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.  

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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. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

The State Education Department and College and Career Readiness

Someone recently asked me, “What does it mean to be College and Career Ready?”  That particular phrase is regularly used by every state and national education leader, and it appears in virtually every communication from the State Education Department.  The singular purpose behind adopting the Common Core Curriculum was that it was believed that these standards will make students College and Career Ready.  Well, what does that mean? 
The definition begins with the highly commendable goal that all students should be ready for college study or to begin their working careers when they graduate from high school.  But being ready for the Fashion Institute of Technology and Caltech require different sets of readiness skills.  And for the student who masters welding at the BOCES 2 WE-MO-CO Career and Technical Education Center, readiness means preparation to walk right into a skilled job with a metals fabrication company. 

How can the State Education Department characterize readiness for such different paths in terms that will be meaningful?   Given the desire to find ways to objectively evaluate students, the department has developed a general standard for readiness.  Relying on a review of student high school records compared with the performance of college freshman, they deduced that for students to be able to do C work or better in college, they need to have received a score of at least 75 on their English Regents and an 80 on their math Regents. 
The high school graduation rate used to be the standard for measuring a school’s effectiveness.  But now, as a result of the conclusions about freshman year performance, the State Education Department reports how many students meet this 75/80 achievement level.  They report how many students graduated and also how many graduated College and Career Ready.

But when readiness is defined so numerically, does it really tell the public if students are prepared for the career path they want to pursue?  Simply meeting the readiness standard will not help a student get into Caltech, and missing the standard does not mean someone won’t thrive at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  Doing well on the English and math Regents exams is certainly an important goal, but when the public is told that students are not ready for college or career, they need to know if that decision is based on a full assessment of a student’s preparation and abilities. 

The state is trying to set a meaningful standard.  The question is, is this a meaningful and appropriate standard for all students?  If all the students do not meet this particular standard, does it mean a school has failed?  If a particular student does not meet this standard, does that mean the child is a failure?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Speaking Out Is Better Than Opting Out

As New York State’s elementary and middle school students  are about to begin taking their annual state exams in English Language Arts and Math, controversy around these high-stakes standardized state assessments is increasing.  An anti-test movement is growing among parents who are frustrated about the emphasis on this type of assessment and the time devoted to standardized tests. 
Opt-out websites are appearing on the internet created by parents who are skeptical of the value of the testing regimen and don’t want their children subjected to the hours of testing.  These idealistic intentions, however, will not solve a problem of overreliance on standardized tests.    

There is no legal way for a parent to pull their child from the state testing program, just as they cannot declare their child will no longer take math quizzes.  Nevertheless, advice on how to keep one’s child from sitting for the state tests is being disseminated.  Some parents advocate keeping their child home on test days, but this is not a legal absence.  Others suggest pulling the child out of school once the exam has started, which would be unfairly disruptive to other students. 
Many websites suggest telling a child to refuse to take the tests.  That approach is striking for the burden it puts on the child.  What is gained by putting a child in a position where he or she is asked to defy either their teacher or their parent?  Civil disobedience is a complex personal act, not something that should be imposed on a child.  Can an elementary school student distinguish why they would refuse one test but not another? 

Furthermore, refusing to have a child tested is not a benign act; there are consequences for both the school and the child.  Federal and state laws require annual testing in 3rd through 8th grades.  Student performance on the state tests is used to determine if schools are effectively educating their students.  Poor scores have consequences for a school’s program and for teachers’ evaluations.  If too few students take the tests, the school’s performance is rated lower.  Schools can be forced to restructure or close as a result of poor performance on state tests.  The tests are also used to assess individual student progress and are used to determine whether a student needs additional help. 

Many school leaders, meaning superintendents and board of education members, share parents’ concerns about testing but school leaders must take an oath to uphold the law.  While they may advocate for change, they are compelled to comply with the law.  The schools have no options around administering these tests. 

What an individual (or a movement) can do
Testing laws do not take away the public’s voice, and people should not conclude they are helpless.  But people need to direct their concerns to the actual decision makers, in this case the Board of Regents and federal representatives. 

It is the Board of Regents who makes the decisions about the design and administration of New York’s assessments.    The Board of Regents is the state’s board of education.   It is made up of 17 individuals elected by a joint vote of the State Assembly and Senate to set education policy for the state.  Most of the Regents represent one of 13 state judicial districts, so there is a Regent who views each community as his or her constituency.  Another 4 Regents serve as At Large members.  Together they hire the Commissioner of Education, just as local school boards hire the superintendent.  The Regents are an autonomous unit of the government, constitutionally separate from the Governor and the Legislature.
Two Regents live here in Rochester.  If someone wants to see state education policy changed, they are the people to talk to.  Or write.  Or email.  Below is a link to the Board of Regents website along with contact information for the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor and the two local Regents. 

In addition to Regents requirements, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) is the original federal law that mandated this testing.  This law is overdue for reauthorization in Washington, so anyone wanting to see changes in its requirements should contact their federal representatives. 
If you are someone who is troubled by the state’s testing regimen, speak out.  But make sure you are speaking to the actual decision makers.

Merryl H Tisch,
Chancellor; At Large
Regents Office, 89 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12234
Phone: (518) 474-5889 Email:

Anthony S. Bottar,
Vice Chancellor; Judicial District V -- Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Oneida, Onondaga, and Oswego Counties
120 Madison Street, Suite 1600, AXA Tower II, Syracuse, NY 13202
Phone: (315) 422-3466 Email:

Wade S Norwood,
At Large
74 Appleton Street, Rochester, NY 14611
Phone (585) 436-2944 Email:

T. Andrew Brown,
Judicial District VII - Cayuga, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Yates Counties
925 Crossroads Building, Two State Street, Rochester, NY 14614
Phone (585) 454-3667 Email: