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.