First Person

The State Education Department and the Politics of Distraction

Teacher preparation programs long ago abandoned (if they ever embraced) theory-centric instruction in favor of research-based clinical methods. Further, they have championed a middle way independent of the changeable pedagogical and curriculum priorities promoted by individual districts and funders. While popular practices are often addressed, either unilaterally or in partnership with outside entities, education schools’ academic independence protects them from being swamped by political and financial forces driving others.

Now comes a pronouncement from the New York State Board of Regents and the State Education Department commissioner that higher education will no longer be the sole route to teacher and leadership certification. The Regents, who appoint the commissioner, are themselves appointed by our state legislature, that dysfunctional body more famous for patronage than policy competence.

Not surprisingly, then, the Regents have rejected the fundamental role of independent inquiry in professional preparation in favor of faster, cheaper methods based on proprietary ownership. Whether these programs are run by non-profit, for-profit, or school district organizations, their aim will be to brand grads with a particular skill set, antithetical to preparing able, agile, open-minded professionals for long-term teaching effectiveness.

Though many claims against schools of education depend on phony stereotypes, some criticism is valid. Higher education governance makes it hard to quickly adopt new programs and courses. Its dependence on credit hours toward completion of degree requirements creates a temporal uniformity inimical to more flexible arrangements based on subject content and mastery. But higher education itself has heeded these critiques, responding with a plethora of governance, course, and degree reforms that meet market demands while preserving academic integrity and independence.

Expansion of educator preparation to other providers is simply a political response by SED to a growing constituency of educational entrepreneurs who, often lacking certification themselves, seek clones rather than independent-minded professionals to staff their similarly branded schools. There is nothing inherently wrong with training in such methods, if successful, but state-granted professional certification should guarantee greater flexibility than the ability to teach in a KIPP charter school or to navigate the city Department of Education’s ARIS database.

More important, the Regents’ policy will distract SED and the public from the Department’s core mission: to set and oversee standards for certification, curriculum, and student performance. Ever since its politicization under former Commissioner Richard Mills, when the state took credit for increasing test scores and graduation rates through dumbed-down tests and looking the other way on bogus credit recovery strategies rather than monitoring district performance and compliance, we have seen a steady decline in SED’s reputation and credibility. This recently reached a new low with the state’s first-round Race to the Top application which neither the commissioner nor Regents seemed to realize was bloated with furniture purchases and high-priced consultants. Steven Brill’s recent New York Times Magazine piece purporting to document “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand” was more important for revealing SED’s deliberate lies designed to secure Race to the Top money. The Regents’ charter initiatives, their commissioning of a study on testing standards, and the expansion of certification providers are less about improving education than diverting attention from its core failures.

If there is a problem with higher education certification — and there is because diploma mills abound — then SED should take steps to improve or eliminate the bad actors that it already supervises, not race to expand the pool. Long the subject of drastic budget cuts and poor spending practices, SED does not have the resources to adequately monitor the work of colleges, school districts, charter and nonpublic schools under its present control, let alone determine if a new category of providers is meeting its obligations.

In his previous campaign for governor, Andrew Cuomo favored putting SED under gubernatorial authority. While his current comprehensive platform, “The New New York Agenda,” fails to specifically address the issue, it states a strong preference for giving the Governor unilateral powers over State government consolidation and reorganization. Cuomo’s call for a new Spending and Government Efficiency Commission and a State Government Reorganization Act provide canny vehicles for further politicizing SED, cited at page 64 as a prime example of organizational chaos. But what difference would it make as long as SED continues its shameful codependent relationship with the state’s political branches, school districts, charter and private schools? In abdicating their fundamental role of independent oversight, the Regents and commissioner have sown the seeds of executive annexation since they have become handmaidens of the very constituencies they were created to constrain.

Housecleaning is in order, but not the kind the new education elite have in mind. With its workforce already substantially reduced and more cuts on the way, SED needs to use its constitutional independence to set standards and monitor district and school compliance with a reduced, essential set of regulations regarding students’ academic performance, health, and safety. SED should be the public’s educational ombudsman, keeping accurate, transparent data so that parents and taxpayers can assess schools’ academic and fiscal activity. If the State Education Department continues to indulge in political distractions from its laughable failures in this mission, it will have squandered its obligations to a public desperately in need of square dealing and educational candor.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.