Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Push Back - What Happens When You Criticize Mom, Apple Pie, and Favorite Teachers

We all have warm glossy associations with certain emotional touchstones.  Most adults remember when our national self-image was pretty much summed up by thoughts of Mom and apple pie, along with some caring school teachers.  There are war stories about soldiers who credited focusing on these memories with sustaining them during prolonged adversity.  No one would have denigrated these symbols of American life.

Yet some high profile leaders, in their relentless pursuit of change, have forgotten how important these basic concepts can be to people.  And the unexpected criticism of mothers, apple pie, and teachers has led to a push back of growing dimensions.  Consider the following:

Criticizing Moms and Teachers
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chose to belittle mothers for their lack of support for new standards saying, “It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.” Mothers did not take well to having their concerns about standardized tests being shrugged off with a glib assertion that they were overly protective and had exaggerated assumptions about their children’s intelligence.  In the commentary on Duncan’s statement, it was repeatedly pointed out that had he said this about any other racial group there would have been screaming outrage. 
In another similar instance of disparaging the source of criticism, NYS Education Commissioner John King, after a public forum that dissolved into yelling, cancelled upcoming public forums with the statement,  “In light of the clear intention of these special interest groups to continue to manipulate the forum, the PTA-sponsored events scheduled have been suspended.” Unfortunately the audience was made up of parents and teachers, albeit angry ones, but parents and teachers nevertheless.  Neither group took well to being accused of being a special interest group, with the implication that their specific concern was not worth hearing.  The outcry was heard around the state and the Commissioner soon scheduled another series of public meetings, but the damage to his image among the insulted groups had been done. 
One result of this damage was visible in April at the annual meeting of New York’s statewide teachers’ union, NYSUT.  NYSUT members voted “No Confidence” in the Commissioner. This unprecedented “No Confidence” vote was a statement of profound philosophical disagreement with the Commissioner on how education should be led.  After the teachers voted, a spokesman for the Commissioner dismissed NYSUT’s action as “politics.”  But what can be gained by choosing to ignore a deeply held concern of a group representing 600,000 people who are professionals in his field?  

Imposing new standards
Regardless of one’s view of the value of the Common Core Learning Standards, where their introduction has been characterized by top-down imposition on teachers and students with no opportunity for parents and education professionals to have a voice in the changes in their schools, there has been push back.  Many social media sites support the positions of unhappy parents and educators.

The growing opposition to the Common Core manifests itself in a variety of ways – locally by parents opting their children out of state tests, and statewide by involving political leaders in issues that were previously left to state boards of education. 

In response to public anger, Indiana has terminated its involvement with the Common Core Learning Standards and North Carolina is currently considering a similar action.  Here in New York, changes to the planned implementation for the use of data from state tests were included in the state budget document, and other proposed laws intervene with the roll-out of teacher evaluation and certification requirements. 

New York State’s new budget, in response to public outcry, terminated the State Education Department’s plan to put student data in a cloud-based data base called inBloom.  
The state’s Race to the Top grant application committed New York to creating a data base that would carry all information about student and teacher performance.  The stated goal was to collect data in a way that would improve instruction.  The goal was quite sweeping as Arne Duncan described it in a speech in June 2009, “Hopefully, someday, we can track children from preschool to high school and from high school to college and college to career."

Parents recoiled at the idea of their children’s personal information –hundreds of data points including grades, discipline records, family issues, health, and economic data – being stored in a giant multi-state cloud-based data base.  Motivated by a lack of confidence in the absolute security of such a cloud, the push-back against it became an irresistible force and the state legislature passed legislation withdrawing from inBloom.  New York became the final state to separate from inBloom and the data base is closing down.

Apple Pie
And as for the apple pie, because of strict new federal nutrition standards, pie has become something you won’t find in school lunches because it is does not fit into the constraints of the nutritional allowances.  The considerable outcry about limits on portions and menu items has resulted in Congress and the Department of Agriculture backtracking on their overly strict guidance.  There are also current bills before Congress modifying the federal role in limiting food choices and returning those decisions to local districts.

Caution to the leader who thinks he can ignore the voice of the people.  Leadership is about leading, about motivating people to embrace ideas and actions, and it requires trust.  Being appointed or elected to an office may give a person a title but it does not make them a true leader.  This is something people in leadership positions might want to ponder.




Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Power of Public Outrage

The power of public outrage should not be underestimated.  Although school leaders struggled to be heard in their pleas to the State Education Department about how the Common Core Learning Standards should be introduced in New York’s schools, it wasn’t until the broader public added their voices, and their outrage, that the SED and the Legislature and Governor really began to pay attention. 

Over the years there have been many instances when our requests to legislators for laws that would be helpful to schools were brushed off with the explanation that the public wasn’t calling out for that particular change.  Legislators who cited the lack of a public outcry as a reason not to act do not necessarily seem pleased now that they have a public clamoring for changes with the Common Core. 

With the power of public outcry in mind, school leaders are trying to draw attention to the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), hoping to make it a pivotal issue this year.  As the budget discussion began, most of the public and even many legislators did not grasp the impact of the GEA’s automatic reduction to school aid after a district’s aid is calculated. 

The GEA was instituted during the recession to help the state with its revenue problems. Although initially a one-time adjustment to debit money off the bottom line after a district’s state aid was calculated, it was subsequently made a permanent part of the funding formula, a constant negative number in the calculation of aid.

The amount of money subtracted from school aid by the GEA is staggering - $8.5 BILLION statewide over the past four years, over $355 MILLION in MCSBA districts alone!  This loss is crippling schools’ ability to offer the programs students need, an impact on the development of the next generation that cannot be calculated.  But the dollar loss can be calculated and for the coming year, the Governor’s budget proposal includes another $1.3 BILLION GEA cut, including $65 MILLION locally. 

The public is beginning to understand the GEA.  Dissonance is growing louder as people question the conflicting messages from the Governor’s office that the state has a surplus and can rebate tax money to homeowners yet still uses the GEA to siphon money off the bottom line of school aid.  

With all the pressure on districts created by the cap on the levy, the governor’s push for a freeze on increases in local taxes, and the continuing depletion of reserve funds, the insidious impact of the GEA is becoming more obvious.  Many school leaders are showing their communities that despite all the other limits on revenue, if this money was not taken away, they could fund their programs without exceeding the tax cap for years to come. 

The public doesn’t rise up when they are content; they rise up when they are angry.  It is intoxicating to imagine the public demanding adequate funding for education, but they could, and they might, because to understand the GEA is to be appalled by it.

We need to take every opportunity to inform people about the GEA.





Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Troubling Trend in Tax Policy

As school boards and the state both begin developing their annual budgets, the awareness of fiscal need is unrelenting.  Everyone will struggle to make the best use of limited tax revenues.

In this climate, there is an alarming new trend among developers of retail properties to request, and for Industrial Development Authority Boards to award, exceptionally long periods of time for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) dispensations on property taxes.   Although the typical duration of a PILOT has been ten years, developers are now asking for PILOTS that will run for 20, 25, and even 35 years.  These requests to be relieved of normal property tax obligations for such lengthy periods represent a fundamental change in the expectations of developers for how they would run their businesses.

Admittedly starting a new business is risky.  25% of new businesses fail in their first year and only 47% of retail operations are still operating four years after they open.  So one can understand why developers would seek to leverage every possible financial advantage.

But discounting taxes for a quarter century is more than a tax break to help a business get started – it is a primary change in how businesses operate. 

Giving a 25-year tax break to build a store or restaurant makes questionable sense when so much can change in a quarter century, especially purchasing patterns.  Consider that 25 years ago a first class stamp cost 25 cents, a gallon of regular gas cost $1.12, the US population had 67 million fewer people, and the Dow Jones Average was in the 2,000’s (compared to the current 16,000).  25 years ago Kodak employed over 50,000 people locally.  
And Google, on-line shopping, social media, and all the other elements of an Internet driven world were not yet part of anyone’s plan, even among the small number of scientists who understood the newly invented information sharing system called the Wide Area Information Server.

Considering the potential for changes in demographics and economic structures, the arguments that motivate a decision in 2013 may cause an unreasonable public burden by 2038.  Whenever a PILOT is granted, taxes are shifted from a singular business to all the other taxpayers in the community.  And one has to wonder, if a business claims it cannot operate unless its property taxes are reduced for such a long period of time, perhaps it needs to rethink its business model.  

So far only a few MCSBA member districts in towns with large shopping malls have had to deal with a request for an extended PILOT, and their experiences have not been encouraging. Although school districts are informed about these requests and are allowed to provide information at public hearings about the impact, school districts do not have any official role in the final decisions of Industrial Development Authorities. 

The lack of a legal role for the schools in making decisions about extended PILOTS is a serious omission and should be changed if this trend continues.  School districts set tax rates with the concerns of the entire community in mind, and a community can hold a school board accountable for their decisions.   In contrast when IDA’s make their decisions, they are looking at a single request, and basing much of their decision on the claims of a self-interested business.  IDA boards do not have any direct accountability to the larger community.
Business interests can change over time but a community’s need for an equitable financial foundation does not.  Other factors, not extended PILOTS, are what will determine whether or not a given business survives over time.  In the meantime, the community’s residents and the businesses with long standing will bear the shift in the tax burden without any similar access to tax relief.  
School systems are seeing more and more limits put on their state and local revenues.  This emergence of requests for extended PILOTS becomes another constraint.  School finance is difficult enough but in this instance, long-term decisions that impact district finances are being made by a separate appointed board, not elected leaders whose primary responsibility is the well being of the school district. 


Friday, November 22, 2013

Common Core Controversy and Other Issues in Education

Issues around the Common Core Standards are generating a great deal of attention.  Here in Rochester there have recently been three large forums where people could ask and/or comment on the issues with our local members of the Board of Regents, with the Commissioner of Education, and with members of the Assembly Minority.  For the latter group I submitted written testimony which I am posting here as well. 

Testimony to the New York State Assembly
Memorial Art Gallery
Rochester, NY
November 20, 2013
Respectfully submitted by Jody Siegle, Executive Director
Monroe County School Boards Association
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony to you.  My name is Jody Siegle and I am the Executive Director of the Monroe County School Boards Association, a non-profit organization that is made up of 21 school districts in Monroe County.  

You are here to gather information and opinions about the Common Core standards, which make up one of the anchors of the Regents Reform Agenda.

 The Common Core standards, the structure of the state exams, the new teacher and principal evaluation plans, and the about to be implemented inBloom data base have all become highly controversial.  In the 25 plus years of my involvement with public education in New York I have seen a succession of new state initiatives such as the Regents Action Plan, the New Compact for Learning, and Shared Decision Making, and also federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, each requiring major transitions in how schools operate.  But I have never seen the widespread frustration that has now evolved into the anger and turmoil that motivated this hearing today. 

 Ordering change is not the same as motivating it.  Someday the current situation should be studied as an example of how not to implement change.  The wisdom, experience, and values of school leaders, teachers, and parents have been ignored throughout this process and the resulting frustration should not be underestimated.  But I ask you to be very thoughtful in whatever action you take so that valuable ideas about learning contained within the Common Core standards are not discarded in a wholesale rejection because of their poor implementation. 

Each state and federal education initiative has the goal of raising student achievement, especially the outcomes in high need districts characterized by high dropout rates.  Even before the NCLB law required it, NYS required our schools to disaggregate student test data.  Analyzing subgroup performance revealed that certain groups of students clearly weren’t succeeding in school while other subgroups were doing very well.  That discovery led to some thoughtful planning at the local level but not higher up.  The state failed to ask why particular subgroups were struggling, and instead developed sweeping reforms for everyone that never addressed the real problems interfering with student progress. 

One problem too often overlooked and sometimes even denied is the impact of poverty.  Poverty is not an excuse but it is a fact and a factor in the lives of over 50% of the children in New York’s schools.  The effect of poverty is not the same for every child but data makes it clear that there is a causal relationship between poverty and poor student performance.  

I have attached MCSBA’s recently approved position paper to this testimony.  The paper calls out the state’s responsibilities for the wellbeing of students and families.  While the schools do not shirk from their responsibility for educating the state’s children, their work is complicated when children do not arrive at school ready to learn.  This can mean kindergarteners who lack language and were deprived of critical early stimulation for brain development or it may mean students who cannot concentrate because they are hungry, depressed, or frightened because of the uncertainty in their lives outside of school.  Schools have their role helping children but so does the state.  All the agencies that support children and families are under the direct responsibility of the governor, and those same agencies have seen major cuts in their budgets in recent years.

I believe, and our membership believes, that there won’t be any substantial progress on increasing student performance and the graduation rate in high need communities unless we address the impact of poverty on the lives of students.  The best standards in the world will not overcome the effect on a child of hunger or fear.  I urge you to read our position paper and keep it in mind as you consider making changes to solve the problems around the implementation of the Common Core standards.  

                                    #                      #                      #                      #

Here is the above mentioned MCSBA position paper.  It can also be downloaded at


In response to Governor Cuomo’s statements about underperforming schools, the MCSBA membership submits the following:

No government leader can freely criticize school performance as if it is someone else’s problem – Each agency of government has a role in the overall welfare of our communities and as a society we ALL have a collective interest in the success of every student as a learner and a productive citizen.
Children are shaped by their lives outside of school Children spend less than 15% of their time in school. The environmental factors that influence children outside of school cannot be ignored. These can include families in crisis, violent neighborhoods, lead poisoning, food insecurity, drugs and other substance abuse. Chronic absenteeism and poor school performance can be linked to each of these factors.
The high correlation between poor school performance, poverty and family stress is well documented The dropout rate for low-income high school students (the lower 20% of family incomes, which represents an annual income of $21,000 or less) is twice as high as the dropout rate for middle-income students and four times higher than for high income students. The City of Rochester has the sad distinction of having one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation.
The Governor has direct responsibility for the wellbeing of New York’s childrenAlthough the Board of Regents, which is appointed by the Legislature, oversees public education, ALL other agencies concerned with children fall under the leadership of the Governor. Some of these agencies include:
    • Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS)
    • Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD)
    • Department of Health (DOH)
    • Office of Mental Health (OMH)
    • Department of Correction
    • State University of New York
These agencies have been decimated by cuts and closures and by regionalizing offices. The trickle down effect of this has greatly diminished the ability of our local communities to provide critical supports to children and their families.

Boards of Education members are elected local officials who are directly accountable to their constituents for the public schools in their communities – The academic performance of children who live in poverty does not invalidate the right of citizens to elect their own representatives. The Governor’s proposal to remove locally elected boards violates the foundation of our democratic principles.

Although the Governor continually criticizes the high cost of public education in NYS, he has largely ignored education leaders’ pleas for mandate relief – Education leaders have provided evidence and testimony on what reliefs schools need to be more cost effective. This has fallen on deaf ears. In fact, the current education reform that was legislated after his promise for mandate relief has been extraordinarily costly to implement and has created many new mandates.

If the state is serious about improving student results, it must acknowledge and then act on its moral and constitutional obligations to help its neediest citizens arrive at school ready to learn.
220 Idlewood Road, Rochester, New York 14618- 585-328-1972-
Approved, October, 2013

Supporting Data

Research repeatedly proves that environmental factors influence child development, including the ability to learn. Research also identifies successful programs that can mitigate the negative effects of poverty, and which could be brought to scale to help needy children.* This is a state issue because New York communities like Rochester and Buffalo have some of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

Poverty’s impact varies across a continuum of needs so there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. In 2013 a family of four qualified for Reduced Price Lunch with an income of $43,567 while a child whose family lived on a single minimum wage salary would only have a family income of $15,080. A child living in the latter situation would need to cope with challenges and deprivations significantly different from a child living in the former situation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has committed to advocating for addressing the health effects of poverty because: …Poverty can inhibit children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty is a contributing factor to toxic stress, which has been shown to disrupt the developing brain of infants and children and influence behavioral, educational, economic and health outcomes for years.
The AAP goals include:
    • Expanding access to affordable health care services.
    • Expanding access to basic needs such as food, housing and transportation.
    • Promoting positive early brain and child development and school readiness and success.
    • Supporting parents.
Governor Cuomo’s own New NYS Education Reform Commission Report, “Putting Students First Action Plan,” recognizes this relationship:
“Research shows that a child’s most formative years are during early childhood, at the very beginning stages of their formal education, and even prior. The education and guidance children receive during these years have a profound effect on their academic success at every subsequent stage. Unpreparedness in kindergarten permeates through the education pipeline, as these students are often the same ones who cannot read or do math at grade level, who drop out of high school, or who need remediation in college, if they even pursue a college degree.”

The report’s recommendations included:
    • Increase access to early educational opportunities by providing high quality full day pre-kindergarten for students in highest needs school districts.
    • Restructure schools by integrating social, health and other services through community schools to improve student performance. 
Only when our elected leaders begin to confront the facts around poverty and legislate meaningful support for child development will we truly be able to break the terrible cycle of poverty and school failure. Left unaddressed, poverty not only diminishes the potential of the children but also results in huge future losses to our economy.

*For information on successful programs that can help mitigate the impact of poverty check out The Children’s Agenda at and/or How Children Succeed by Paul Tough






Thursday, November 7, 2013

About the Common Core Standards

The Common Core standards and testing regimen are receiving a lot of attention here this week.  Monday night the two local members of the Board of Regents took questions from a large gathering of school administrators, superintendents, teachers, and school board members.  The local newspaper is running a lengthy article explaining the Common Core standards and school testing.  And one local television station is administering the 3rd and 4th grade state exams to a group of adults to get their reaction to the controversial tests. 

Today the Commissioner is holding a community forum here for the public. This particular forum is one of the recently arranged public meetings scheduled in response to the outcry after the Commissioner abruptly cancelled all his public forums following a particularly contentious evening.

With all that in mind, what follows is a guest post, a perspective on the Common Core standards, submitted by Sherry Johnson, MCSBA Assistant to Executive Director.

From Sherry:

There has been a lot of fallout from the recent cancellation of Commissioner John King’s PTA forums.  People angry with the State Education Department’s (SED) current reform agenda have become angrier and misinformation abounds, much of it associated with the Common Core standards.

The issues around New York’s education reform agenda are many, but the Common Core standards themselves shouldn’t be the target.  Most teachers, administrators and other education leaders who have dedicated their own education and careers to helping children learn and succeed believe that these standards do offer a better opportunity for students to become higher achievers.  The Fordham Institute compared every state’s current standards to the Common Core standards.  In NYS for English Language Arts, the state received a “C” whereas the Common Core standards were given a B+.  In Math, the state was graded a “B” and the Common Core standards an A-.  While you can argue whether this is or isn’t a large enough grade variation to make the change, it was primarily the desire for “Race to the Top” dollars that drove SED to adopt them.

The real issues causing all of the uproar are about implementation and testing.  On the SED Engage NY website, the catch phrase has been “we are building the plane as it flies in the air.”    Any pilot will tell you that planes are fully constructed and test piloted before passengers are allowed on board.  Their own lives, the lives of their passengers and the future of the airline company, depend on that plane being delivered safely to its destination.  So why such an analogy?    

SED made the decision early on, that regardless of where schools were with their implementation, they would test kids on these new standards, knowing full well that scores would be dismal.  They believed people would accept and support this “work in progress” agenda.  But at the district level, educators were trying desperately to get curricular gaps identified, new curriculum written and teachers trained while simultaneously negotiating APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) agreements with their teaching units.   This work was further complicated by a steady stream of changing guidance from SED; some of it even after their own deadlines had passed.  

The work of the reform agenda has also been extraordinarily expensive, far exceeding anything districts were led to expect when they signed on.  Leaders in the education field, pleading for more time and resources to do this right so that new curriculum could be delivered in a quality manner were told no, and thus the poor results are not surprising to them.

Imagine signing up for a course at your local college and after taking the time and energy to complete the course, you are given a test with questions about information you haven’t been taught.  Now imagine that the results of this same test which your instructor didn’t develop, didn’t know what questions would be asked and can’t determine whether you have passed or failed is used to measure their competence as an instructor. 

That is what teachers and their students endured this year.  Logic and experience tells us that a plane being built in the air while flying can’t deliver its precious cargo safely to its destination.  The Common Core standards are not the problem here.  The natural consequence of not listening to the professionals in the field who asked simply to be allowed to finish building the plane before putting children in it, has placed Commissioner King and SED in the uncomfortable position of having to explain to many upset parents and others why they thought this was a good idea in the first place.


Monday, May 20, 2013

School Budget VOTE Day

Tomorrow New York State school districts have their annual school budget vote and school board member elections. 

For every district in the state (except the Big Five cities), the vote is the culmination of each district’s planning process and the means for the community to select the people who will make district policy and other decisions on behalf of their communities.  The budget proposal is the end result of months of study and discussion but it cannot be finalized until the community passes judgment on the work through their votes.   

Sadly, typically only five to ten percent of the eligible citizens vote on their school budgets.  Lots of people don’t notice or even forget the vote is happening.  School elections are non-partisan; board members are unpaid; and board service is not perceived as a stepping stone to other political positions.  All of this means that school board budget votes and board elections are not accompanied by the high-profile media onslaught that characterizes elections for other levels of government. 

Ideally citizens should be able to act without constant communications prodding them to vote. People should note the district newsletters and calendars that announce the date of the vote, and then make casting a ballot a priority. 

If you live in a district with a budget vote tomorrow, find the time to vote.  Read your district’s budget newsletter (generally available online if you misplaced yours) and the statements of the people running for the board of education.  And then, as an informed citizen, vote. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Newsweek’s 2013 Best High Schools and Monroe County Schools

Newsweek has released their 2013 list of America’s Best High Schools.  15 Monroe County high schools are cited on this list.  These schools represent the diversity of the communities in our county.  There is a school from the city and a school from one of the smallest villages.  There are schools from solidly middle class towns and also from districts with high free and reduced lunch rates. 

It is worthwhile to note that in a state where the quality and cost of public education are often criticized by state leaders, the same leaders who regularly endorse the idea of charter schools, the Newsweek data tells a different story.

Of the list’s 2000 nationally ranked high schools, 194 are from New York State.  How does this compare with other states?  In this measure of high level academic performance, New York outshines the other states. California has almost twice as many people as New York but only 30% more schools on the list (253).  Texas, with 30% more people than NY, has fewer schools (165).  And a state often cited as an education powerhouse, Massachusetts, which has only 34% of the population of New York has a disproportionately smaller number of schools on the list, just 48 or 24% of New York’s number.  Many states, of course, have only a handful and sadly some have only 1 or less.

Schools on the list are identified as selective (students must pass selection criteria to be admitted), magnet, charter, or open enrollment.  Of New York’s 194 schools, only 1 is a charter school.  And while there are a number of selective or magnet schools on the list, the vast majority are open enrollment schools. 

And when one looks more closely at New York’s data, Monroe County’s school district’s accomplishments are notable.  New York is the nation’s third largest state with approximately 2,685,000 K-12 students.  Monroe County’s student population represents only 4% of the number of students in the state yet 8% of New York’s listed high schools are located here.

The Newsweek list is just one of numerous rating systems that organizations use to evaluate and characterize the work of public schools.  There are many ways to define excellence in education.

All this does not mean that there are not schools in New York where students are performing woefully below the level they need to be at to make good lives for themselves. These results in no way eliminate the need to constantly analyze what schools do so we can learn and improve our programs.  But it does mean that in a lot of places around New York State educators are doing a great job and students are benefitting from attending these great schools.