reform redux

With less fanfare, Cuomo's education commission revisits NYC

David Steiner, Dean of Hunter College’s School of Education, answers a question from state Senator John Flanagan, a member of Cuomo’s education commission.

For the second summer in a row, the body that’s helping Gov. Andrew Cuomo form his education agenda visited New York City. But unlike last year, which drew a crowd and Campbell Brown, Tuesday’s meeting happened with little fanfare and much more focus.

It’s been a little more than a year since Cuomo assembled the Education Reform Commission, a 25-member body made up of businessmen, government officials, union leaders, researchers, lawmakers and nonprofit executives. The commission was created to recommend wholesale reforms to improve the state’s expensive school system.

It’s too soon to measure the commission’s impact, but the handful of first-year recommendations that Cuomo adopted — the commission recommended 12 — will only affect a small percentage of schools. Cuomo used an allocated $75 million in the budget to create competitive grants, available by design to limited number of districts, to launch longer school days, expand prekindergarten and create schools that offer more nonacademic services to low-income students.

Cuomo also allocated $11 million in stipends for “master teachers,” to fulfill another recommendation, which aims to recruit and retain top teachers for in-demand subjects. Cuomo announced that teachers can begin applying for the program this week.

It’s unclear what the commission will recommend in its second year, but the possibilities seem more narrow. Last summer’s meeting resembled more of a City Council hearing, with 17 speaker testimonies and a public comment period that covered a spectrum of education policies. It was also the place where Campbell Brown first launched her cause célèbre, to make it easier to fire teachers who’ve acted inappropriately in school.

By contrast, Tuesday’s event, held in a dimly lit performance arts theater inside the Borough of Manhattan Community College, featured lengthy PowerPoint presentations from five people who honed in on a few issues.

The meeting centered on ways to transform the way teaching and learning happens at school and, predominantly, teacher preparation policies.

The meeting included a presentation from Norm Atkins, founder of the Relay Graduate School of Education, a master’s degree program for teachers who are working fulltime. The program, which recently received an “absolute charter” to operate as a higher education institution in New York from the Board of Regents, is unique in part because it is one of the few education schools in the country that uses student learning data to measure how well its own student teachers are doing.

“There is a huge opportunity in this country and the state to invite all sorts of people who have deep content knowledge and care about education to go into teaching,” said Atkins, who called on creating a massive college loan forgiveness incentive for people who made long term teaching commitments. He said a five-year commitment,  rather than the two-year commitment, would be a good exchange for loan forgiveness. Many alternative certification programs, such as Teach For America and Teaching Fellows, require two-year commitments from their participants to receive subsidized tuition.

Former State Education Commissioner David Steiner suggested that the next generation of controversial school closures could happen in higher education. Steiner urged the commission to consider that ultimatum if schools aren’t producing quality graduates even after they’ve been given an opportunity to adopt reforms.

“It is extremely difficult politically to close a college. It’s almost as difficult to close a program,” Steiner said. “But we all know the dirty secret, which is that there are programs in this country churning out teachers who are not effective with our students and that’s a tragedy.”

“There’s no point in having data if you don’t act on it,” he added.

In fact, the commission already had recommended some changes to teacher preparation in the state, including using data to monitor graduate programs.

It also recommended that students must have a 3.o grade point average or better in order to be accepted. That’s outdated advice, however, since the city’s university system already adhered to the 3.0 standard and State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, a member of the commission, said today that the 17 SUNY education programs will soon use those standards as well.

Other presenters were Joel Rose, who founded the city’s School of One model for schools, Melanie Mullan, a vice president of Turnaround for Children,  and Julie Doppler, coordinator of the Community Learning Center of Cincinnati Public Schools.

The commission has one more meeting planned for later this summer before issuing a new set of recommendations to Cuomo.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”


What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said