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Costly, unwieldy education reform plan needs new direction

Sunday, October 6, 2013
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The confusion over the New York state public education reform plan continues to increase. By now the statewide initiative is nearly off the rails. Right from the start it was overly complicated and self-contradictory in its details.

There are those who claim that this educational reform initiative is not so much about academic quality anyway. If the main goal were really to improve the quality of New York’s public education, then the most rational approach would have been to strengthen the Regents exam system instead of undermining it.

Informed critics argue that the present plan has been designed to open access to public funds for the private sector — specifically for technology businesses and testing companies.

That criticism may be somewhat simplistic, but it is probably not far off reality. Still and all, it is true enough that until recently the large pool of public money devoted to public education had been generally off limits to private business interests. No longer, though.

Cost to districts

How expensive is the new state educational initiative for our Capital Region schools and taxpayers? One district — just one among many — recently sent a letter to state Education Commissioner John King outlining its extra costs for implementating the plan. The letter was a joint effort of the school board, the teachers union, the PTA and the superintendent of schools, as well as the principals’ association. Consequently, it has a special measure of credibility.

The letter states that the computer-based testing regimen to begin in 2014 will require the district to purchase and maintain computers costing so much that the requirement will drain resources from educational programs. The estimated cost will be $300,000 for computers and their maintenance, which is 11 percent of the total school budget for 2013-2014. The letter also establishes that all the mandated student testing and teacher assessments detract from student learning and from teacher classroom preparations.

Moreover, these expenses do not yet include the cost of all the lawsuits that will emerge when scores of perfectly good teachers are dismissed from their jobs. Apparently, under the new mandates, all the new rote computer work required of teachers has gradually become as important as their actual classroom teaching skills. Several of my own most effective teachers at Johnstown High School several decades ago would have been unlikely to be able to manage their stellar teaching careers under the pressures of all the new computer busy-work teachers now must perform.

The reductions in funding that state school districts have incurred are partly the result of the Gap Elimination Adjustment imposed on school districts. Moreover, this particular district — forced to assume the extra $300,000 in tech costs — has not even yet received $4.9 million in promised school aid.

Time to change course

It is best now for the governor and the current leadership in the state Education Department to admit their mistakes and to change course. The new reform plan fails to do much more than create a new level of bureaucracy in the schools.

I have contended for a long time that state public schools are actually surprisingly good despite the attitudes toward academic achievement projected on American youth by the commercial pop culture.

Some area school districts, such as Niskayuna, Guilderland, Saratoga, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Schalmont and Shenendehowa, are astonishingly good based on the results of the 2013 eighth-grade assessment tests.

And, in fact, if we discount about five urban school districts, where the main problem is the debilitating effect of poverty on student achievement, New York state public schools are statistically among the best in the country.

Forward steps

The way forward for New York state education leaders is to upgrade the existing Regents exam system, abandoning all the new state assessment tests, while perhaps implementing a set of sixth-grade Regents achievement tests in math and English.

At the same time, it is a good idea to have all Regents exams corrected objectively in Albany in July. In addition, the funding focus should shift to implementing — at long last — level school funding so that poor urban schools have a realistic chance to upgrade their programs. This would be the best way to improve New York’s public schools.

The cost of correcting large batches of Regents exams in Albany is minuscule compared to the cost of implementing the current reform initiative. For example, if 500 teachers were paid $18 per hour for two weeks every year in July correcting exams in Albany, the cost would be just $720,000 instead of the huge amount of public money being spent to implement all the new testing procedures on school computers. Do the math yourself.

The private interests that would be unable to make money under such a rational plan should be told to go fishing for public money elsewhere. All school board officials, all teachers, all parents and all taxpayers are in the same boat on these issues. Teachers and parents are right to complain long and hard. Together.

It is obvious that a new leadership plan is needed if the current state educational reform initiative is to proceed in a rational direction. The current education reforms are simply too complicated, too self-contradictory and too much motivated by considerations beyond the classroom to be taken seriously by informed parents and serious educators.

Nor is there much indication that the state Education Department’s new reform changes will actually deepen the knowledge base of our students.

L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion Section.

 
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