their children, the reality is that it’s an entitlement with a hollow resonance.  I received numerous calls and emails from parents, educators and others about actions by school officials to obstruct or undermine parents’ decisions about test refusal.

In some schools an active campaign to “talk parents out” of refusing the tests was underway even as testing was in progress.  This is not an unsubstantiated report as a number of District administrators confirmed (one in a radio interview) they have engaged in ongoing communications to convince parents that they are mis-informed about the tests and/or students to take the tests.  There were also disturbing reports that students were told they would jeopardize their high school options if they didn’t take the tests.  In fact prior to the tests, parents were sent a letter from the Superintendent that included an admonition that opting out will adversely impact a child’s ability to get into a City Honors or Olmsted.  These criterion schools use the ELA/Math scores in their admissions criteria and opt out students will lose points.  Other concerns communicated to me included:

  • ·         Opt out students were singled out and ridiculed because they were opting out of the test

  1. ·      Threats to punish opt out students by not letting them participate in special events that are incentives/rewards for good behavior
  2. ·         Teachers from several schools reported children getting sick to their stomach and having “melt-downs” in response to the testing

  • ·         Opt-in rallies were held that could be construed as either pressuring or encouraging students to participate in testing;  

  • ·         Parents were called even after their opt out letters were sent in to convince them to retract their letters
  • ·         A high school principal is on the record having sent a letter to parents, which contained numerous distortions of the facts regarding the standardized tests; and tacitly belittled students whose parents opted them out of the tests
  • ·         Some teachers, who had opt out students have felt intimidated by their administration

  1. ·         Test anxiety is felt by staff as well as students

  • ·         A parent believed that her 3rd grader had been bullied into taking the test.  Even though her parent had opted her out, the student was “talked” into taking the test by her teacher
  • ·         In spite of a directive sent to schools to allow opt out students to read selected materials, students at some schools were required to complete an ELA packet
  • ·         A number of schools are to be commended for treating opt out students with respect, recognizing that the decision was made by the parents, not the students.  In those schools students were allowed to read per the Superintendent’s directive.
  • ·         One parent was upset that her children, who opted in and took the tests, were required to sit and stare when they finished the test because other children took more time.  Her child waited for 90 minutes after he’d finished his test

A call to Superintendent Cash to share this feedback resulted in a letter from him to all administrators. The letter reiterated that all students should be treated with “dignity and consistency whether they are participating in test administration or not.”  The time differentiation will be worked out too.

Some will read this article and conclude that the examples of the experiences of some test refusal parents/students is one-sided; or that it is not valid because I didn’t name names.  I am reporting the feedback I received this past week. Unfortunately, there is a concern about backlash and people are reluctant to allow their names to be shared.  I invite anyone to provide feedback, both positive and negative, to me.  This coming week the Math tests will be offered and I’d like to receive feedback as well.  Contact me at   

Monday, April 4, 2016

On the Eve of ELA Standardized Tests: A Message to Dr. Cash

Dr. Cash, as we approach the administration of the ELA tests tomorrow, I understand the District's position and that of many principals and teachers with respect to their support for the tests and their encouragement of student's involvement in those assessments.  You also know my position and reasons why I oppose the tests.  Nonetheless I do believe that each position should be acknowledged and the right to hold that view should be respected.  Certainly the issue has been the subject of heated dialogue between adults. In the last few days a number of parents have written to the Board and to you to express their positions on both sides.  In a number of instances I have not seen indication that the District has responded to those parents.   

I am very concerned, however, that students are being caught in the cross fire and I hope that you will acknowledge that this issue is problematic.  And that you will inform principals, especially those who seem to have taken an over-zealous approach in their support of the tests, of their responsibility as educators to be informative not suggestive or coercive.  Students as well as adults are hearing these messages.

Here are two examples of messages sent by principals to their parents/guardians and students prior to the beginning of the ELA exams.  I’ll leave you to determine which I find more acceptable.

1)  (1)  Good Evening Families,

NYS ELA Assessments will take place this week on Tuesday, April 5, Wednesday, April 6, and Thursday, April 7.  Please ensure that your child is well rested and arrives to school by 8:15 AM.  We look forward to all students applying the skills and concepts they learned this year at X.  Have a great night!

The following excerpt is part of a much longer letter, but is reflective of a clear effort to persuade parents that “opt out” is misguided.  Certainly free speech can be invoked here and I’m fine with that but there are inaccuracies in these statements even as the writer characterizes the other arguments as flawed.  For example, “this year’s assessments have not been developed by a new organization.  This year’s tests were developed by Pearson. Questar, Inc. will not be providing tests until next year.

2)  (2)  “Student refusal of the New York State assessments has historically been low at X. This year we have seen even less activity around this topic, and I believe most parents understand that our new Commissioner of Education, Dr. Mary Ellen Elia, has made aggressive changes to the assessments to satisfy both labor and student-centered concerns. However, several of the written parent communications that we have received to this point reflect outdated or incorrect information that appears to have been derived from templates found on social media. I would like to provide the following clarifications: • New York State Assessments are no longer tied to teacher and principal evaluations. • The state has done away with the previous assessments given to students over the past few years. This year’s assessments have been developed by a new organization, with New York State teachers selecting the questions. • The number of questions and predicted time to complete the assessments has been reduced again this year. • Perhaps my favorite change -- students will have unlimited time to complete the assessments (as a student who needed more time, I can tell you I would have benefitted greatly from this feature if they had it back when I was taking the old California Achievement tests in elementary school!"

I have received information that some principals are/have planned "rallies" for students to opt in to the tests.  Parties, special events or other "rewards" may be offered to students for their participation while denying the students who opted out access to the same benefits.  Such inequitable activities are hurtful to children and I certainly encourage you sending a strong message that these kinds of incentives are unacceptable.

I also am concerned about any public displays of student performance on these tests, especially if they have identifying information.  I think that's a violation of student's privacy and exposes a student to ridicule and humiliation.  Even if this only applies to one school, it's one too many.

Students who are not taking the tests, have not opted out, their parents have opted them out.  That's their right and I question the right of a principal to “talk anyone out” of making that decision.

In your letter to parents regarding how students will be treated, who are not taking the tests, you stated that “Students with notes on file prior to the start of the assessment will not be given examination booklets and will be allowed to read quietly while the test is being administered.”  While the Board has endorsed eliminating the “sit and stare” policy, we will need to develop a policy that specifically spells out the treatment for students who do not take the test.  I would like to put this policy on the agenda for the Executive Committee at its next meeting so that we have a definitive plan for future test situations.

As always, I appreciate your receptiveness to dissenting opinions and your focused commitment to the children.


Sunday, April 3, 2016

Commissioner Elia to Buffalo Schools: Trust Me, Receivership is Better! Or Even When you Win, You Lose

Say what?!  Can Commissioner Elia be serious?  First, she comes to Western New York to ask parents to “trust” her and opt in to the one-sized fits all, high stakes, non-diagnostic standardized tests.  On Thursday, she met with parents from several suburban districts to relay the message that significant changes have been made to mitigate their opposition to these tests.  The Commissioner explained that the tests:  are shorter (by a few questions), are un-timed (students can take as much time as needed, if they are working productively), and will not be used to evaluate individual students or as part of teacher evaluations.  She acknowledged that these changes were brought about in response to parents’ activism.  She asked the parents to trust that other changes are in the works and encouraged student participation in the tests beginning April 5th. (ELA tests given from April 5-7; Math tests from April 13-15)

Curiously, Buffalo Public Schools’ parents and education advocates did not receive an invitation to meet for the “trust me” dialogue.  In fact, during the second day of her two-day visit Commissioner Elia visited two “persistently struggling” elementary schools:  West Hertel Academy and the Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School.  One might assume that the school administration and staff received a strong message about the need to maintain “opt in” to the tests.  Perhaps as a result, the principal at one of the schools planned an “opt in” rally for her students.  During an interview with WBFO, she also revealed that she had convinced a number of parents not to opt out of the tests.  This is disturbing since thirty-five percent of this school’s student body are children who are English Language Learners, a group that is particularly vulnerable for testing “failure” due to language and cultural barriers. Why convincing these children to take the test is seen as a positive is beyond me, especially when the principal is quoted as saying that “these kids get frustrated” during the testing.  Further, the Commissioner and the Governor have confirmed the right of parents to opt their children out of the tests.

With the District’s central administration’s solid support for standardized tests for all, however, the Commissioner may not think she has a trust problem with parents and education advocates in the city.  Yet, does she really think that she can engender “trust” with stakeholders by supporting the Governor’s call to keep 70 schools recently removed from Receivership in that state of pre-“privatization”?       

Last summer, following the passage of the Education Transformation Act, 144 schools across the state were identified as “persistently struggling” or “struggling” and placed in Receivership.  The Law gives unprecedented powers to Superintendents to manage these schools for up to two years.  Buffalo has 25 of these schools and most of the other 119 are also located in urban Districts.  “Persistently struggling” schools were awarded additional funding to assist in the implementation of improvement plans designed to move the schools out of Receivership status in one year.  The “struggling” schools also developed improvement plans to increase student achievement during a two year period.  Although there are many problems with Receivership (a legal challenge to the Law has been initiated), the Districts’ staff, teachers, Boards and parents have worked under the rules of the legislation and State Education regulations to meet the demands of this imposed structure.

Last month the District received astounding news that 3 of our “persistently struggling” and 7 of our “struggling” schools had made significant achievement to be removed from Receivership.  The data for this decision was based on the progress made by these schools during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.  We celebrated!  We gave each other high fives!  We congratulated all involved- principals, teachers, students, parents, community members- for their hard work; commitment and perseverance!  And some of us questioned why the schools had been identified for Receivership in the first place!   Bottom line, they’ve met the challenge and they’ve succeeded in compliance with Education law and regulation. 

In spite of the accomplishment of Buffalo’s ten schools (and 60 others throughout the state), the Commissioner rationalized, “I do think that the timing was very difficult.”…… “The schools need an additional year of superintendent receivership to really be able to show the work that they’re doing. I think that’s a reasonable thing to expect ……...”  (Buffalo News, March 31, 2016)  The article continued that she “raised questions about whether taking some schools off the receivership list would deprive them of the attention they needed.”   

So, “the timing was very difficult”?  What the Commissioner does not say is that the data used to determine the progress made by these schools actually covered the two year period prior to their placement in Receivership.  In effect that information suggests the question, “Should these schools have been in Receivership in the first place?”  And now, without any reference to that fact, the Commissioner would maintain schools in an ill-defined, un-tested and questionable state for another year.  In addition, the outcomes of the first year of Receivership are not even known at this point.  The State prides itself on making “data driven decisions”, except in this instance.  As for “depriving” schools of the attention they need, the Commissioner should explain what she means by that statement.   Unspoken:  the Governor has threatened to withdraw the additional funding awarded to “persistently struggling schools” if those schools are moved out of Receivership.  That sounds like coercion not supportive “attention”.

The Commissioner’s message to our students, teachers, administrators, parents on Receivership?  In spite of playing by the rules, meeting and in some cases exceeding the requirements, you can still lose the game!  They’ll just move the goal line.  So, Commissioner, not only is trust in short supply…. But so is belief that the system is fair and equitable……that the rules of the game won’t be changed if the outcome does not suit the powers that be…..that the voices of urban district stakeholders are valued….and yes, that changes made in the tests really do make a difference.