First Person

The State Education Department and the Politics of Distraction

Teacher preparation programs long ago abandoned (if they ever embraced) theory-centric instruction in favor of research-based clinical methods. Further, they have championed a middle way independent of the changeable pedagogical and curriculum priorities promoted by individual districts and funders. While popular practices are often addressed, either unilaterally or in partnership with outside entities, education schools’ academic independence protects them from being swamped by political and financial forces driving others.

Now comes a pronouncement from the New York State Board of Regents and the State Education Department commissioner that higher education will no longer be the sole route to teacher and leadership certification. The Regents, who appoint the commissioner, are themselves appointed by our state legislature, that dysfunctional body more famous for patronage than policy competence.

Not surprisingly, then, the Regents have rejected the fundamental role of independent inquiry in professional preparation in favor of faster, cheaper methods based on proprietary ownership. Whether these programs are run by non-profit, for-profit, or school district organizations, their aim will be to brand grads with a particular skill set, antithetical to preparing able, agile, open-minded professionals for long-term teaching effectiveness.

Though many claims against schools of education depend on phony stereotypes, some criticism is valid. Higher education governance makes it hard to quickly adopt new programs and courses. Its dependence on credit hours toward completion of degree requirements creates a temporal uniformity inimical to more flexible arrangements based on subject content and mastery. But higher education itself has heeded these critiques, responding with a plethora of governance, course, and degree reforms that meet market demands while preserving academic integrity and independence.

Expansion of educator preparation to other providers is simply a political response by SED to a growing constituency of educational entrepreneurs who, often lacking certification themselves, seek clones rather than independent-minded professionals to staff their similarly branded schools. There is nothing inherently wrong with training in such methods, if successful, but state-granted professional certification should guarantee greater flexibility than the ability to teach in a KIPP charter school or to navigate the city Department of Education’s ARIS database.

More important, the Regents’ policy will distract SED and the public from the Department’s core mission: to set and oversee standards for certification, curriculum, and student performance. Ever since its politicization under former Commissioner Richard Mills, when the state took credit for increasing test scores and graduation rates through dumbed-down tests and looking the other way on bogus credit recovery strategies rather than monitoring district performance and compliance, we have seen a steady decline in SED’s reputation and credibility. This recently reached a new low with the state’s first-round Race to the Top application which neither the commissioner nor Regents seemed to realize was bloated with furniture purchases and high-priced consultants. Steven Brill’s recent New York Times Magazine piece purporting to document “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand” was more important for revealing SED’s deliberate lies designed to secure Race to the Top money. The Regents’ charter initiatives, their commissioning of a study on testing standards, and the expansion of certification providers are less about improving education than diverting attention from its core failures.

If there is a problem with higher education certification — and there is because diploma mills abound — then SED should take steps to improve or eliminate the bad actors that it already supervises, not race to expand the pool. Long the subject of drastic budget cuts and poor spending practices, SED does not have the resources to adequately monitor the work of colleges, school districts, charter and nonpublic schools under its present control, let alone determine if a new category of providers is meeting its obligations.

In his previous campaign for governor, Andrew Cuomo favored putting SED under gubernatorial authority. While his current comprehensive platform, “The New New York Agenda,” fails to specifically address the issue, it states a strong preference for giving the Governor unilateral powers over State government consolidation and reorganization. Cuomo’s call for a new Spending and Government Efficiency Commission and a State Government Reorganization Act provide canny vehicles for further politicizing SED, cited at page 64 as a prime example of organizational chaos. But what difference would it make as long as SED continues its shameful codependent relationship with the state’s political branches, school districts, charter and private schools? In abdicating their fundamental role of independent oversight, the Regents and commissioner have sown the seeds of executive annexation since they have become handmaidens of the very constituencies they were created to constrain.

Housecleaning is in order, but not the kind the new education elite have in mind. With its workforce already substantially reduced and more cuts on the way, SED needs to use its constitutional independence to set standards and monitor district and school compliance with a reduced, essential set of regulations regarding students’ academic performance, health, and safety. SED should be the public’s educational ombudsman, keeping accurate, transparent data so that parents and taxpayers can assess schools’ academic and fiscal activity. If the State Education Department continues to indulge in political distractions from its laughable failures in this mission, it will have squandered its obligations to a public desperately in need of square dealing and educational candor.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.