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The Answer Sheet: If Teachers are Judged by Student Test Scores, How About State Education Leaders?

New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, left, sits in on a bilingual kindergarten class at Washington-Rose Elementary School in Roosevelt, N.Y., on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. Tisch and other state officials ordered a compliance review State officials ordered a compliance review Thursday of suburban New York City school districts’ enrollment policies and procedures for unaccompanied minors and immigrant children following reports that several dozen children who had recently arrived from Central America were not admitted to a Long Island high school because of overcrowding. (AP Photo/Frank Eltman)

New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, left, sits in on a bilingual kindergarten class at Washington-Rose Elementary School in Roosevelt, N.Y., on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014.  (AP Photo/Frank Eltman)

School reformers are big believers in measurement, which can be a problem when the data they use to create policy is wrong. A recent post by award-winning Principal Carol Burris (you can read it here) revealed that New York state education officials were using flawed data while declaring a crisis in college readiness. Here is a follow-up to that post. Burris, of South Side High School in New York,  was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010, tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Shes has been exposing the botched school reform program in New York for years on this blog. You can see some of her other work here and here and here.


By Carol Burris

The hallmark of a corporate reformer is an undying belief that numerical measures of accountability are the primary lever of school change. New York State Schools Chancellor, Merryl Tisch, is just such a reformer — a true believer in “what gets measured gets done.” From school, teacher and principal evaluation systems, measurement by the numbers distinguishes the focus of Tisch’s school reforms.

In describing her rollout of Common Core testing, Tisch said, “we jump into the deep end,” using the royal “we” to obscure the fact that kids were taking the jump. She also rejected the notion that school and educator ratings be put on hold during the rollout, stating that “we cannot have the implementation of Common Core that is isolated from an accountability system.”

Despite the repeated use of “we,” Tisch has excluded herself, her state commissioner of education and her Board of Regents from the ratings. Accountability is for students, educators and schools, who have little to no input into the commanded change.

Although I do not suggest we subject Tisch to the silly number ratings given to teachers and principals, I do think it is fair to review New York student growth under her leadership. Tisch was selected as chancellor in the spring of 2009. Since 2010, New York’s graduation rate increased only 1.5 percent, which includes two years of no growth at all. In looking at graduation data, one will note that prior to 2010, state graduation rates were climbing, even as graduation standards (meaning the required passing of Regents exams), were increasing. In addition, the earning of the Regents Diploma with Advanced Designation, a consistent bar with no change in standards, has been flat since she became chancellor.

In 2009, the average New York SAT scores were 485 (reading), 502 (math), and 478 (writing). In 2014,they were nearly identical—488, 502, 478 —no improvement there to show.

Tisch “raised the bar” for Grade 3-8 proficiency in 2010, and in 2011 and 2012, there was little or no growth in student achievement. In 2013, the Common Core tests were given and proficiency rates dramatically dropped. Though the chancellor promised that scores would improve the second year of the Common Core tests, there were no improvements in English Language Arts scores and minimal improvement in math.

If teachers and principals are to be judged by score growth, what growth has the chancellor created after nearly six years at the helm? The whirling dervish of change in standards, tests, diploma requirements and accountability measures, has produced no discernible increase in student performance. Perhaps the hope is that if you change everything else, no one will notice that no progress has been made.

The fascination with holding teachers and schools accountable by the numbers has generated an endless (and expensive) stream of data from the New York State Education Department, which she oversees. One of the most recent measures was a report entitled “Where Are They Now?” described in an New York State Education Department slide show that makes claims about the percentages of New York public high school students who enroll in college.

In conjunction with this report, the state Education Department posted school by school figures, purporting to show how many graduates were attending college, with data that they claimed came directly from the National Student Clearinghouse.  The data are fraught with error and under-reporting of college enrollment, whichI wrote about here. What I did not know when I wrote the blog was where the error originated. Since that time, I have received access to the database of my school’s graduates at the Clearinghouse level, and have determined that the vast majority of the under-reporting errors, (22 of 31 in a class of 261), were made in the generation of the State Education Department report. Meanwhile, Westchester and Rockland county districts are finding even greater rates of error than my school’s 12 percent, with some schools’ rates at over 20 percent.

What is remarkable is that the chancellor has yet to admit these errors, or even ask the department to take down the public reports, which can still be found here.

In the past month, other examples of serious error on the part of the New York State Education Department have come to light regarding charter school approval and regulation. Tisch has been part of a public campaign to increase charter schools, with the chancellor asserting, “I believe in opening them aggressively.”

Part of the aggressive campaign was the approval of the Greater Works Charter School by her Board of Regents. The leader of Greater Works was 22-year-old  Dr. Ted Morris, Jr. When it came to light that that his resume was a collection of lies and misrepresentations, Tisch not only deflected the blame but said that the charter school, whose board was recruited through Craig’s list, should still open. Following continued accounts in the press, New York State Education Department finally asked the charter to withdraw its application.

Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters provides an excellent account of that and other New York charter scandals here. She concludes her blog by asking in reference to the State Education Department and Tisch, “where is the accountability for them?”

Given the current system of appointment, Merryl Tisch, who has wealth and deep political connections, will likely remain in power. She is married to billionaire James S. Tisch, the CEO of the Loews Corporation, and has been a friend since childhood of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who controls the appointments through the votes of the Assembly. The people of New York have no direct mechanism to have her removed.

In her oversized influence on the fate of public school children, Tisch is hardly alone. Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg are but a few of the other billionaire reformers who have managed to bend public education to their will, while absolving themselves from any accountability for the damage their policies have wrought. They are socially buffered by surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals who are insulated from bad educational policies because their children and grandchildren attend private schools or sycophants who tell them only what they want to hear. Public school educators and parents are caricatured and dismissed as either self-interested or ignorant and misinformed.

Healthy democracies infuse accountability throughout the system–from the bottom to the top. We cannot afford a governance system where those who assume positions of power–whether elected or appointed–escape responsibility.

This year, six Regents are up for reappointment. Given the past year of discontent — during which the majority of New York voters have rejected the Common Core, high-stakes standardized testing and the evaluation of teachers by test scores, polls shows — it is time for the Democratic Assembly to be accountable to the public by appointing Regents who more closely reflect the views and experience of their constituents. If they are not willing to assume that responsibility, then the public should demand a direct voice either through Regent or State Commissioner election.

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Carol C. Burris

Carol Corbett Burris became Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation in August 2015, after serving as principal of South Side High School...